Visiting Glacier National Park in the Off Season

 

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As a birthday gift in 2015, a good friend of mine gave me the 2016 Centennial Edition of the Passport to Your National Parks® book and I decided one of my new missions in life was to fill it with stamps.

I still have a ways to go with covering every page, but in October 2016 I took my second solo cross-country trip and knocked out a few of them. One of the more memorable ones was Glacier National Park.


This is apart of my U.S. National Parks Series of posts. If you have your own story to share about Glacier, leave a comment or contact me! I’d love to hear about your experiences 🙂


About Glacier National Park

Located in northern Montana and bordering the Canadian Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, Glacier National Park encompasses over 1 million acres (4,000km²) and includes parts of two mountain ranges. It was established as a National Park on May 11, 1910.

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Glacier has 130 named lakes, is home to hundreds of species of animals (some endangered) and over a thousand species of plants. It was also home to many Native American tribes who took advantage of these natural resources as far back as 10,000+ years ago.

The parks’ landscape is covered in mountains, which were formed by glacial activity from the last ice age, leaving us the giant, jagged peaks we see today. There were an estimated 150 glaciers in the park during the mid-19th century and as of 2010, there are only 25 left. It’s estimated that by 2030, the park may have zero glaciers left if current climate patterns continue.

Glacier is also the world’s first International Peace Park in association with Waterton National Park in Canada. The two are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and have been best friends since 1932.

Planning Your Off-Season Visit

Glacier is a gorgeous park, no matter the season and it’s still a popular destination from Fall through the short-lived Spring. I visited during the second-to-last week of October for a couple of days.

The Bend

My first mistake was forgoing the proper amount of research so when I showed up in St. Mary on the East side of the park, I expected to find a campground, an open ranger station to get my stamp, or access to the ever-winding Going to the Sun Road…

Nope None of those amenities were available.

Seasonal road work had Going to the Sun closed, the St. Mary Visitor’s Center was deserted for the season and the only accessible campground was on the complete opposite end of the park. This brings me to my first tip:

Know the Seasonal Closings

By the end of September, all lodgings inside the park are unavailable along with many other services so it’s important to bring your own food into the park.

Many of the resort towns that dot the outskirts of the park are also closed so if you’re not a cold weather camper or you don’t want to sleep in your car, be sure to call local hotels before stopping by, only to find the lights off and the windows boarded up.

By November 1, the St. Mary and Apgar campgrounds are the only open campgrounds. They revert to a primitive state (no running water, no flush toilets), are first come first serve (which isn’t usually a problem), and are half-price.

Here’s the 2017 list of closing times for various services etc.:

  • Going to the Sun Road has sections open all year but closings can happen during inclement weather. During my visit, the East portion was blocked the entrance and the West end was closed to all vehicles except park workers, bicycles, and foot traffic at Avalanche Creek Picnic Area (14.6 miles from Apgar Visitor Center.) Click here to check current road closures.
  • Apgar Backcountry Permit Office closed November 1
  • Apgar Nature Center closed August 28
  • Apgar Visitor Center closed November 6
  • Logan Pass Visitor Center closed October 1
  • Many Glacier Ranger Station closed September 29
  • Park Headquarters open 8am-4:30pm year-round, closed for lunch from 12-12:30pm in the off season
  • Polebridge Ranger Station closed September 17
  • St. Mary Visitor Center closed October 9 (backcountry permit office closed October 13
  • Two Medicine Ranger Station closed September 29

All of these closings are subject to change each year and are available here.

Beware the Wildlife

As stated above, the wildlife in Glacier is diverse but not all of its creatures are cute and cuddly (never cuddle a wild animal, ya dingus.)

During Autumn, it’s important to remember that many animals are preparing for the impending White Walker invasion and are territorial and on high alert.

NEVER APPROACH WILD ANIMALS.

Always keep your distance. Many animals carry diseases, some view you as a threat, and others might see you as a quick and easy meal, especially if you’re traveling alone.

Bears

These guys usually hibernate from December to May but if you’re visiting during Fall, you should absolutely have a can of bear spray on you at all times. Many females are searching for food, which may be scarce (making them hungry) and pregnant (making them ridiculously territorial). Bear spray may not prevent a bear attack and in some cases will actually make the bear angrier, but it’s your best bet to, y’know… not die when a bear wants to destroy you.

You should also have bear bells hanging from your pack to alert any bears of your presence before rounding a corner and startling one.

The park has two species: Black (the smaller guys) and Grizzly (the big, brown ones). It can sometimes be hard to distinguish which is which because their colors can sometimes look very similar. As the old saying goes, a quick way to figure out which one you’re looking at is to climb a tree. If it follows you, it’s a Black bear. If it knocks the tree down, it’s a Grizzly. (Only joking. Don’t climb a tree).

There’s a lot of different advice out there on what to do if you encounter a bear. From my understanding, you should initially make yourself as tall as possible and make as much noise as possible while backing away slowly. This may make the bear a little weary of you and think twice before potentially getting hurt in a scuffle.

If the bear charges, DO NOT RUN. Prey runs. In many cases, an initial charge is a scare tactic. Back away slowly and make a mean face while you’re at it. The bear won’t understand, but you’ll look cool. If the bear doesn’t stop, there’s no point in running. It will catch you so get ready; It’s time to fight.

Some folks say you should fight with all your might against a Black bear while once you’re knocked down by a Grizzly, you should play dead. Apparently, a Grizzly will gnaw on you for a bit and get bored while a Black bear will just keep chewing. Either way, your odds of surviving at this point are very slim.

For further reading about bears, here’s some nightmare fuel about fatal bear attacks in North America if you’re interested. But seriously, if you’re worried about encountering bears on your hikes through Glacier, find a hiking buddy. I met lots of solo travelers during my trip and most were more than happy to talk. I never asked them to join me on a hike but there’s no doubt they would have been all for it. Bears are less inclined to take on two foes at once.

Mountain Lions

They live in the park too and don’t hibernate. Mountain Lions are generally shy and avoid humans, but if you spot one, make lots of noise and look as tall as possible. If it attacks, your bear spray will be effective but a hiking stick is also a good thing to have around. You can use it to poke the tender spots like the eyes.

Elk

These guys are like Whitetail Deer, but much, much larger. If you spot one, keep your distance (at least 75 feet / 25 yards). They usually don’t attack, but you do not want to get into a scuffle with those razor-sharp hooves and pointy antlers.

Click here for more information on wildlife safety in Glacier National Park.

My Experience

As I said before, I was woefully underprepared for my trip to Glacier but I adapted and it ended up being a wonderful time. I had all the food I needed, I was happy to sleep in my car and I got a ton of fantastic shots with my camera during my two hikes.

A Quick Pit Stop

I want to highlight a small food truck I stopped by on my trek North. It was about 10am when I drove through Chester, Montana, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. It literally takes less than 30 seconds to drive through the place but there’s a little park on this strip of Route 2 that I noticed had a little food truck sitting in the parking lot. I stopped up by and to my luck, the middle-aged wife and husband were just opening up shop for the day.

The details are hazy but I’ll do my best to retell their story.

I got to talking to the delightful couple (I can’t remember their names), mostly sharing traveling stories and my past with the woman. She told me how she grew up an Army brat, always on the move from base to base. She did a bit of traveling as she grew up and after having a kid or two, her and her husband either ended up in or chose to stay in Chester.

Regardless of their situation, they opened up the food truck a short time ago and most days plop themselves in the park and sell their burgers, dogs and other classic American fare to locals and folks like me who are just passing through. I ordered a specialty burger. If you’re every passing through Chester, Montana, stop in and buy their stuff! It’s delicious.

Capture

 Back to Glacier

My second day in Glacier was by far the best. I heard Lake McDonald was beautiful so I drove up Going to the Sun Road and stopped to take pictures near the lake.

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As I drove, I parked at every trailhead and parking spot searching for the perfect hike and taking pictures of the massive peaks that surrounded me. The mountains were snowcapped, the trees had changed, and the silence was serene. Except near the river of course.

As stated above, the road was blocked at the Avalanche Creek Picnic Area. A bus full of schoolchildren was in the area and they were planning a hike on the only trail around.

I came for solitude and silence and unfortunately it was the only trailhead I saw in the area. The others I passed were far too long for the amount of time I had to hike and so I made the executive decision to just walk past the road block until I decided it was time to turn back.

Best idea I had that day.

I want to say I did a total of 10 miles but my phone didn’t have service and I didn’t bother to keep track. I just walked one way until my feet started to blister then turned around.

The silence was perfect. The cumulonimbi held fast. The isolation was unnerving at times.

I kept waiting for a bear to jump out from the underbrush and tell me only I could prevent forest fires. Every twist and turn in the road brought a new sight to my eyes that forced me to look up and gawk.

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If I had been driving, I would have missed countless small details (like unmarked trails) along the road, only had glimpses of peaks before they rushed by, and would have heard tunes I’d listened to a thousand times before instead of the occasional slight breeze, the rushing river to my left, and every so often, the sounds of solitude that I’ll never forget.

I saw some flora I’d never seen, a few birds, the occasional service vehicle (always sharing a wave with the drivers), and two cyclists, one of whom stopped to chat with me after his second passing. At first introductions, he was simply a cold cyclist with condensation hanging from his nose. He asked me how I was enjoying the park and mentioned he cruised the road nearly every day. I was surprised and asked him if he lived in the park to which he replied that yes, he did (living the life).

The next thing he said blew my mind. He used to be the park’s superintendent.

After I got home I looked him up and sure enough. his name was Chas Cartwright and he was the superintendent of Glacier National Park from 2008 to 2013. I’d never met a celebrity before.

When I returned to my car, my feet felt ready to fall off, I was hungry, and the parking lot was filled with vehicles. I drove on to my next adventure, happy that I had my own unique experience in Glacier and didn’t have to deal with the traffic that plagues the area during the Summer months.

It was a good day.

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