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Here are the top five things that EVERYONE should know before they visit Glacier National Park. So if you want to be prepared to knock the socks off of “the locals“ (many of whom are only actually local from May until September), keep on reading and hopefully you’ll get a chuckle or two out of it as well….
1) Don’t take anything out of the park! No matter how pretty or unique something is, leave it alone so that other visitors can see it too! It’s against the law to take rocks, stones, flowers, sticks (even if you want to claim it as your new hiking stick) and every thing else that is naturally found in a national park. As the saying goes “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” Don’t be one of those selfish people that believes they should be the exception or that the law doesn‘t apply to them! And it’s never too early to start teaching your children to respect nature and wildlife. It’s also against the law to disturb wildlife or get within 100 yards of a bear - and if you found it in the park, it’s probably wild, no matter how cute or friendly it seems to be!
2) Whatever you do, DON’T FEED ANY WILD ANIMALS! If you are the kind of person that will be disappointed to leave the park if you haven’t spotted some wildlife, you should plan on getting out of the car and hitting the trails. If you are not fortunate enough to get the pleasure of watching wildlife from the comfort of your car, remember that you’re not at the zoo or the circus! Calculate your hike at about 2 miles per hour, unless you, personally, know otherwise from first-hand experience! Figure even more time for a one-way trail that involves a lot of elevation gain or if you are a real couch potato. One of the worst things you can do (aside from feeding and disturbing wildlife) is to underestimate the amount of time it will take to arrive at your final destination. Although the days are typically long in May, June & July (sun rises around 5 am and sets around 10 pm), you don’t want to get unexpectedly get stuck on a trail after dark. For starters, whatever time the sun is scheduled to go down, it will get dark even earlier if you are in the woods.
3) Carry a whistle & bear spray, and make sure you know how to use the bear spray before you actually need to know how to use it. If you think that all you need to protect yourself from wildlife is a gun, you’re a fool! But before you buy bear spray, talk to other hikers and campers. Bear spray is usually prohibited on planes, even in checked luggage, so you may find someone that will be willing to sell you their (hopefully unused) bear spray for less than full price. Once you’re out on the trail, if you aren’t encountering a lot of hikers, and especially if it is morning or late afternoon, tweet or blow your whistle every 5 to 10 minutes or so. If you spot a bear before it spots you (from a safe distance), tweet the whistle a few times- not a full out blast, but enough to hopefully convince the bear that trouble might be lurking and it should mosey on along. Similarly, if you are walking through high foliage or the trail goes around a bend or up a hill blocking visibility, tweet the whistle a couple times and then listen for movement, before continuing.
4) The Going To The Sun Road generally opens around the middle to the end of June, but there are no guarantees because it really depends on the weather. The entire road won’t be open to vehicles until the road is plowed all the way through, all the guard rails have been installed and the threat of avalanche is at a minimum. In 2011, the road didn’t open until July 13th! And once the road opens, if you are too much of a control freak to trust anyone else to be behind the wheel, well then you are the kind of person that probably shouldn’t be driving such a narrow road with twists and turns! If you are not a control freak and are comfortable letting someone else take the wheel, consider the free shuttle or better yet, see the park in style by taking a red jammer tour (more on both below). Either way, not only are you free to enjoy the natural beauty because you don’t have to keep your eyes on the road, but it keeps the number of vehicles on the road to a minimum, which reduces traffic and damage to the road. And you don’t have to worry about one of those control freak drivers clipping your mirror because they are too far over the center line- or at least where the center line would be if there was a center line painted on the road!
5) Don’t forget your passport! It’s amazing how many people arrive at Glacier National Park with no idea that they would be so close to the Canadian border. Apparently in this day and age of internet and GPS, no one looks at maps or learns geography anymore! Invest in a road map or at least pick up a park map from one of the Visitor’s Centers. Worst case scenario, you can pick up a free Montana road map (or free park map) from US Customs at Chief Mountain Port of Entry- assuming you can find your way there! Don’t expect to be able to get accurate directions from your GPS or be able to use your cell phone in Glacier National Park. And if you get lost while following the directions on your GPS, when you stop and ask for directions… follow the directions you are given! Don’t just plug the new information into the GPS that got you lost in the first place!
Are you still considering a visit? Then you may want to read on…
Please obey the speed limit while you are there, both off and on National Park property. Even though you may think you can safely drive faster than the posted speed limit, if you are going too fast you may not be able to brake in time to keep from hitting a bear or elk or moose or… cattle (more on the cattle later). And if you are one of those people that are constantly zooming around slower moving vehicles or riding the bumper of the car in front of you, you will also probably be one of those people that complains about not seeing any wildlife on your visit to the park. It’s not a coincidence that the people who complain about not seeing any wildlife on their visit (because they aren’t looking for it in the distance but are expecting to see it right out in front of them) are often the same people that are driving so fast down the road that if the wildlife were to step right out in front of them, they wouldn’t have the time or the space to stop before a collision. Sadly, it is sometimes a bear cub or moose calf or fawn that is hit and killed, and those that spend a lot of time in the park can grow attached to the babies. During the summer of 2011 a motorcyclist collided with a bear just over the Canadian side of the border, another place where people frequently feel that they can safely drive over the speed limit. The motorcyclist had to be life-flighted to a hospital, and the bear had to be put down. Guess which one got the most sympathy? And in 2012, after weeks of watching a sow and three cubs lumbering through Many Glacier, observers arrived at the park on morning to find that one of the cubs had been hit some time the night before. Please drive carefully!
Upon entering the park, have your driver’s license and either your valid park pass or the money to pay for your pass in hand by the time you get to the booth so that you are not holding up the people behind you while you dig them out. All major credit cards are accepted. For 2013 a weeks pass is $25 or $35 will get you an annual pass to Glacier (that‘s per non-commercial vehicle; cyclists and pedestrians pay less). $85 will get you an annual pass that is good for access to all US National Parks. Canadian Parks, including Waterton Lakes National Park, charge their own fee and - much to the outrage of many - do not recognize the senior citizen passes that are available in the US. Sheesh, it’s like a whole ‘nother country up there!
Glacier National Park runs free shuttles. The east side shuttles run at regular intervals from St Mary Visitor’s Center (just inside the park entrance) to Logan’s Pass (at the Continental Divide), with stops in between to pick up and drop off hikers. The west side shuttles also run at regular intervals, from the Apgar Transportation Center to Logan’s Pass, but the west side shuttles are considerably smaller than east side shuttles because of the length restrictions for vehicles due to the twists and turns on the narrow road. If you enter the park from the east entrance at St Mary, you can always drive up to Logan’s Pass and park your car in the parking lot (if it’s not full) and catch the west side shuttle from there. But if you decide to use the shuttles to travel from the east end to the west of the park, or vice versa, make sure you get to Logan’s Pass in time to catch the last shuttle. Otherwise you may catch the last shuttle to Logan’s Pass only to find that you missed the last shuttle to leave Logan’s Pass for whichever end of the park you left your car. It’s a long walk, but at least it’s mostly downhill!
A red jammer bus tour may be a good option. First of all, the red jammer drivers are familiar with the roads and drive the Going To The Sun Road every day - unlike most of the other drivers on that road! The red jammer drivers know where their passengers can get the best pictures, and they will gladly provide you with as many photo ops as they possibly can. Second, they are good at spotting wildlife and providing photo ops, while also having a vested interest in keeping their passengers safe from harm. And if the weather’s nice, the convertible tops roll down which allows for even better pictures!
If you are lucky enough to encounter wildlife, keep more than a safe distance because wild animals can move faster than you think. If anything you do causes an animal to change its behavior, then you are wwwaaaayyyyyyy to close. So if a grazing animal stops grazing, a thirsty animal stops drinking, or a resting animal gets up, it might be because your presence has cause the animal discomfort or they may perceive you as a threat. Stay in your car! If you’re not in your car, stop where you are and slowly back away without turning your back on the animal. Try not to make eye contact, and whatever you do, DON”T RUN! Odds are good that any bear you encounter is likely to be a black bear - not a grizzly (although most people refer to any bear they see as a grizzly) - but don’t waste time trying to figure it out because black bears can be dangerous too if they feel threatened.
You are much more likely to encounter bears and other wild animals (including, but not limited to, moose, mountain lions, wolves and coyotes) before lunch and again in the late afternoon - and after dark. Cooler temperatures, and less foot and vehicle traffic contribute to more activity “where the wild things are.” This applies to both the roads and the trails. And lakes, rivers and streams. And waterfalls! Be especially careful in areas where the noise of rushing water may mask the sounds that would otherwise alert you to an approaching bear or moose- and vice versa.
You don’t have to purchase a camelbak or fancy daypack, but having some sort of pack- even a school backpack or large fanny pack- can come in handy. Always have sunscreen, bug spray and a couple OFF towelettes, hand sanitizer, a small first aid kit (band-aids, bandages, gauze, tape and antiseptic) snacks or food, and of course WATER! Always bring twice as much water as you think you’re going to need! Keep an expired driver’s license in your pack, for identification purposes, just in case. Hats and bandanas also come in handy - carry both - to protect youe head from the sun and also for swatting away flies. Collapsible trekking poles and YaxTrax (generic crampons) should also be attached to your pack, with bear spray on the waist buckle (bear spray can also be attached to a belt), and a whistle and camera attached to the chest buckle with carabineers. Don’t forget to charge your camera battery or bring extra batteries, and make sure you have plenty of room on your memory card! To make sure that you never miss a photo op, takean extra battery for the camera (one to consider is a Pentax WG-3 Adventure Proof camera; it’s waterproof to 45 ft, cold proof to 14°, crushproof to 220 lbs and shockproof to 6.5 ft).
If you are planning on doing any hiking, reference the Falcon Guide books. One of the best investments you may make is the third edition of “Hiking in Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park.” It gives detailed descriptions of the trails as well as where to find the trailheads, and includes elevation gain and difficulty for each trail as well. The newest edition even has color photos! For families with children, or for anyone interested in shorter hikes, get “Best Easy Day Hikes: Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park” also by Falcon Guide. The website www.hikinginglacier.com is very useful too, but you’ll probably want to print out the hikes that are of interest to bring along due to limited internet access in and around the park. It’s best to have something tangible to reference.
These books can be purchased at the park gift shops, but if you purchase them at the Visitor’s Centers or Ranger Stations (locations where the majority of the staff will be wearing NPS uniforms of green pants and brown shirts with name tags) the proceeds go to Friend of Glacier - Glacier National Park Conservancy (www.GlacierNationalParkConservancy, org). Another great resource available at the same locations is the Trails Illustrated Map Glacier Waterton Lakes National Parks, published by National Geographic. St. Mary and Apgar visitor centers seem to have the biggest selection of merchandise, and then the visitor center at Logan’s Pass. Many Glacier and Two Medicine ranger stations have very limited selections, but I believe they both carry the books and map mentioned above.
Vapur Water Bottles are also widely available at the gift shops (i.e. in and around the lodges and inns, run by GPI but not by the National Park Service). Some may not be fans of using them as water bottles, but if you fill them about ¾ of the way with water and then stick them in the freezer, they make great ice packs for keeping the water bladder in a daypack cold all day long. Before you head out on a hike, pull them out of the freezer and screw on the lid (making sure it’s securely closed so that it won’t leak), then slide them down into the bottom of your pack, next to the bladder and on either side of the hose. You can even put sandwiches or wraps with mayo adjacent to the ice packs in your pack so that the mayo doesn’t go bad before you stop for lunch.
Use the round Ziploc containers with screw-on lids (or something like it) for day hikes. To help keep hydrated, put applesauce or plums/nectarines/peaches or grapes inside and lock on the lid. No leaks from the Ziploc containers. When you're done, use them for whatever remains to be packed out (peels, pits, stems, etc). It seems to help keep the smells to a minimum, which in turn keeps the wildlife from hunting you down!
And while dogs are allowed in Glacier National Park, they are not permitted on the trails. Canada, being more liberal than the US, allows dogs on the trails (at least in Waterton) but caution to anyone considering bringing their beloved pet on their trip to keep in mind that dogs and bears don’t mix. A dog that is off-leash might lead a bear right back to you, or it might feel protective of you and end up being attacked and seriously injured or killed. In summer 2013 a woman out walking her dog was attacked by a grizzly bear - and that wasn’t even inside the park property!
If you remember to bring your passport, Waterton Lakes National Park is about an hour’s drive from St Mary Not only are there plenty of trails to hike and bike, but there is a townsite with gift shops, restaurants, candy and ice cream shops, a movie theatre, stables and riding trails, a golf course, scenic boat rides and hotels and inns. It’s a popular destination on a rainy (or snowy) day, but there is also a lot to do there when the weather is nice. Red Rock Canyon and Cameron Lake are both popular destinations, however, due to flooding in early 2013 the road to Cameron Lake has been closed and isn’t expected to open until next year (2014) at the earliest. The closure of the road to Cameron Lake means that some trails aren’t accessible and there aren’t any boat rentals at Cameron Lake, but the closure of the road does not have any effect on access to the town site. If, while you are in Waterton, you decide to take the scenic boat tour to Goat Haunt (in the US) be sure to bring whatever documents are required.
*US and Canadian citizens intending to cross the border and back should have a passport or enhanced driver‘s license (if you‘re not sure if you have an enhanced driver‘s license- you don‘t! Only a few states offer them, and you don‘t get one by accident). As of June 2009, federal law requires a WHTI compliant document (passport book, passport card, enhanced driver’s license, machine-readable permanent resident card, etc.) to enter into the US. US Chief Mountain Port of Entry can be reached at 403-653-3317 to answer questions.
*If you are not a US citizen but have a legal right to live in US, then you need to provide proof of that to US Customs to re-enter the US. And if you are a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR or green card holder) of the US, you are required by law to carry that card on you ALL THE TIME. If you are unable to provide that card, there is an $585 fee (that‘s not a typo - five hundred and eighty five dollars).
*If you are not a Canadian citizen, but have a legal right to live in Canada, you need to provide proof of that to Canadian Customs to re-enter Canada. Likewise, if you are a Permanent Resident (also referred to as landed immigrant), you need to have your card with you to re-enter Canada. Canadian Chief Mountain Port of Entry can be reached at 403-653-3535 to answer questions.
*If you are not a US or Canadian citizen, you may need a visa to cross the border for a visit (into either the US or Canada). If you are a citizen of a visa waiver country, you can speed up the process of getting your entry documents for the US by being approved in ESTA and providing a print out of your approval with the ESTA expiration date. Before visiting Goat Haunt, it’s a good idea to already have a valid I94 (green or white) in your passport, which can be obtained by visiting another port of entry.
If you have any questions, stop and ask BEFORE you leave the country that you intend to return to (i.e., stop and talk to US Customs before leaving the US or stop and talk to Canadian Customs before leaving Canada).
At whatever time you get in your vehicle with the intention of crossing the international border, make sure you have your passports and/or LPR cards accessible to you from the driver’s seat. Put them in the glove box, the dashboard, the console, or your purse or pocket, but don’t have them in your suitcase in the backseat - or worse, in the trunk. If you don’t already have them in your hand, while you are stopped at the stop sign (and yes, there is a stop sign at both the US Customs and Canadian Customs), put them in your hand so that when you pull up to the officer at the booth, you can hand them over right away without holding up the line. Same goes for motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. And please DON’T PUT YOUR PASSPORT IN YOUR MOUTH!!!!
Firewood is prohibited from crossing the international border in order to prevent the spread of bugs and disease. If you want to keep your hiking stick, remove all bark and then shellac it. Any citrus that you take into Canada or acquire in Canada should be consumed or disposed of before you get to the US Border. Other fresh fruits & fresh vegetables should either be cut up with roots, stems, cores and seeds removed (this is your best bet with tomatoes, peppers, green onions and avocados) or, if they are of US origin, leave the stickers on or keep the bag that shows they were GROWN in the US, regardless of where you purchased them. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if they are removed from your possession. Not because the Customs Officer is hungry or forgot their lunch, but because of the threat of possible bugs and diseases. The US Department of Agriculture is responsible for protecting our crops from infestation. If you are caught lying about what food products you have in your vehicle or on your person (or you outright deny having any), you may be subject to a fine.
Canada, being it’s own country and all, is allowed to make its own laws. Bear spray is permitted, but it must be labeled as bear spray. Canada also has strict gun laws. If you are planning on visiting Canada on your trip, leave your gun at home, or at least find somewhere safe to keep it until you return stateside. If you deny being in possession of a gun and CBSA (Canadian Border Service Agency) finds one - or more - they can and will seize it, and they may decide to file charges against you as well. Even more shocking to some people is that Canada doesn’t care what rights Americans think they are entitled to, those rights mean nothing once an American leave the United States. Crazy, huh? Or maybe that should be… Crazy, eh?
On your way up Montana Hwy 17 to the Chief Mountain Port of Entry, watch out for the cows. Yes, that’s right, cows, as in bovines. May through September is free range cattle season on the Blackfeet Reservation, and the girls wander around wherever they want - even if that means standing (or lying) in the middle of the highway. You will be responsible for reimbursing the owner for the cos t- and you don’t get to keep the meat.
If you are interested in spending any time on the reservation (which borders the east side of Glacier National Park), make sure you get permission from the tribe. Even if you are only planning on doing some fishing or just hiking or driving a side road until you get to your destination in the park, you need permission to be on tribal land. And if you want to visit Chief Mountain (not the road or the port of entry, but the actual Chief Mountain), you’re going to have to get permission from the tribe. And when it comes to trespassing on tribal land, it’s better to ask permission than it is to ask for forgiveness! For more information, call 406-338-7207.