Published: September 2007

Continent Feature

Crown of the Continent

Two national parks—Glacier and Waterton Lakes—join in a soaring wonderland.

By Douglas H. Chadwick
Photograph by Michael Melford

Glacier National Park is where everything bright and strong and never tamed comes together on high: wolves, white-tailed ptarmigan, storms that hit the Great Divide like tsunamis with golden eagles surfing the wind waves, twisted trees 200 years old but scarcely tall enough to hide a bighorn sheep, impatient wildflowers shoving through snow to unfurl their colors, alpenglow on ancient ice, and great silver-tipped bears. To roam among these summitscapes is to open a conversation between your soul and a living planet on the move.

Leave bushwhacking to the elk and cliff-climbing to the mountain goats. The best way to get up these mountainsides is by bear elevator: avalanche chutes where winter slides have cleared paths down through brush fields and forests, which grow back at first as open meadows. No matter how hot or long the summer, it will still be springtime at some elevation in the chutes as plants sprout from meltwater-soaked soil in the wake of retreating snows. Flush with nutrients, the succulent new growth draws grazing grizzlies upward through the warm months, from valley floors all the way to the peaks.

A stretch of the Rocky Mountains runs virtually unbroken for 250 miles (400 kilometers) from central Montana into southern Canada with a skyline that exalts all the land within eyeshot. Many call this the Crown of the Continent. Glacier National Park, connected to wildernesses on the south and in both Alberta and British Columbia on the north, is the centerpiece. Up to two miles (three kilometers) high, Glacier's peaks embrace a million Montana acres (405,000 hectares) and 762 lakes to reflect them in hues from milky turquoise strewn with ice floes to so diamond clear you can see bottom stones 50 feet (15 meters) deep. One of the largest lakes has its head in Glacier and its azure body in a 125,000-acre (50,585 hectares) sister reserve, Waterton Lakes National Park, just across the border in Alberta. The adjoining protected areas were proclaimed the world's first international peace park in 1932. Both were designated international biosphere reserves during the 1970s, and in 1995 Waterton–Glacier International Peace Park was further distinguished as a World Heritage site.

Although 95 percent of Glacier is managed as wilderness, more than 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) of interconnecting trails invite foot traffic into the farthest contours. Coming off a three-day trek through the northern reaches, I stuck out a thumb to get back to my car on Going-to-the-Sun Road. The sole highway across the park's interior, it feels like another winding trail, hewn across cliff walls here and there, with rockwork shoring up the outer edges. A nice family in a van picked me up. Barely a minute later, the mother was calling out: "Look, three waterfalls! Who has the camera?"

Uh-oh. Flatlanders.

"I see a taller one!" That was the daughter a hundred yards later. We pulled out for pictures again. Then we motored on for half a minute before little brother said, "Waterfall up on the right!"

Crews with plows had only recently opened the pass. Drifts still lay a hundred feet (30 meters) deep in the lee of some crests. Yet it was June. The air was warm and green. As usual with the onset of summer, the high country was in vertical flood. There were waterfalls pouring off every headwall, ledge, and hanging valley—staircases of falls; concatenated mare's tails of them; sheets, fans, flues, and dazzling braids; plumes bursting from shadowed cliffs like jets of pure light; drum ensembles and cannonades of them shaking the ground underfoot. "Dad. Dad! Pull over!"

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