An hour or so up ahead, at the higher elevations along the trail that leads over Siyeh Pass, huckleberries were ripening. Even a dawdling day hiker like me knows that huckleberries can quickly mean grizzlies in Glacier National Park. I indulged a nervous tic and patted around for the loud red aerosol can on my belt, whose label reads Counter Assault. It’s effective as a bear repellent, but even more reliable at making an urbanite feel faintly ridiculous.
Djamila Grossman for The New York Times
A century and a half ago there were 150 glaciers in what is now Glacier National Park. Twenty-five remain.
I was in northwest Montana for the hikes and the huckleberries, but most of all to experience the namesake glaciers, which, I had recently learned, might be around for only another decade or so. Given that a century and a half ago there were 150 and now there are 25, the trip makes me an enlistee in the practice known by a somewhat prickly term: last-chance tourism.
For now, though, there are still glaciers to be seen. The park’s skein of well-maintained trails traverses every section of its million-plus acres and can accommodate any level of ability, from backpackers to the sheets-and-coverlets crowd. Even visitors who prefer to commune with nature through a car window can be awed by the views of the Jackson and Blackfoot Glaciers from Going-to-the-Sun Road, the often car-choked highway that more or less bisects the park west to east.
And for those who want to get closer, some serious legwork over steep terrain can put you right next to both the Grinnell and Sperry Glaciers, respectively a day and an overnight’s hike away. There are other glaciers to be glimpsed in the distance during a hike, but they can’t be reached by trails. These are excursions that require ice ax, ropes or crampons: the well-sequestered Pumpelly Glacier, for example, at 8,420 feet, and its close neighbor, the Pumpkin Glacier.
Other glaciers are nearer a trail, but still display their remote and frigid glory at some distance, and in a way the craggy surroundings make them even more vivid. I chose the Siyeh Pass Trail because it affords a prolonged, spectacular view of the Sexton Glacier from below.
Alpine glaciers like Sexton don’t look like peaks or cubes. A couple of miles into the hike, as the trail opened into a valley, it came into view: a massive, ragged smear of snow-laden ice, perched just under the sawtooth granite skyline.
My audio track, meanwhile, was the cascading water of Baring Creek, which runs parallel to much of the trail. Descending from the glacier, it charges over a series of red-rock ledges and then makes its way down into the azure St. Mary Lake far below.
As the trail continued, the bottom edge of Sexton became visible — a violent crumble, broken loose by gravity and temperature. Glaciers are forceful, slow-flowing rivers of ice. With binoculars, I could see Sexton’s thickness and true magnitude. The perspective also offers, if you’re up for it, a rather stunning view into the future. As I pushed ahead, a graying volunteer ranger approached me at a nimble gait. No bears sighted, he reported. (O.K.!) He was a veteran of decades here, it turned out. We craned our necks up at the still-formidable Sexton, and he said that it had once looked far larger to him. I read later that it has, in fact, lost at least 30 percent of its surface area since the mid-’60s.
There are several measures of what qualifies as a glacier. One generally accepted rule of thumb is that they are a minimum of 25 acres in size. The most recent report has Sexton at 68.
I moved on, ascending the switchbacks that pull the Siyeh trail up toward the 8,000-foot pass. I was well above tree line by now, and only a few peaks away from the Canadian border. Not far off, out on the moraines, a quartet of mountain goats appeared, munching and then settling.
A good idea. I was tired, too. According to Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” which follows the cross-country trek of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Lewis was able to bushwhack 30 miles in a day. I was going to do 11, and without the whacking. (The Lewis and Clark expedition came within sight of these mountains in 1806.)
As I rested I heard women’s voices come from up the trail, sounding like an exuberant traveling book group. They seemed delighted to find a sprawled, worn-out guy to greet in passing. “How do you like it? This is our backyard!” the leader announced, adding that they were from Kalispell, Mont., just southwest of the park. I responded in superlatives, and asked whether folks here talk much about what’s happening with the glaciers.
There was a pause and the temperature seemed to decline a degree or two. “God will take care of everything we need,” one said.
“I don’t think man has anything to do with that,” her friend put in.
(A bartender at one of the lodges, not-authorized-to-speak-publicly-on-the-matter, confided that not all locals share these views.)
After a bit, they warmed enough to point out some huckleberry bushes nearby. (This is a popular shrub around here, and not just for bears; after a few days in the area, I can attest to the virtues of locally marketed huckleberry beer, jam, pie, syrup, Riesling, lip balm, French toast, soda, cobbler, lemonade, ice cream, daiquiris, tea and milkshakes.)
Retracing my steps back down to the trailhead, I was alone again — not a wise practice, according to park brochures. Lewis recounted that one grizzly, already shot four times through the lungs, charged and dispersed a six-man hunting party while its stalwarts were still firing. Still, over the past hundred years, and despite tens of millions of visitors, only 10 fatal grizzly attacks have been recorded here. They do, however, take up a fair portion of mind space.
The Siyeh Pass Trail can either be an extended loop or a somewhat shorter out and back of about 11 miles — the option I chose. As I headed back down into the valley it wasn’t much of a stretch to think of the looming Sexton as alive. The pressure of the glaciers’ weight causes the ice to flow forward over the landscape; colder temperatures allow for a buildup of ice, which speeds up the flow. Heat — a warmer day, season or era — is the competing force, and the glaciers ebb. That movement is a defining feature, part of what makes glaciers distinct from your more prosaic all-year patches of snow.
The day before, I had spoken with Daniel Fagre, who coordinates climate change and glacial geology studies here for the United States Geological Survey. He is a 20-year veteran of research at the park. The retreat of the glaciers began around 1850, he said, as part of a slow, natural climatic variation, but the disappearing act has accelerated during the last hundred years. Until recently, his research projected that, as global warming hit its stride, the park’s glaciers would all be gone by the year 2030. Now he thinks it may be as soon as 2020.
Outsize snows this past winter, which kept many park roads and trails closed well into July, could briefly forestall the meltdown, but the longer warming trend is inexorable, he said.
No reprieve? “No, I think we are continuing on that path,” he said.
The science is preliminary, but it’s clear that this loss will be more than aesthetic for the park’s ecosystem, he said. Those glacial reservoirs provide a steady supply of cool meltwater through hot summers and dry spells, helping to sustain a constellation of plants and animals, some rare — big-horned sheep, elk and mountain goats among them.
Passing again under the glacier as daylight faded, the trail neared its end. Those prospective losses weighed heavily — nostalgia, of a sort, laced with dread.
MORE pleasantly, the park celebrates nostalgia of a different sort — from the Art Deco typography on the official signage to the fleet of low-slung, roll-top tour buses known as “red jammers,” which date from the ’30s. These ply the roads between robber-baron-era hotels, offering full- and half-day tours to various sections of the park ($30 and up).
There’s a wealth of accommodations along the eastern and western boundaries of the park, especially in the towns of East Glacier Park and West Glacier. Despite their names, these towns, with populations of only a few hundred each, are more like distant cousins than identical twins. West Glacier, half an hour from the Kalispell airport, is generally newer, and sprawls.
East Glacier Park, two and a half hours north of the Great Falls, Mont., airport, is a charming, tumbleweedy throwback with a string of weathered eateries and motor-court lodgings that are only slightly post-World War II. There’s also the Backpacker’s Inn, a combination hostel and super-cheap motel with a mostly youthful clientele who like the clean, spare single rooms for $30 a night. I’ve stayed in each of these places a time or two, but this night — after a fiery, pepper-laden dinner of enchiladas pasillas at Serrano’s Mexican restaurant among a crowd of other glacier-gawkers and local ranchers — I opted for the Mountain Pine Motel. It has endured, with appearance and ambience intact, since 1947. The owners are descendants of the pioneer Sherburne family that helped settle the park area in the 1890s.
Nearby is the century-old Glacier Park Lodge, a grandly creaky log cabin writ very large. There are three such concessioner-run legacy hotels at the park, erected by the Great Northern Railroad to lure tourism. My favorite is the Many Glacier Hotel, a darkly comical but generally comfortable old wooden monstrosity with a Swiss theme (the bellhops wear lederhosen). Its broad verandas face a transfixing view of a horizon of pinnacles that surround Swiftcurrent Lake — one of 131 named lakes in the park (631 others are as yet unnamed; feel free to follow my example and name a few after your friends).
When my wonderful clawfoot tub leaked onto the occupants of the room below, the two repair-crew guys who showed up grinned and shrugged after some futile work: that’s kind of the way this place is, they said. The only other available room was infested with bats, and smelled like it, I was told. It was a great stay, just the same. Half of the hotel is being renovated all this season and is closed, along with one of the dining rooms.
The Many Glacier Hotel is also the start of one of the park’s most popular hikes, to Grinnell Glacier. The 8- or 10-mile hike is strenuous, though less so than the Siyeh Pass Trail, and the payoff is that you can get within a stone’s toss of the glacier itself, the surface area of which is more than twice Sexton’s.
I embarked with a ranger-guided group on Chief Two Guns — a trim 45-footer, built locally and hauled up here somehow 50 years ago — for a quick trip over Swiftcurrent Lake. Then a short walk to another boat, the even older Morning Eagle, across Lake Josephine to the trailhead. The boats moved past a shifting panorama of jagged rock faces, slender waterfalls, and high above, the destination glacier. The trail is often crowded, but that scarcely registers in these surroundings. Hikers stop to catch a breath and find it taken again by the view out over the string of lakes, far below, fed by Grinnell’s meltwater. Connected by cascades, each lake is a deeper blue than the one above.
After three hours of steady ascent and a final quarter-mile of hard climbing, the trail ends at the foot of the glacier and an iceberg-studded, expanding lake. The lake does not appear on old maps, according to the ranger. It is a byproduct of the fact that Grinnell’s surface is 40 percent smaller than a half-century ago.
Above the lake, the glacier is a wide, tilted skirt of ice whose hem you can almost touch, brilliant under the sun even when it’s dirty with wind-blown grit by the end of the season. It seems immense, too big to disappear, and nearly crowds everything else from consciousness. The ranger said that until a few seasons back you could walk out onto the lower edge of it, which is too thin now to bear human weight safely.
Seaweed-like stromatolite fossils embossed in the cracked rocks along the trail supply a Precambrian perspective of perhaps a couple of billion years. But it is the view out over this lake of meltwater that grabs the imagination far more urgently.
A question hangs up there with the remnant glacier, which may soon be converted to a few patches of ice: what comes next?
Hikes and Huckleberries
Getting there and around
You can reach Glacier by flying into Kalispell, Mont., and driving half an hour to the west side of the park, or flying into Great Falls and driving two and a half hours to reach the eastern entry point. You can also take Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago, Seattle or Tacoma, and disembark at either East Glacier Park, Essex or West Glacier. The Going-to-the-Sun Road has been under repair since last year, which means that traffic is often rerouted to a single lane. This results in stops that can add 30 or 40 minutes to the usual one- or two-hour trip.
The Logan Pass parking lot and visitor center is usually posted “Full” by midmorning all summer, according to park staff members. A shuttle bus system along the Going-to-the-Sun Road ferries hikers and sightseers to and from Logan Pass and a series of trailheads.
Where to stay and eat
At East Glacier Park:
Both the Glacier Park Lodge and, to the north, Many Glacier Hotel (for both 406-892-2525; glacierparkinc.com/reservations.php; both from $140 a night for two in high season) are concessioner “legacy” railroad hotels — gracious dowager empresses that can’t help but show their age.
The Backpacker’s Inn, right behind Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant (29 Dawson Avenue; 406-226-9392; serranosmexican.com) and under the same ownership, is $30 a night for a single room, $12 a night for the gender-segregated hostel. Clean, quiet, spartan. Serrano’s has benches on the porch for its surplus of patrons — a mix of locals, tourists and backpackers who line up for the chimichangas and carne Tampico. The super-smoky habanero sauce is sold at the cash register.
At West Glacier:
The Silver Wolf Log Chalets (406-387-4448; silverwolfchalets.com; from $176) are cabins with interior décor that is almost exclusively logs, twigs and sticks, quiet and nicely appointed, 10 minutes from the park.
The Belton Chalet (406-888-5000; beltonchalet.com; from $155) is a lovely old hotel with predictable advantages and limitations. Keep in mind that a railroad line is close at hand. The restaurant is one of the best at this edge of the park.
In the park:
There are 13 national park campgrounds, many with views of lakes and peaks, including those at Apgar Lake, Medicine Lake or Swiftcurrent Lake. Cook a porterhouse or two over the iron grill, bring in a bottle of malbec and observe all bear precautions.
A note about water
East Glacier Park, Mont., is a small tourist town whose water system is not reliably safe, according to state and federal authorities. Motels connected to that system are required to post a “boil order” warning, but some don’t, which could mean trouble if you’re unaware and brush your teeth or drink water from the tap in your room. (Boiling kills giardia, E. coli, cryptosporidium and other potentially illness-producing microorganisms not reliably filtered out by the current water operation, said Shelley Nolan of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.)
A few places, including the big Glacier Park Lodge, have their own wells or water filtration, so the water is safe to use without boiling. Restaurants should use bottled water. So ask.
A new water treatment plant is set to begin operation soon, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, but as of this writing, it’s not certain that will occur in 2011.
Stephen P. Nash is the author of “Millipedes and Moon Tigers: Science and Policy in the Age of Extinction.” He teaches journalism and environmental studies at the University of Richmond.