Glacier National Park sits hard by the U.S.-Canadian border in northwest Montana. It’s a million acres -- bigger than the state of Rhode Island -- and for my money, a lot prettier too. Glacier is home to the largest population of grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states and 25 glaciers, which, according to the park service, are disappearing thanks to warming global temperatures.
To enjoy the park, there are more than 750 miles of hiking trails and the stunning Going-to-the-Sun Road, which climbs up and over the Continental Divide. It’s been called the most stunning 50 miles of road in the United States.
Glacier is bisected by the continental divide, giving us two parks: One is the east side and the other, the west. The two sides are distinctly different in terms of views, trails, wildlife, lodging, weather, and geography. Here are some things to consider.
1. East Vs. West: The Views
The west side of Glacier has much heavier forests, including an actual rain forest. The rain forest is in an area called Avalanche, named for the creek that flows through the woods. The National Park Service has built a boardwalk through part of the woods, making it fully accessible.
How did a rain forest end up in the northern Rockies? Most such forests are on the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and northern California. They are created by rains coming in off the Pacific Ocean, and the storms are slowed by the Cascade Mountain Ranges. As the rain clouds dump their moisture, the clouds gain altitude and rise up over the Cascades and make it to Glacier.
This rain forest is full of ferns, fungi, mosses, and trees that may be 500 years old.
The east side of the park has plenty of forests, but they aren’t as dense as those in the west. There are a few western red cedars and hemlocks, both of which need lots of water to grow. The east side also was hit by a roadside wildland fire in 2015, which drastically changed the views in the park as the Reynolds Creek Fire burned about 5,000 acres. In its wake, the fire left behind open areas in the forest and changed the nature of the park’s east side.
The views on the east side widened. There are new views of Saint Mary Lake, which is part of one of the most iconic views in the park: a postcard shot of Wild Goose Island. Look for the signs on the road that direct you to the parking area for the overlook.
2. East Vs. West: Hiking Trails
There are more than 750 miles of trails in Glacier. Some are out and back, some are loops, and others are parts of the Continental Divide Trail. All have their proponents.
The west side trails include a seven-mile hike to Sperry Chalet, where, if you are lucky, you can spend the night in a rustic chalet and get three hearty meals. I say lucky because the place is fully booked just hours after the operator opens for reservations in January. The chalet is reopening this summer after it burned down in the 2017 Sprague Fire. If you make it to Sperry Chalet, the next stop would be to Sperry Glacier, located another three-mile walk and a sketchy climb up a steel cable “ladder” to get up through a pass to the glacier.
Another walk, which starts at Logan Pass but heads west, is the Highline Trail. It is the second most popular walk in the park. Leave your car at the pass and walk downhill. After 7.5 miles, you’ll see Granite Park Chalet.
Another four miles and the trail dumps you at the main road, where you can ride the shuttle back to the pass.
I include the Many Glacier valley in my tally of East Glacier hikes. From my experience, the hikes in Many are some of the most beautiful in the park. Be warned, the road leading to the valley is undergoing repair in the summer of 2020 and may be jammed with travelers slowed by construction.
The walk to Grinnell Glacier is popular because of the wildlife and the payoff: a close-up view of a glacier that you can walk on. But note that the park service cautions visitors that the ice can be dangerous. The other fun hike is to Iceberg Lake. The ’bergs are floating in the water all summer long. The walk includes stunning views of fields of wildflowers.
Off the Going-to-the-Sun road, close to Saint Mary Lake, is a trail that takes you to three waterfalls in about 2.5 miles: Baring, Saint Mary, and Virginia. Virginia is the tallest and furthest from the trailhead. You can see Virginia Falls -- a slash of white frothy water spouting from a tree-covered hillside -- from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
3. East Vs. West: Wildlife
There are about 1,200 bears in Glacier National Park and 300 of them are grizzlies. The chances of seeing a bear are so great that the park service recommends that you always hike with bear repellent.
There are also moose, wolves, wolverines, elk, marmots, beavers, mule deer, and whitetail deer. The park is full of wild animals, and your mission is to see as many as possible.
Animal viewing is best early in the morning and in the early evening. Animals are more active around those times and there are fewer folks on the trails to scare them away.
From my experience, you see more bears on the east side due to the thinner forests.
There appear to be more deer on the west side. The huge number of animals is why the park service is very strict when it comes to speed limits. Most roads have a 25-mile-an-hour speed limit, which is strictly enforced.
Birds are everywhere in the park. From golden eagles to the tiny American dipper, keep a sharp eye out. The dipper frequents fast-moving water and actually submerges and uses its wings and tail to “fly” underwater.
4. East Vs. West: Where To Stay
Both the east side and west side have lots of lodging options, ranging from high-style lodges to tent camping. The high-style in-the-park-lodges are operated by Xanterra, which operates the park concessions. The biggest lodge in the park, which was fully renovated a couple years ago, is in Many Glacier Valley. Also, the town of Saint Mary, which has motel and cabin options, is on the east side.
On the west, there’s high style at Belton Chalet, one of the original chalets built for 1915 travelers. It is just outside the park. In the park, you can stay at Lake McDonald Lodge, a 1913 lodge with incredible views of Lake McDonald and a vast collection of Western art.
5. East Vs. West: Weather
Because of the mountains bisecting the park, the west side is wetter than the east side. You can expect rain at any time, and with the showers come cooler temperatures. Be prepared for cool weather and be ready to bundle up. On the east side, it is a bit warmer and windier. The winds come swooping over the mountains and pick up speed on the downslope. Be prepared to see white caps on Saint Mary Lake as the wind can whip them up. Also, there’s a spot on the Going-to-the-Sun Road where winds stop blowing over a mountain and drop their load of snow. That creates what’s called the Big Drift, and some years, the snow piles up 90 feet.
6. East Vs. West: Geography
Glacier has a significant distinction: In its one million acres there are five different life zones.
There’s the alpine tundra, subalpine tundra, forestland, parkland, and grassland. Each life zone has its own geography that helps sustain it.
Forests pretty much control the west side of the park, thanks to heavier rainfall. The farther east you go into the park, the greater the elevation. The highest peak in the park is Mount Cleveland, at over 10,400 feet. It’s tundra at the top, where only grasses and mosses struggle to grow.
The subalpine tundra is a bit lower in elevation. You can easily visit the subalpine by stopping at the Logan Pass Visitor Center.
Further to the east are the parklands. These are open areas surrounded by trees, mostly aspens and cottonwoods.
Eventually, the landscape gives way to the grasslands -- wide-open spaces where the mountains meet the prairie. It’s the domain of the park’s elk.
East or West shouldn’t be a choice. My advice: Take a two-week trip and do both.
Want more on Glacier? Here’s why I spend my summers as a Glacier Red Bus driver.