FOR EONS, ICE BLANKETED ALL but the highest summits of what is now Glacier National Park in Montana. Under writhing ice floes, mountains took shape. Glaciers gnawed gaping valleys, etched rocks, piled up long ridges of rubble, and left large turquoise-blue lakes on the landscape. Since the time that ancient ice birthed the park’s landforms, several miniature ice ages have come and gone. They scooped out the nooks with cirques and hanging valleys. More recently, Glacier Park has sung a different tune. In the late 1800s, when explorer George Bird Grinnell first laid eyes on the Continental Divide, a ridge that the Blackfeet called the Backbone of the World, he lobbied for its preservation. By the time Congress designated Glacier as the nation’s 10th national park in 1910, the 150 pockets of ice from Grinnell’s day had begun to thaw into ponds.
Author Becky Lomax Photography Jim Franco
DAY THREE / Make it an early start for what may be your busiest day. Smell the coffee as you open the door of Montana Coffee Traders in downtown Whitefish, an outlet for the company’s popular locally roasted fair-trade beans. Pick up a bag of the medium-roast Grizzly Blend; $1 of every pound sold helps protect grizzly bear habitat. Stock up on two needs for the day here: lattés and lunch, both to go.
Follow the Middle Fork of the Flathead River to Essex for a taste of park history with breakfast at Izaak Walton Inn. The inn was constructed in 1939 to house Great Northern Railway workers, especially those needed to clear the snowy tracks in winter. Order the huckleberry pancakes served on replica plates featuring scenes from Glacier Park. The original plates were used on the Empire Builder train, which brought wealthy tourists to the park in its early days. Today, the inn’s a favorite with train aficionados and cross-country skiers. Continue on over Marias Pass and through East Glacier to Two Medicine, a less-crowded park corner steeped in Blackfoot history. Hop on the Sinopah boat for a ride across Two Medicine Lake’s azure waters. The massive red hulk of Rising Wolf Mountain dwarfs the tiny boat touring the shoreline, which allows cruisers to spy grizzlies feeding on bulbs or berries. Peaks surrounding the lake are named in tribute to Blackfoot legend—Rising Wolf married the chief’s daughter Sinopah, the peak opposite.
At Pray Shelter on the lake’s west end, debark for a roundtrip hike of less than two miles to Twin Falls.
Although Two Medicine’s glaciers melted long ago, find evidence of their passing in the vertical walls ground thin between two icefields. Climb to Upper Two Medicine Lake, which mirrors the rocky pyramid of Lone Walker Mountain, named for Sinopah’s father, or hike the south shoreline back across a swinging bridge.
From Two Medicine, retrace your drive around Glacier’s southern tip, grabbing the binoculars for a stop at the Goat Lick. This natural mineral lick provides the nutrients and salts that goats crave after a long winter. Billies and nannies with kids will swim the river and tread sure-footed up the steep cliff for a lick.
As a frothy finale to your adventure, catch Glacier Raft Company’s last afternoon boat for a raft trip down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, designated a National Wild and Scenic River. If Bonecrusher and Jaws rapids don’t soak you, Pinball will.
Last, dine right next door at Belton Chalet, built in 1910 by Great Northern Railway, the first lodge to welcome its guests to Glacier. And don’t worry about your casual clothes. You’ve noticed by now that Glacier is not a dress-to-dine destination. Start by matching the wild-mushroom and goat cheese bruschetta with one of the regional microbrews on tap. For entrées, share the Montana buffalo meatloaf smothered in chipotle gravy and the grilled vegetable napoleon with colorful layers of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, and mushrooms. If the dessert tray holds cheesecake covered in succulent cherries from the owner’s local orchard, try it.
After dinner, amble outside to lounge on the deck.
In three days, you’ve seen a lot, breathed lots of fresh air, and actively engaged one of the most memorable slices of America’s great outdoors. You’ve earned the simple luxury of watching the alpenglow of sunset smear Glacier Park with pink.
Becky Lomax first saw Glacier when she was 3, but she still marvels at its beauty. After being a hiking guide in the park for 10 years, she authored Moon Handbooks: Glacier National Park
September carves out a meteorological sweet spot at Glacier National Park. Highs range from the mid-70s around Labor Day to the low 60s by month’s end. The month also manages a high probability of sunshine. Low-elevation snow typically holds off until October. But you’ll still need a sweater or jacket in the morning. Lows settle into the 30s or low 40s. Fall’s colors peak in early October.
Weather information is provided by The Weather Channel. For more Glacier National Park climatological details, visit weather.com.
Glacier National Park pairs with Flathead Valley, the home of Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) and Whitefish. Rent a car to get around; public transportation is scarce. Before leaving home, you can purchase guidebooks, maps, and natural-history books through the Glacier Natural History Association (glacierassociation.org).
At Glacier’s entrance station, pick up a park map and the Waterton-Glacier Guide newspaper for current park information.
A Junior Ranger Program (nps.gov/learn/juniorranger. htm) Activities on Going-tothe-Sun Road that earn kids a Junior Ranger badge
B Discovery Cabin (nps. gov; search for Discovery Cabin) Exhibits that teach about wildlife and habitats
C Swan Mountain Outfitters (swanmountain outfitters.com) Guided trail rides in McDonald Valley
D Hidden Lake Overlook A 1.5-mile hike to stand on the Continental Divide and see goat nannies and kids