Its over 1 million acres contain 730 miles of trails which lead away from roads into vast forests, expansive meadows, fish-rich lakes, soaring peaks, magnificent waterfalls, and the namesake glaciers. Native Americans have utilized this area for over 11,000 years! Over 250 lakes are within the park, the largest of which, Lake McDonald, is 11 miles long.
Of the estimated 800 grizzly bears which populate the lower 48 states, 200 live within the boundaries of Glacier NP, along with 500 black bears and a growing population of mountain lions, also known as pumas or cougars. Also abundant are marmots, deer, bighorn sheep, moose, mountain goats, wolves, bald eagles, elk, beaver, pike, river otter, and squirrels.
Free backcountry permits (as of 1997) are required and may be picked up at the Many Glacier Ranger Station or the St. Mary or Apgar Visitor Centers. Backcountry sites can be reserved in advance for a $20 fee per trip. Backcountry campgrounds have from 2 to 8 sites each and backpackers are limited to trips up to 6 nights in length at one location, and 14 days maximum in the backcountry. The Nyack/Coal Creek Camping Zone allows at-large camping if you prefer more solitude and freedom. However, long creek fords are required to reach this area.
The Belly River Trail starts at the Chief Mountain trailhead, just a couple hundred yards from the USA/Canada border. The trail first proceeds through a lovely forest before winding down a dozen or more switchbacks as it descends 800 feet to the Belly River valley. Nearing the bottom of the series of switchbacks, Scott (foreground) and Len have a panorama before them of the Belly River and the pair of canyons which diverge from it four more miles upstream. To the left is the valley containing Elizabeth Lake and, beyond it, Helen Lake. The valley to the right contains Cosley Lake, Glenns Lake, and Mokowanis Lake. The trail after the 800 foot elevation loss is basically level (other than climbing and descending small ridges.)
Make certain you take the spur trail about .2 of a mile to Dawn Mist Falls. You can hear the thunder as you approach. Here Scott pensively enjoys our brief rest stop. The trail then climbs sharply and you quickly reach the summit of the falls.
Len crosses the swinging bridge over the river. It is limited to one hiker at a time, and as you can see from Len holding on to the wire rails, the bridge does indeed swing. These bridges are removed for the winter because the huge spring snowmelt sends floods of water down the rivers which would wipe out fixed bridges, so one end of each swinging bridge is detached and the entire bridgeworks is stored on one side of the river until the next hiking season.
Magnificent Elizabeth Lake is well worth the 10 mile hike into the wilderness. You get your first glimpse of the lake in the photo below, peeking through the trees beyond the red fireweed plants.
The campsites at Elizabeth Lake are also among the best in the valley, each being more secluded and private than the other campgrounds we stayed at. The food preparation area is quite unique. The Park Service (actually backcountry Ranger Steve who happened to be camping the night we were there) devised a method to foil the flying squirrels which live in this area and which had been gliding down from above onto the suspended food packs, clawing them open, and then getting the food after it fell to the ground. Of course, bears and other critters were also coming to enjoy this largesse. Steve's solution was large paint buckets (numbered by campsite number) into which your food is placed, its lid fastened tightly by a bike inner tube, and then hoisted up onto the bear pole.
Below, Len and Scott enjoy quiet time at the lakeshore. We all watched a loon cavorting on the water as it tried to go into flight mode, its feet slapping at the water.
Ptarmigan Tunnel was blasted out in the early 1900s to shorten the route used by horse tours from Many Glacier Lodge which had been forced to travel over Redgap Pass.
Below is Elizabeth Lake as seen from Ptarmigan Tunnel, 2300 feet above the lake and a five mile hike from our campsite below.
- Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park : A Complete Recreation Guide by Vicky Spring; The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA; 1994, 256 pages.
- Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks by Erik Molvar; Falcon Press, Helena, MT; 1994; 192 pages.