Originally created 07/14/97

Mountains' hidden wealth of beauty



GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. -Wild-eyed militiamen aside, I find the Montanans to be kind and admirable people. They say what they mean, nod hello as they pass you on the trail, give good directions and generally cling to habits lately considered quaint in many places. But the next time you meet a Montanan, ask a question about bears.

It doesn't matter what the question is. If your Montanans are like the ones I've been meeting these last few days, between hikes and scenic drives and lake floats and, yes, bear sightings, you probably will hear the word griz. As in grizzly bear.

I hear the sin of pride in this word.

With that casual syllable, the Montanan is telling you: I live with danger and spectacle. I drive without conventional speed limits, and expect to experience multiple seasons in a day's weather. I commonly encounter animals larger than myself. In fact, I'm on a nickname basis with them. And every morning, I wake up to this.

This, of course, would be the jagged peaks, Technicolor lakes, trout-rich rivers, storied sky, implausible mountain passes and yawning miles of ranchland that are Montana's landscape.

Now that I think about it, maybe we should be grateful that the Montanans say as little as they do. And maybe, the next time you're hungry for marvels of the wild, you should look beyond those usual park suspects at Yosemite and Yellowstone to the northwestern corner of Montana.

Here sits Glacier National Park, abutting Canada, and about 25 miles north of Kalispell and Glacier Park International Airport. It has no Old Faithful and no Half Dome, which, along with its northerly location, may help explain why it drew 1.7 million visitors last year, compared to Yellowstone's 3 million and Yosemite's 4.1 million. But Glacier includes some of the most scenic mountain roads, nostalgia-rich railroad hotels and plentiful wildlife in the lower 48 states. Though it fills with visitors in July and August, the place can feel largely empty on some days in June and September, and entirely empty and snow-covered the rest of the year.

The park has a Rocky Mountain skyline crowded with peaks of up to 10,466 feet (Mount Cleveland), at least 48 glaciers (all slowly shrinking, some accessible by trail), about 600 lakes (fishing allowed) and about 1,500 square miles of woods thick with cedar, hemlock and pine. Its leading man-made attraction is Going to the Sun Road, a 50-mile engineering folly that connects Glacier's western and eastern ends by climbing, diving, twisting and tunneling through the most ridiculous, road-unfriendly terrain in the middle, including the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.

Building the road took 12 years and cost three workers' lives before completion in 1932, and even now, snow makes it impassable for nine months of the year. Why was it built? Solely to stimulate tourism. (So much for Montana's image as a repository of uncontrived American frontier culture.) To see it, you can drive yourself or (easier on the nerves) go as a passenger in one of the convertible red ``jammer'' (as in gear-jamming) cars that cover the route every day in the summer.

Though Glacier got nearly twice its usual snowfall last winter (ensuring plenty of white peaks and vigorous waterfalls this summer), rangers expect Going to the Sun Road to open any day now. Prospective visitors should call the park for an update on road conditions.

Because it's 50 miles to cross the park on Going to the Sun Road, and 56 miles to trace the park's fringe on U.S. Highway 2 between the park's east and west entrances, having a car is a requirement for most Glacier visitors. But there is ample opportunity to leave it behind, if only for a day. Shuttle buses are available in summer, and the jammer tours make it far easier to enjoy the views. The 1930s vintage jammers, which hold up to 15 passengers, also offer shuttle service among major park landmarks. Prices range from $2 to $61 per person, depending on the length of the trip.

If you time your travels carefully, you can take a morning Amtrak train from West Glacier to East Glacier, a panoramic route that winds past the tiny hamlet of Essex, then return in the late afternoon. Fares run $17 to $24 for an adult round trip. Or, for $8, you can get a 55-minute cruise on Lake McDonald aboard a 1928 tourist boat. Summer boat and canoe rentals and tours also are available on St. Mary, Two Medicine and Swiftcurrent lakes.

All those options, of course, are only halfway measures. Possibly the best reason for going to a park is to be extracted from motorized vehicles altogether. Glacier has about 1,100 campsites ($10 to $12 nightly) and 730 miles of hiking trails, including the wheelchairfriendly, half-mile Trail of the Cedars boardwalk loop near Lake McDonald.

On any hike, you stand a good chance of glimpsing the park's enormous wildlife population. Glacier has elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep, wolves, coyotes, mosquitoes and an elite corps of whitecoated mountain goats.

Most famous, though, Glacier has bears. The park service estimates a population of at least 200 grizzlies and 500 black bears, and the park visitor center keeps an annual tally of sightings reported to rangers. In the first five months of this year: 56 griz (sorry; couldn't resist); 35 black; 11 of unknown type.

Glacier has a quirky collection of old lodges, the most notable of them put up in the days before World War II.

I found the Lake McDonald Lodge, near Apgar village at the west end of the park, the most comfortable, with just 30 rooms in its main building and an intimate ambience that reflects the property's genesis as a hunting lodge in 1913.

I also stayed at the Glacier Park Lodge, another 1913 building, a short stroll from a friendly little Amtrak station and the Blackfeet reservation town of East Glacier. The Glacier Park Lodge features a lobby full of tall tree trunks, a back patio well suited to evening cocktails, a ninehole golf course and other largehotel amenities such as evening entertainment and a swimming pool.

There's also the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, an immaculately maintained 1939 railroad hotel. The hotel was built as a hostelry for railroad workers, but it now operates year-round as a retreat for travelers drawn by the novelty of sleeping in a vintage room or in one of the hotel's four elaborately outfitted old railroad cabooses.

Unlike any other U.S. park, Glacier National Park also has a foreign sibling next door, Canada's 203-square-mile Waterton Lakes National Park, which includes more glacier-carved mountains, much stronger winds and the spectacularly and impractically sited Prince of Wales Hotel. The latter stands seven stories tall on a gust-buffeted hilltop, occasionally joined by grazing bighorn sheep, giving an Alpine mirage effect.

Glacier and Waterton have been closely linked since 1932, when U.S. and Canadian officials declared that the two territories would be considered Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park, with cooperative management programs and easy border crossings for tourists.

I made the easy 80-mile drive up Chief Mountain International Highway from East Glacier one afternoon.

In the heart of Waterton Lakes, on a lake-side plain beneath the stately Prince of Wales, lies the pleasant, tourist-ready town of Waterton.

Rams and ewes roamed the town and country freely, apparently aware of their protected status. An old Mohawk gas station rented out bicycles built for one and two. And among homes and businesses, handsome tidiness was endemic. Even the roadside motels and the Waterton liquor store had pleasantly landscaped frontyards. Just don't buy your gasoline on the Canadian side. It works out to about $2.50 per gallon.