Visiting The Crown of the Continent

Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped corner — the Crown of the Continent.”
— George Bird Grinnell 1901

Jackson's Glacier

My wife and I have made it a goal to visit most, if not all of the national parks. In prior years, we have been to Yosemite, Shenandoah, Great Smokey Mountains, Arcadia, Haleakalā in Hawaii, and the Grand Tetons. We even bought lifetime senior passes from the park service (available to those 62 or older). This year we decided to visit Glacier National Park (hereinafter referred to as GNP) in northwest Montana. Here, the headwaters of three great watersheds of the North American continent (Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay) come together. Thus it was declared the “Crown of the Continent” by George Grinnell, in 1901, as he began to lobby for its inclusion in the new national park system being advocated by Teddy Roosevelt, along with Yellowstone to the south.

As an aside, it is true that youth is wasted on the young. I had neither the time or the money to travel to such places when I was young and able to do long day hikes, or backwoods hiking and overnight camping, and that is always the best way to see our national parks. We now have to settle for shorter hikes and what we can see from our car, but it is still worth the trip. Of course, if I could lose forty pounds, it would certainly be easier!

We started our adventure by searching for lodging available during the only time we could visit this summer, early June. (Still fully employed, we have to work around the schedules of others. One day soon we will be free of that).

Since we had to fly due to time constraints, camping was out of the question, so we sought more civilized accommodations. It did not take long to realize that we started our search too late. Most of the lodges in the park were full, except for some very spare motel like rooms.

Lesson learned: Make your reservations a year in advance if you can, as our National Park system is popular and, even though GNP is open all year, the summer, like at most parks, is the high season.

Since one of our goals when taking these trips to places we have never been is to experience some of local culture, staying outside the park can be a blessing. There are almost always some interesting towns outside that give this sort of experience, and an opportunity to talk to the locals. Knowing that we would be flying into Glacier International Airport, situated as it is between the towns of Kalispell and Whitefish, we quickly decided to look in Whitefish, as it is a popular ski resort area, very walkable, and closer to the park than Kalispell. Our criteria includes a full kitchen, so I was happy to find a really cool little bungalow in the railroad district of Whitefish, just blocks from cools shops and restaurants!

Airnb bungalo-whitefish

We did not have a view, (except from the street) but we knew we would be spending very little time there so it did not matter. Convenience, well equipped and comfortable accommodations were our priorities, along with being able to save some money by making some meals at home.

Tip: When using Airbnb, follow their recommendations and carefully consider the reputation of the host. Read all the comments before committing. We have never had a bad experience with Airbnb, but it is always wise to be careful.

Since saving some money cooking our own meals is our way, the first stop when we arrived was the local Safeway grocery store, on the way in. My first stop was to find some local brews to have in the bungalow.

Big Sky IPA

My favorite local beer was a nice IPA made just down south of Kalispell in Missoula, MO

We had done some preliminary meal planning on the plane, and knew we needed our favorite breakfast and lunch meals, fruit and a few simple cook at home meals. It is great that you can find a precooked rotisserie chicken almost anywhere these days! Once we settled into our new home away from home, we began planning our days, but first we went out for a delicious dinner at Ciao Mambo, where we enjoyed a wonderful four cheese pizza with a garlic Parmesan sauce!

DAY ONE:
After a nice breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs, we headed east on Montana Route 2 toward West glacier and the West Gate of GNP with it’s Visitor Center at Apgar. We always like to stop in and talk to the Rangers about what types of experiences we are looking for and they are very helpful with recommendations, marking them on a map. With info in hand, we got on the “Going to Sun Road” (main road through the park), and soon arrived at Lake McDonald. Here you can rent paddle boats and canoes if so inclined. This is also the only lake where motor boats are allowed ( and available for rental).

Lake McDonald

Here is a link to the trails in the area around Lake McDonald. We did Trail of the Cedars, some loops at Apgar village (where you find some really good locally made ice cream), and few other short trails the first day.

Tip: Get there early, as parking is limited and fills up quick. In the busier months of July and August, there is a shuttle available from the Visitor center that might make things less stressful. Of course, like any public transport, you are at the mercy of their schedule.

We saw some beautiful water falls, and one thing you can’t help but notice is how colorful the rocks are in the bed of the lake and streams! Below is an untouched photo of one of the stream beds.

Glacier NP colorful rocks

Also very common along the trails you will see a beautiful flower blooming in June called Bear Grass. Luckily, we never encountered any bears, grizzly or black! We did see several deer though.

Bear Grass-GNP

DAY TWO: Kalispell and Whitefish, lunch at Loula’s

We visited downtown Kalispell, but did not find much there to hold our interest, except our first encounter with a local chain of coffee shops called Montana Coffee Traders. There was another one in downtown Whitefish. We made three trips there while in town! Highly recommended!

Downtown Whitefish

The rest of downtown Whitefish is a nice collection of small shops, boutiques, art galleries and local restaurants. It’s only about four blocks long, but much to see, so plan of spending some time there.

DAY THREE: East Gate and Lake St. Mary
Since the Going to the Sun Road, was closed at the higher elevations as they worked to plow off 80 feet of snow, we had to take the long drive but wonderfully scenic road around the south end of the park, over the continental divide. The best part is State Route 49, which is like the Blue Ridge parkway, except more breathtaking. We took this road on the way to the east gate for short stop off at Two Medicine lake, another beautiful glacial lake in the park.

The east side of the park looks like this as you approach the gate:

East Gate- GNP

Once inside, you quickly reach the St. Mary Lake:

St. Mary's Lake-GNP

There you will find a cool Camp Store in an old 1911 Ranger station. They also serve food and good coffee here:

St. Mary camp store

Beautiful Mountain streams and waterfalls, like below, are abundant throughout the park:

Mountain stream

Water fall

DAY FOUR
Day four of our visit, the weather was not as clear as the first days, with scattered showers and much cooler temperatures, but we did not let that stop us. Below is a picture of Jackson’s Glacier, which is visible from an overlook on Going to the Sun Road. This was the only glacier we actually got to see.

Sadly, due to global warming, there are far fewer glaciers left in the park than the 150 there in 1850. As of a study in 2015, there were only 26 remaining glaciers larger than 25 acres, the size criteria used by USGS researchers to define a glacier.

Jackson's Glacier

We also enjoyed this roaring stream just off the road:

Thus are a few of the scenes we enjoyed on this trip. We were actually in the area for five full days, but the weather was pretty rainy one day and I caught a nasty cold, which I am still nursing as I write this. All in all, though, I think I would recommend a trip to Glacier National Park, especially if you need to escape the hot and humid summers of Alabama! With temperatures in the 90’s today, I wish I was still there!

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RAN

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