I was cutting it close.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the best drives in the world and the only road that cuts through Glacier National Park, was closing in 12 hours for the rest of the year for maintenance and winter-weather-dictated restrictions. And I was still 143 miles away from its western terminus, checking out of the fantastic Gibson Mansion Bed and Breakfast in Missoula, Montana.
With stops in St. Ignatius and Bigfork, and along Flathead Lake, I didn’t reach the West Entrance of the park until early afternoon. Just a few miles into the park, I stopped at the Apgar Visitor Center, right at the tip of 10-mile-long Lake McDonald. Armed with literature and information, I began my 50-mile drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road with only a few hours to spare until the autumn sun would set and the road shut down. This engineering feat is one of the most scenic roads in the United States; indeed, it’s the only American roadway designated both a National Historic Landmark and a National Civil Engineering Landmark. The serpentine artery rises continually and soon offers astounding vistas of the mountains and valleys as well as of the road itself. A great pullover at Logan Point (6,646’, the highest point on the road) serves up beguiling views of the area and, if you’re lucky (I wasn’t), mountain goats. The road begins to descend and then, passing by the outlook for Jackson Glacier, hugs the shore of Saint Mary Lake on its way out of the park. Upon emerging from the park, I headed north toward the tiny town of Babb and then reentered the park. After a scenic drive along lovely Sherburne Lake for miles, I reached my destination — Many Glacier Hotel.
More people were checking out than checking in, as the lodging’s season was drawing to a close and wouldn’t kick in again until the following spring. But that didn’t matter for now. I was staying in a national park for the first time, and I couldn’t have made a better choice.
Many Glacier Hotel, built in 1915, resembles a Swiss chalet, albeit an absolutely enormous one. With just over 200 rooms spread out over five stories, it’s the largest accommodations in the park. It’s also the most isolated, 12 miles in off the road that circumvents the park. My room was quite spartan — the sink was next to the bed instead of in the bathroom, which contained some sort of heating device that was at least 75 years old; pipes ran along the ceiling; television and air-conditioning were absent; and everything was painted an off-white: baseboards, walls, ceiling, doors, doorknobs, mirror frames. Depending on your attitude, you would describe it as either romantically rustic, or dated dingy. But you haven’t come here to spend time in your room, especially when everything else is quite fantastic, and, ultimately, you’re paying for the location above all else.
Many Glacier Hotel is the perfect jumping-off point for your adventures. With 200 lakes and 1,000 miles of streams in the 1.2-million-acre park, you’re going to be spending a lot of time outdoors amid it all. You can hop on one of the red “jammers,” vintage 1936 buses with roll-back tops that tool around the park with visitors, just like they did in the early years of the park. Glacier became a national park in 1910 and now attracts two million people per year, and the jammers provide throwback transportation for tours around this magnificent setting.
If you’re more active, you’ll want to strap on your boots and start hiking. I kicked it off with a one-mile hike up a trail that rises 700’ to views of Apikuni Falls. Of course, you’re also going to want to see the eponymous glaciers — and you better do it fast. Of the original 150 glaciers that existed here 100 years ago, only 30 remain, and they’re shrinking pretty quickly, thanks to global climate change, so it’s getting harder and taking longer to reach them by foot. The evidence is clear. All you have to do is look at the row of then-and-now photographs lining the wall of one of the lodge’s hallways. The black-and-white and sepia-toned before images show what the glaciers looked like about a century ago; the mostly color photos of today prove the devastation a hotter planet has wreaked on the park’s namesake: The surviving 30 glaciers have dramatically retreated and are practically gone; many of them are no longer even considered a viable glacier anymore but rather glacier remnants. In the foreseeable future, this national park may have to change its name. Something more inspired than, perhaps, Melted Glacier National Park, or No Glacier Park.
You don’t have to go very far for one of the park’s most scenic hikes, a very easy 2.6-mile loop trail around Swiftcurrent Lake that starts right outside the doors of the lodge. Armed with my can of bear spray, I took my time on the nature trail, never deviating much from its 4,900’ elevation and always offering grand vistas of the lake and the serrated mountains enclosing it. From the opposite side of the lake, I took in the view of the sprawling hotel. Although massive when you’re in or directly next to it, it seems positively Lilliputian set against the towering mountains around it.
Upon returning to the hotel late in the afternoon following my hike, which remained bear-less but, happily, not moose-free (a bull and his mate practically crossed my path on their way to drink from a stream), a fierce wind had started stirring up the waters of the lake. I took a few moments to take in the lodge’s beauty — its stone chimneys, thriving flowerboxes, private terraces linked by outdoor staircases, white window trim, and a couple of female bighorn sheep wandering by. Comfortably chilled, I headed back to the lodge, wrapped my hands around a mug of hot chocolate, and scored one of the Adirondack chairs on the expansive terrace. I spied a moose on the opposite side of the lake and joined in the excitement of a bear sighting as I watched the sun slip behind the peaks and stars start to puncture the blackening sky with pinpoints of light.
I returned inside, where the remaining guests had gathered in the lounge and the central atrium lobby, with its comfortable furniture and blazing fire in the fireplace, tended to by staff dressed in lederhosen, and surrounded by open passageways on the floors above. My hikes had stirred my appetite, so I headed down the hall to the Ptarmigan Dining Room. Named after a medium-sized gamebird in the grouse family, the Ptarmigan underwent comprehensive renovations in 2011 that restored its historic features and design concepts, like the massive stone fireplace, wrought-iron trusses, and riot of wood ceiling beams. Inside this cavernous space with unbeatable views, you’ll enjoy a dinner of, for instance, potato corn chowder and baked polenta with Angus beef, red onions, and broccoli, or Montana stroganoff with beef, mushrooms, and mushroom gravy on a bed of noodles with grilled buffalo sausage and sour cream, alongside a huckleberry iced tea, or cinnamon-and-chili–crusted pork tenderloin with cucumber yogurt, brown rice, and tangerine-infused broccoli. Whatever you choose, your evening meal will prove quite memorable, especially when it concludes with some sort of lemon or chocolate confection.
I was returning here for the very satisfying buffet breakfast on my last day when a chance glance out a window along the hallway that looked onto the lake revealed brilliant reflections of the mountains in its waters. But time was of the essence: As the early morning sun rises higher, the reflections quickly begin to disappear. I rushed outside to take in the warm glow being cast on the 8,855’ Grinnell Point and the 9,321’ Mount Wilbur, and their flawless reflections in Swiftcurrent Lake. Breakfast would have to be postponed: This beguiling scenery was a photographer’s fantasy, too rich to pass up for even the delicious egg dishes and coffee-walnut cake that were awaiting me. Thankful that I had arisen a bit earlier this morning to unexpectedly stumble upon this fleeting scene, I soaked it all in until the mirror images dissipated and the lake returned to its usual deep blue color. A perfect way to cap off a perfect stay at this remarkable hotel.
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