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Touring Glacier National Park

Story and photos by Lee Juillerat   August 1, 2011

  Glacier National Park  
Glacier National Park is a scenic wonderland

We hiked trails to ice-covered lakes, frothy waterfalls and viewpoints with eye-popping vistas of rivers, lakes and glacier-carved valleys. We rafted the seemingly benign Middle Fork of the Flathead River where—surprise—two paddlers on one raft took an impromptu swim.

But during our six-day, five-night Great Glacier Adventure we also traveled stylishly and graciously in Red Jammer buses, the roof uncovered as we motored along the snow-lined "Going to the Sun Highway." Nights were spent at four of Glacier’s classically rustic lodges, with dinners ranging from an outdoor cowboy barbecue to scrumptious gourmet feasts.

A little bit wild, a little bit mild.

  Cowboy style barbeque   Great Glacier Adventures are new offerings at Glacier National Park, trips intended to get visitors out and about by day and cozy and coiffed at night. Offered through the park concessionaire, Glacier Park, Inc., the trips are designed to let others do the planning and groundwork. “We didn’t want to do tents,” one group member explained at the opening night get-acquainted barbecue, a glass of cabernet in one hand. “I’m past tents.” “Life is so busy I don’t have the time for logistics,” another announced. Our trip leader, Phil Pitcock invoked John Muir, who famously declared Glacier “a land of care-killing beauty.”  
Cowboy style barbecue
  Glacier Lodge  
Elegant Glacier Lodge
  I’ve visited Glacier a half-dozen times over the past 25 years. In past tense, my daughters and I camped in tents, or stayed with park ranger friends. I almost felt guilty enjoying cozy rooms with views at the Glacier Park Lodge, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Many Glacier Hotel and Lake McDonald Lodge. Almost.  
  Seeing the sights from a Red Jammer   The rustic Western-themed Glacier Park Lodge near East Glacier is the oldest, built in 1912. The Many Glacier Hotel and the Lake McDonald Lodge were both built in 1914 with similar but varied Swiss-chalet themes. In the early years, tourists traveled horseback to those and other lodges. All these years later, some visitors travel to West or East Glacier on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.  
Seeing the sights from a Red Jammer
  The lodges, like the Red Jammers—White Model 706 tour buses that have been shuttling visitors since the mid-1930s, are part of the park’s human history. Most of the lodges were built by the Great Northern Railway to lure visitors. Each is distinctly different and most feature spacious, multi-storied lobbies. Each dazzles and is worth even a short visit.  
  Phil Pitcock with his Red Jammer  
Phil Pitcock with his Red Jammer
  Instead of horses, we relied on horsepower from the Red Jammer touring cars. Phil and Ron Casey provided commentary on park history and trivia while Jake Klontez took charge of bags, food and water. During the drive, along with detailed information on geology, park history, local tribes and other park minutia, Phil changed pace by revealing some of the incredible questions asked by daft visitors, including: “At what elevation do deer turn into elk?” and, “Are there any undiscovered lakes you can see from the road?”  
  On the trail to Iceberg   Nearing Iceberg, with the Ptarmigan Wall  
On the trail to Iceberg
Nearing Iceberg, with the Ptarmigan Wall
  Driving with the top peeled back is a great way to savor the scenery, but the hikes were even more savory. Our first full day featured a 10-mile round trip trek to Iceberg Lake, a water body tucked against the base of the 3,000-foot tall semi-circular Ptarmigan Wall. Near and at the lake, we spotted mountain goats cruising and even galloping along impossibly steep walls. Other hikers claimed sightings of grizzly bears.  
  Glacier lily  
J.D. Allison discusses Glacier geology
Glacier lily
J.D. Allison discusses Glacier geology
  With the help of Stacey Bengston and J.D. Allison from Glacier Guides, we began counting wildflowers. I counted more than 40 that first day–including glacier lilies, bear grass, larkspur, shooting stars, arrow leaf balsam, huckleberries, yellow columbine, spiraea, arnica, blue clematis, bluebells, Wood’s rose, white angelica, Mariposa lilies and more, along with huckleberries, thimbleberries, wild strawberries and black elderberries—and added dozens more over the following days.  
  Tour boat on Josephine Lake   Grinnell Lake  
Tour boat on Josephine Lake
Dazzling Grinnell Lake

My favorite hike was a snow-shortened walk to Grinnell Glacier. The trail passes along Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine before gradually and deceptively climbing nearly 1,600 feet. The rewards were many, including aerie-like views of Swiftcurrent, Josephine and, more spectacularly, Grinnell Lake, along with countless waterfalls that tumble off Mount Siyeh, Cataract Mountain and other surrounding peaks. We viewed a trio of glaciers—Salamander (so named because it looks like the creature), Grinnell and tiny Gem. The wildflower count increased with such additions as sword and maidenhair ferns, yellow violets, cinquefoil, desert parsley, bog orchid, elk and bull thistle, alpine daisy, blue clematis, Lyall’s and Alberta penstemon and yellow paintbrush.

A planned hike along the Highline Trail was cancelled because it remained covered by lingering snow. I made the 12-mile, mostly downhill walk decades ago with my then pre-teen daughters. We viewed so many bighorn sheep and mountain goats that we stopped counting, and made a pie and ice cream stop at the Granite Chalet. An old scrapbook has photos of my daughters sitting on rocks with preening bighorn sheep in the background.

  St. Mary Falls   Baring Falls  
St. Mary Falls
Baring Falls
  This time around, instead of the Highline Trail, our Great Glacier group stayed in snow-free St. Mary’s Valley for a milder but scenic 7-mile round-trip hike to churning Virginia Falls. Along the way we passed Baring and St. Mary falls. Additions to the wildflower list included queen’s cup bead lily, false Solomon’s seal, red monkey flower, sticky geranium, striped coral root, round-leafed alumroot, mountain lover, foamflower, bedstraw, kinnikinnick and twisted stalk.  
  Swiftcurrent Lake from the Many Glacier Hotel  
Swiftcurrent Lake from the Many Glacier Hotel

Our final “adventure” day featured a two-hour paddle-raft trip down the John Steven’s Canyon of the Middle Fork of the Flathead, along the park‘s southern boundary. It’s an easy beginner’s float, although some of its rapids, with names like “Bone Crusher,” “Jaws” and “Pumphouse” revved the adrenalin for first-timers. The trip generated genuine excitement when a whirlpool sucked in two paddlers, Phil Foss and Cathy Mazella. Foss, who was wearing an operating video camera strapped on his arm, recorded it all: his sudden submersion—and the video gives the viewer a sense of being doused in a flushed toilet—and retrieval back onto the raft.


Although thoroughly soaked, Phil and Cathy, and several of us others who voluntarily jumped into a calmer stretch of the river for cooling swims, no one’s spirit was dampened. The night before the group split up, we celebrated with a farewell dinner at Russell’s Fireside Dining Room at the McDonald Lodge. (Recommendations include the tantalizing wild Alaskan sockeye salmon and, for those seeking comfort food, Indiana pot roast.) The wine and the beer—I literally salivate for Montana’s own Moose Drool—probably helped, too.

The day, like the trip, had been a little bit wild. But the kick-back finale made it comfortably mellow and mild.

If You Go

Information about Great Glacier Adventure tours is available from GPI (Glacier Park, Inc.) Tours, PO Box 2025, Columbia Falls, MT 59912, telephone 406-892-2525, or .

Several books offer insight into better appreciating Glacier National Park visits, including a wide variety of hiking books. Some are geared for day hikes or overnight backpacks.

For identifying wildflowers, trees and ferns, I nightly referred to “Wildflowers of Glacier National Park” by Shannon Fitzpartick Kimball and Peter Lesica, $19.95, Trillium Press.

To gain a rudimentary understanding of geology I used, “The Totally Out There Guide to Glacier National Park” by Donna Love and Joyce Mihran Turley, $15, Mountain Press Publishing Company.

For understanding the role passengers played at Glacier and other western parks, I read selections from “Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of Our National Parks, Fifth Edition,” by Alfred Runte, $24.95, Rowan & Littlefield Publishing Group.

And, before leaving and after returning home, I appreciated the paintings and photographs of various artists in “The Call of the Mountains: The Artists of Glacier National Park,” by Larry Len Peterson, $32.95, Settlers West Galleries.

  About the author      
  Lee Juillerat   Lee Juillerat writes for a daily newspaper in Southern Oregon. He is also the author or co-author of several books about Crater Lake National Park. He is a frequent contributor to various magazines, including Northwest Travel, Range, Horizon/Alaska airlines in-flight and Capital Press, among others. He can be contacted by email at  
The author relaxing at the Glacier-Waterton park border, half in Canada, half in the U.S.
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