Snow and streams in Glacier National Park
After the beauty of Grand Teton and the bubbling diversity of Yellowstone, I wasn’t sure what to expect from our final national park of this road trip, Glacier. Perched at the northern edge of Montana, the park is famous for the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the awkwardly-named 50 mile route that runs through the centre from east to west.
It’s also famous for snow. Lots and lots of snow. Apparently drifts 80 feet (25m) or more high are not uncommon at the top of Logan Pass, and it takes close to three months to clear the road each year – it had only been open a few weeks by the time we drove through at the end of June.
The mercury fell quickly as we headed towards the park, from around 90 degrees F at the start of the day to barely 60 as we pulled up to our hostel. Storm clouds scudded across the sky, and a strong wind whipped the rain into our faces as we forced the car doors open. Our atmospheric (read: old) hostel creaked and groaned as the weather took hold.
Exploring would have to wait until tomorrow.
Heavy rain during the night gave way to a brisk breeze the following morning, and with more rain on the horizon we decided that long hikes were probably out of the question. Still, there were plenty of shorter walks to be done, and occasional breaks in the cloud cover even gave some hope of an enjoyable day.
A little further down the road there was the option of going canoeing out on the lake. Strangely enough given the whitecaps close to shore and the fact I could barely open the car door against the freezing gale, we decided against it…
Fortunately the next day was a complete contrast. Shorts and t-shirts replaced rain jackets and long pants, the hot sun making a mockery of the previous day’s frigid temperatures. It was time to cross the park.
One of the best aspects of the Going-to-the-Sun road is that large vehicles (caravans, RVs, etc) are banned for much of its length. This reduced both traffic congestion and the number of people we had to share the trails with, and made for a wonderfully chilled-out day.
Something that I’ve been particularly impressed with in all of the US national parks I’ve visited is the wide range of day hikes available. There seems to be something for just about everyone, from short, wheelchair-accessible trails through to multi-day treks. We were definitely choosing the shorter options in Glacier due to both time and weather constraints, but even they were impressive.
As we drew ever closer to the top of Logan Pass, I couldn’t help but notice the snow that had been dotting mountain tops in the distance was starting to become a lot more noticeable on the nearby hills and in the shaded valleys.
Vast banks of the stuff were piled high along the side of the road, becoming slowly discoloured by the passing traffic. I had to laugh at the signs for hiking trails pointing off down the mountain – even in early summer they were almost completely buried. It must be a pretty short window of time each year that they’re even slightly passable…
Even the twenty minute wait for roadworks didn’t matter in the slightest. When there’s views like these all around, I’ll happily wait for hours if I have to. Apparently they’ve been repairing avalanche and snow damage on this road for the last thirty years – looking at the millions of tonnes of the stuff lying on nearby hillsides, I could hardly say I was surprised.
All too soon we had cleared the pass and were flying down the other side, our time in Glacier all but over. With little more than a couple of days of driving on the Interstate to look forward to before handing our car back in Seattle, it felt like the end of our road trip as well.
It had been a wonderful week and a half, and a drive I’d recommend to anyone. If you ever get the chance, hire a vehicle and explore the remarkable wildlife and scenery of the US national park system.
It’s not a trip I’m going to forget in a hurry.
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