Glacier-Waterton Lakes International Peace Park (Montana)
Two magnificent reserves on the western U.S.–Canadian border combine to make up Glacier- Waterton Lakes International Peace Park with stunning wildlife and scenery in near-total wilderness. It is one of the continent’s largest most intact ecosystems, much of it undisturbed by almost two million visitors annually.
Hulking grizzly bears survive unmolested here. Once 10,000 roamed over the western U.S. and Canada. They were largely exterminated along with gray wolves because their presence seemed incompatible with humans, but with protection, populations gradually rebounded. Discussion arose in the early 1980s on the wisdom of reintroducing wolves, which had been completely wiped out—more than 80,000 shot, trapped and poisoned between 1883 and 1918—to restore a full, healthy Glacier ecosystem. Wolves settled the question by reintroducing themselves, walking over the international border in 1985. They are readily at home in these northern climes—wolves can sleep comfortably in the open at –40°F (–40°C).
Wildlife now moves freely between the two parks which were established in 1932 as the world’s first International Peace Park, joining Glacier National Park in the U.S. and Waterton Lakes in Canada. A joint U.N. World Heritage Site, they share aims and an ecosystem and are administered separately but cooperatively.
Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bears, coyotes, and mountain lions are at home in both, along with black bears, badgers, snowshoe hares, mink, martens—even a few lynx, wolverines, and fishers—and 250 kinds of birds, including both bald and golden eagles.
Elk with antlers spreading five feet or more (1.5+ m) graze the meadows, along with more delicate mule and white-tailed deer. Shy half-ton moose prefer marshes and edges of hundreds of jewel-like lakes.
The highway through Glacier has been called the most spectacular 50-mile drive in the world, and most visitors travel it more than once, seeing different wildlife and vistas every time. Much of the rest of the combined Glacier-Waterton Lakes 1,802 square miles (4,667 km2) remains a wilderness solitude for animals, the more than 900 miles (1,500 km) of trails traversed by relatively few hikers and backpackers. They can find the splendid solitude that moved naturalist John Muir a century ago to say that time spent in Glacier “will not be taken from the sum of your life. It will indefinitely lengthen it, making you in that way truly immortal.”
Glacier National Park is the third largest U.S. national park, 1,600 square miles (4,144 km2) in northwestern Montana, with stunning Rocky Mountain scenery. Grandeur of 10,466-foot (3,220-m) glacier-scoured Mount Cleveland descends to deep woods, cascading waterfalls and wildflower-strewn valley meadows, with elk, moose, grizzly and black bears, and smaller golden-mantled ground squirrels, pine martens, badgers, and coyotes. Higher elevations are home to mountain goats and bighorn sheep, wolverines, lynx, mountain lions and, rarely, gray wolves—altogether some 60 mammal species. Bald and golden eagles—altogether more than 250 bird species—soar overhead. In woods are pine siskins, flickers, red-naped sapsuckers, Clark’s nutcrackers, and Steller’s jays which join picnics. Water ouzels (aka dippers) forage on stream bottoms. More than 400 glaciers cling to high mountain cirques.
Best times are mid-May–September—best weather, most visible wildlife, most park facilities available. Temperatures range from hot in low valleys in midsummer to windy and bitterly cold with snow anytime at high elevations—a foot (30 cm) fell in August, 1992. Five lodges and hotels include two historic chalets (recently under reconstruction) with many campgrounds in the park. Glacier is open all year but only limited facilities are available off-season.
To get there, drive to park entrances on U.S. Highway 2 from east or west—or Amtrak trains stop at East Glacier and Belton (West Glacier). In the park drive the Going-to-the-Sun road (size limits on large vehicles). Glacier also has bus tours, boat transport to glaciers and trails, 900 miles (1,500 km) of foot trails, backpacking; river-rafting. Snowshoeing in winter.
Nearest airports are in Kalispell and Great Falls, Montana, also Glacier International Airport, halfway between, 30 miles (48 km) southwest. Car rentals are available.
Waterton Lakes International Peace Park, 200 square miles (525 km2) adjoining Glacier north of the U.S.–Canadian border, has nine inns/lodges/hotels in or close by, including magnificent but aging Prince of Wales Hotel; also three campgrounds. Nearest airport is at Lethbridge, 90 miles (128 km) northeast, about 1.5-hour drive to park, approachable from the east by Provincial Road 6; from U.S. by US 89 to State/Provincial Road 17, known as ChiefMountain International Highway, linking the two parks (visitors may need a visa, passport, or driver’s license to enter from U.S.). See the park by horseback, boat, hiking trails, or driving tours on Chief Mountain Highway, Red Rock and Alkamine Parkways. More than 114 miles (183 km) of backcountry trails.