Glacier National Park in Northwestern Montana has long been one of my favorite spots in the world; I would probably rate it as my number three favorite spot right after the Tetons and the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. This is the first of three articles on Glacier National Park.
Like the Tetons, I first visited Glacier when I was seven or eight years old on a family camping trip. The one memory that sticks out was me lying on a flat rock in the warm sun, looking down into a crystal clear, high country lake, at least eight or ten feet deep right off the shore, watching brown trout 12 or 14 or 18 inches long flickering lazily over the gravel bottom. Mom and Dad were hollering, “Come on, come on. We gotta go. Those fish will be there forever. You can see them next time.”
Wrong, I’ve been looking for those fish ever since and I’ve never seen them again, anywhere. What or where that lake was I’ve long forgotten, except that it was somewhere deep in the back country of Glacier.
My favorite time to visit Glacier National Park is mid September, when the leaves are beginning to turn and most of the summer swarms of tourists have left for the season. The disadvantage of visiting in the fall season, is that pretty much everything in Glaciear shuts down by late September; it can be difficult to find a restaurant that isn’t boarded up, or even an open grocery store or a place to buy gas at this time of year. Several times we have barely limped into Browning, Montana, 80 miles away, the nearest place to East Glacier to buy gas, with the gas indicator pointing to below empty.
It’s amazing how quickly the bustling park of the summer months returns to the solitude of rural Montana–and just how isolated rural, northern Montana actually is. However, the lonesomeness, the quiet and solitude of one of the most beautiful places on earth, along with the gorgeous fall colors make this season more than worth while, at least for me.
Having said this, summertime, i.e. July or early August, is also a good time to visit. The campgrounds will be full, the trails will be packed with tourists from all over the world and the highways will be bumper to bumper with cars. On the plus side, and it is a very big plus, the wildflowers will be out everywhere. Also it will be much warmer and it probably won’t be blizzarding on Logan Pass. I wouldn’t go much before mid June though as many of the trails are not open until then.
There are two main parts of Glacier National Park, West Glacier and East Glacier which are separated by Logan Pass. I usually start a Glacier trip in the western part of the park, so I’ll start this article there also. Kalispell, Montana, on the west side of the park, is a good jumping off point.
This western part of the park is the wettest part, since most of the storms coming from the Pacific hit the mountains and drop their moisture on the western side of the mountains. As a result, the vegetation in this part of the park, even though it is part of the Rocky Mountains, is somewhat reminiscent of the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. The forest is dominated by Cedar, Hemlock, Spruce and Larch which are not trees usually found in the typical Rocky Mountain areas further east. In the western areas of Glacier it is even possible to see the occasional hanging curtain of Spanish Moss.
The main feature of the western part of the park is McDonald Lake, a long, narrow, very beautiful body of water gouged out by glaciers and surrounded by huge blue mountains. At the western end of the lake is Apgar with the usual ranger station, visitor center, as well as a few motel rooms, a restaurant or two and a small grocery store.
The campground at Apgar is quite spectacular as it is filled with towering aspen and cedar and hemlock trees. It is even a little bit claustrophobic since the trees are so thick they shut out the sky and there are absolutely no long distance views. However, it is still really quite beautiful.
As I said, we are usually in Glacier in September or October after the hordes are gone and the Apgar campground is very peaceful and never more than a quarter full. All the roads and paths are covered with aspen leaves and the mornings are often a little foggy. The lake shore is just a short walk from the campground and when the winds are from the east, the aspen leaves pile up along the shore in long beautiful windrows.
If you have a chance, don’t miss staying in the Apgar campground; for me, it is a very special place, like the old Jenny Lake campground in the Tetons. I suppose most of the reason I love these old campgrounds so much is because I spent a lot of time in them when I was a kid fifty years ago. If you are not camping, there are plenty of motels and RV parks and restaurants in the little town of West Glacier which is just west of the Park a few miles away.
There are some wonderful areas north of McDonald Lake that can be accessed by a pair of roads that parallel the North Fork of the Flathead River. You can drive up on the Outside North Fork Road and back south again on the Inside North Fork Road to visit Kintla Lake and Bowman Lake which both have small campgrounds. This is a good area if you are interested in hiking in some of the more remote and lonesome areas of the park. However, if you are a little short of time you might want to return to Apgar on the Outside Road since the Inside Road is very, very slow, curvy and bumpy.
Most people skip this northern area, wonderful as it is, and leave the Apgar area by heading east on the Going to the Sun Highway which parallels the south side of McDonald Lake. There are several quite nice pull-offs alongside the lake that are great places to take pictures and enjoy the beauty of the lake. In spite of the nearby highway, once you get down to the lake the cars are invisible and usually unheard and it’s easy to imagine you are a million miles from civilization.
If you look into the shallow water of the lake at many of these pullouts, you will see the red, yellow, orange and green cobblestones that Lake McDonald and McDonald Creek are famous for. The water is crystal clear, the air is clean, the lake stones are gorgeous and the blue mountains in the distance are grand. If you use a polarizing lens on your camera to eliminate reflections, and if it is not windy, it is possible to use these brilliantly colored cobblestones which are under water, as foreground for quite spectacular pictures of the the lake and mountains beyond.
A little further down the road is the McDonald Lake Lodge, one of the grand old lodges in the tradition of the great national park lodges like the lodge in Yosemite National Park and the one at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. The lodge at Many Glacier, down the road a ways, is a quite a bit larger and more splendid, but the McDonald Lake Lodge is a very beautiful old hotel built of huge logs and timbers and deserves a quick visit.
Many of these grand old National Park lodges have very splendid dining rooms but I don’t really recommend the food. I find most national park lodge food to be pretty hum-drum, no matter how grand the dining rooms are. I recommend giving the food a skip and eating elsewhere. This is pretty much the situation at the McDonald Lake Lodge restaurant.
A little further east on the Going to the Sun Road is the Avalanche Creek campground and the beginning of the Trail of the Cedars. This is a must-stop place. Walk around the self guided Trail of the Cedars for a really beautiful introduction to the Cedar & Hemlock forest of this section of the park.
Be sure to take the trail that continues from the Trail of the Cedars and goes up along Avalanche Creek. For a short distance, the creek runs through a very tight gorge. Go over to the edge of the gorge on the left side of the trail and look in. This is an absolutely gorgeous spot of roaring white water, dark green moss, black rocks and sparkling pools of water that reflect the sky and tree tops far above. I spent a whole afternoon here once, trying to take pictures of the gorge with very mixed success and becoming absolutely enthralled with this magical spot.
After you leave the lake behind and continue along the Going to the Sun Highway, there are lots of wonderful spots along McDonald Creek that are absolutely gorgeous. The water in the creek is usually bright blue or various hues of green because it is full of glacial dust from the melting glaciers above. Take your time along here and stop at some of the less populous spots and walk along the creek a bit. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of mountain river in the world.
In the next newsletter I’ll continue this article with descriptions of two great hiking trails on Logan Pass as well as a discussion of St. Mary’s Lake and the Many Glacier Area, my favorite area of the park.
Originally Published: Jan 24, 2008
Updated, Sept 2013
Updated again, April 2017
Below are several of our favorite Glacier National Park Photographs
Here are some more links to National Park pictures on my photography website