A visit to Montana’s Glacier National Park had been on our wishlist since long before we began our RV adventure. Now into our fifth year of full timing, we finally arrived. Having been here for more than a week now, we can attest to the park’s beauty as awe-inspiring, stunning and dramatic.
Within its 1 million acres, Glacier NP is comprised of high alpine meadows, glacially-carved mountain peaks and valleys, hundreds of lakes, cascading waterfalls, glaciers, rolling foothills and unparalleled vistas. I initially thought the park was named for its existing glaciers, but actually it’s for the work done by earlier glaciers at the conclusion of the last ice age.
Those glaciers left scoured dip valleys, sharp ridges, carved rugged mountains and deep lakes. Of the 150 or so glaciers known to have existed in the mid-19th century, only about 25 remain. Global warming models predict that by 2030 – or even sooner – they will be gone as well.
Many hikes begin at trailheads along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only highway that crosses the park from east to west. An engineering marvel and National Historic Landmark, the road spans 50 miles and crests at the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (6,646′).
Free shuttles run on the east-west route, with Logan Pass as the transfer point to proceed to either side. Coming in for a quick visit, folks would probably want to take shuttles or drive their own car (start EARLY) to best see the park in a hurry.
Of course, staying a while and hiking as many of the wonderful trails as possible is really the way to go!
St. Mary Area Waterfalls hike
We were camped right outside the east entrance to the park, at Johnson’s of St. Mary RV Park (Steve’s review here). With dozens of trails to choose from, we decided to warm up with the St. Mary Area Waterfalls hike. Armed with our latest hiking accessory – bear spray – we tried the park’s shuttle service from the east entrance visitor center at 7AM. We got off at popular St. Mary Falls and noticed several cars already parked in the small lot.
We followed the moderate trail that descends 200′ to St. Mary Falls and then climbs 250′ to Virginia Falls. This area was involved in the July, 2015 Reynolds Creek Fire that burned 4,800 acres. It wiped out all of the trees, but the area is recovering rapidly as evidenced by new growth and the incredible variety of wildflowers – most notably the Alpine Fireweed – blooming in abundance.
Since we didn’t even break a sweat on this short 3-mile trek, we added a segment of another trail that continued along the cliffs to descend toward St. Mary Lake.
Eventually we reached a small boat dock (which we actually docked at later in the day) then turned left to Baring Falls, only a couple hundred yards away.
From here we climbed back up to the road to end our hike at 5.6 miles, then took the shuttle from Sunrift Gorge back toward the visitor center.
Rising Sun Boat Tour
We thought this day in the park was over, but our shuttle driver was very persuasive when she told us it was a perfect day for a boat tour on the lake, if we could get a seat. When she stopped at the Rising Sun Boat Tour stop, Steve jumped off and got tickets ($26 each), then we had lunch as we waited for our tour.
A family-owned business, the boat tours have been offered at four locations in the park (Many Glacier, Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake and Two Medicine) since 1938. The 1.5-hour narrated tour at St Mary’s Lake features classic wooden boats.
Instead of describing the tour, I’ll let my photos tell the story of of the immense mountains and lake scenery we viewed during our relaxing ride.
East Glacier NP shuttle
The shuttles on the east side of the park run only every 45 minutes – far too long between shuttles when the park is busy. After the boat tour we waited 40 minutes for the next shuttle, which zoomed right by because it was full. Now we were getting very unhappy.
We started walking toward the visitor center and our car, but it was a daunting 5-mile walk along the busy highway with no shoulders. I suggested we wait at the next shuttle stop just up the road, but it went to Logan Pass – the opposite direction. Steve agreed with me that it was better to take a trip up to Logan Pass and back and see the scenery, than to sit around and stew for another 45 minutes hoping for a shuttle with space.
It turned out to be a good move. Enjoying our first scenic views of Logan Pass, we ended up back at our car an hour later. This is terrible shuttle service – these shuttles should be running every 15-20 minutes like on the west side of the park! We never took the east side shuttle again, instead driving our car early in the mornings to guarantee parking for our hikes.
And these hikes were just for starters!
Next up: Picturesque glacial lakes