Become a tourist attraction yourself. Hop on one of these buses and you are sure to command the attention of other visitors and probably get some great information along the way. The buses were given the name Jammers after the sound the buses made when the drivers were ‘jammin’ the gears of the old buses in the late 1930’s when they started transporting visitors through the park.
The park now has a fleet of 32 buses which have undergone some restorative efforts from the original configurations. The buses have been in continuous service from 1937 aside from 1999-2001 when they were being remodeled.
The buses seat 17 passengers and the drivers serve as tour guides with informational lectures as the transport you through the park. The tour prices range from $25 to $85 and should be made ahead of time.
About 3 months prior to our trip, I checked with the major car rental companies to see what I could get for a deal. In the course of my discussions with them, it suddenly occured to me that maybe I should see if they offer any discounts for 'seniors', now that I am over 55! This proved to be a good idea when it came to National Car Rental - they offered me a great discount on my choice of a small car. It turned out that our 4-door, automatic Chevrolet Cobalt, with A/C only cost me C$740 (including all taxes and surcharges) for 3 weeks of driving. At the time of pickup, I had to get a slip of paper from them confirming that it was acceptable to drive it into the USA, in case we were questioned at the border. I managed to rack up almost 3200-km (2000-miles) in the course of driving, mostly in Alberta, from Calgary to Cold Lake and then back again, followed by a southerly trip to the twin Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks and then by another return to Calgary. Total fuel for the trip amounted C$260, making the total rental vehicle costs an even C$1000 (~US$890) for 3-weeks of driving pleasure. The car was just right for some of those narrow mountain roads in the National Parks and you need transport to get to many of the trail hike start points! This photo was taken while we were fuelling up at the Exxon station in St. Mary, just outside the eastern entrance to Glacier NP.
One of the interesting things about Glacier NP is the presence of a fleet of 33 old touring busses designed and built by the White Motor Company in 1930 to serve as the main means of transportation in various US National Parks. Although several hundred originally entered service (1936 for Glacier and Waterton Lakes) and performed stellar duties for many years, their use began to decline by the 1950s with the rising popularity of automobiles. For many years, they continued to run only in Glacier National Park, mainly because of its unique Going-to-the-Sun Road over the continental divide. With its twists, turns, tunnels and steep drop offs, many visitors to the park were more than happy to surrender the wheel to a bus driver while they just sat back to enjoy the narration as the sights went by!
The vehicles were specially designed with a roll-back canvas top, that could be opened up for those sunny days, as well as a side entry door for each row of seats and windows that rolled down so passengers could enjoy the breezes. Although we did not take a ride on the busses, we noticed that the drivers had mouthpieces through which they gave their narration and the busses also pull-over and stop at many of the roadside lookout parking spots while the details of the scene are spelled out.
The end of the line for these old beasts came in 1999 when their use was suspended due to reliability concerns regarding their old age. Fortunately, it did not last long because the Ford Motor Company came to the rescue with a rehabilitation plan which saw replacement of their chassis and drivetrain with new designs. In addition, power is now by a combination gasoline/propane system resulting in a cleaner burn of fuel as the busses once again motor through the pristine wilderness. We even spotted a couple of the busses in Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park, just like in the glory days when wealthy patrons of Glacier were whisked north of the border for a 'taste' of Canada (and its Prohibition-era whisky)!
The US National Park system has some amazing scenic drives. Some have names and others do not but the ones that take on the most aura are those that close in winter. Part of what makes them so special is the small window you have of seeing them. We were lucky to travel around the US National Park system for six months in the summer of 2008 and while parks like Arches in Utah had as pretty a drive as you can imagine, there was something special about these alpine drives.
Some of the best include Tioga Road in Yosemite and Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. We also did the Trans-Canada Highway through Banff just prior to coming to Glacier National Park, but by far not only the most scenic but perhaps the most amazing engineering feat has to be the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
This 50 miles of winding mountain road hugs the Continental Divide and offers vista after vista of superlative scenery. If any drive approximates a hike, this is it with ups and downs, and blind corners the norm. I will have to say some of the road is in bad need of repair but it must be murder maintaining it in the harsh environment in which it lies. You need to allow time to drive it, not so much for its scenic lookouts, there are not as many of them as you will wish there were, but for the configuration of the road itself that snakes to follow the contours of the very mountains you will be gaping at. Allow at least 2 hours with no stops, but why do that when you are in the middle of paradise?
Thankfully, the park has a free shuttle bus that runs the length of Going-to-the-Sun Road. If you are without a car, this is the rare US National Park that you can properly explore. There are numerous stops along its 50 mile length and even those with cars can use the shuttle to explore. They come in very handy for making what might be a very long day hike into a more doable one as well as offering backpackers a way back to their cars after multi-day hikes that take them from one part of the park to another.
Often, you wish a park would have a service like this even for a fee, but these are part of your entrance fee so do take advantage of them. With less cars on the road, it is a more enjoyable experience for everyone. These are new as of 2007, environment-friendly and a great idea by the park service!
In addition to the new free shuttles, Glacier National Park has had their famed Red Bus Tours going since 1936. In fact, the same vehicles were used up to 1999 when they were deemed to be in need of major renovation. At a coast of $250,000, they did just that and they are still running today. They look like stretch limos but are convertibles to take advantage of the amazing scenery through which they take you. They run a variety of tours so again, if you came by train and the shuttle does not fit your style, you have these as another option. Prices vary by tour length but they look to run about $10 per hour per person which is not really bad considering the remote location and the admittedly cool ride you'll be sported around in. We did not do one as when we had good weather (a little more than half of our 11 days in the park), we were out hiking or backpacking.
Glacier National Park is about as remote as you can get in the lower 48. It is not really close to any real city. Missoula, MT is 170 miles and 4.5 hours right to Logan Pass, the middle of the park. Calgary, Alberta is 200 miles and 4 hours. The closest big city is probably Seattle at about 580 miles and nearly 11 hours. So, if you are driving your own vehicle, you will likely be driving a long way.
Despite this remoteness, Glacier National Park is one of the rare US parks that you can visit without a car though it might not be entirely as convenient or very easy if you are camping. Amtrak has a train called The Empire Builder that runs from Chicago and Seattle to Glacier National Park. I have not done this trip so check their website for details. Once in Glacier, there is a free shuttle that runs the length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road and a pay shuttle to Many Glacier. One backpacker from Bulgaria was traveling around the US by train and thought Glacier was easy to get around without a car. Hats off to Glacier National Park for bucking the US trend of lack of mass transit!
Glacier National Park charges $25 for an entire car load to enter the park for a week. Individual entry is $12 for a week. This is very reasonable, especially considering the free shuttle. They charge even less in winter though the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed. An annual pass for Glacier is $35 per car. We were using the America The Beautiful Pass which costs $80 and is good for an entire car of people for a one year at all US National Parks and Federally Administered Lands. This is less than half of what they charge north of the Montana border in Canada. It is perhaps the greatest value in all of travel.
The going to the sun road has been recognized as a national historic landmark for its impressive feat of engineering. The road bisects the park and is 50 miles (80 km) long. The speed limits on the road vary from 40 mph at lower elevations to 25 mph in the alpine areas. At these speeds with no stops, one can expect a 2 hour drive.
It seems like one could never do it that quickly though. The natural scenery forces you to stop at almost every bend in the road to marvel at the excellent views you are treated with. The road also have been undergoing construction projects that slow progress as well.
No vehicle over 21 feet in length or 8 feet in width (including mirrors) may travel the road.
Airporter Shuttle Express will transport travellers to/from the Calgary International Airport to GNP. They will also arrange a full-day "touring trip", if you wish.
Their service is "door to door" and they offer transportation to a variety of Montana locations, in addition to GNP. They use a variety of motor vehicles for this service, depending on your needs. They offer sedan, van and motorcoach transportation.
An added plus to their service is that, because they are a charter service, if your flight is late, they will wait for you!
Sun Tours is owned and operated by the Blackfoot Indian nation. Their tour service offers a unique insight into the native Indian way of life, as well as being an informative tour of the park.
Their tour service runs from June 1 to September 30 each year.
Glacier Park, Inc. operates a fee-based shuttle which can take you to places in the park that the free shuttles don't go.
The free shuttles do not access the West Glacier train station, for example, and so you may want to hire one of Glacier Park Inc's shuttles to get you from the train station to your lodge or campground. They will take you to various trailheads in the park and are a great alternative to getting around on the east side of the park without a car. You can also get from Glacier to Waterton National Park through Glacier Park, Inc. They have 15-seat passenger vans for this service, and they also run the Red Jammer Bus tours in the park.
Call Glacier Park, Inc. directly to arrange in advance for this service.
The free shuttle service started July, 2007. It is a great alternative to driving and parking issues that are common on GTTS road. The shuttle runs from July 1 until the end of Labour Day weekend (first weekend in September) each year. The shuttles run in both directions on GTTS road.
Shuttles run every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the route and time of year, and they run from roughly 7:00 am until 11:00 pm daily. The shuttle also travels to/from Fish Creek Campground, as well as campgrounds and lodges which are located along GTTS road.
Note, pets are not allowed on the shuttles.
Most people will arrive at Glacier by car, bus or even airplane. There is, however, an Amtrak station right at the front door of GNP. The Empire Builder runs from Seattle to Chicago and stops at both East and West Glacier.
This incredible park can be reached by train. Very few wild and isolated places in the USA can be reach by train. There are three Amtrak stations in the park, West Glacier, Essex, and East Glacier. These are on the nothern Amtrak route from Chicago to the Portland or Seattle.
A shuttle runs throughout the park which makes stops at various trailheads as well as hotels, visitor centers, and other major sites, e.g., Apgar Village. The great thing about the shuttle is that you don't have to do an out-and-back hike as you can hike to a spot with a shuttle stop and take it back to where you parked your car! There is also shuttle service to Waterton National Park, Glacier's sister park in Alberta, Canada a few miles north.
The shuttles vary from passenger vans to the much-loved Red Buses! It's not free however and fees vary depending on how far you need to go ($8-$40). They also aren't on a real frequent schedule so check before you decide to take advantage of this service.
All of the major lakes in the Glacier/Waterton Lakes International Peace Park have tour boats plying them. During our 4-day stay in Glacier we took a short cruise on two of them and also saw a third one at anchor.
The idea of boats on the lakes made a lot of sense in the early days of Glacier NP when the road system was not so developed. The present fleet owes its existance to the Great Northern Railway, which had several of them constructed to ferry park visitors from various trailheads where horse rides delivered the wealthy tourists. We saw the 'deSmet' at anchor on Lake McDonald while we were staying at the Lake McDonald Lodge (2nd photo). This 57-ft vessel was built in 1930 and carries up to 90 passengers.
While staying at Many Glacier Hotel, we boarded the 'Chief Two Guns' (built 1961, 45-ft and 49 passengers) for a short ride down the length of Swiftcurrent Lake. A short overland trek later, on our hike to Grinnell Glacier, and we climbed aboard the 'Morning Eagle' (built 1945, 45-ft and 49 passengers) for the next stage of the trip, down Lake Josephine. We paid US$13.50 each for this combined excursion, which also included pick-up when we returned from the hike. The boats are very comfortable and would be a great way to tour around one of the major lakes if you have the chance!
We boarded the train at 4:30am with only our backpacks bound for Glacier Park, MT. The train was late, which we discovered is typical. Two coffees and two muffins cost about $8.50. We had a 2 hour layover in Chicago. People looked at us funny as we walked around downtown wearing our 50 pound packs.
We arrived in East Glacier the next evening, nearly on time. The East Glacier Motel and Cabins offered a shuttle from the station to the motel. After 36 hours on the train we hiked it. Only a 10 minute walk. The next morning we took the shuttle from the East Glacier Lodge to Two Medicine Campground.
After a night in the campground we were off to the backcountry for 3 days. It was supposed to be 5 days but the bears altered our itinerary. We ended up hiking out at Cut Bank Campground, spending the night, then hitching a ride to the main highway where we waited for the shuttle to pick us up.
We headed off to St. Mary campground where we spent the night. The next morning we took the shuttle back to East Glacier Park. A trip to the laundromat and a fine steak dinner at the Thimbleberry Restaurant finished off our week. We stopped by the Spiral Spoon for some gift shopping on our way to the train station.
The train arrived about a half an hour late and by the time we got to Chicago we were two hours behind. Since then I've found that the 5:30pm train fom Chicago tends to leave closer to 7:00pm.
We arrived back in Sandusky, Ohio around 2:30am
It is now mid-December and we are planning our return trip for summer 2006.