Come to Glacier National Park for the views, and stay for the fascinating history, science, and nature that make up this Montana jewel.
When non-Montanans think of national parks, it’s typically Yellowstone taking the limelight. Today, that’s mostly thanks to a little tv series called – you guessed it – Yellowstone.
In reality, the vastness of Yellowstone National Park resides mostly in Wyoming, as does Grand Teton National Park. But Glacier, believe it or not, is the only national park that solely resides in Montana. And if that’s peaked your curiosity, then you’re in the right place.
10. The Park’s Largest Glacier is Almost a Full Square Mile
Nature enthusiasts flock to Glacier National Park every year hoping to see these enormous icy wonders before they’re gone. Ironically, Glacier National Park isn’t exactly the best place to see an active glacier.
But don’t fret: There are 26 glaciers present in the national park. And of them all, Blackfoot Glacier is the largest glacier in the park at 0.7 square miles, the National Park Service (NPS) cites. Glaciers like Blackfoot shaped this entire landscape, and eventually gave the park its name. In doing so, they left behind:
- 175 mountains
- 762 lakes
- 200 waterfalls
- 2,865+ miles of streams
As far as those 26 glaciers are concerned, however, you may want to hurry to see them.
9. Glacier National Park’s Ice is Retreating – And Fast
Like all glaciers in the park and worldwide, Blackfoot is rapidly shrinking. Climate change (see: a rapidly warming planet) is causing these mammoth swaths of ice to recede.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, all glaciers could disappear by the end of this century. In 1850, there were 80 glaciers identified in the park. Today, only 32 remain, to give you an idea of how fast they’re disappearing.
Some of this is due to the natural cycles of the Earth. The effects of the last major Ice Age linger on, after all. In fact, that time period, the Pleistocene Epoch (some 12,000 years ago), is when Glacier National Park’s geology was being formed into the shapes we know today.
The glaciers you’ll see presently, however, only date back around 6,500 years.
8. The Park’s Wildlife has Remained Nearly Unchanged Since Prehistoric Times
Yet through all that time, the DOI states that “Glacier’s wildlife has hardly changed since it was first discovered.”
The majority of species found in Glacier today are also found in the fossil record; some dating back millions of years. Much of what makes this land unique, like the Continental Divide, has allowed Glacier’s ecosystem to remain intact, undisturbed, and constant for millennia. This has allowed thousands of animal and plant species to thrive here alongside.
Much more recently, Glacier’s animals also received early protection and managed to survive European settlers, which is no small feat. Today, Glacier National Park is home to:
- 71 mammal species
- 276 bird species
- 24 fish species
- 1,990 plant species
And those are just the ones we know about! Chances are, Glacier is still hiding some remarkable secrets.
7. Glacier’s Extreme Weather is Due to the Continental Divide
From extreme temperature fluctuations to rapidly-developing storms, the weather in Glacier is remarkable. And it’s all due to the Continental Divide’s (a naturally occurring boundary or ridge separating a continent’s river systems) effects on the park.
In Glacier, the Pacific and Arctic air systems clash along the Continental Divide. This can create some truly wicked thunderstorms and snowstorms. Most notably, it can drop the temperature by 100 degrees in a single day. If you can survive here, you can survive anywhere. Which is, surely, why so many prehistoric species continue to thrive in Glacier today.
And year round, it can be hot during the day but freezing at night. If there’s one solid piece of advice for visiting Glacier? Dress in layers.
6. You Can Cross The Continental Divide on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, But There’s a Catch
Want to see the Continental Divide for yourself? There’s no better way to do so than Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. That is, unless you arrive in the park in fall, winter, or spring.
For the majority of the year, Going-to-the-Sun road is closed due to heavy snowfall. Typically, it will open in July for the busy summer season. And when it does, visitors flock to the 50-mile-long stretch. There, you’ll see unbelievable vistas peppered with waterfalls, dramatic glacier-carved mountains, and everything in-between.
Going-to-the-Sun Road also offers access to a lot of Glacier’s trailheads, three visitor centers, and campgrounds; a few bonuses along one of America’s best scenic drives.
5. Glacier National Park Hosts Over 700 Miles of Hiking Trails
Speaking of trails, Glacier has you covered. If driving for sight-seeing isn’t your thing, take to one of Glaicer’s 158 hiking trails that wind through the park.
Much of the national park’s beauty is hidden from drivers. Nature’s true beauty is off the beaten path, after all, as any Outsider will tell you. And Glacier makes it easy for hikers of all skill levels to enjoy the park. Trail systems offer backpacking lengths, short & non-strenuous walks, and everything in-between.
You can also use these trails to access excellent fishing and skiing spots. And for the bikers out there, plenty of bike trails abound in Glacier, too.
4. This is Bearhat Mountain
If you’re just getting to know the area, chances are you keep seeing photos of this incredible natural monument. This is Bearhat Mountain, the crown jewel of Glacier National Park.
Standing at an elevation of 8,689 feet (or 2,648 meters), Bearhat Mountain stands as part of Montana’s Lewis Range of mountains. Bearhat can be seen immediately west of Hidden Lake, and is a sight millions of tourists flock to every year.
As for the mountain’s name, Bearhat came in honor of a Kootenai Indigenous American. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names adopted the title in 1932.
Fascinatingly, the unique Mountain is an enormous chunk of sedimentary rock that dates all the way back to the Precambrian era. Around 170 million years ago, a fault line forced this gigantic slab of pushed an enormous slab of ancient rock upwards, resulting in the unique shape we see today.
3. Glacier’s Human History Dates back Over 12,000 Years
For thousands of years, humans have lived under the shadow of what we now call Bearhart Mountain. In fact, archaeological evidence pushes human occupation of Glacier’s landscape right back to the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago.
At the time, the massive sheets of ice that covered this landscape began to retreat, carving out massive valleys. And when the glaciers were gone, humanity moved in. Millions of us enjoy it as a national park to this day. But many of the long-standing peoples who’ve lived on Glaciers’ lands are very much present, not historic.
Today, Glacier holds great significance to the Indigenous Tribes of the Blackfeet, Kootenai, and Salish. The park honors them through the Native America Speaks program, in which members of these tribes – alongside the Pend d’Oreille Tribe, speak on their culture, history, and bond with the lands of Glacier.
2. The Blackfeet Tribe Sold Glacier National Park’s Land to the U.S. Government for Public Use
The Indigenous Tribe most connected to Glacier’s story as a U.S. National Park, however, is the Blackfeet. Glacier National Park would not exist if not for this Indigenous Peoples.
In 1985, the Blackfeet Tribe sold the western portion of their U.S.-mandated reservation to the government. In their agreement, the tribe still had the rights to continue use of the land as they had for thousands of years. The U.S. Government agreed, but only under the terms that the land was “public” for all.
Once Glacier was designated a national park, of course, this “public” usage went away. The government revoked the Blackfeet Tribe’s rights to use the land, and began charging entry to visitors in order to preserve it as “wild.”
1. Glacier is One of America’s First National Parks
When it comes to the National Park Service we know today, Glacier National Park is one of the oldest in America. When President William Taft signed the bill into law establishing the park, Glacier capped off the original 10 as the 10th U.S. National Park on May 11, 1910.
To this day, Glacier preserves an astounding 1 million acres of Montana. And it does so not only as a national park, but as part of one of the world’s first international peace parks, too.
In addition, Glacier National Park is also:
- An International Dark Sky Park
- Home to six National Historic Landmarks
- The world’s first Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park
- Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
Want to know more of this incredible time in U.S. history? Be sure to check out An Outsider’s Quick History of the National Park Service next.