The vanishing of Glacier National Park
One of my early memories of Glacier National Park was a cross country ski up to Hidden Lake Overlook. It was almost mid-summer, but Logan Pass was still blanketed in two feet of snow.
It was warm, so my mom, dad, sister and I glided up the hill in shorts amid the pillared peaks that surround the hike’s ascent.
Suddenly. through the glare of the sun, we realized we were completely surrounded by ladybugs. They dotted the snow and filled the air.
On our way down, we watched the snow evaporate directly into the air before our eyes.
As we witnessed two natural phenomena in one day, I know there must have been other people there, but I don’t remember seeing anyone. All of our photos have only snow and mountains as backdrops.
Over the years, it’s grown harder and harder to go up Logan Pass without waiting in lines and fighting for parking spots. We have taken to going in the early evening, when everyone had already begun their twisty decent down Going to the Sun Road. We hike the boardwalk as the taillights blinked in the distance.
Now, it seems as though not even that is possible anymore.
I grew up in Whitefish and my dad still lives there, so Lance and I regularly have reason to visit. I love retreating to my childhood home in the woods about 10 miles west of Whitefish.
Inevitably, when we begin planning a trip, Lance plots how we can get to Glacier and I protest. Lance isn’t a fan of the crowds either, but the mountains have their draw to a photographer in a place so breathtaking.
We packed up the car for a Whitefish visit over Labor Day weekend. This time, I resolved to let Lance go to Glacier as much as he wanted. He had been waiting patiently to get the photos he wanted.
Saturday night, my sister watched our toddler so we could escape to catch a Glacier sunset. As we approached the park, we saw a flashing sign that said, “Park has reached capacity. No more entry.”
We hesitated, exchanging glances, but kept going.
A second sign with the same message deepened our doubt.
No one manned the main entrance, but signs indicted that the closure was at the end of McDonald Lake. We debated whether we should give up or make the nine mile drive around the lake to see if they had opened it back up again. After a short while, Lance sighed and turned the car around.
We tried again on Sunday, this time with my family and four paddle boards in tow.
I was less supportive. “What if we drive all the way there and get turned around again?” I protested. But my sister and Lance won out, and we decided to try. There were no warning signs this time. A park employee told us they had in fact opened up the park the day before at 3:30 p.m. an hour and a half before we got there, but the signs had not been updated. We could have gotten in, we realized, groaning at the wasted drive.
Lake McDonald was as mesmerizing as ever, with sunlight glinting off its waves and the colored rocks glowing through the water at its shoreline. We found a quiet beach to picnic and attempted to beat the wind on the paddle boards. For a little while, I forgot my frustrations.
Then we headed up the pass.
Traffic was steady but manageable up Going to the Sun. But the parking lot was still packed at 6 p.m. when we arrived at the top of Logan Pass. We sat in lines of cars, while some maneuvered out of their spots into the traffic and others fought to get in.
The 80 degree weather we enjoyed at McDonald Lake dissipated, and instead a wind blew clouds in. We rushed to change out tank tops for long sleeves and jackets.
My heart sank to see the ant trail of people up the boardwalk.
We pressed on, joining the hoards in their quest to get to the overlook about 1.3 miles up the trail. We stopped with them to view the three big horned sheep that grazed in front of a waterfall. We stepped aside to let others who already had been to the top pass by.
We heard a handful of different languages, saw people of all athletic abilities and ages and encountered many wearing everything from jeans to full scale hiking attire with trekking poles. I noticed the addition of multiple signs warning people to stay on the trail.
My thoughts swung from annoyance to, “Who am I to want to keep this place for myself? Why can’t everyone else be here? Aren’t the National Parks for us all?”
At the same time, Glacier loses its allure when you are in stop-and-go traffic, or circling a parking lot for the fourth time, or trying to peak around shoulders to look at the sheep.
I’ve realized, I will never see a lady bug migration while cross country skiing up the pass with my family again. That Glacier, the one where the quietness of the mountains swallowed up the noise of the city, doesn’t exist anymore. The city has come to it and it is overpowering the still.
Lance had stayed back to capture the sunset over Hidden Lake, so I packed our toddler back to the warmth of the car. We descended the boardwalk at just before 8 p.m. in time to see the last light glint off the rock walls that hemmed us in and a pink cloud roll over the ridge line. Even as I navigated around people to the sound of my daughter’s chatter, I couldn’t deny the beauty that surrounded us.
Still, I wish I could show my daughter the Glacier Park that my parents introduced to me. But that Glacier has vanished.