In 2012, former National Park Ranger Steve Oakes (Main Library Associate) and his wife did an eight-day, seventy-five-mile backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. In addition to experiencing the natural wonders of the area, they learned of the fascinating history of travel in the region and its impact on visitation.
Glacier National Park is in northwest Montana, on the Canadian border. And the park is fairly remote, with no interstate highways nearby.
The park is a hiker/backpackers’ paradise with over 700 miles of trails. Over 3 million visitors per year from around the globe are attracted to the recreational opportunities in and around the park. But that is not always how it used to be.
For thousands of years, the Native Americans, including the Blackfeet Indians, lived in and revered the area. Of course, transportation back then was quite different. People walked or rode horses or canoed in the region. Then came the westward expansion of the European-Americans.
That expansion into the American West was propelled by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. However, it was another 21 years before a railroad was constructed to serve the area that would become Glacier National Park. The Great Northern Railroad (GNR) was the owner and operator of that line. Naturally, to boost ridership and profitability, GNR embraced tourism as part of the business model. A major challenge to their plan was the fact that at the turn of the 20th Century, the majority of the US population and wealth was in the eastern US and tourism occurred overseas in Europe. Soon, that was about to change.
In 1905 the “See America First” campaign was developed to try and siphon the 500 million dollars each year that Americans were spending visiting Europe. The Great Northern Railroad heavily used the “See America First” slogan in much of their advertising.
Between 1910 and 1915, the Great Northern Railway spent $2.3 million in visitor accommodations and facilities in the Glacier National Park area. Louis Hill, president of GNR, scouted the area and personally picked the locations of each building site. The investment included the construction of three hotels, nine backcountry chalets, two train depots, and support facilities such as employee quarters.
Each was built resembling architecture of the Swiss Alps.
Great Northern ramped up their publicity campaign and proclaimed Glacier National Park as “America’s Switzerland.” In 1921, they incorporated one of the park’s favorite animals, the mountain goat, into its company symbol. They called it ‘Rocky.”
Side Note: The Great Northern Railroad was not the only railway to construct hotels and become park concession operators. The Santa Fee and Union Pacific Railroads (plus others) were instrumental in developing visitor facilities in Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, and other western parks. For more information, check out the Ken Burns The National Parks documentary series on DVD or the book Great Lodges of the West by Christine Barnes, both available in our collection.
In the early days, nearly all the visitors arrived by train and then set out on a multi-day stagecoach wagon or horseback trips into the park. The train skirted the southern edge of the park, and many of the iconic vistas and wildlife happened to be further in the interior. A typical visit to Glacier would include train transportation to the west or east entrance of the park and a one-night stay at hotels owned and operated by the GNR. The next day, and for several days, one would do a loop tour staying at the various chalets, then return to the same hotel to then depart by train. The chalets were spaced about a day’s ride apart.
Not long after the overnight facilities were built with the intended purpose to serve train guests, tourism trends were changing for Americans. Vacations were not just for the wealthy who spent weeks at a time vacationing. The advent of the automobile made it affordable to common households. At Glacier NP, Management recognized the greater need to accommodate the touring motorist, and a road to reach into the heart of Glacier (to be christened “the Going to the Sun Road”) was conceived by George Goodwin in 1917, with construction starting in 1921 and completion in 1932. The road bisects the park and traverses the continental divide at Logans’ Pass, situated at 6,646 feet.
At the time, it was considered an engineering marvel and is now listed as a National Historic Place, a National Historic Landmark, and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Today this 50-mile road is often listed as one of the top ten favorite drives in America.
Side Note: In the spring, it takes the park service about 10 weeks to plow and clear the road of snow. Officials estimate the local economy is boosted as much as two million dollars a day when the road is opened.
Not long after the road was completed, visitation by train was decreasing, and the hotels became a losing proposition.
Then in 1936, a forest fire raced down the Swiftcurrent Valley towards Many Glacier Hotel on August 31. Staff courageously fought the fire and saved the grand hotel. Some buildings were lost, but no one perished. They sent a wire to Great Northern Railroad headquarters.
Staff was proud of their accomplishment as they communicated to GNR offices that the hotel was spared only to be baffled and disappointed by the one-word reply that followed, “WHY?”
Also, in 1936, a fleet of the famous red jammer sightseeing busses was brought into operation. Mass transit was still alive at the park, but more visitors used their own cars, versus trains, to get there.
Both the Swiftcurrent Inn and Rising Sun Motor Inn were constructed and put into operation during this time period and were reflective of the type of vacationing many Americans were turning to.
World War II had a major impact. The Jammers were sidelined due to gas rationing. Many Glacier Hotel was closed for several years, as well as the backcountry chalets. Many of the facilities fell into disrepair. After the war, five of the backcountry chalets did not return to service. In 1960 the Great Northern Railway sold their concession interest. And by the end of the decade, passenger rail service had to be rescued by Congress with the creation of Amtrak.
By 1970 train passengers were disappearing about as quickly as Glaciers’ glaciers. When the park was formed, there were about 150 glaciers. Today there are 25. Park managers speculate that the recent increase in visitation can be attributed to the public’s desire to see the glaciers before they are gone.
Today, one can still arrive by train. From Kansas City, the “Southwest Chief” line will take you to Chicago, with a typical departure time around 8 am and arrival in Chicago around 3 pm. The afternoon arrival, however, is not soon enough to catch the “Empire Builder,” the westbound train that will drop you off at the doorstep near either the east or west entrance to the park. From Chicago to the park is about a 31-hour trip.
Side Note: When we arrived at a downtown hotel with backpacks in tow, the registration staff joked that we could save a lot of money if we just pitched our tent along the Chicago River!
Upon arrival at the West Glacier (Belton) train depot, we hiked 3 miles to the hiker/biker campsite in the Apgar campground. Hiker/biker campsites are limited only to those visitors that arrive by foot or by bicycle. Eight campgrounds within Glacier NP have hiker/biker sites.
Once at the park, we relied on the free shuttle system operated by the National Park Service along the Going to the Sun Road. The shuttle season is dependent on the road opening, and the service ceases on the Labor Day weekend. Many trailheads can be accessed along the road. Each of the NPS buses has a bike rack to accommodate cyclists. Private shuttle services are also available to get one around the park as well as to and from the closest airport to the park, Whitefish International.
Other transportation of a recreational nature can be reserved while in Glacier. Horse tours are offered from several locations in and around the park. As well as boating. One can book a tour or rent a fishing boat, canoe, kayak, or even paddleboards. And, of course, the jammers.
In 2017 my wife and I arrived by another means. Following what is known as the Northern Parks Tour from the American Cycling Association, we showed up at Glacier NP as part of our self-supported bike tour. In a future travelogue and upcoming program, I will share the details of that trip.
Travel options to and thru Glacier National Park have changed as much as the landscape. However, one can still visit the park today as visitors did over a century ago.
Here is what we learned. If you plan on a multi-day hiking/backpacking trip during the summer season, a backcountry permit is needed, and there are limitations. Fifty percent of the permits are available by a lottery system that opens up online the first business day of the year. We elected to figure out our venture once we arrived at the park. Permits are issued at the backcountry office in several areas of the park and include information on how to stay safe in the wilds. Standard in any backcountry permit briefing is how to handle your food. Each campsite at Glacier has a fire ring, a filterable water source nearby, a picnic table, provision for food storage, a latrine, and a tent area at least 100 feet away from the dining/cooking/food prep area. In addition, information about bears, their behavior, and precautions needed to keep both humans and the bears safe (as well as other wildlife) is shared.
Glacier National Park is home to both Brown (grizzly) and Black Bears.
Backcountry campsites are equipped with various means to keep bears from getting your food.
The shuttle bus system provides great access to many areas of the park.
For the ambitious traveler, one can hike into Canada and visit the town of Waterton in Waterton Lakes National Park – Canada. It is about a two-day hike from the Going to the Sun Road.
You can even have “High Tea,” at the right time of the afternoon, at the historic Prince of Wales Hotel. It was built and opened in 1927 by the Great Northern Railroad.
Hiking in the backcountry presents many opportunities to capture sights from what many refer Glacier National Park to as, “The Crown of the Continent.” The following are but a few of the scenes you may encounter at Glacier National park.
From the stunning scenery of Iceberg Lake,
To the glaciated, U-shaped valleys and hanging waterfalls,
From the mighty moose,
To the petite pika,
From the iconic mountain goat,
To the fearless grizzly bear,
From the loving loon parents,
To the mystical Bear Grass,
A landscape of rugged nature,
To passive elegance.
From interpretive ranger programs,
To discoveries on your own,
The number of vistas and experiences one may encounter, the stories, the history, and emotions felt, are astronomical. Regardless of how you get to Glacier National Park, you’ll discover it is well worth the effort.
Side Note: Most major parks have a vehicle entrance fee. If you are a US citizen and are 62 or older, you may purchase a Lifetime Senior Pass. The pass provides the cardholder, and everyone else in the vehicle, free admission to National Parks and Federal Land Recreation areas. The pass also allows certain discounts, such as 50% off camping fees!