Resting at the top of the country a few miles from Canada, Glacier National Park stands quietly regal - known, but still pristine and largely untouched. Its tacit splendor has been preserved and draws nearly 2 million visitors each year, though most of those stick close to the roads and hotels and relatively few venture deeper into the heart of the park.
It encompasses more than a million acres, includes two ranges of the Rocky Mountain, and is home to a breathtaking array of plants and animals. An estimated 300 Grizzly bears roam the vast grounds of the park and mountain goats speckle the cliffs white, climbing effortlessly across impossible rock faces. Wolverines and lynx carefully avoid being seen, bald eagles and peregrine falcons occupy the skies, and more than a dozen fish species inhabit the waterways, tempting anglers with some of the best fly-fishing in the country.
For those who have driven into the sunset across Going-To-The-Sun road or slept at Many Glacier Hotel – majestic proof of a bygone era that rises dramatically from the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake – it is not just the beauty of the land, but the history of the park and it’s construction that is fascinating to discover. Another explorer by the name of Henry L. Stimson climbed the precipitous east face of Chief Mountain in 1892 along with two companions and also become enamored with the region.
Designation as a Park
Though Lewis and Clark came within 50 miles of the area that is now the park, it was another explorer, James Willard Schultz who was hired in 1885 by George Bird Grinnell to guide him on a hunting expedition into what would later become the park. Grinnell made several more trips to the region and found it scenery too inspiring to horde. He was the first the champion the cause of establishing a national park and spent nearly two decades doing so, describing the area as the “Crown of the Continent” – a phrase still used today.
In 1891, the Great Northern Railway laid a track across the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, a mountain pass at the southern boundary of the park. As with many things, it was the desire for greater profits that likely led to the formation of the park. The Great Northern began advertising the unique splendor of the area to the public and lobbied the United States Congress to allocate the land as a forest preserve, which they did in 1897. George Bird Grinnell, Henry L. Stimson, and the railroad presented a bill to Congress that sought to make the preserve into a national park, and the bill was penned as law by President Taft on May 11, 1910.
A Park Is Born
It was the railroad – with an eye for beauty and an industrious ambition for marketing - that built many of the historic buildings enjoyed by guests today for their uniquely Swiss themes and western feel. The Glacier Park Company, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway, constructed several hotels and chalets in the park in the 1910’s under the supervision of Louis W. Hill. The company built the Belton, St. Mary, Going-to-the-Sun, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Sperry, Granite Park, Cut Bank, and Gunsight Lake chalets, as well as the Glacier Park Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel, each on a location selected personally by Mr. Hill for its dramatic views and scenic backdrop. The buildings were all styled in Swiss architecture, hoping to market the areas as “America’s Switzerland”.
However, the rates for the Great Northern railroad and its chalets were prohibitive for most Americans, and the parks first superintendent, William R. Logan, wanted to build a transmountain road across the park that would enable people affordable access to the park. As the park attendance grew and visitors became more relent on automobiles, the Park received appropriations from Congress and began work on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, which bisects the park and crosses the Continental Divide at the midway point of logan pass, over 6,500 ft high. After more than two decades of planning and construction battling sheer cliffs, short construction seasons, sixty foot snow-drifts, and numerous tons of solid rock while working along sheer mountain faces, the road was opened on July 15, 1933.
The Civilian Conservation Corps also contributed, helping to clear and build many of the parks trails and campgrounds hiked by and habited by millions of international visitors today.
A Riveting Vacation
Glacier National Park is widely known today, and for good reason – the natural magnificence witnessed and fought for by a few men over a century ago remains unmistakable today, though somewhat easier to access.
Today, Glacier National Park offers the same timeless beauty, enhanced by the numerous tourism-feeding adventure services that have been established around the Glacier’s continuous popularity. From helicopter rides to guided fishing trips to a world-class whitewater rafting and dinner float along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River via the Great Northern Whitewater (www.glacierparkraft.com), there is no shortage of outdoor entertainment.
Among America’s treasures, Glacier National Park remains one of the vacations you don’t want to miss in America. It is home to some of the most spectacular views in America and is a part of our heritage not soon to be forgotten.