GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. — The sudden squawk from ranger Rosemary's two-way radio startled us. Our small group was enjoying a picnic lunch and resting weary legs midway through a wilderness hike when an amplified voice broke our quiet reverie: "Grizzly on the glacier!"
"Pack up quickly," Rosemary called, "and we may get to see the most famous and feared animal of Glacier National Park."
Our destination, Grinnell Glacier, was two miles away, but we all hit the trail with renewed energy and excitement.
Wasn't it a little crazy to be chasing after a grizzly? Well, our trail guide was an experienced park ranger, so we figured it was safe enough. Besides, some of us were wearing jingling "bear bells" that alert the big critters to human intrusion; their natural response is to run away.
We puffed up the path and over a crest to see a panorama of the gleaming Grinnell Glacier, largest of 50 glaciers that highlight this park. Something was moving across the massive block of ice, but it was another party of hikers. The grizzly was nowhere in sight. Our ranger confirmed via walkie-talkie that the bear had taken off.
The disappointing news slowed our adrenaline, but we were still thrilled to be surrounded by scenery so spectacular that it makes your heart pound. Glacier Park is a national treasure of unabashed beauty, and it also seems to be a national secret.
Fewer than 1.6 million people visit here in a year. Compare that to 2.4 million that crowd Yellowstone or the annual horde of 3 million visitors to Yosemite.
Certainly Glacier National Park can match the natural grandeur of those better-known preserves--from snowy mountain peaks to valleys of wildflowers, emerald-green lakes and abundant wildlife. But Glacier gives visitors something special, a feeling of tranquillity that's no longer evident in the other parks.
It comes not only from the awesome creations of Mother Nature but because Glacier is at the top of Montana and off the beaten path of most vacationers. Once visitors make their way here, the welcome surprise is not only that the scenery is so ancient--glaciers created it during the last Ice Age thousands of years ago--but that tourist facilities are from a bygone era too.
Imagine viewing the glacier-carved landscape from a bright-red touring bus of the 1930s, with its canvas top rolled back and a wool robe on your lap to ward off any chill. Or checking into a vintage wood-timbered lodge that still doesn't have TV, direct-dial phones or room service.
For some people, the novelty of old-time transportation and lodging is reason enough for a trip to this park. Half a century ago, 33 White Touring Cars were built in Cleveland and shipped west to ply the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the first and only highway to cross the park from east to west.
A Scenic Drive
Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps crews blasted out this 50-mile ribbon of road that wiggles up and over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, altitude 6,646 feet. Everyone who makes the journey agrees it's one of the world's most scenic drives.
That's especially true if you're aboard one of the old 14-to-18-passenger "reds" that make daily summer tours along Going-to-the-Sun Road. The trip is narrated by golf-hatted drivers called "jammers," who also keep busy shifting gears on the steep grades and hairpin turns. (Modern sightseeing coaches are prohibited by road restrictions on vehicle length and width.)
Come nightfall you'll be treated to a peaceful sleep in any of Glacier's eight lodgings, but try to book one of the four noble dowagers that have been operating since the park's early days. Three were built by the Great Northern Railway to give vacationers a reason for riding the line's cross-country trains.
Three years after the park was established in 1910, Glacier Park Lodge opened at the eastern entrance. Most remarkable is the multistory lobby with support columns that are 40-foot fir trees still wrapped in their bark. The lodge is at the edge of the Blackfoot reservation and has an American Indian motif.
In 1915 park guests were first welcomed to Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake, an alpine setting that's reminiscent of Switzerland. Emblems of the Swiss cantons carry on the theme inside. University music students who have been hired to work at the lodge during their summer vacations treat guests to informal performances during dinner, and occasional shows in the enormous lobby.
On the Canadian side of the border in adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park, the Great Northern Railway put up another imposing hostelry, the Prince of Wales Hotel. It opened in 1928, four years before both parks were officially joined as Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park to symbolize the bonds of friendship between our nations.