USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 600
The Glacier National Park: A Popular Guide to Its Geology and Scenery


The scenic features of the park are truly alpine in their character, consisting of a wonderful combination of rugged mountain tops bounded by vertical walls from a few hundred to more than 4,000 feet in height, many interesting glaciers perched along the range in protected places, beautifully timbered slopes leading down by graceful curves to the bottoms of the valleys, and scores of lakes that are unsurpassed by any to be found in sunny Italy or the more rugged regions of Switzerland. This rare combination of scenic beauty is found not alone in one valley of the park but is characteristic of them all, and it is difficult to single out any particular part that is more beautiful than another.

One of the most interesting things about the park is the fact that the peculiarly rugged topography described above is practically limited to the region included within its boundaries. If one travels to the point where the Canadian line crosses the Continental Divide he will see that north of the line the mountains gradually lose their scenic interest, consisting only of low rounded ridges that are destitute of the rugged features to be found in the park. If he journeys in the opposite direction he will find that south of the Great Northern Railway there is little of interest to be seen and that the mountains are only such as are common to the ranges he has crossed in making the transcontinental trip. Even to the traveler on the railway the park is a sealed book, for in an ordinary journey he sees nothing of its beauty except here and there a snow-covered peak that glistens in the sparkling air of the early morning or catches the dull red rays of the setting sun. He gets no idea of the beautiful lakes, the glaciers, nor the mountains themselves, and doubtless he wonders why this region should be called a playground for the people. But let him stop at Belton or at Glacier Park station and let him really see something of the beauties of Lake McDonald, Lake St. Mary, or Bowman Lake, and then he can understand the attractive force that draws people across the continent and holds them spellbound before these awe-inspiring examples of nature's handiwork.

The dominant feature of the park is a broad mountain range trending in a northwesterly direction, on both sides of which there are areas of low relief. On the west the ascent to the top of the mountains is gradual, the traveler passing through a series of ridges and spurs of greater and greater altitudes until finally he attains the crest of the range; but on the east he passes at once from smooth, gently sloping treeless plains to a region of rugged peaks, glaciers, and waterfalls, with beautiful lakes nestling in all the valleys that head near the crest of the range.

Many persons conceive of a mountain chain as consisting of a single narrow ridge with steep slopes on both sides and a narrow, more or less regular serrate crest. Such a conception may be true of a few ranges, but generally a range is many miles in width and consists of a network of ridges and high spurs, some of which may be as prominent as the main watershed. The mountain range which crosses the Glacier National Park is of this character. It varies in width from 18 to 25 miles, and into this broad mass the streams on both sides have cut deeply, crowding the water parting or Continental Divide from one side to the other and forming a very irregular crest line. In fact, the mountain mass has been regarded by some writers as composed of two distinct ranges, the Lewis on the east and the Livingston on the west. The Continental Divide follows the crest of the Lewis Range from the southern boundary of the park to a point a short distance beyond Ahern Pass, and there it crosses to the summit of the Livingston Range.

The two mountain crests just described form a sort of rim around an area of comparatively level land known as Flattop Mountain, which stands at an altitude of about 6,500 feet. Although the Continental Divide lies along this mountain for a distance of about 20 miles, it is in effect a great topographic basin surrounded by a wall of mountain peaks from 1,000 to 4,000 feet above the general level. If the observer on one of the adjacent peaks could see in imagination the present valleys filled to a depth of 1,000 to 2,000 feet, he would then obtain a realistic picture of this basin as it must have been when it was formed, long before the present valleys were excavated. It was then, as now, a beautiful natural park with a rolling or undulating surface that stretched up to and blended with the slopes of the surrounding rocky rim. Some of the old gently rolling surface is still preserved on Flattop Mountain, covered by an open forest through which the traveler may ride at will and in which he can find nearly ideal camp sites, especially early in the season, when water is plentiful.

In other parts of the park the high peaks have no regular arrangement, except that they occur along the Continental Divide and on the spurs that project from both sides of it. The peaks rising more than 10,000 feet above sea level are Mount Cleveland, 10,438 feet; Mount Stimpson, 10,155 feet; Kintla Peak, 10,100 feet; Mount Jackson, 10,023 feet; and Mount Siyeh, 10,004 feet.

The most rugged topography is on the north and east sides of the high ridges and peaks, for the cirques cut by the present glaciers are more numerous on these sides and the ancient glaciers were much like those of the present day, except that they were more extensive and cut more deeply into the mountain mass. The difference in the appearance of the two sides of the mountains is striking and the traveler can readily determine in which direction he is looking by the ruggedness or the smoothness of the slopes and crests he sees. If he looks north or east he sees generally rounded slopes and domelike crests which seem to present little or no difficulty to the climber, and he might readily imagine that the reported ruggedness of the mountains had been greatly exaggerated, but if he turns about it becomes evident that on their opposite sides these apparently rounded crests are angular and precipitous and that in many places they are cut by cirques having nearly vertical walls which no climber can surmount and which give to the mountains a rugged grandeur that is seldom equaled.

Forests add greatly to the beauty of the park, for the trees grow only on the lower, more gentle slopes, forming a setting for the high peaks, which, by contrast look much more rugged than they would were the surface entirely barren. The green mantle sweeps down with long, gentle curves to the bottoms of the valleys, in which nestle lakes ranging in size from mere ponds to sheets of water 9 or 10 miles in length and a mile or more in width. The lakes that are fed by glacial water are milk-white, but others are clear and pure and reflect all the varying aspects of the sky and clouds above. On a clear day the water is beautifully blue, but when storm clouds gather it assumes darker shades, which make it look dangerous and forbidding.

Of all the factors that add attractiveness and beauty to the park the streams are by no means the least. The clear, cold water glistens in the sunshine as it ripples over the variously colored pebbles in the bottoms of the streams or breaks in feathery torrents from the precipitous cliffs that abound on every hand.

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Last Updated: 18-Jul-2008