Lest you panic and picture Glacier National Park sprouting palm trees and reinventing itself as the Florida of northwest Montana, here’s a big secret.
The glaciers, as beloved as they are, and as important a climate sentinel as they are, are nowhere near the top attractions in this park.
Most people never visit them. They see snow, yes. But they see glaciers only from a distance, if at all.
“The joke is, once the glaciers are gone, we’ll have to change the name of the park,” says park ranger Leigh Linstrom at the Apgar Visitors Center. But the name, she says, really came from how this park’s towering landscape was formed – by glaciers.
“When you come here, you are seeing mountains, gorgeous lakes and wildflowers,” she says. “That will all still be here after the glaciers are gone.”
There are an estimated 25 glaciers left at the park, down from about 150 in 1850. At least 100 feet thick, they provide critical water to these mountains. Scientists now think the last of them could melt in the next eight years with the unseemly haste of Frosty the Snowman in a tanning booth.
But what a lot of people don’t know is that these are not the glaciers from 12,000 years ago, which formed the park. They are more recent, growing large and mighty between 1400 and 1850 during what’s called the Little Ice Age and retreating since then. This is the end of an act, not the whole play.
In Michigan, we thank glaciers for creating the Great Lakes. People in Montana thank them for creating the majestic terrain of this national park near the Canadian border with its long, deep, narrow lakes and its sheer, angled limestone peaks. Out of aching geological upheaval has come such a stunning place that writers have struggled to describe its glories.
“Here is the backbone of the continent and the little and big beginning of things. Here peak after peak, named and unnamed, rear their saw-tooth edges to the clouds,” an early brochure described. “The air is laden with the fragrance of pine and hemlock that grow tall and stately in the valleys and on the mountainsides; it blows you alive with vigor.”
All that? Still true.
Things to know about Glacier
Glacier has the nation’s most famous national park tour, the Red Jammer bus tours in big, red 1930s vehicles.
It has the coolest name of a road in any national park, maybe any road in America. Going-to-the-Sun Road crosses the middle of the park, west to east, and provides spectacular scenery.
It has gorgeous lodges, thanks mostly to the Great Northern Railway, which built the best ones in the early 1900s.
It is intertwined with American Indian heritage. The Blackfeet Reservation borders Glacier to the east, with its Plains Indians museum and resurging (but still tiny) roaming bison herds.
It has the most romantic way to get to a national park – the Amtrak Empire Builder cross-country train. It can drop you off at two stops in the park.
Its border with Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park, a smaller but northern extension of Glacier, gives it an international flair.
It has deceptively cute animals. Bighorn sheep. Mountain goats. Grizzly bears. Mountain lions. Aw, they look so cuddly, just like those stuffed animals – except the bears have long sharp claws and teeth, and bear spray out here is sold in heavy-duty XL size.
When I visited in late July, Glacier was warm. And impressions of global warming are all about what happens to you on your vacation, right?
On July 26, it was 76 degrees at Logan Pass Visitor Center, at nearly 6,700 feet elevation – shorts and flip-flops weather.
By Aug. 23, it was in the 20s at night at some places in the giant park, and a snow warning was issued.
The winter of 2010-11 featured 400 feet of snow and bitter cold. But last winter, it was so mild that Going-to-the-Sun Road opened June 18, about a month early.
That is good for tourism, which was up 14 percent the first six months of the year (the trend continued in July, with 630,093 visitors, up 9 percent from 2011). On the other hand, it makes it hard to plan a trip to Glacier. Should you rely on Glacier opening early? Or being socked in by snowdrifts? Wear a coat? Or shorts?
Beloved by hikers and others who treasure its 700 hiking trails, remoteness and heavenly sights, the park is powerful and mighty. Its cascading rivers can entrance or drown you. Its hiking trails can awe you or lose you (a 19-year-old park worker from Michigan has been missing since July 28 after setting off for a hike alone).
Its scenic mountain roads can stun with their beauty and at the same time make you crazy with all the construction going on in the short season. Going-to-the-Sun Road repairs are due to end by 2015, but in the meantime, prepare for high-altitude stops.
And yes, there still are glaciers, even if you don’t visit them.
“Less than 1 percent of people get up to a glacier; they are tucked up there in the north- and northeast- facing slopes,” says Park Ranger Scott Emmerich. “Can people see them for years to come? Yes.”
But don’t waste time. Come on up to the future Florida of Montana – I mean, Glacier National Park.