Bear spray is another can of worms. Many novices carry it and then proceed to ignore the most important suggestion from the National Park Service, and that is to make a lot of noise. I saw many people hiking without so much as a peep, often alone. More experienced hikers in the park differ on their opinion of bear spray but a common belief is it will provide one more course of action provided you know how to use it. Wind is a big factor with a spray and you need to realize that for it to be effective, that bear is going to be within swatting distance. You have to ask yourself if you in have the nerve to stare down a grizzly and spray it in the face at the last second as it charges within inches of you. If it will make you more relaxed, that's fine as long as you remember the cardinal rule of making noise.
So, why would anyone want to subject themselves to this nerve wracking hiking scenario? Well, Glacier National Park is not only one of the most beautiful places on this planet but it's also home to a great host of wildlife like Bighorn Sheep as well as grizzlies. The fact is 99% of bears have absolutely no desire to meet up with a human. If it weren't for the tasty and often too easily obtained food we carry, they would give us the widest berth possible. We remain their only mortal enemy. Some people are lucky enough to see bears at safe close distances and it seems to be a profound experience for them. The perfect glacial valleys of Glacier are stunning and made even more so by a healthy ecosystem that includes wild animals wandering through them as they have for thousands of years. These are the rewards for those willing to take the risk but more importantly the responsibility of doing everything they can to insure it remains a wilderness, a place where grizzlies still thrive as they did once upon a time in the wild, wild west. If you're willing, I'll see you on the trails but I hope to hear you first.
The rest of the “bear rules” concern food and its storage. Well, food in this case pertains to anything that has a scent as a bear with it's incredibly sensitive sense of smell could misconstrue say a tube of toothpaste as something to eat. Sure we wouldn't think of it as a tasty snack but then again we don't spend eight months in hibernation either. Did I say a bear had a good sense of smell? Try six better than a blood hound's. So, needless to say leave the canned salmon and tuna at home and stick to fairly scentless stuff like dried food.
I shouldn't have to say this but do not even think of eating or storing food in your tent. No, not one drop, not even a leftover piece of minty tooth floss. You'll need to hang your food at the conveniently located poles provided by the National Park service. You will also have to cook and consume your meals at the designated “kitchen” area. If this all sounds a bit heavy on rules, it is for good reason and believe me there's something kind of comforting about eating with your peers in a little circle when you are well, surrounded by grizzles.
Ok, so you do everything you can to avoid a confrontation with a bear but just what do you do if you do find yourself face to face with one? Well, that depends on many variables and this has to be the most daunting but at the same time amusing part of the video you have to watch before heading into Glacier's back country.
First you have to ascertain if you are dealing with a black bear or grizzly as the park is the lucky home to both types. To make things more complex, not all black bears are black and grizzlies vary in color considerably too. So, you're left with some other physical attributes of grizzlies like a more rounded flat face, huge humped shoulder, and far longer claws. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Now, maybe you're more calm in the face of danger but I wasn't so sure I would be so cool to be able to ascertain these qualities with a bear staring me down and time being an unknown factor. But let's say you can make this distinction.
The common reasoning was always to fight a black bear if attacked and crouch and play dead if a grizzly. Of course, this is only if attacked. First things first, and that is to back away slowly. I met many experienced “bear hikers” while in Glacier and many of them said they wouldn't just play dead with a young grizzly and that you have to stand your ground to see if the bear might fear you more if they figure you will not give in. Just make sure the bear is not too young. Baby bears or young adolescents deserve special care as Mama surely is nearby and willing to rip you to shreds if she figures you are a threat to her cubs. Okay, now let's assume you sorted out what type of bear it is and even it's approximate age.
Now, you have to figure out if the bear is acting aggressively or defensively. This is perhaps the most important thing in your reaction. It seems a defensive attack by a grizzly is best countered by playing dead, but always protecting your neck and head, trying to remain face down. If the bear is acting aggressively or even stalking you, it may be looking at you as a food source in which case you would have to fight back or essentially be eaten. Luckily, this is not particularly common though the thought alone is disconcerting. Factor in your chances of successfully fending off a full grown grizzly alone are pretty slim and you begin to question your choice of areas to hike in. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
My first go was just prodding for information but as carefully as I danced around him for it, I received a condescending tone none the less in having to do your homework before coming in for a permit. I had time and my plan was to wait out the weather and try for an assortment of planned routes. The next day I was first in line and had an exact itinerary ready. I quickly went down the list and when both Granite Park and Fifty Mountain (two of the hardest to secure campsites in all of Glacier's back country) were available he gave a wry if perplexed smile at my luck.
Later in the afternoon I returned with my wife to watch the required back country video detailing how to more or less live with the bears. I wondered to myself if I had been so lucky after all and what my wife was thinking I can only imagine as she watched the suggested prone position if one was unlucky enough to be attacked by a grizzly. Oh, and no pretenses are made. Grizzlies do in fact attack and kill hikers in Glacier. The park is considered their domain and if you are entering it, it is with the knowledge that you are doing so at your own risk.
These risks can be minimized by following some simple rules and one of those is the making of noise. Most attacks occur when a bear is surprised so the idea is to make sure they know you are coming. Many opt for bells but they are not really effective due to the poor carry of their light ring. Talking loudly is much more effective and nothing beats plain shouting when it comes to scaring just about anything in your path away. I can personally attest to the latter and aside from the ubiquitous big horn sheep and mountain goats who both seem oblivious to man's presence, I didn't see any wildlife while hiking in the park. Now, this is not exactly what I would like but it sure beats getting mauled by a grizzly! (continued below in Fondest Memory)
As stunning as the landscape is in Glacier National Park, the wildlife steals the show for most visitors.
Fondest memory: Making noise and hiking are not two things that go together naturally. I abhor those unable to keep their traps shut when enjoying what should be the solitude that is intrinsic to walking in the woods or traipsing along a mountain ridge. If there's one time when words are not necessary, this is it. But when walking in the footsteps of the grizzly one has to reconsider their vow of silence. In fact, the protocol calls for making as much noise as possible and though this is something I've become quite good at I'm not sure I'll ever get truly used to it.
Glacier National Park in northern Montana presents such a challenge with the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48. Sure, one can visit the park without subjecting oneself to such a state of affairs but driving from one scenic pullout to the next has never been my style. So, on arriving at the ruggedly beautiful slice of America's best in September I found myself at the back country station trying to pry information from a knowledgeable but not exactly forthcoming ranger. By the season's end, rangers can be a bit ornery but I imagine answering repeated questions about the weather posted outside the office must take it's toll. I had been sitting patiently by the wood stove as another potential back packer got shot down in his attempt to secure a coveted spot on a space limited popular route slicing through the heart of the park. Fifty Mountain campsite was full after he'd made a slight hesitation as to whether or not he wanted it. He was irate at the system and the ranger showed no mercy in alluding to the need to be more sure of your desired itinerary. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
The geology of Glacier NP is quite comprehensive. The area started out as slowly deposited sediment on the floor of a shallow inland sea. This process is why you can find Limestone, Mudstone, and Sandstone throughout the park. Many of the Chalets and later buildings use these uniquely colored rocks for random masonry walls and even foundations.
A tectonic plate boundary eventually thrust the area upward and created the ancestral Rockies. From seafloor to Mountain range the area still did not look like it does today. For that, the process of glaciation had to take place. During the last ice age--ending approximately 10,000 years ago--the entire region would have been covered with a massive sheet of ice. These glaciers carved out the horns, arête’s and cirques that you can now see in the park. In 1850 there were 150 remaining glaciers. Now there are 27 and it is estimated that they will all be gong by 2050.
Want to leave your own personal mark on the park? Don't waste your time scratching your name into a tree or in a bathroom stall. How about building a rock cairn? They probably won't last too long after you leave but isn't that the point?
When you go hiking you will probably see some of these cairns that nameless visitors have constructed. Collect a bunch of flat-ish rocks and stack them up to guide the path. It's pretty harmless and a good way to get more familiar with the unique geology of the park.
I decided to build mine on the top of the sign signaling the way for Apikuni falls. When you visit if you take that trail you may find a stack of rocks lying on the ground beneath the sign. That was me.
Glacier National Park, like nearly every National Park does charge an entrance fee. Typically a $25 pass that is good for 7 day is what you will need. If you decide to purchase the yearly pass it is more and to get access to all National Parks for a full year it is $80.
If you decide to camp you should expect about 10-20 per night depending on the campground.
Fishing does not require a license but there are regulations that need to be followed. For those regulations stop by a visitors center or check out this link.
Since our first night's accommodations was located just outside the southeast corner of Glacier NP, we had to make a drive south along Highway 89 as far as the tiny village of Kiowa. The scenery along that stretch of road was quite interesting, consisting of rolling hills and valleys of the Prairies. Once we reached Kiowa, we turned off onto the Highway 49 shortcut to East Glacier Park, so we would not have to take the long way around through Browning. This little road, which is closed in winter, was really spectacular as it wound up steep hills and around turns without many guardrails (this photo showing the road running along the side of the hill was taken as we started up it and does not do it justice).
Fondest memory: In the course of this drive between St. Mary and East Glacier Park, I later found out that we had actually passed over another continental divide - the Northern Divide (I thought that seemed like a long hill!). This high ground watershed separates the waters that flow north into the Atlantic Ocean via Hudson Bay from those that flow southeast into the Atlantic Ocean via the Gulf of Mexico. Not many miles west of Kiowa, this ridge runs into the the main East-West Continental divide running down the Rocky Mountains. There, a 2440-m (8000-ft) mountain called Triple Divide is a place where a rain drop might end up heading for either the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean (by either the northern or southeastern routes) depending on just what part of the mountain it hit!
Favorite thing: Waterton National Park is a spectuacular part of the Glacier experience. It's immediatly adjacent to Glacier's northern boundary and continues the high peaks and rugged terrain. Waterton Lake is north and south, cutting deeply into the ragged peaks of the Rockies.
These are really fun and spark interest in the National Park Service system. The brainchild of a marketing genius, the purchaser can get a stamp from each of the NPS sites he or she visits. The collection of these stamps, similar to postal cancellation postmarks (which include the name of the park and the date visited) become fun to collect. It's a great way to get the kids (of all ages!) excited about going to different parks, monuments, seashores, etc. that are operated by the NPS.
The passport itself is reasonably priced and the stamps are, of course, free. Each NPS facility has a stamp available at the visitor's center. If you don't see it just ask the ranger on duty. Some (e.g., Mt. Rushmore, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse) have special stamps with a depiction of the area/monument. Great fun!
You can obtain an NPS passport at any park Visitor's Center or online at the National Park Service Store.
Around Glacier National Park you can get stamps at the Apgar, Logan Pass, and St. Mary visitor centers, and at the Many Glacier and Two Medicine ranger stations. Each one is specific to that location. Collect them all!
Glacier National Park is located in the northwest part of USA and also in the northwest part of the State of Montana, right up against the 'pink' border with Canada, which has its own much smaller Waterton Lakes National Park adjoining. From the contours, you can see that this is where the flat Prairies first meet the easterly ranges of the Rocky Mountains.
The second map is a close up of the Waterton Lakes/Glacier National Park area, with the 'pink' roads showing where we drove on our 3-days in Waterton and 4-days in Glacier. We drove down from Alberta along the foothills of the Rockies entering the map at top centre with the top Yellow marker showing where we stayed in Waterton. From there it was a quick drive to the border but we took all day to reach our first accommodations at Glacier Park Lodge, the Red marker at the bottom of the map. The next day we backtracked to Many Glacier Hotel (the lower Yellow marker) and the day after that drove right across the centre of the Park and over the Continental Divide to reach Lake McDonald Lodge (Black marker). The final night in Glacier saw us returning to the eastern side where we stayed at the Rising Sun Motor Inn (White marker with dark centre) before returning to Calgary, Alberta via the prairie route up along the right side of the map. This sequence of accommodations was not of our choosing, it was what the National Park Reservation Service said was available when I booked a couple of months earlier!
The Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier (outside of the park) is a great hotel and is also the only one in the area with a day spa. Remedies offers body wraps, facial and scalp treatments, and massages. I would highly recommend the massages especially if you're doing some decent hikes.
I scheduled the 30-minute Mountaineer Survival Massage for the afternoon of the day we were going to hike to Piegan Pass. We returned just in time for me to take a shower and then get over to Remedies. I was in sad shape when I went in but 30 minutes later I was a new person! All of the aches and pains had been worked out and best of all I had no ill effects the next day! Best use of $45 ever! The Body Buster is also $45 for 30 minutes but you can also get a 60 ($85) or 90-minute ($125) massage.
They are open during the summer season (June-Aug) and are open from Noon until 8pm. Call 406-226-5608 to make a reservation. There is also a location in West Glacier and three in Whitefish.
You might read that bear bells are a must when hiking in bear country, which Glacier National Park certainly is. The bells are can be used to announce your presence so you don't sneak up and surprise an unsuspecting bear who normally don't want anything to do with humans anyway.
Some folks will tell you that they're worthless. Others will swear by them. Some park employees told us that they don't really do what they're supposed to. The clerk at the Many Glacier Hotel gift shop told us, as we purchased our can of pepper spray, that the park employees call them... dinner bells.
You'll have to decide for yourself if you want to use them. For piece of mind you might want to wear one or two. They are certainly cheaper than a can of bear spray but you might want both in case the bells don't work their magic and you do encounter a bear. The bells won't be much of a defense in that case.
...who'll come your way...
So always drive carefully and keep your camera handy!
Fondest memory: I'm a sucker for animals and I've always delighted at seeing them in the wild. I have only once before seen mountain goats up close and personal like this before! And by the time I picked up my camera, the moment was lost...