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Glacier National Park in 7 stops

By Peter Fish
Glacier National Park demands a chunk of time to explore.
Glacier National Park demands a chunk of time to explore.
  • The 50-mile east-west road across the park is a great introduction to Glacier
  • The winding two-lane Going-to-the-Sun road was cut from the mountains
  • The park's hotels seem like Edwardian fantasies of life in the wild

(Sunset) -- "Give a month at least to this precious reserve," said John Muir when he was trying to tell America how essential Glacier was. A month? Who has a month anymore? Our holidays are speed dates, quick hook-ups with the 1,000 places you need to see before you die.

But I learned within an hour that Glacier National Park isn't a place to rush through. When this 100-year-old talks -- with its century's worth of experiences -- you slow down. Even if you fight it ... at first. Like I did. But around every gauzy, unreal mountain lies an opportunity that might just change your life.

Stop 1: Browning

Montana's secret is that it's a foreign country. Or, more accurately, I feel like I am visiting from a foreign country. The state's original landlords were, after all, the Blackfeet Nation. Today Browning is their capital.

Here I get a latte from the tipi-style Big Lodge Espresso. And bunk down in a comfy tipi with fitted sheets at Darrell and Angelika Norman's Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village. Here I realize it's best to forget what I know, casting off my familiar surroundings. Darrell's a Blackfeet. Angelika, who is German, arrived as a visitor.

"The first time I saw the Rockies," she says, "I didn't want to leave. I was crying. And then I met Darrell. And here we are." Seeing Glacier

Stop 2: St. Mary

There is no summer vacation without pie. In Montana, in summer, the pie of choice is huckleberry, because huckleberries cover the state and in fact are exactly like Montana, being sweetly, extravagantly wild.

With the pie comes local color: three residents one booth over commenting on the weekly paper's account of a local man trampled by his pet moose.

"Did you hear about the moose?"

"People shouldn't raise moose."

"Moose need space."

And people need pie. Life needs pie. Pie is life, in pie form.

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Stop 3: Going-to-the-Sun

The 50-mile east-west road across the park is the preferred introduction to Glacier, the one park experience everyone must have. That doesn't mean driving up the Rockies and then down is a piece of cake.

The park service FAQ I read is straightforward: How scary and creepy is it to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road? Not creepy, I think, trying not to peer over the road's edge -- but scary, yeah. This two-lane road was cut from the mountains by imported Russian stonemasons, by engineers dangling over 1,000-foot cliffs. How did they do it? Why am I driving it?

Then, after the third switchback, I begin to forget to be afraid. On a slope, something regally horned: a bighorn sheep. Below, the entire North American continent.

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Stop 4: At the summit

At the top of Going-to-the-Sun, on the Continental Divide, I stand on the mountains the Blackfeet called "the backbone of the world." The trail runs north along that backbone, toward the park's highest peaks and the glaciers.

I get, suddenly, a sense of the planet as something both enduring and fragile. Maybe it's the ranger stationed at the trail's start, talking about how the warming Earth has affected her park.

"About 150 years ago, we had 150 glaciers. Now there are 25. There's nothing we can do. We can't wrap them up in insulation. But we're not changing the park's name. It's not going to be the Park Formerly Known as Glacier."

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Stop 5: Swiftcurrent Lake

For all its wildness, its 9,000-foot peaks and grizzly bears, Glacier is the most decorous of parks. Its hotels are Edwardian fantasies of life in the wild.

Graceful boats like Chief Two Guns and Morning Eagle have been plying its glacial lakes for nearly 70 years. Step aboard and you feel your day pack should be filled with tea sandwiches instead of Clif Bars. I look down to the water and find myself recalling every synonym for blue I've ever known: azure, cobalt, indigo, sky. All of them here.

Stop 6: Many Glacier Hotel

Many Glacier, the 95-year-old log hotel on the south shore of Swiftcurrent Lake, is, it turns out, the most romantic place on Earth.

I listen to the ranger giving the historic tour. She saw the hotel when she was 10, visiting from Seattle. She fell in love with its treehouse grandeur, the lobby with its Douglas fir pillars, the stone fireplace you gather around like a campfire. She vowed to return. She has, every summer, as a visitor, then as a waitress, now as a ranger. "I met my husband here."

Behind her, on the deck overlooking the lake, something is happening. A woman sits in one of the Adirondack chairs. A man kneels beside her. He opens a small, elegant box. "He's proposing," someone says. This is true. He offers a ring, the woman takes it, she is smiling and crying. They kiss. Now the man notices his audience. He stands up, he bows. Everyone applauds. Maybe at Glacier, love, like fir logs, is meant to endure.

Stop 7: Explore the trails

On my last day in the park, I hike in search of glaciers. At the start, I have ice on my mind. But I get distracted by everything that comes before it. The way the sun warms the mountainsides. The dazzle of wildflowers -- purple asters, glacier lilies, paintbrush.

I snap photos, knowing that when I show them to friends, they'll still say it's too beautiful to be true. They will, in fact, say that of every photo I've taken here. So insist: It's really like this. Insist that when they visit Glacier, it should be for a month.

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