Though less exalted in the popular imagination than Yosemite or Yellowstone, Glacier National Park is the favorite of many national parks enthusiasts.
I recently traveled there to discover why. Within a minute I had the answer: The place is staggeringly beautiful.
Pulling into an overlook above St. Mary Lake a dazzling blue expanse contained by a bowl of snow-topped mountains I marveled that my parents didn't indulge my childhood longings for Switzerland by simply driving me to northwest Montana.
Straddling a cool million acres on the U.S.-Canadian border, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is a topographical paradise. It has it all: soaring peaks, deep cobalt lakes, sloping meadows bursting with wildflowers, primeval waterfalls, native prairies and bogs, cedar/hemlock forests and, of course, glaciers.
Receding year by year, the massive ice formations are amazing to behold, especially in the middle of summer. Near the snout of one they impress you as living things I was assaulted to the bone by a freezing wind from a glacial hollow, a chilling counterpart to Yellowstone's boiling hot springs at Montana's opposite border. Having experienced both phenomena within a few days put me in mind of Robert Frost's famous poem.
Unlike the poet, I held with those who favor ice.
In the lap of luxury
Glacier and its environs boast a variety of tourist accommodations, from expensive hotels to backcountry camping. Though hotel life has its charms, chief among them a warm shower after a brisk hike, the best way to experience Glacier is by sleeping outdoors.
Primitive camping may not strike your fancy it didn't mine until you throw open your tent flap to a vermilion sun creeping up the side of a perfect isosceles mountain. Nothing can match the luxury of that. And no double latte supreme can rival a mug of coffee freshly brewed over a roaring campfire.
Camping at Glacier runs the gamut from modern sites with running water, flush toilets, tent pads and ready-made fire rings for $15 per night to primitive sites, accessible only by a long hike and with a backcountry permit, which is free.
A backcountry permit gives you wonderful access to areas off the beaten path, but if staying overnight in the backcountry gives you a fright (the place is teeming with wildlife) or if the price of good, lightweight camping gear is beyond your budget, you can always sleep in one of the group campgrounds and avail yourself by day of the park's 700 miles of hiking trails.
If walking around Eden isn't an option, you can spend an afternoon driving on one of the 20th century's marvels of engineering.
The main artery through Glacier, Going-to-the-Sun Road, is a manmade wonder that inspires as much awe as the natural wonders lining its path.
The east-west route twists and spirals for 50 miles up and down, around and through mountains, snaking over the Continental Divide and connecting the park's east entrance at St. Mary to park headquarters at West Glacier.
The road, completed in 1932 and now a National Historic Landmark, took 11 years to build and changed the face of the park, giving access to Glacier's inner reaches.
Some points of interest on the road are:
l Logan Pass, an Alpine oasis with a yellow, crimson and purple carpet of wildflowers, grazing mountain sheep, grizzly and black bears and other wildlife. I was delighted to see a rare ptarmigan here, a sand-colored arctic bird with feathered feet that nests on the ground and turns snowy white in winter.
l Weeping Wall, a curtain of icy water that cascades onto the road.
l Bird Woman Falls, a steeper, more dramatic version of the park's myriad waterfalls.
While Going-to-the-Sun Road is astoundingly gorgeous, its steep grades and blind curves can be very dangerous.
My second day there, a 31-year-old cyclist lost control of his bike and plummeted to his death off the side of a mountain near Triple Arches. The road, no stranger to such accidents, had to be closed for several hours while park rangers recovered his body.
Because of the road's hazards, vehicles longer than 21 feet or wider than 8 feet are banned from the steepest sections.
The road also closes unexpectedly, even during summer, because of snow. From October to mid-June, it's closed altogether.
A big part of Glacier's appeal is its remoteness, which also seems to account for its relative lack, though not complete absence, of tourist traps.
The closest airports are at Kalispell, Mont., 30 miles from the park, and Great Falls, Mont., about 200 miles. If you have only a short vacation, flying maximizes the time you can spend at the park. However, if possible, driving is the best option.
A day's drive from Lawrence puts you in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. Another day puts you in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. From there, you're a short day from Glacier.
Driving back a northerly route, you can hit the Little Bighorn National Monument, Wyoming's Devil's Tower, South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands National Park, among other sites.
Glacier National Park is open all year. The blooms on the wildflowers are fading now, but fall colors will be at their peak in the next few weeks.