Glacier National Park was called “the best care-killing scenery on the continent” by John Muir. We tend to agree. The Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest meet here to form the “Crown of the Continent”, a place of staggering geological beauty and ecological diversity.
The traveler who braves Glacier National Park’s “Going-to-the Sun” Road for its 50 mile entirety will have passed through or by multiple unique ecosystems in several elevation zones on either side of the continental divide. Each and every ecosystem and elevation zone passed through is unique and beautiful in its own right, but the entirety of Glacier’s elevation zones and ecosystems makes the place even more beautiful in its complexity. Over the course of these 50 miles through Glacier, the traveler passes through or by plains, Aspen forests, lowland evergreen forests, two of the deepest lakes in the entire United States, sub-alpine meadows, high alpine tundra, temperate rainforests, swamps and within view of high glaciers and the basins and valleys the glaciers have carved through eons of time.
The animal inhabitants of Glacier National Park are nearly identical to the cast of characters that would have been seen by the Native Americans who inhabited the area in the past. Only the American Bison and the Woodland Caribou are extinct within the borders of Glacier (although populations of both are within driving distance). Glacier is one of the last strongholds for many endangered and threatened species: Grizzly Bears, Gray Wolves, Canadian Lynx and the ever-elusive Wolverine are all found here in higher concentrations than most parts of the lower 48 states.
But in the end, the sheer artistic legacy of glacial processes steals the show here. The canvas was and is world-class. The Lewis Overthrust was caused by a tectonic event in which one tectonic plate literally pushed over another along a fault line, causing the elevation of multiple older rock layers over younger rock layers. Many of these older rock layers are sedimentary in nature, making them very soft and easily “carveable” for the true artists of this masterpiece, climate, elevation and gravity.
The relatively humid and moist Pacific Northwest climate of the west side of the mountains moves over the top of these very steep mountains in a very short distance. This rapidly cools the air, which then drops its moisture near the top. During most of the year, this moisture comes as snow. Thousands of years of accumulation of snow have created glaciers, which are then dragged by gravity down valleys, eroding the sedimentary rock layers into the stunning landscape we see today.
The glaciers may be retreating and their demise has been predicted to happen around the year 2030. It is the personal opinion of the author of this page that this estimate is probably a decade or two too soon, but as they say, only time will tell. In the meantime, glacier recession is a reality and the landscapes being revealed for the first time in possibly millions of years are highly remote, not easily accessible, but absolutely stunning. We are already witnessing the effects of glacial recession within the park, usually staggered in occurrence based on elevation. Some low-lying glacial basins have been completely overgrown by vegetation of lower valleys in the park, while the higher elevation glacial recessions have seen transformations from a completely rocky landscape into pristine meadows or high, stunted evergreen stands. This topographical ecosystem evolution is an ever-changing process which will in reality never stop and never has. What may seem like a static environment to the infrequent or one-time visitor to Glacier is seen as a dynamic and in geological terms very rapid transformation that will undoubtedly hold change as the only constant here in the future. However, even climate change cannot erase the legacy of glacial artistry. The glaciers may be lost, but these mountains and lakes will remain.