Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Glacier National Park, Montana
Northern Montana's expansive Glacier National Park offers over 700 miles of trails, with 760 lakes, 175 mountains and two dozen glaciers. The park runs along the Canadian border, as well, and I find that the best town for flights to the area is Kalispell, Mont., about 33 miles from the West Glacier entrance. West Glacier is beautiful, and nearby Lake McDonald is the largest body of water in the park. The 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road is the main transportation through the park. At the midpoint, the Logan Pass Visitor Center at 6,700 feet is a good stopping point for lunch, information and hiking. Those fit enough for strenuous hiking can get spectacular views of Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier along the trails in that area. In addition, there are a great many backcountry trails and camping opportunities if you can secure a backcountry permit. Throughout the park you're likely to see abundant wildlife, including mountain goats and bear. Vibrant wildflowers carpet many parts of the park in midsummer.
Weather in Glacier National Park varies greatly throughout the year. Most visitors arrive in the summer months. Expect summer days to be very hot and humid. Bring plenty of water. Weather can be unpredictable—snow has been recorded in August. You might be enjoying a warm sunny day and then within an hour be drenched with a cold, driving rain. The most rainfall usually occurs in June. (Be sure to bring rain gear for yourself and your camera.) Winter can be inhospitable, with bitter cold, wind and deep snow averaging about 40 inches in January and temperatures averaging between 15° F and 28° F, but as low as -35° F.
I bring a standard backpack load, which includes several lenses with focal lengths from 14mm to 300mm. Careful decisions may have to be made depending on the difficulty level of the hike and your fitness level. I never hike with my 300mm ƒ/2.8, but leave it in the car for driving the roads to spot wildlife. On a strenuous hike, I may have to opt for the lighter 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G. Photographers interested in the wildflowers should bring a macro lens like my Nikon Micro-Nikkor 105mm ƒ/2.8G lens. Landscapes are usually shot with a 14-24mm or 24-70mm on my full-frame Nikon D3. A tripod is a must. I'll bring the Gitzo Explorer with a Really Right Stuff ballhead.
Most photographers and tourists visit Glacier National Park in the summer. It's a great time of year for wildlife (I've photographed many bear, mountain goats, deer, rams, etc.), with easy accessibility to roads, hiking trails, campgrounds, hotels and restaurants. The park is very crowded, however. In early autumn or after the first snow, the Many Glacier Road that bisects the park for easy east-west access is closed. Without it, the drive around the south tip of the park to the other side is quite lengthy. I once made a trip in early autumn and found it virtually deserted. It was a wonderful experience because an early snow blanketed the mountains, but there was still abundant color in the aspens. The drawback to visiting this time of year is that the campgrounds and park hotels are closed. Always tell someone where you're going, especially in the winter. A few years ago, my 4x4 nearly slid off an icy road and over a cliff drop of several hundred feet.
Contact: Glacier National Park, (406) 888-7800, www.nps.gov/glac.
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