A History of Glacier National Park

A very brief history of the majestic Glacier National Park.

Tucked into the northwestern corner of Montana and the US/Canadian border in Alberta are two majestic national parks with rich geologic, cultural, and biological histories. Glacier National Park (on the U.S. side) and the smaller Waterton Lakes National Park (in Canada) are often referred to as the Crown of the Continent’s Ecosystem. This is one of the world’s most scenic, and unique, landscapes—in fact, people as far back as the late 1800s politicked for the area to gain park status. In addition to jaw-dropping scenery, the area is home to a wildly diverse population of animals, birds, and fish. And there are towering forests, lingering glaciers, crystal clear lakes and streams.

This is one of the world’s most scenic, and unique, landscapes.

Glacier National Park shares its northern border with Canada and Waterton Lakes National Park. The latter is not as large or as heavily visited as Glacier, but equally as beautiful. Waterton is the smallest of Canada’s Rocky Mountain Parks—but arguably one of the most beautiful. The parks joined forces in 1932, when they were combined to form the world’s first International Peace Park. Sixty-three years later, in 1995, the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the combined area of 1,802 square miles (202 square miles of Waterton and 1,600 square miles of Glacier), making it one of the biggest protected areas in North America.

When you visit, you’ll see sweeping views of snowcapped mountains, crystal-alpine lakes, and literally hundreds of creeks and rivers that tumble down from the high-mountain glaciers. There are plenty of geologically important sites in this vast expanse, with interesting rock formations and well-preserved fossil beds. Grizzly bear, lynx, and gray wolf roam the alpine tundra, ancient cedar, and hemlock forests, while bald eagle and peregrine falcon own the sky. In fact, there are more than 300 species of animals that call this region home, as well as countless birds who live or migrate through this breathtaking landscape.

There are more than 300 species of animals that call this region home.

This scenic area has long attracted people—the Native American and Canadian First Nation tribes such as the Blackfeet, Kootenai, and Salish tribes hunted the hanging valleys and considered many of the peaks sacred. European and English explorers and fur trappers moved into the region by the mid 1800s, with miners traveling through by the later part of the century. The Great Northern Railway was completed in 1891, allowing more people than ever to flock to Montana and southern Canada for jobs and recreation. Native American tribes depended on these lands for hunting and gathering.  The earliest Canadian and Native American artifacts date back to about 10,000 years ago, found on Kootenay Pass. There’s evidence dating back nearly 8,000 years of native tribes who were fishing and hunting buffalo on the vast plains.

Glacier, established on May 11, 1910, was America’s 10th national park–it received its protected designation four years after Mesa Verde, Colorado and five years before Rocky Mountain National Park. Waterton Lakes was Canada’s fourth national park (established in 1895, a decade after Banff National Park). The park designation was the work of the owners of the Great Northern Railroad (who wanted tourists from the East Coast to ride the rails, and early environmentalists who wanted to preserve the magnificent landscape. The big glaciers (that are threatened today) and rocky peaks were looked at as opportunities for proprietors of hotels, lodges, and horsepackers.

Glacier, established on May 11, 1910, was America’s 10th national park.

Soon visitors moved from rails to road. With the popularity of cars in the early 1990s came demand for roads through the new national parks. The first road through Glacier National Park, the Going to the Sun Road, had a single switchback and was hewn out of the granite cliffs. The near 50-mile road is still open for visitors to tour the Glacier during the warm months, but the best way to see both parks is by foot. There are lots of hiking trails and campgrounds; plan on spending a few days looking around. You’ll be as enchanted with the wild countryside as were the early visitors at the turn of the century. Just don’t forget your passport—the border crossing is not crowded, but you’ll need current I.D.

Fun Facts about Glacier National Park

  • There are 71 species of mammals and 276 types of documented birds.
  • There are 151 trails.
  • There are 26 glaciers, the largest being Harrison Glacier.
  • It is also the world’s first International Peace Park.
  • Mountain goats call Glacier home, with the best place to see them being Goat Lick Overlook, a mineral lick in the southern part of the park.
  • Triple Divide Peak supplies water to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans.
  • Going-to-the-Sun Road is a 50-mile-long scenic drive through the park, but it is also registered as a National Historic Place, National Historic Landmark and Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
  • Going-to-the-Sun Road also appeared in the opening of the movie The Shining.
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