Spend One Week in Glacier National Park and Step Back One Hundred Years
John Muir’s reflection on Glacier National park: “Wander here a whole summer, if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go uncounted. If you are business-tangled, and so burdened with duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy laden year, then go to the Flathead Reserve; for it is easily and quickly reached by the Great Northern Railroad. Get off the track at Belton Station, and in a few minutes you will find yourself in the midst of what you are sure to say is the best care-killing scenery on the continent“
Our Glacier National Park Experience
Your friends at lostinbeautifulplace.com spent the beginning of our summer exploring the western United States and Canada, including making the journey to Glacier National Park, where we spent over two weeks. We are fortunate to have family that lives near the park, which made it easy to explore all that Glacier offers. From the west side of Glacier with its remote lakes and hiking trails to the east side with its historic lodges and scenic roads, we found the park to be a perfect escape from the trappings of modern life. Visiting Glacier made us feel as if we had traveled back in time to a different era. This article is our suggestion for experiencing the historic time capsule that is Glacier National Park.
As mentioned above, we have family that lives near the western boundary of Glacier National Park, in the hamlet of Polebridge, Montana. They live in a rustic log cabin located on property that had been first homesteaded in the early 1900’s and continues to be lived on today. No electricity, phone, water, internet or cell service is available in the area. Instead, they use solar panels for power, wood stove for heating, propane for cooking/hot water/powering refrigerators & freezers, satellite service for phone/internet and they collect their own spring water.
After a slow (North Fork Road is 40 miles long and is not paved) and scenic drive to Polebridge, we enjoyed the famous huckleberry bear-claws at the Polebridge Mercantile, went on some amazing hikes around the Bowman Lake area, and met some of the interesting locals from the remote area. We then continued our trip back in time and moved on to explore the lodges and chalets of Glacier National Park. Our entire time in the area made us feel like we had been transported back to an era when the railroads were shaping America and many modern technologies were still in their infancy. Below are some of our suggestions for a one week trip to Glacier that will make you feel like you have traveled back in time to 1920.
Glacier National Park and The Great Northern Railroad
Glacier National Park sits at the crossroads of two great wonders of the western United States, the Continental Divide and the Great Northern Railroad Company’s “Empire Builder” line. In the early 1900’s before Glacier was a public park, the owners of the Great Northern Railroad recognized the potential income that could be generated by bringing tourists to the Montana mountains from industrious cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee. They, along with conservationists, encouraged the federal government to declare the mountainous area a National Park.
In 1910, Glacier National Park was established as the 10th National Park in the nation. By 1912, The Great Northern Railroad Company started to build a series of Swiss inspired lodges and chalets throughout the park. Four grand lodges (including the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton National Park, Canada) and nine chalets were constructed between 1912 and 1927. Being the only National Park situated along a railroad line in the early 1900’s, Glacier became a magnet for tourists seeking nature and solitude in its beautiful mountains.
In the 1920’s, tourists would arrive at the East Glacier Park Depot on a passenger train, where they would be greeted by Blackfeet Indian tribal members dressed in full regalia. The first night was spent in “The Big Tree Lodge,” now called Glacier Park Lodge. The following day, teams of horses carried the tour groups deeper into the park, over a mountain pass and on to the Two Medicine Chalet. For the remainder of the week, visitors rode horses, sailed by boat, and hiked to the various lodges, chalets, and tent camps scattered throughout the park.
Fast forward one hundred years and things haven’t changed a whole lot at Glacier National Park. Of course, Blackfoot tribal members don’t greet the trains as they arrive anymore. Only two of the back country chalets remain in use. A series of red buses called the “Red Jammers” has replaced the teams of horses that transported passengers around the park. These changes aside, visiting Glacier National Park today feels like it must have in 1920. Wild, refreshing and invigorating.
Stepping Back in Time: A One Week Itinerary
Days 1 and 2: Glacier Park Lodge
So little has changed in the park, that a tourist today is able to recreate a summer vacation in Glacier much like the 1920 version. Visitors are still able to board an Amtrak train at Union Station in Chicago and ride the “Empire Builder” line overnight, arriving at the East Glacier Park Depot the next afternoon. Directly behind the station sits the Glacier Park Lodge, which opened its doors in 1913. It is a short walk from the depot, but the lodge will pick up hotel guests in their distinctive “Red Jammer” buses if desired. The buses themselves are a tourist attraction and have been transporting visitors around Glacier since 1936. With roll-back canvas convertible tops, they originally operated in seven National Parks. Glacier National Park operates 33 of the original buses today.
After checking in to the historic Glacier Park Lodge, guests have the opportunity to stroll around the beautifully landscaped grounds before settling in for the evening. Once finished taking in the dramatic backdrop of the towering mountain peaks, hungry travelers find their way back inside in search of dinner. The Great Northern Dining Room, with an inspiring view of Dancing Lady Mountain to the west, features classic entrées in an historic setting. After dinner, social festivities occur each evening in the lobby. Visitors from all around the world mingle in the grand lobby, discussing their day in the park, playing games and enjoying the historic atmosphere that permeates the lodge. A pianist continues to accompany the gathering each evening as a fire crackles in the immense stone fireplace. To add to the historic ambiance, cell reception and WIFI are spotty throughout the building and there are no TV’s in the guestrooms.
Days 3 and 4: Many Glacier Hotel
The next morning, a buffet breakfast is served in the dining room, giving guests a few more moments to savor the historic lodge. A complimentary shuttle bus provided by the National Park Service then takes guests on to the next stop, St. Mary Village Visitor Center. Spend a few hours soaking in the history of the park and the local native tribes before catching another Red Jammer bus to Many Glacier Hotel, where the third and fourth nights of the trip will be spent.
Many Glacier Hotel is situated on the stunning banks of Swiftcurrent Lake and was built in 1914 with natural stone and 800 year-old unpeeled logs shipped in from the Pacific Northwest. It is the largest lodge in Glacier National Park. The two hundred room lodge underwent a series of renovations in 2011 and 2016 that restored it to its original grandeur. Today, the hotel still maintains its historic character. Most rooms either have views of the lake or surrounding mountains. The lobby of the hotel is just massive and contains old growth log posts that reach four stories tall. Over 100 custom Japanese paper lamps hang from the ceiling. A grand piano awaits to be played.
The next day can be spent around the Many Glacier area enjoying the public spaces that the lodge offers. Red Bus tours, boat cruises, horseback rides, ranger programs, and hiking trails for all levels are available. Groups of people gather out on the deck of the lodge and look through spotting scopes to watch Grizzly bears play and forage for berries on the surrounding hillsides. Mountain goats can also be viewed, precariously perched on the edges of rock faces. After dinner, another evening is spent in the lobby socializing with fellow travelers.
Days 5 and 6: Granite Park Chalet
The fifth day of the trip starts with breakfast at Many Glacier Hotel, before boarding yet another Red Jammer back to St. Marys Visitor Center. From there, riders transfer to the free shuttle that travels along the “Going to the Sun Road“. Visitors are sure to fill up with an extra large breakfast, because a steep, four mile hike to Granite Park Chalet is on the agenda today. A unique feature of Glacier National Park are the back country chalets that offer hikers the opportunity to trek to an overnight lodging destination without having to be loaded down with camping gear. Granite Park Chalet is run as a hikers hostel, where hikers are encouraged to bring sleeping bags and prepare their own meals in the community kitchen. A menu of snacks and freeze dried meals and optional bed linen service are available for hikers who are traveling light. The Granite Park Chalet has 12 private rooms with bunk beds and offers no electricity.
An afternoon and evening of mingling with guests, enjoying the spectacular views from the chalet and stargazing, leads to a much needed rest. The next day, there are a couple amazing hikes to additional sights such as the Swiftcurrent Lookout Tower and the Grinnell Glacier Overlook that should not be missed. One more evening is spent at the chalet, before hiking down to the shuttle bus the next morning.
Days 7 and 8: Lake McDonald Lodge
After descending the four-mile Loop Trail and arriving at the shuttle stop, the free shuttle bus is taken to Lake McDonald Lodge for the last night of lodging in the park (the next night is spent on the train). Lake McDonald Lodge was built in 1913 and is situated on the shores of the Glacier’s largest lake. It is smaller than the other lodges in Glacier, containing one hundred guest rooms. The foundation and first floor walls are built of stone, with a wood framed structure spanning the rest of the building. The lobby is a large, open space that has an incredibly large and ornate fireplace and a concrete floor with messages in several Indian languages inscribed into it. The lodge was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987 as one of the finest examples of Swiss chalet architecture in the United States.
Like the other lodges in Glacier National Park, the guest rooms at Lake McDonald Lodge are rustic, in keeping with the era, and offer guests modest amenities. Televisions, air conditioning and elevators are not available. As with the other lodges and chalets, the lack of modern amenities lends to social gatherings that occur each evening in the lobby.
The next morning, after a short hike around the lake, a shuttle takes guests past the West Glacier National Park entrance gates and onto the West Glacier Depot. The day is spent watching the Rocky Mountains pass by in the comfort of a passenger train, recalling moments spent at the lodges and chalets. The last night of the trip is spent in a sleeper car while the train rolls along. The next afternoon, passengers arrive at Union Station in Chicago and return to 2019.
Our Experience at Glacier: Part II
While it is still possible to experience Glacier the “old-fashioned” way by train and shuttles, it is not the only way to see this amazing National Park. Your friends at lostinbeautifulplaces.com spent over two weeks in Glacier without boarding a single train. Having our own vehicle allowed us to alternate between campgrounds, hotels, lodges, chalets and staying with family. We were lucky to get rooms at Glacier Park Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, Lake McDonald Lodge and Granite Park Chalet, which made for an unforgettable experience. Over the course of two weeks, we logged in over 75 miles of hiking and took two boat tours. We had an amazing time in Glacier and we wanted to share it with our readers!!!
Where is Glacier National Park?
Glacier National Park is located in northwestern Montana, near the US and Canadian border. It shares the border with Waterton National Park in Canada. Together they are known as the “Peace Park” as this is one of the only parks in the world was formed by agreement between two countries.
The nearest airport to Glacier National Park is the Glacier Park International Airport (FCA), located in Kalispell. The airport is 30 miles from the West Entrance of Glacier National Park and 12 miles from the town of Whitefish.
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