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Magnificent vistas - and maybe some bears - await at Glacier National Park

By: Geoffrey Norman The Weekly Standard
August 7, 2016 Updated: August 7, 2016 at 4:15 am
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Hikers walk along Haystack Creek toward the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park Sunday, July 3, 2016. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

The sign at the trailhead warns hikers that they are entering bear country. Which causes one to think, "Well, of course it is."

It would be impossible to imagine this country without bears - both grizzlies and the lesser, but still formidable black bear. Nor could you imagine this country without wolves. They were gone for a while, but they are back now, north of the place where I am hiking but still inside the boundary of Glacier National Park's more than 1 million acres. Mountain lions are here, too.

There are other, less dangerous but still magnificent animals. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Wolverines. Elk. Moose. The country in Montana is as big and wild as it gets in the Lower 48, so the big, wild animals are here. And you don't need a printed sign to inform you of this fact. You sense it.

I did, at any rate, when I started out on my little hike - the point of which was not to get a look at a bear (though I wouldn't have minded) but merely to get off the road and back into the country where, a ranger had told me, I would find a picturesque beaver pond and a lovely meadow with seasonal wildflowers coming into bloom. A big animal would be a bonus.

But there is a larger purpose in visiting Glacier and that is to experience and absorb country that, even in the epoch of reason and science, strikes one as sacred.

Even if you are not inclined to spiritual, pantheistic meditations on the shape of the land, you still will be seduced by this place. There are, to begin with, the glaciers themselves. There were more than 150 in 1850. Today there are 25, and in another couple of decades, they might all be gone.

You still can get close to some of the glaciers and see the trail of scree that was ground and scoured from rock by the tremendous pressure at the base of these massive formations of ice. And, of course, there are the glacier lakes with the unmistakable blue color. This is caused by the suspended glacial sediment, called "rock flour," that absorbs the other colors of the spectrum and brings up this striking hue.

Park designated in 1910

The magnificence of this place - mountains, lakes, expansive plains - would have been hard for settlers pressing west to miss. And after the early attempts at mining and trapping, it inevitably became a destination. The impulse to save it is credited to George Bird Grinnell, a celebrated explorer, naturalist and writer. Also a very lucky man. He had accompanied George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry on their 1874 mission to the Black Hills, but turned down the offer to join in the 1876 ride to the Little Big Horn.

Grinnell's efforts led to a formal designation of Glacier National Park in 1910, six years before the creation of the National Park Service. The Great Northern Railway then began building hotels and amenities, some of which have been preserved and are quite charming. Its status as a park has preserved this land, but that does not mean it is inaccessible. You can experience much of it from your car, SUV, camper or bicycle. In fact, the highlight of many visits is a drive across the waist of the park on something called the Going to the Sun Road.

It was blasted and carved from the hard earth back in the 1920s. There is a mountain of the same name along the way, but people who have made the drive say that under the right conditions you might feel like you are driving into the sun. I couldn't say, because the season was early and the road was not opened for its entire length when I was there. So I missed some of the spectacular views, the waterfalls, the vast stands of old-growth hemlock and cedar, and the white-knuckle drop-offs and harrowing curves.

The cleared road hadn't yet reached Logan Pass and the divide where some water runs down to the Gulf of Mexico and some to the Pacific. So I drove, instead, as far as I could go from either end of the road, and the views were sufficiently spectacular that I didn't feel sorry for myself. I would get to Logan Pass another day. For now, I went to an area known as Many Glacier and found a pullout and a well-marked trail up the face of a relatively tame mountain. I'd been told I could get a look at some mountain goats here and, in fact, I did.

Give it a month - if you can

The park is not only large and various but also inviting. There are streams to fish, rivers to raft, mountains to climb, lakes to kayak, trails to hike. John Muir, the co-founder of the Sierra Club, put it like this: Give a month at least to the precious preserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.

Most of us don't have a month to spare. Immortality will have to wait. But I did have the afternoon for hiking down that trail where I was reminded to be alert for bears. The walk gives a sense of the vitality of this place. This area had burned a year or so earlier. It was a great fire, covering thousand of acres. Fire did for this piece of the park what ice had done, centuries earlier. That is: transformed it.

The flames had killed lodgepole, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, and the scorched, dead trunks of the trees still were standing, sort of mournfully. But the meadow grasses - hard fescue, mountain bromegrass and beardless wheatgrass - already had come back where the ground had been burned black. The grass was green, thick and healthy.

Things are never static here. The glaciers are ceaselessly grinding rock. The forests are burning, then greening. The rivers carving new channels and building new banks.

I reached the beaver pond, and it was barren. No big animal. Not even a beaver. I went on until I'd gone 3 miles, then turned around and went back the way I had come. The light had changed, and everything looked different. More proof that this place is alive.

I was in that vague dreamy state that comes over you when you have walked a ways and are in a rhythm and something like a trance. Then a lodgepole branch snapped. Loud and close.

My first thought was "grizzly." I went from dreamy to full alert. But it was merely an elk. A small cow, more alarmed, even, than I.

So I departed Glacier National Park without having seen a bear or driving the whole 50 miles of Going to the Sun Road.

Next time ... the full month.

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This story, which has been edited for length, is reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard.

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