Glacier National Park in Springtime   18 comments

The Mission Mountains north of Missoula, Montana

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.

Springtime is lambing season: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep

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.

Spring is also a time of plentiful water falling down the mountainsides:  above Grinnell Lake.

Spring is also a time of plentiful water falling down the mountainsides: above Grinnell Lake.

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.

Glacier lilies are the first to bloom after the snow melts in Glacier's subalpine regions.

Glacier lilies are the first to bloom after the snow melts in Glacier’s subalpine regions.

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.

Weather moves in over Two Medicine Lake.

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.

A doe, a deer, a female deer...

A doe, a deer, a female deer…

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!

Light from the setting sun illuminates the peaks along Lake Sherburne.

Advertisements

18 responses to “Glacier National Park in Springtime

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Too true! I’ve always found that the best time to go is when you can go. To be real, there is never enough time to do it all anyway, so if the time of year limits a few options, so be it. I’ve never been disappointed by my off-peak travel! It helps that my husband doesn’t love crowds, so he would prefer that we aren’t someplace when it is super-busy.

  2. I could not agree more with everything you have written. I have visited both Canyonlands and Arches each of the last two years in late December. In my visits to these two parks I probably saw no more than 5-10 cars. I virtually had the Needles district to myself last December…and on a sunny, mild Saturday to boot. Two years ago I shared a snow covered Arches with about 5 other people and have some of my favorite photographs ever as a result. Winter on the Colorado Plateau is very hard to beat for the beauty and solitude!

    • Yes indeed. Years ago I used to go to Death Valley around spring break time, places like Zion too. But DV has gotten popular over the years, and even more out of the way areas like White Pocket are really too popular for my style. So I either go in winter or explore very out of the way areas if its spring/fall. December can feature fantastic light, as can very early spring (late Feb./early March).

  3. Those sheep at an angle always make me smile. Great set of photos.

  4. I loved this post SOOOOO MUCH! We’ll be spending a day there about Sept 1 and then we (with husband and daughter) are off to Yellowstone for about a week. Daughter has planned the trip and she does a very good job for the 3 of us. We have a 2 day class/hike studying microorganisms. Anyway no matter what we’ll have LOTS of fun together and as always MOM will take LOTS of photos. Thank you so much! You are very inspiring. The time we are going coordinates with husband and daughter’s work schedules.

  5. Some lovely images – looks a great place to add to the bucket list 🙂

  6. A beautiful place, brought to life for us too far to visit ourselves by your fantastic photographs, Michael. Thank you!

  7. I’ve been there one summer but the other year we went in early June as we attended a wedding in CO. It was rainy and cold and we did miss Going to the Sun Road and to the Canadian side. But GNP is my all time favorite so that was only a slight disappointment as we went to see the Great Tetons instead and Yellowstone.

  8. Absolutely wonderful.

  9. Beautiful images!

  10. Fine set!

Please don't be shy; your words are what makes my day!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: