Published: September 2007
Crown of the Continent
Two national parks—Glacier and Waterton Lakes—join in a soaring wonderland.
By Douglas H. Chadwick

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!"

It was the slowest trip I ever took. But I felt as though I was seeing Glacier's runoff for the first time, too, watching through their eyes as the park, my Montana backyard, softened into the long-light days, liquefying more than half a year's hoard of crystals to swell rivers bound across North America for the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay.

This is where, around 75 million years ago, tectonic forces buckling Earth's crust sent a slab of rock miles thick sliding eastward on top of the strata next door. The overthrust block is a layer cake of cream-colored limestone and red and green mudstones formed between 1.5 billion and 800 million years ago in a shallow inland sea. Many rocks reveal patterns of ripples, mud cracks, and even raindrops, as if raised from the shores only yesterday. A few preserve mats and mounds of cyanobacteria mixed with silt, all turned to stone. As fossils go, these microbe colonies, termed stromatolites, aren't especially striking—they look like smooshed cabbage heads—but they represent some of the oldest organisms on record. More important, they may have been the first to practice photosynthesis, manufacturing sugar for food with the help of energy captured from the sun.

The waste product given off by this invention was oxygen. As it got pumped into early skies rank with carbon dioxide and methane, photosynthesis began to change the atmosphere. That in turn transformed the course of life. Ultimately, the humble clumps of cyanobacteria and their successors made inhaling sweet air possible—made you and me possible, and the mountain-goat nannies with young single-filing along a blade-thin ridge, and the hoary marmots eyeing my trail snacks from nearby boulders. It's the sort of thing you think about at 9,000 feet (2,700 meters) with your rump on an overhang built from primeval ocean bottom and nothing around the rest of your body but blue, blue breathable sky.

Eon after eon, weather scuffed the uptilted stone layers and poked at their weak spots. Then came the ice ages, and erosion bent to its work. Over the past two million years, glaciers as much as a mile thick flowed over all but the highest points, reaching tentacles of frost into the smallest crevices of rock formations and pulling hefty chunks away as the white juggernauts growled and oozed relentlessly on. The Rockies meanwhile kept rising; not much, maybe the thickness of a snow bunting's wing each year, but ceaselessly. And when the tide of ice finally withdrew, the Crown of the Continent emerged spectacularly cut and polished, its peaks taller than ever and their sides far steeper, soaring above valleys rasped into broad U shapes with open vistas where narrow canyons had been.

Small alpine glaciers persisted on summit shoulders. Others lay cupped in cirque basins or stretched beneath headwalls too high and sheer for the sun to climb over even in midsummer. About 150 glaciers existed when the park was established in 1910. Today, with human activities spewing carbon dioxide and methane as if we were intent on re-creating Earth's ancient atmosphere, a warming climate has reduced the number of moving glaciers to fewer than 30. Dan Fagre, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist working in the reserve, says, "The last one will probably disappear by the year 2030, tops." How does Glacierless National Park sound?

Fagre has more pressing questions as he documents decreasing snowpacks, earlier spring runoffs, longer growing seasons, and tree lines marching uphill into former subalpine and alpine habitats. For example: What's in store for the wildlife communities this reserve is supposed to protect? What happens downstream to farmers and ranchers dependent on irrigation, to communities needing drinking water, to fishermen—not to mention the fish—even to distant barge operators, once the glaciers and permanent snowfields that reliably provided water through late summer are gone?

"Let's hope the taxpaying public and policymakers understand that national parks are for more than scenery and recreation," Fagre says. "They perform valuable ecosystem services. They are also important listening posts for us—among the very few places where we can tease out signals of environmental change in settings otherwise undisturbed by modern development."

I'm part of a band of volunteers with a wolverine research project in Glacier. We help pack bait into box traps built of logs, tag captured animals with transmitters, and roam the backcountry to track their movements with radio receivers. We do this because wolverines, the largest land-dwelling members of the weasel family, have become alarmingly scarce in the lower 48 states. Glacier, an all-too-rare stronghold, offers the opportunity to gather sorely needed information about reproduction and survival. We also do this because we think the wolverine is cool—the toughest 25-to-30-pound (11 to 14 kilograms) blur of constant motion to ever drive a grizzly off a carcass. Above all, we do this to be in the park.

The frozen surface of Lake Josephine, encircled by looming peaks, makes for a beautiful glide on skis. But at night, which is when a wolverine is most likely to enter the trap at the lake's head, it's not the same journey. Not with temperatures sinking toward 0°F (-18°C). Not after avalanches off Grinnell Point have spilled across the ice. And especially not when the winds that howl from the divide across Glacier's eastern half for days on end have whipped up a stinging ground blizzard. I'm solo, so I'll take the longer route across the base of Allen Mountain.

After about two miles (three kilometers), the trail descends into a stand of big, old-growth spruce. Intercepted by curtains of boughs, the gusts fade to a breeze at ground level. High overhead, the treetops continue to rock. Branches thrash. Leaning snags rub against the limbs that blocked their fall. They fill the grove with moans, mews, wheezes, and whispers. Each sound has my full attention, if only because I usually cross fresh moose tracks here and, once in a while, those of a mountain lion. Skiing alone through a talking forest in tatters of moonlight on my way to meet a feisty carnivore no longer feels like a suspension of ordinary reality. It's just a night out.

A lot of backcountry mixes the sense of a world freshly shaped by natural forces together with a timeless quality. Floods move the courses of rivers. Raw talus slopes turn into forests, and lightning-sparked blazes recycle the forests into pink swaths of fireweed. Yet in Glacier, the alterations go on alongside cliff faces that were standing in the dinosaurs' day. Backcountry also has a knack for interspersing moments of perfect tranquility with clenches of fear. Glacier's wildlands can generate more of both moods in a day than tame lands could muster in a month.

Lean out through a notch in the rimrock, and a huge view only keeps expanding; lean a fingertip farther, and you could join the rubble below. Lean back to nap against a sun-warmed boulder; awaken to a family of black bears digging for glacier lily bulbs on the other side. Maybe you were determined to walk around one more bend because every one before was lovelier than the last. But from that new vantage point, you can see thick-bellied clouds starting to pile in from the west, and the slant of light on the mountains so alluring a moment ago becomes a reminder of how soon the sun is going to sink behind them. You'll be lucky to get back before darkness, rain, and cramping muscles start to seriously break you down.

Then again, I recall times when all Glacier demanded of me was to jump in a lake on a hot summer afternoon. One day last fall, preparing to hike the park's east side to where I could perhaps spot a grizzly, I counted seven eating kinnikinnick berries up on a grassy slope before I'd left the parking lot and two more ambling across high ledges within the first half hour of strolling an easy trail through gold-leafed aspens.

Glacier's founders left it for each visitor to discover the best way to experience the park. I couldn't say which is best; there are so many still to be tried. But here's my advice for now: Light packs make for light spirits. Don't feed the bears. Save the wolverines. Let it snow.