A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.
“Crown of the Continent” is an apt nickname for this pair of parks, which feature some of the most impressive mountain scenery in North America. Joined together since 1932 as the world’s first international peace park, Glacier National Park in Montana and Watertown Lakes National Park in Alberta offer a contiguous high-country wonderland of rock, ice, water, and wood.
This beloved park in northwestern Montana takes its name from its many glaciers and the glacial forces that shaped its rugged topography over two million years. While the park is still home to more than a dozen glaciers, even more impressive are the massive U-shaped valleys and hulking granite peaks carved by long-ago ice flows.
Drive the main route
Nobody leaves the park without driving at least a section of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Constructed during the Great Depression by Civilian Conservation Corps workers, the 50-mile (80.5-km) route could easily double as a a rollercoaster ride up and over the Continental Divide. Whether you start from Lake McDonald in the west or Lake St. Mary in the east, your hands will surely be sweaty by the time you finish.
Among the many landmarks along Going-to-the-Sun Road are Avalanche Creek with its ancient hemlock-cedar forest, a wicked switchback called the Loop, a roadside Weeping Wall, and the overlook for big Jackson Glacier. The Continental Divide splits the road at the 6,646-foot-high (2,025.7 m) Logan Pass, where a visitor center and bookstore provide shelter from the chilly highland weather.
Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and marmots inhabit the rocky slopes around Logan Pass, which is also a hub for several great hikes, including the family-friendly Animal Super Heroes Trail and the 1.5-mile (2.4-km) nature trail to Hidden Lake. The western end of Lake St. Mary, where trails lead to three splendid waterfalls, is another great place to hike.
Apgar Village anchors the western end of the road with its lakeside hotels, restaurants, shops, and visitor center. During summer, scenic cruises run along Lake McDonald; kayaks, canoes, rowboats, and paddleboats are also available for rent. Camas Road heads north from the village to lakeshore access at Rocky Point and a bridge over the North Fork Flathead River that provides a great perch for snapping scenic shots of the front range. A rough gravel road continues into the park’s rarely visited North Fork Area and super-secluded camping spots beside Kintla Lake and Bowman Lake.
Highway 2 loops around the south end of Glacier, flitting in and out between the park and two national forests (Flathead and Lewis and Clark). About halfway along is Goat Lick Overlook, where you can gaze across the valley at a lofty railroad trellis and possibly spot Rocky Mountain goats clinging to the cliffs.
Tours and bears
Glacier’s east side is bounded by the Blackfeet Nation and reservation towns like East Glacier that cater to park visitors. Just outside East Glacier is a spectacular but lesser-known part of the park: Two Medicine, where the Blackfeet once undertook sacred rites of passage. Trails meander around three lakes and along a creek to Running Eagle Falls, which gushes through a giant stone orifice.
St. Mary lies at the eastern end of Going-to-the-Sun Road. In addition to a lodge, cabins, and several eateries, the hamlet offers another national park visitor center. Just beyond the park entrance, a large grassy area, Two Dog Flats, is a great place to look for bear or elk. Ninety-minute boat tours of St. Mary Lake depart from a floating dock at Rising Sun Campground.
Another elongated valley, Many Glaciers, tenders some of the park’s most popular hikes, including a 5.5-mile (8.8-km) trail to the base of Grinnell Glacier, a strenuous climb up to Swiftcurrent Pass (6.6 miles/10.6 km), and a relatively easy jaunt to Ptarmigan Falls (2.5 miles/4 km). Scenic boat tours of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine include a quarter-mile (0.4-km) hike between the two. Kayaks, canoes, and rowboats are available for rent.
Two private companies run motorized tours inside the park. The legendary Red Bus Tours operates in vintage, oak-framed vehicles from the 1930s, and the Blackfeet-owned and operated Sun Tours interprets the park from an authentic Native American perspective.
Visitors should always be aware that Glacier is bear country—bruins of both the black and grizzly variety. Bear spray is essential, even on short walks. As one Glacier ranger explains, “A grizzly doesn’t care if you’re walking 10 yards or 10 miles.”
The national park is mostly shuttered in winter. But nearby Whitefish, Montana, is a hub of cold weather sports with a ski and snowboard resort ranked in the U.S. top 10 by Ski Magazine. Among other winter activities in and around Whitefish are horse-drawn sleigh rides, snowmobiling, Nordic skiing, dogsledding, fat biking on snowy trails, and ice climbing. Glacier Adventure Guides in Whitefish offers guided snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and winter camping inside the national park.