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Glacier National Park

December 18, 2017



If you ever find yourself traveling the barren plains of Montana, odds are you likely live in Montana or are heading to visit Glacier National Park.  Okay, maybe there's other things that go on in Montana, but seriously the eastern half was so plain! Probably because it's filled with lots of plains? See what I did there?!


Aside from the not so noteworthy section of eastern Montana, the further west you head, those flat farmlands quickly transition into rolling hills and eventually dramatic towering mountains. Those mountains I'm referring to are the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States. This northern section of the Rocky Mountains is home to Glacier National Park, which is a pristine spectacle of the U.S. National Parks system (and Canada!). 


It is one of the truest representations of what a National Park should be. Overall, it has not seen much development or destruction by human development, though it remains a perfect example of the ever changing climates, which may or may not have some human influence.  A park that was once known for its many glaciers, has had it's glacier size and population significantly reduced in the last 50 years. Reports about glaciers in the Glacier National Park area in the middle of the 1800's speak of about 150 active glaciers.  As of 2017, there are only  25-37ish glaciers remaining, depending on how a glacier is defined.


Did you know that by definition, a glacier is composed of about 25 acres of ice minimum to be considered a glacier? Any less than that and the ice is stagnant and thus not technically a glacier.  Cracking and fractures that appear in a glacier are testimony to that glacier's movement. 


It is sad to see that a National Park that was named after it's many glaciers soon will contain no glaciers, just the remains of them.  Scientists predict that all of the glaciers will permanently vanish by early 2030's.  To say climate change isn't happening is a blatant lie, there is clear evidence of this all around the world. I have seen examples of it in Glacier National Park,  Iceland's Jökulsárlón (an glacial iceberg lake), the glaciers of Torre's del Paine National Park in Chile, and even in my own backyard of Minnesota/Wisconsin.  What I cannot say is how much impact we are having on the environment, or whether or not this a cycle which is inevitable, and has occurred throughout our planet's lengthy history with climate change. 


Despite the saddening and inevitable loss of glaciers in Glacier National Park, the history of glaciers and what they do will be present in the park for a very, very long time.  How is this possible?  Well the writing is on the mountains, so to say. Glaciers have carved a beautiful landscape here over a very drawn out period of time.  You can look at the various valleys, moraines, horns, cirques, paternoster lakes, and more. All of which are directly related to glacier movement, deposits, and erosion. 


One fascinating thing that I discovered while researching Glacier National Park to compose this article, is what paternoster lakes are. I have never heard of the term before. Paternoster lakes are a series of small lakes that form in a specific direction, which are gradually lowering in that specific direction. They occur when glaciers dig away pocket's in the earth while they are retreating or melting.  I have noticed this pattern in many of my hiking adventures, but have never put the clues together. It really was a "Aha" moment for me! You learn something new every day! The next time you are hiking in a glacier carved mountainous region, keep an eye out for this! Below is actually a picture example that I unintentionally took. I did not realize what it was at the time. This was taken from top of the Grinnell Glacier trail. 



Aside from the geological history of the Glacier National Park,  it wasn't a national park of the United States until 1910. It was the 10th national park established in the country.  It was nicknamed the Crown of the Continent, and its immediately apparent why this region was given that nickname. The park overall is very immense.  It is approximately 1,012,837 acres, or just under 1,600 square miles! That is huge!


I'm not going to spend too much time blabbing about the history details and park development as there are great sources of information that are far more extensive than I could ever describe or explain in this article.  I would recommend anyone who is interested in traveling to this park, or learning about it to watch a free educational video on it that can be located on the Montana PBS website by clicking this link here.


It is really a great comprehensive video about the park, and its history, with some really great videos from the park itself. A perfect resource for those looking to travel here and get more detailed information.  You can also visit the park's website by clicking the link provided here. This will also have lots of great information on the park details. 


My Journey to Glacier National Park


The idea to visit this beautiful national park was born in the middle of 2017. I have always wanted to visit this hiking mecca and finally made plans to visit it for my first time, but surely not last time! I decided to make this trip into a road trip. It seemed to be the easiest option since I live only two states away, though the distance between Minneapolis, MN and Glacier National Park is over 1,000 miles, and 17 hours of driving!


The goal was to visit GNP right after Labor Day weekend as this would likely cut down on some of the tourist population in the area. I always like to try to visit destinations when they are not in the peak of the tourism season.  Prices, accommodation availability, and lack of a crowd occur when you go in the "off" season.  


I was not to go on this adventure alone, as seems to be the usual for a lot of my adventures. I was joined by a friend that I knew from a law enforcement academy in South Dakota. We may or may not have made a tradition of a yearly adventure, as this was our second road trip to a national park in as many years.  Our first adventure being a trip to Grand Teton National Park, which is another one of my favorite parks in the United States!


We met up in the middle of North Dakota, and drove through the barren oil fields of the western portions of the state until entering the continuous plains of Montana. The long hours of driving through the plains was well worth it once we reached GNP though.  


Despite this being an awesome trip, there was a damper that was put on this adventure. This was due to the Sprague Fire of 2017.  This was a fire that reportedly began on August 10th (my birthday coincidentally), and had not been considered fully contained until November 1st. That's a long time for a fire to burn, and a lot of acreage that will be scarred by the fire for a long time to come.  It is estimated that nearly 17,000 acres of GNP had been affected by this fire.  Along with some very historic structures built in the early 1900s that burned down.  Unfortunately, this is not a uncommon event to occur in GNP or the mountains in general.  Between natural causes and human initiated, fires like these occur in alpine regions due to the dry climate with ample fire fuel (brush, dead trees, etc).  


I have to admit, this had crushed my spirit at the beginning of the trip, and I had lost a lot of desire for hiking and photography. It was tough to find inspiration for photos or hiking when smoke blanketed all of the mountains, valleys, and lakes. Visibility was poor most days, and the air quality was just the same.  Even through the visibility was poor due to smoke, there was still much beauty to be seen. It just took getting out on the first trail to restore my faith in adventuring and continue to take photographs of amazing landscapes.  Mother Nature and it's constant changing weather pattern seemed to work to our advantage though, as we were given a few smoke free days. At last, my camera could see some action! I've never been more happier for wind than I was on this trip!


Just as a reminder, whenever you are in a fire risk area, always be cautious of your fires, cigarettes, cigars, cooking stoves, or anything else you have that could start a fire. As Smokey the Bear says, "Only you can prevent forest fires". Which isn't exactly true, but still you get the point, right? 


Hiking at Glacier National Park


Hiking these beautiful mountain paths was my biggest inspiration for traveling to Glacier National Park. It's got some of the best hiking trails in the United States, and overall has around 700+ miles of trail.  Who wouldn't want to hike here? The possibilities are endless! I estimate I hiked around 35-45 miles during my stay here, so essentially, I barely scratched even a miniscule surface of the hiking trails scattered throughout the park.