Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park sees almost 3 million visitors annually

Glacier National Park includes 26 glaciers and 130 named lakes surrounded by Rocky Mountain peaks. There are historic hotels and a landmark road called the Going-to-the-Sun Road in this region of rapidly receding glaciers. The local mountains, formed by an overthrust, expose Paleozoic fossils including trilobites, mollusks, giant ferns and dinosaurs.


Glacier National Park is a geological wonderland

Geologic formations in Glacier National Park are recognizable by dramatic exposures of Precambrian age Belt series sedimentary rock. These ancient rocks record a shallow Belt sea environment that opened and closed intermittently over many millions of years. The origin of Belt series sedimentary rocks dates from about 1,600 to 800 million years ago.

Common Belt series rocks found in Glacier include the Appekuny, Prichard, Grinnell, and Snowslip Formations. Reddish-brown and greenish-gray in appearance, these rocks are comprised of argillite and quartzite material that was compressed under sea water to form mudstones. The chemical composition of these rocks, in addition to their place of origin within the Belt Sea – near shore versus deeper water environments, is largely responsible for the variation in color.

Minor infusions of igneous rock, notably the Purcell series, can be found within Glacier’s Belt series rocks. The Purcell lava flow is 1,075 million years old.

Limestone and dolomite rocks are found in the Altyn, Helena, and Shepard formations within Glacier. More calcareous members of the Belt series, these larger formations depict deeper water depositional settings. Stromatolites, ancient fossils of blue-green algae that provide evidence of earth’s earliest physical and chemical compositions, are found in these calcareous settings and record the only trace of Proterozoic life known in the Belt Sea.

The diorite sill is a 30 to 100 meter thick intrusion within the Helena formation. A highly recognizable feature, the sill is a dark-banded, horizontal layer running through the pale gray Helena formation rocks.

Cretaceous age rocks formed in outcrops along the east and south edge of Glacier some 70 to 100 million years ago. These mudstone shales are present in limited exposure and record a variety of marine environments.

The sedimentary deposits of the Belt series were folded and uplifted 65-70 million years ago, pushing enormous slabs of older Belt rocks eastward on top of younger Cretaceous formations. The Lewis Overthrust is significant as a structural feature, for the extent of lateral displacement (up to 80 kilometers), and because it has functioned to expose well-preserved ancient sediments that are 1500 million years older that the underlying Cretaceous rocks. Chief Mountain is an isolated remnant of the eastern edge of the upper plate of the Lewis Overthrust, stranded over time from nearby formations by erosion.

More recent Quaternary age rocks are found in glacial deposits from the Pleistocene and Holocene eras and recent alluvial gravel deposits, present along Glacier’s extensive stream and river network. Landslide deposits are also prevalent in recent sediments due to the incredible relief in the park.

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Native American History

There is a dense Native American history at Glacier National Park

Physical evidence of human use dates back more than 10,000 years within the boundaries of Glacier National Park. Numerous Native American tribes utilized the area around and within what is now the park for hunting, fishing, ceremonies, and gathering plants. When the first white explorers began arriving in the region, the Blackfeet controlled the prairies on the east side of Glacier, while the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootnei lived in the more forested west side.

Explorations to the area by white trappers as early as the 1700s opened the area, and the future Glacier National Park, to trading among European settlers and tribal communities. As resources were depleted, the tribes eventually signed treaties that would increasingly confine native people to reservations and leave them dependent on the U.S. government.

Today, the 1.5-million acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which shares Glacier’s eastern border, is home to about 8,600 members of the Blackfeet Nation, the largest tribe in Montana. The Flathead Indian Reservation encompasses approximately 1.3 million acres mostly along the Flathead River and is home to approximately 7,000 members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation.

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Park History

How Glacier became a National Park

In the early 1800s, French, English, and Spanish trappers came in search of beaver. In 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition came within 50 miles (80.5 km) of the area that is now the park.

By the middle of the 1800s, the mountainous region of Glacier National Park had been “discovered” and explored by early white explorers. The Blackfeet Indians continued to dominate the region until the 1870s. However, white settlers would soon start to take a foothold in the area as greater interest in exploration and exploitation of resources increased.

With railroad tracks over Marias Pass completed in 1891, the relative ease of venturing further west increased the number of homesteads in the area. People came to the area to run trap lines, establish home sites, prospect for coal, metals, and oil, or just enjoy the scenery.

The first buildings here were homesteads, but the early trappers, loggers, and miners quickly realized the opportunities of tourism. By 1892, settlers Milo Apgar and Charlie Howe were offering rental cabins, meals, pack horses, guided tours, and boat trips for visitors who arrived in Belton on the Great Northern Railway. Frank Geduhn offered cabins and services at the head of the lake.

Early tourists arrived at Belton Station via Great Northern Railway. In the late 1800s, the west entrance to what is now Glacier was shrouded and tree-lined with towering, ancient western red cedars. There was no bridge across the Middle Fork until 1897. Guests were rowed across the river. It was not until about 1895 that a rugged dirt road connected the river to the foot of Lake McDonald. From there, guests would board George Snyder’s steamboat for the trip up the lake to the Snyder Hotel. It took most of the day to reach the hotel, if all the equipment ran smoothly. After a night at the hotel, visitors could ride horseback into the mountains.
East Side
Under pressure from miners, the mountains east of the Continental Divide were acquired by the U.S. government from the Blackfeet in 1895. Miners came searching for copper and gold. They hoped to strike it rich, but no large copper or gold deposits were ever located. Although the mining boom lasted only a few years, abandoned mine shafts are still found in several places in the park. The area that would become Glacier National Park first received protection from Congress as a forest preserve in 1900. See A Brief History of the East Side of Glacier National Park for more.
North Fork
The existing wagon road up the North Fork became the western boundary of the park when Glacier was established in 1910. Forty-four homesteads to the east of the new boundary then became inholdings within Glacier. A rich history of characters, from the first rangers to innovative bootleggers, helped to define the early years of Glacier. Read the resource brief on North Fork Homesteading.

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The best things to do in Glacier National Park

Going-to-the-Sun Road
A quintessential part of any Glacier visit, Going-to-the-Sun Road connects the east and west sides through the middle of the park.

Lake McDonald Valley
Lake McDonald Valley is the hub of activity on the west side of Glacier National Park.

Logan Pass
Reynolds Mountain and Clements Mountain tower over fields of wildflowers that carpet the ground throughout the summer.

Many Glacier
Mountains, glaciers, sparkling lakes, hiking trails, and abundant wildlife make this a favorite of visitors and locals alike.

St. Mary
St. Mary is the eastern gateway to Glacier National Park.

Two Medicine
Before the Going-to-the-Sun Road was constructed, Two Medicine was a primary destination for travelers arriving by train in East Glacier.

North Fork
The North Fork is one of the most uncrowded sections of Glacier National Park and reached by private vehicle.

Goat Haunt
Most visitors arrive by boat from Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, but it is also enjoyable to walk to this destination.

Visitor Centers
There are three park visitor centers, providing lots of information and amenities.

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Glacier National Park has a diverse plant life

As the meeting ground of four major floristic provinces, Glacier’s ecosystem supports a diverse array of plant species and plant communities. Many species and plant communities reach the edge of their range here. Glacier Park has 30 species that are “endemic” to the region, those with ranges limited exclusively to the northern Rocky Mountains. All but one of these occur in cold, open areas characteristic of harsh, post-glacial environments. Many are relics of the post-glacial age or occur here because the diverse combination of environmental conditions create unique micro-habitats. Three major North American watersheds arise from Glacier National Park (Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific). Two climate zones (Pacific Maritime and Prairie/Arctic) are separated by the Continental Divide. Biomes range from the lower elevation pacific cedar-hemlock forest to the high alpine tundra. Plant varieties change somewhat north to south as well because the north half of the park is in the rainshadow of the Whitefish Range. The cedar-hemlocks give way to drier Douglas fir and lodgepole pine forests in the North Fork, Flathead River drainage.

Floristic Provinces

  1. Cordilleran [49%], including the southern and central Rocky Mountains as well as the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest
  2. Boreal [39%], similar to what one would find across Canada
  3. Arctic-Alpine [10%]
  4. Great Plains [1%]

Plant Cover

The Park’s plant cover is roughly 33% moist coniferous forest, 29% barren or sparsely vegetated rock/snow/ice, 16% dry coniferous forest, 8% dry meadow and prairie, 6% deciduous forest (primarily aspen and black cottonwood), 5% wet meadow or fen, and 3% lake surface water (with aquatic plants occurring in the shallower zones).

West of the Divide
Moist, temperate conditions on the west side of Glacier Park have allowed the eastern-most extension of Pacific cedar-hemlock forest to develop in the Lake McDonald Valley. Moisture from the Pacific coast condenses during its rise to the Continental Divide. Rainfall ranges from an average of 23 inches in the park’s driest locations along the northeast and northwest edges of the park to 30 inches at West Glacier. Precipitation in excess of 100 inches may fall in isolated cirques near the Continental Divide.
East of the Divide
On the east side of the park, dry chinook winds sculpt trees along the high ridges while calmer conditions prevail in the aspen groves below. The difference in rainfall is not extreme, but the desiccating winds have made the plant communities very different on the east side. The dark, ancient cedar/hemlock forests of the west side are a stark contrast to the more open forests, glades and grasslands of the east side. Plant varieties change somewhat north to south as well because the north half of the Park is in the rainshadow of the Whitefish Range. The cedar-hemlocks give way to drier Douglas fir and lodgepole pine forests in the North Fork, Flathead River drainage.

Animal Life

There is a variety of wildlife at Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park’s diversity of habitat types creates opportunities for a wide range of animals. Find more information on everything from the large and majestic elk of the prairies, to the small stonefly of glacier-fed streams.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails at Glacier National Park

Over half of the visitors to Glacier National Park report taking a hike. With over 700 miles of trail providing outstanding opportunities for both short hikes and extended backpacking trips, there is something for everyone.

Hikers need to assume individual responsibility for planning their trips, staying safe, and reducing their impact on the park. Plan ahead before visiting the park and check out our Leave No Trace page to learn more.

Day Hike Planning
Good day hikes are plentiful. There is a lot of great information, like lists of hikes (including distances and elevation gain), in the links below to the individual area maps. Remember, you should not expect any cell phone reception within the backcountry, so discuss plans ahead of time.

Visitor center staff will be happy to assist you with your choices and explain popular trails in park. Check the Ranger-led Activity Guide to find out when you can join a ranger on trail.

Hike Smart
In the backcountry, little mistakes can quickly become big emergencies. Follow our advice to stay safe and be prepared.
Hike as a group to reduce the likelihood of negative wildlife encounters.
Do not let members of your group get ahead or behind. Separated parties count for more than 75% of our search and rescue incidents.
Do not count on having cell service if you need help.
Help may be hours or days away. Prepare to care for yourself.
Tell someone precisely where you’re going, when you’ll be back, what route you’re taking, where your car is parked, what the license plate number is, and what you’ll be wearing. This information shrinks our response time exponentially in the event of an emergency.
Stop at a visitor center, ranger station, or check the website for trail and weather conditions before you go.
Familiarize yourself with hazards so you will have fun and stay safe.

What to Bring Hiking
Sturdy footwear is a must.
Bring plenty of water. The mountains can get very hot in the summer. Surface water in the park may be unsafe to drink.
Carry bear spray and know how to use it.
Mosquito and bug repellent
Sunscreen and a hat to prevent sunburn. A day of hiking can expose you to more sun and UV rays than normal.
Bring rain gear and layers for warmth. Weather can change quickly.
Snacks or a lunch to eat on the trail. Remember, if you pack it in, pack it out.

Area Trail Maps
Lake McDonald

Many Glacier

North Fork & Goat Haunt

St. Mary including Logan Pass

Two Medicine

Trail Status
Detailed reports on trail status are available on our Trail Status page. Trails, backcountry campgrounds, and other areas of the park that have closures, or are posted for safety reasons, are listed on our Trail and Area Closure page. The reports are updated each morning or anytime new information is obtained.

A rule of thumb, earlier in the summer, lower elevation trails and trails near the boundary of Glacier National Park are snow free. By mid to late July, trails in the higher elevations, over mountain passes and on the Continental Divide are snow free.

Day Trip Plan
If you are taking a day hike, please consider completing the voluntary Day Trip Plan (pdf) form and leaving it with the front desk of your hotel or a traveling companion that is not hiking with you. This voluntary form can help you plan your trip and could be a valuable tool for search and rescue efforts if needed.

Completion of this form does not mean a search will be initiated for you if you do not return. However, if you are reported overdue from a hike, this document would help search personnel concentrate search efforts along your intended route saving critical time and possibly reducing risks to those that go looking for you.

If you are staying inside the park, you are welcome to leave a copy of this form with your hotel’s front desk. All forms will be destroyed 30 days after the date completed. Again, this form is not intended to imply that our hotel concessioner or the National Park Service will be monitoring your return and does not mean a search will be initiated. If a search is initiated because others reported you overdue, the National Park Service will check with the hotels to see if a Day Trip Plan (pdf) was filed and use it to help focus their search efforts. Plan well and enjoy your hike!

Nature Trails
There are trails for all hiking abilities. Some self-guided walks interpret trailside features with signs. The Trail of the Cedars, Forest and Fire, Hidden Lake, Running Eagle Falls, and Swiftcurrent Nature Trails encourage hikers to experience Glacier National Park at their own pace.

The Trail of the Cedars and Running Eagle Falls trails are wheelchair accessible.

Additional Planning Resources
We have flickr photo albums of some popular hikes.

Visitor center bookstores carry a complete line of trail guides, topographic maps and field guides to aid the hiker. Publications are also available by mail. Visit the Glacier National Park Conservancy online store.

Overnight Trips
Hikers planning to camp overnight in Glacier’s backcountry must stop at the Agpar Backcountry Office, St. Mary Visitor Center, or other ranger station to obtain a backcountry permit. Visit our Backcountry Camping page for in-depth information about backcountry camping.

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