The purpose of Glacier National Park, part of the world's first international peace park, is to preserve the scenic, glacially carved landscape, wildlife, natural processes, and cultural heritage at the heart of the Crown of the Continent for the benefit, enjoyment, and understanding of the public.
Glacier's scenery dramatically illustrates an exceptionally long geologic history and the many physical processes associated with mountain building and glaciation.
Mammal species: 69 (not including 2 historic species)
National Historic Landmarks
There are 397 historic structures in the park. Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTSR) is one of them. GTTSR is the main road through the middle of the park. It's 50 miles long, and at its highest elevation, it's 6,646 feet high. The road has also been designated as both a National Historic Landmark and a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
Largest lake: Lake McDonald at 9.4 miles long; 1+ miles wide; 464 feet deep; 6,875 acres
Number of streams: 563
Recommended wilderness: 986,358 acres
Paved bicycle path: 2 miles (3.2 km) between Apgar and West Glacier/HQ
(Shown below in 10-year increments) view all years
Year - Number Visitors
1911 - 4,000
Recent archaeological surveys have found evidence of human use of the area which is now Glacier National Park dating back over 10,000 years. These people may have been the ancestors of the tribes that live in the area today. By the time the first European explorers came to this region, several different Native American tribes inhabited the area. The Blackfeet controlled the vast prairies east of the mountains.
The Salish and Pend d'Oreille tribes lived and hunted in the western valleys. They also traveled east of the mountains to hunt buffalo.
In the early 1800’s, French, English, and Spanish trappers came in search of beaver. In 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition came within 50 miles of the area that is now Glacier National Park.
As the number of people moving west steadily increased, the Kootenai, Blackfeet, Salish and Pend d'Oreille were forced onto reservations. The Blackfeet Reservation adjoins the east side of the park. The Flathead Indian Reservation is southwest of Glacier.
The railroad over Marias Pass was completed in 1891. The completion of the Great Northern Railway allowed more people to enter the area. Homesteaders settled in the valleys west of Marias Pass and soon small towns developed.
Under pressure from miners, the mountains east of the Continental Divide were acquired in 1895 from the Blackfeet. Miners came searching for copper and gold. They hoped to strike it rich, but no large copper or gold deposits were ever located. Although the mining boom lasted only a few years, abandoned mine shafts are still found in several places in the park.
Around the turn of the century, people started to look at the land differently. Rather than just seeing the minerals they could mine or land to settle on, they started to recognize the value of its spectacular scenic beauty. Facilities for tourists started to spring up.
In the late 1890’s visitors arriving at Belton (now called West Glacier) could get off the train, take a stagecoach ride a few miles to Lake McDonald, and then board a boat for an eight mile trip to the Snyder Hotel. No roads existed in the mountains, but the lakes allowed boat travel into the wilderness. Soon people, like George Bird Grinnell, pushed for the creation of a national park.
Grinnell was an early explorer to this part of Montana and spent many years working to get the park established. The area was made a Forest Rreserve in 1900, but was open to mining and homesteading. Grinnell and others sought the added protection a national park would provide. Grinnell saw his efforts rewarded in 1910 when President Taft signed the bill establishing Glacier as the country’s 10th national park.
After the creation of the park, the growing staff of park rangers needed housing and offices to help protect the new park. The increasing number of park visitors made the need for roads, trails, and hotels urgent. The Great Northern Railway built a series of hotels and small backcountry lodges, called chalets, throughout the park. A typical visit to Glacier involved a train ride to the park, followed by a multi-day journey on horseback. Each day after a long ride in the mountains, guests would stay at a different hotel or chalet. The lack of roads meant that, to see the interior of the park, visitors had to hike or ride a horse. Eventually, the demand for a road across the mountains led to the building of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The construction of the Going-to-the- Sun Road was a huge undertaking. Even today, visitors to the park marvel at how such a road could have been built. The final section of the Going- to-the-Sun Road, over Logan Pass, was completed in 1932 after 11 years of work. The road is considered an engineering feat and is a National Historic Landmark. It is one of the most scenic roads in North America.
The construction of the road forever changed the way visitors would experience Glacier National Park. Future visitors would drive over sections of the park that previously had taken days of horseback riding to see.
Just across the border, in Canada, is Waterton Lakes National Park. In 1931, members of the Rotary Clubs of Alberta and Montana suggested joining the two parks as a symbol of the peace and friendship between our two countries. In 1932, the United States and Canadian governments voted to designate the parks as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the world’s first International Peace Park. More recently the parks have received two other international honors. The parks are both Biosphere Reserves, and were jointly designated as a World Heritage Site, in 1995. This international recognition highlights the importance of this area, not just to the United States and Canada, but to the entire world.
While much has changed since the first visitors came to Glacier, it is possible to relive some of Glacier’s early history. You can take a horseback ride like an early visitor. Over 700 miles of hiking trails follow routes first used by trappers in the early 1800’s. Several hotels and chalets, built by the Great Northern Railway in the early 1900’s, house summer guests to the park. A visit to Glacier National Park is still a great adventure!
Map of Glacier National Park
Plants and Animals
Glacier National Park is brimming with wildlife. Approximately 1,132 species of plants, 278 species of birds, and 69 species of mammals live here. When an area is made up of a wide variety of living things, it is known to be an area rich in biodiversity. This is one of the reasons Glacier so special!
Plants and animals associated with northern Canada, the Pacific Coast and the prairies of the Great Plains mingle here with alpine plants and animals of the Rocky Mountains.
Avalanche Lake Trail winds through a lush
cedar-hemlock forest on the west side of the
park and offers visitors a cool environment
filled with giant western red cedars, western
hemlocks, and shade-loving ferns.
Western red cedar, with their stringy, spiraling bark,
reach their extreme eastern limits in the U. S. here in
the park. Their range fits perfectly within the eastern
finger of the maritime climate of the Pacific northwest.
Huge cedars have been growing here for hundreds of
years, and some trees of the lower Avalanche Creek
area are over 500 years old!
Just a few miles away, on the east side of the
It’s this combination of differences in topography, temperature, wind, fire frequency, soils, and rock, which create such a diverse array of plant communities here. These differences give us stunning varities of wildlife too.
Forests in the valleys of the east and west sides of the park, provide food and cover for bears and mountain lions. A few thousand feet higher, rocky cliffs provide habitat for mountain goats, marmots, and ptarmigan. Streams and lakes are home to beaver, muskrat, ducks, and other water-loving birds. Meadows, bursting with wildflowers, support elk, coyotes, hawks, and a number of different rodents.
This variety of habitat presents different survival challenges to animals and plants. On the high rocky cliffs of the park, the mountain goat’s thick fur keeps it warm and its specially-developed hooves are great for traction when climbing. On the east side of the park, the bright pink Douglasia plant, has thick, fuzzy leaves that conserve water and a low compact growth profile to reduce wind damage.
Rocks and Glaciers
Glacier National Park - A Story of Sedimentation, Uplift and Glaciation
Most rocks in Glacier are about 800 million to 1.2 billion years old. They were formed when this area was repeatedly covered and uncovered by the sea. During this time, thousands of feet of mud and sand deposited and compressed into rock. These rocks were lifted upward around 70 million years ago and form the park’s mountains.
Over millions of years, running water, and the passage of large Ice Age glaciers, carved the rugged peaks and deep valleys of Glacier National Park. This is one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.
One of the oldest layers is a band of limestone called the Altyn (all’ tin) Formation. Limestone is usually formed from shells and skeletons of dead sea animals that settle to the ocean bottom. The Altyn Formation formed about 1.2 billion years ago, long before such life forms existed. It is layer after layer of mud and sand held together by calcium carbonate, the same chemical as chalk.
Last updated: September 24, 2018