I’m in the mood for a travel post, so here goes. This is the first of at least two parts. Glacier National Park lies in northwestern Montana. It’s part of a larger park, an international peace park, spanning the border with Canada. The Canadian portion is called Waterton Lakes.
Glacier is a place of beautiful, rugged mountains and big blue lakes, a place of charismatic wildlife, including grizzly bear, moose, and even (rarely seen) wolves. Because of widespread glacial retreat over the past century or so (an effect of global warming), you need to hike into high country to get up close and personal with the park’s namesake glaciers. Those that remain, while visible from the road in places (mostly on the east side) are relatively small. Much more obvious are the spectacular landscape features left by the extensive glaciation of the past. U-shaped valleys, glacial lakes, sharp aretes (knife-edge ridges), moraines and more lie around every corner.
Before I get too far, I have a pet peeve. When we read about travel destinations, either in a guidebook or in a blog like this, the author invariably tells you when is the best time to visit. We are so used to this that we feel cheated if it’s missing and go off to another source to find out this important piece of information.
This of course, for nearly every destination, is pure bull. I’ve heard professional photographers complain about how over-popular and over-exposed places like Iceland and Patagonia are getting. Too many photogs. and too many pictures. And yet they all continue to schedule their workshops at the same time of year. It’s like the busiest road near where you live. You only think of it as having tons of honking cars or bustling people on it. But try taking a walk there in the middle of the night, or the middle of a snowstorm.
Is there really a “best” time to visit? Maybe, but travel authors are giving their opinions, as should be obvious from the word “best”. You aren’t learning about the only time to go but the best time with regard to climate and other factors (the main factor being the author’s personal opinion). It’s a very subjective topic that is far too often presented in a misleadingly factual manner. Now some places are virtually off-limits during some times of year because of major road closures or other factors. But it is a very rare destination that can’t be visited at any time of year.
For example, on a trip across Montana a couple weeks ago, I had plenty of options other than Glacier. But I love the scenery in the NW corner of the state, so I drove up toward Flathead Lake through the Mission Valley (top image). After that, it was an easy decision to go a bit further to Glacier. It was my first springtime in Glacier (late May is still springtime in the northern Rockies).
Every photo workshop plying this park I’ve ever heard of is scheduled in high summer, some in early fall. But that doesn’t mean other times of year aren’t worthwhile. I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the park whatever time of year you go.
I may sound like I’m contradicting myself here, but I’m going to recommend, if it’s your first visit to Glacier, that you think about sometime after 4th of July weekend, on up to early October. But if you’ve been before, if you want fewer fellow tourists, or if you want a slightly different experience, consider either an early (May to mid-June) or very late (mid-October into winter) season visit.
In May, and most years well into June, you’ll be dealing with snow in the high country. The famous Going to the Sun Road over Logan Pass was closed to vehicles when I visited. It’s closed until at least mid-June most years. That’s a big draw for Glacier; first timers want to drive over that pass. But read on for a way around that apparent limitation.
It didn’t bother me too much that Logan was closed. For one thing, I’ve been to the park before in summer and have driven over the pass. Also, because of the closure, not too many people were there, even though it was Memorial Day weekend. Best of all, I found out that Logan Pass wasn’t actually inaccessible after all. You can bicycle up from the closure gate! Bike rentals are available at the store in Apgar Village, the main hub of activity in the west part of the park.
You can also walk of course, but it’s a longish hike. Granted, once on top you’ll be walking around on huge snow drifts. But it will most likely be compact enough to not sink in too far. And you’ll be sharing it with just a few or no other people.
High-country hikes were snowed in during my visit, but that left plenty of hiking to do. Opened up for consideration were out of the way places I’ve never before explored, and probably wouldn’t if I was busy doing the more popular stuff you see in pictures on the web (over-shot Triple Falls or St. Mary Lake from Sun Point for example).
If you go in wintertime, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing is not only magical, you’ll get pictures very unlike the mainstream. You can even go by rail in winter and stay at the historic Izaak Walton Inn, which has wonderful groomed cross-country ski trails. The Inn is just outside the south boundary of the park. You can rent a vehicle to explore (with XC skis or snowshoes) those parts of the park open to traffic.
You see, there are always ways to make a trip worthwhile, no matter what time of year you go. So when you read about the “best” time to go someplace, you should at least take it with a grain of salt. For one thing, “best” times are usually also the most crowded and expensive times. Also, any pictures you get will end up looking more similar to what’s been done before. That’s because each season brings its own unique light and weather conditions.
Next time I will offer some ideas for things to do if you decide to break with the crowd and visit in Glacier’s spring season. I’ll also cover ideas for photography there in spring. So stay tuned!