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What is Glacier National Park?

By Ron Marr
Updated May 16, 2024
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Glacier National Park is a 1.4 million acre (566,560 ha) protected wilderness located in the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States. The park lies mostly in the state of Montana, but straddles the Canadian border into the province of Alberta. Glacier National Park features extremely rugged topography and cold temperatures. Glacier itself is open year-round, but because of excessive snowfall, most park services are only offered between May and September.

More than 50 active glaciers, 200 lakes, and nearly 750 miles (1,207 km) are the hallmarks of Glacier National Park. One of the most famous features of the park is the “Going-to-the-Sun Road,” a narrow and winding, 50 mile (80.4 km) east-to-west car path that cuts through the park. The road is usually navigable only from late June until mid-August due to heavy snowfall. Vehicles traveling this route must be less than 21 feet (6.4 m) long and 8 feet (2.4 m) wide. The “Going-to-the-Sun Road” was completed in 1932 after eleven years of construction.

Glacier National Park was originally inhabited by a number of Native American tribes, most notably the Blackfeet, Shoshone, Cheyenne, and Flathead. The park itself was established by an order of U.S. Congress in 1910. The Great Northern Railway had constructed tracks through the park in 1891, and the company built numerous hotels and chalets for what it correctly envisioned as a booming tourist trade.

The largest lake in Glacier National Park is Lake McDonald. This pristine body of water is nearly 10 miles (16 km) long, one mile (1.6 km) wide, and 472 feet (130 m) deep. The Lake McDonald Lodge — originally known as the Lewis Glacier Hotel — was built in 1913 and is still in operation today. The lodge offers over 100 rooms and is one of 350 buildings in Glacier listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wildlife of all types thrive in Glacier National Park. Moose, elk, wolves, deer, mountain lion, and bear are abundant. The latter two creatures are of particular interest to campers and hikers, as there has rarely been a year during which Glacier did not experience at least one grizzly bear upon human attack. Mountain lion attacks have also occurred on a fairly frequent basis. Those who wish to camp or hike in Glacier should educate themselves as to proper bear and lion avoidance measures before setting forth into the deep wilderness.

In 1932, a road was built to connect Glacier National Park to Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. The two areas are now known collectively as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The parks were named a “Biosphere Reserve” site in 1976, and a “World Heritage” site in 1995, by the United Nations.

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