As your car climbs the narrow, winding Going-to-the-Sun Road past cascading waterfalls and fearless mountain goats, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place than Glacier National Park. Situated in Northwestern Montana along the U.S.-Canadian border, Glacier’s one million plus acres is made up of stunning mountain peaks and glacial-carved valleys that are home to a wide variety of plants and wildlife. A network of trails lead hikers through 700 miles of rugged terrain from sub-alpine tundra to dense forests in a land shaped by glaciers that will soon be gone.
Glacier National Park is a photographer’s dream with easy access by road to spectacular sights and countless trails to carry the more adventurous to hidden delights. A single road crosses the heart of the park and this fifty mile stretch is often described as “one of the most spectacular drives in the world”. Indeed, the Going-to-the-Sun Road carries park visitors to dizzying heights along a narrow road dwarfed by the towering peaks into which it was carved. Numerous pull-outs and trailheads along the road give visitors a chance to photograph this amazing scenery, both from the comfort of their car or along trails that lead through fields of wildflowers to thundering waterfalls and iceberg-filled lakes.
Though the park is open year round, access for most occurs during the summer when the park becomes the most crowded. Obtaining backcountry permits can be difficult at this time so I would recommend doing some planning ahead if your aim is to take advantage of the incredible backpacking in Glacier National Park. It’s easy to get spoiled with such incredible scenery accessible from the road, but Glacier is a park best appreciated along the trails that truly highlight the wonders of one of America’s greatest parks.
There are a few options for lodging within the park and a variety of campsites from which to explore Glacier. From either side of the park you can access unique photographic opportunities, but plan on doing some driving. I usually find myself driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road several times a day, at sunrise and sunset for photo ops and during the day when I’m hiking trails and scouting new locations. At either end, the road passes through several miles of lowland forests where photographers can find intimate forest scenes akin to the Pacific Northwest. Rivers and creeks tumble through tight ravines and feed bountiful forests where a wide variety of wildflowers andwildlife can be found.
The beauty of the Going-to-the-Sun Road for me lies not only in the surrounding scenery, but the fact that the road is so narrow and with so few-pull outs once it starts climbing the seemingly endless stream of cars is forced to just keep on going. Thankfully, this is not a park where you can abandon your car in the middle of the road and go chasing mountain goats with your camera. Once you begin the climb to Logan Pass, the road is so narrow, seemingly hanging off a precarious cliff, that some people simply can’t stomach the drive. For those who would prefer not to drive or simply want to sit back and savor the views, Glacier Park Inc offers a network of brightly-painted, 17-passenger convertible touring buses called Red Buses. There is also a shuttle service operated by the park system that provides two-way service along Going-to-the-Sun Road between the Apgar Transit Center and St. Mary Visitor Center with buses running every 15 to 30 minutes between most of the popular spots along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
There are several bends along the Going-to-the-Sun Road with large pullouts usually filled by cars in the summer. The highlights of these pullouts are invariably the waterfalls which tumble from distant heights, beneath the road and down to the valley below. These waterfalls present some great opportunities for unique and wonderful perspectives if you take the time to venture beyond the road. I often find myself highlighting these waterfalls when I’m forced to photograph from the road during the middle of the day. Though Glacier may be best known for its impressive peaks, abundant wildlife, or vanishing glaciers, the abundance of flowing water, whether it be small cascades or thundering waterfalls, is always a highlight for me when photographing Glacier National Park.
From Lake McDonald the Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs 3000 feet to Logan Pass where a visitor center is open during the summer season. There are two very popular trails that depart from Logan Pass. The Hidden Lake Trail is a 1.5 mile boardwalk trail that carries visitors through fields of colorful wildflowers in the summer to a platform that overlooks Hidden Lake. This is a great area for encountering mountain goats, marmots and ptarmigan, but please respect park regulations and do not feed or approach wildlife. You’re also likely to spot mountain goats at the start of The Highline Trail which also departs from Logan Pass and leads hikers through twisted pines and alpine meadows along a trail carved into a sheer cliff above the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Not all of the photo opportunities in Glacier are situated along the park’s main road. One of my favorite areas of the park is Many Glacier, a dramatic glacial valley where a Swiss-style chalet was built in 1915 called the Many Glacier Hotel. Some excellent hiking trails depart from this area of the park leading to destinations such as Grinnel Glacier, Iceberg Lake and the Ptarmigan Tunnel. Camping in this area is limited to Many Glacier Campground which makes an excellent base for exploring the trails that lead to numerous lakes and waterfalls, as well as fantastic views of the surrounding peaks of the Lewis Range.
Glacier National Park is a land of superlatives where the forces of nature can be seen in the ice-carved mountains and the valleys that moose and grizzly bears call home. The terrain appears both rugged and raw while supporting a delicate and fragile ecosystem that survives under extreme weather conditions and the heavy hand of man. It’s a park appreciated by young and old, from behind bug-splattered windshields to awe-inspiring trails. It’s a place where postcard-perfect views appear around every corner and the only limitation to what you can capture is what your feet can carry you to see. So pack your bags and bottle your anticipation because you’re gonna need every bit of that energy to discover all the wonders found in Montana’s Glacier National Park.