National Geographic lists Glacier National park as the 10th most visited park in the US, attracting 2.4 million visitors in 2015. The park occupies 1 million acres on the western end of the Montana Alberta border, and straddles the section of the Rocky Mountains known as the continental divide.
The park is so named because it consists largely of numerous long finger like valleys bordered by steep, sharp, and extremely rugged rocky ridges. These ridges and valleys were formed by millennia of glacial movement and massive glacial runoff. A few shrinking glaciers do still cling to some of the more remote northern reaches of the park, but have largely disappeared. The park is still blessed with many snow and ice patches that hang around all year, but cannot be classified as glaciers.
The park is essentially split into western and eastern parts, with the continental divide serving as the dividing line. We arrived in the western section (more the center really) of the park and stopped in at the Apgar visitor center to get some information on campgrounds and day hikes. The ranger provided us with said advice, as well as a wonderful newspaper looking publication containing information on all the hikes in the park, including maps, one way distances, and elevation gains. It was a very well put together piece of literature.
We spent the first night in the Avalanche Creek campground just north of Lake McDonald. The camp site itself is pretty standard, parking space, tent space, fire pit, and picnic table. There are bathrooms close by and bear proof food storage boxes are spread frequently about. The sites cost $20 per night ($10 if you are like us and bought an America the Beautiful annual NP pass) plus the $15 single day or $30 seven day entrance fee per car. The bathrooms didn’t have lights, but other then that the whole place was well cared for and felt safe and easy.
There is a wonderful, handicap accessible, boardwalk trail that runs near the campsite called the trail of the cedars. It provided for a lovely little after dinner stroll along a creek through cedar and pine forest. The McDonald lake lodge just down the road has a store that sells firewood and other important items, and there is a restaurant and bar as well. It was a good place to chill for a bit and get out of the cold. They also run ranger led informational sessions there once an evening.
After a bellow freezing night, we awoke to a beautiful sunny, if still cold, morning. We had our coffee (of course) and breakfast then packed our camel back up with snacks, and headed out for Avalanche lake. This particular hike is listed at 2.5 miles one way with an elevation gain of 500 feet, but the trail winds around much of the lake, so it certainly could be longer if one wished. This particular part of the park is generally the easiest to access by vehicle so it is busier as a rule, and this particular hike is both easy and beautiful, so it is quite popular.
The lakeshore is gravelly and open, providing for some beautiful views of the snow capped peaks the lake backs up against. There was a lovely little waterfall cascading down the sheer slopes, and the calm, mirror like surface of the lake reflects back the beauty of the surrounding landscape. Multiple different beaches provide different view points and we even managed to find a warm spot in the sun that was relatively lightly traveled where we were able to get in a very pleasant nap. All said and done, the hike was wonderful.
One of the parks biggest attractions is the going-to-the-sun road, which runs from Apgar, through Logan Pass (the high point which supposedly has some wonderful views), and back down into east Glacier. A part of the road was shut down on the west side of Logan pass, so we couldn’t get all the way up there from this side, but we drove it as far as we could. The road winds along the rugged peaks, providing some gorgeous views of the many glacial valleys. The road is narrow and windy, but it is worth doing if your there. We are told Logan pass is quite beautiful, though we never made it up there ourselves. If your not so comfortable driving it yourself, they offer tours in these wild looking cars that have big windows and a canvas roof that can be rolled back. They looked like good fun.
We only had one day to spend in this part of the park, so we did not get to do many of the activities that are available there. They have boat tours, horseback trail rides, and car tours up to Logan pass. Further west there are numerous lakes with more primitive camp grounds reachable only by dirt road or trail. Much of the northern section of the park is meant for backpacking and can only be reached by trail.
The Apgar Lake McDonald area of western glacier is without a doubt the day trippers and drivers part of the park. There are numerous activities that can be done without having to do much walking and the area has by far the worst traffic in the park. It also houses the main visitor center. Despite the crowds, there were numerous wonderful walking trails available, and the area was still absolutely gorgeous. It is well worth a visit.