A wonderful mix of sharply chiseled mountains, glistening lakes and sparkling waterfalls can be found in Glacier National Park in northern Montana. The spectacular scenery of this sprawling million-acre park is a landscape photographer’s paradise. Add in the black bears, grizzlies, mountain bighorn sheep and snow-white mountain goats that make Glacier their home, and you have all the ingredients for a great photo trip.
I’ve based the agenda I am presenting here on getting around by car, but this big, largely wild park also features a great deal of backcountry hiking that is well-suited to multi-day backpacking.
The Continental Divide at Logan Pass defines the topographic split of Glacier National Park into east and west. Any water on the west side of the Divide drains toward the Pacific Ocean; any water on the east drains toward the Atlantic. The only road that climbs high over the Continental Divide and connects both sides of Glacier is Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the great engineering marvels of the first half of the twentieth century and the brainchild of trailblazing Stephen Mather—an industrialist, conservationist and first director of the National Park Service.
Start to explore the “Crown of the Continent” from Apgar (West Glacier, Montana) at the park’s west entrance. Photo opportunities await you at long, narrow Lake McDonald with its great shoreline. From there, move on to an easy stroll along the Trail of the Cedars to the rushing waters of Avalanche Gorge. The easy four-mile (round-trip) hike up to Avalanche Lake starts here.
Going-to-the-Sun Road soon begins its climb up to Logan Pass. Here, Mt. Reynolds and Mt. Oberlin exhibit the geologic phenomenon “arête”: a narrow peak, essentially a thin slice of the hardest rock that has been cut by glaciers passing it on both sides.
When driving east, you will have a great view of tall and thin Bird Woman Falls, named for the famed Sacajawea, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s young Shoshone guide. Lewis and Clark were the first Europeans to penetrate this part of North America. That was more than two centuries ago while they were searching for the fabled Northwest Passage.
Park at the visitor center. If the trail to Hidden Lake is clear of ice, walk up the hill to see the lake with its reflection of Bearhat Mountain. Some of the colorful wildflowers found here include mountain aster and wild rose. Continue heading east, and the road starts to descend. Stop at Sun Point and scout your spot for a future sunrise composition. The classic scene of Glacier National Park will soon appear on your right. A small gap in the trees opens onto an expansive view of St. Mary Lake and tiny Wild Goose Island. Explore the views both from road level and down the hill a bit. This trail offers the best photo opportunities at sunrise.
If you are up for a pleasant hike, try the four-mile (round-trip) trail to Virginia Falls. This is grizzly country, so keep a sharp eye and make plenty of noise.
Once you exit the park at its eastern boundary, a short drive south takes you to the park entrance at Two Medicine Lake and Twin Falls. Or turn north and head for the not-to-be-missed Many Glacier area. Short hikes to several gem-like lakes start here. Be sure to see Grinnell Lake.
After a visit to Many Glacier, considered by many to be the heart of the park, you can head still farther north on Chief Mountain International Highway into Alberta, Canada, for a visit to contiguous Waterton Lakes National Park. Pack your passport as it is now required to enter Canada.
Several classic national park lodges and wonderful backcountry chalets are sprinkled liberally throughout Glacier National Park. These lodges will leave you very well-fed. Also worth trying is the little Park Cafe on Hwy. 89 just north of St. Mary on the east side of the park.