Park Information

table of contents Navigation

A photograph of Glacier National Park Headquarters sign with an arrow pointing.
Park Information sign at Glacier Headquarters building

Matt Osborn/NPS

Glacier's Purpose

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 Significance

Glacier's scenery dramatically illustrates an exceptionally long geologic history and the many physical processes associated with mountain building and glaciation.

  • Glacier has the finest assemblage of ice age alpine glacial features in the contiguous 48 states, and it has relatively accessible, small-scale active glaciers.
  • Glacier provides an opportunity to see evidence of one of the largest and most visible overthrust faults in North America, exposing well-preserved Precambrian sedimentary rock formations.
  • Glacier is at an apex of the continent and one of the few places in the world that has a triple divide. Water flows to the Gulf of Mexico, Hudson Bay and Pacific and Ocean.

Glacier offers relatively accessible spectacular scenery and increasingly rare primitive wilderness experiences.

  • The Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the most scenic roads in North America, is a National Historic Landmark.
  • Glacier's backcountry offers a challenging, primitive wilderness experience.

Glacier is at the core of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, one of the most ecologically intact areas remaining in the temperate regions of the world.

  • Due to wide variations in elevation, climate, and soil, five distinct vegetation zones overlap in Glacier and have produced strikingly diverse habitats that sustain plant and animal populations, including threatened and endangered, rare, and sensitive species.
  • Glacier is one of the few places in the contiguous 48 states that continue to support natural populations of all indigenous carnivores and most of their prey species.
  • Glacier provides an outstanding opportunity for ecological management and research in one of the largest areas where natural processes predominate. As a result, the park has been designated as a Biosphere Reserve and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park has been designated as a World Heritage Site.

Glacier's cultural resources chronicle the human activities (prehistoric people, American Indians, early explorers, railroad development, and modern use) that show people have long placed high value on the area. Native American tribes had a strong spiritual connection with the area long before its designation as a national park. From prehistoric times to the present, American Indians have identified places in the area as important to their heritage.

  • The park's roads, chalets, and hotels symbolize early 20th century Western park experiences. These historic structures are still in use today.
  • The majestic landscape has a spiritual value for all human beings – a place to nurture, replenish and restore themselves.

Waterton-Glacier is the world's first international peace park.

  • People of the world can be inspired by the cooperative management of natural and cultural resources that is shared by Canada and the United States.
  • Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park offer an opportunity for both countries to cooperate peacefully to resolve controversial natural resource issues that transcend international boundaries.

Park Designations

  • Designated Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in 1932, joining Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and Glacier National Park in the United States.
  • Glacier National Park was designated as a Biosphere Reserve under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) "The Man and the Biosphere" Program in 1976.
  • Named a World Heritage Site, along with Waterton Lakes National Park, in 1995.
  • Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, and Glacier National Park in Montana, U.S., are collectively the first International Dark-Sky Association Parks spanning both sides of an international border.

Biological Information

Illustration of wildlife in the park
Painting by artist-in-residence, Robin Peterson, a collage of flora and fauna throughout Glacier National Park

Robin Peterson/NPS

Mammal species: 69 (not including 2 historic species)
Bird species: 278
Plants species: 1,132
Bryophytes: 452
Lichen: 473
Fish species: 25: Of which 18 are native and 7 non-native. Lake trout are native in the Hudson Bay Drainage but are non-native west of the Continental Divide. They are listed on both the native and non-native lists.

Historic Features

National Historic Landmarks
Two Medicine Camp Store
Going-to-the-Sun Road
Lake McDonald Lodge
Granite Park Chalet
Many Glacier Hotel
Sperry Chalet

National Register of Historic Places

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.

Geographic Features


Largest lake: Lake McDonald at 9.4 miles long; 1+ miles wide; 464 feet deep; 6,875 acres
Number of unnamed lakes: 650
Acres of named lakes: 29,967
Number of named lakes: 135
Total number of lakes: 785


Number of streams: 563
Longest stream: Upper McDonald Creek at 25.8 miles / 41.5 km
Total miles of streams inside the park: 2,865 miles / 4,610 km
Total length of perennial streams: 1514 miles / 2436.5 km
Total length of intermittent streams: 1307 miles / 2103 km


Recommended wilderness: 986,358 acres
Largest glacier: Harrison Glacier at 1,661,456.75 sq. meters
Land shared with Waterton National Park: 18.9 miles / 30.4 km
Land shared with U.S. Forest Service: 123.7 miles / 200 km
Land shared with British Columbia: 18.5 miles / 30 km
Elevation at Logan Pass: 6,646 feet / 2,025 m
Number of glaciers: 26
Miles of exterior boundary: 208
Number of mountains: 184
Park in square miles: 1,583
Park in acreage: 1,013,126


Paved bicycle path: 2 miles (3.2 km) between Apgar and West Glacier/HQ
Number backcountry campgrounds: 65 with 208 sites
Number designated picnic areas: 8 with 175 sites
Number Class A campgrounds: 8 with 916 sites
Number Class B campgrounds: 2 with 61 sites
Primitive capmsites: 3 with 28 sites
Number of trails: 151 with total length - 745.6 miles
Miles of Continental Divide Trail in Glacier: 106.7

Park Visitation

(Shown below in 10-year increments) view all years

Year - Number Visitors

1911 - 4,000
1920 - 22,449
1930 - 73,776
1940 - 177,307
1950 - 482,298
1960 - 724,500
1970 - 1,241,600
1980 - 1,474,578
1990 - 1,986,737
2000 - 1,728,693
2010 - 2,200,048
2017 - 3,305,512
Grand total Including All years:

Glacier's Past

Blackfeet in the Two Medicine area, ca 1914


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 Walshes at their North Fork homestead in 1910
Early settlers circa 1910


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.
Old mining town of Altyn, near Many Glacier
Old mining town of Altyn, near Many Glacier


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.
A graphic depicting the stages of construction of the road by year
A graphic depicting the stages of construction, by year, of the Going-To-The-Sun-Road

Matt Osborn/NPS

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

A map of Glacier National Park. On the side it says, "PARK MAP."
A map of Glacier National Park

Matt Osborn/NPS

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!

Snow Shoe Hare in winter when it is white
Snowshoe hares are reddish-brown for most of the year and become white as winter approaches to help evade predators by blending in with the snow.


Triple Divide Map
Map of the triple divide


Glacier National Park is a meeting place for
species from all directions. Three major rivers
provide pathways for plants and animals from
throughout the Continent.


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.

The result is a mixture of plants and animals that do not usually live together. To help understand what allows Glacier to have so much biodiversity, take a look at the map above. Glacier National Park straddles the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains. Here, the Rocky Mountains are at their narrowest point, allowing the biological communities of the Pacific Coast and the Great Plains to come closer together than they are at any point along the Continental Divide.

Glacier has significant differences in elevations from east to west. The west valleys are approximately 3,000 feet and slope up to the Continental Divide at 6,000 feet, and back down to the eastern valleys at 4,000 feet.

The sun shines through cedar and hemlock trees on Glacier's west side of the park.
The sun shines through cedar and hemlock trees on Glacier's west side of the park.

Matt Osborn/NPS

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.

table of contents Navigation

Western Red Cedar close of of bark and leaf
Close-up of Western Red Cedar bark and leaf.

Matt Osborn/NPS

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!

Lodgepole pine forest with an inset of an open cone from a recent fire
Lodgepole pine forest with an inset of an open cone from a recent fire

Matt Osborn/NPS graphic

Just a few miles away, on the east side of the
mountains, Lodgepole pines are the main species of
tree. Their small resin-covered cones have adapted to
resist fire and take advantage of it. The heat from a fire
melts the resin opening the cones. This allows the
seeds to be dispersed at a time when the forest floor
is full of ash-enriched soil and receives plenty of
sunlight onaccount of the canopy being burnt away.

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

View of the east side of Piegan Mountain from Siyeh Pass trail
View of the east side of Piegan Mountain from Siyeh Pass trail


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.

Sunset over Mount Cannon
Sunset over Mount Cannon


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.

On top of the Altyn Formation is a broad band of greenish-gray rock, 2500 to 3500 feet thick, called the Appekunny (ap a koon’ e) Formation. It consists of deposits of silts and mud hardened into a rock known as mudstone, as well as sand layers that became a hard rock called quartzite. Atop the Appekuny lies another layer of thick red mudstone called the Grinnell (grin el’) Formation. The red and green colors are caused by small amounts of iron. The difference in color depends on whether the rocks were formed in the presence of oxygen or not. Without oxygen the rocks turned a greenish color, and in the presence of oxygen the rocks turned red. The Appekuny and Grinnell Formations have well-preserved mud cracks and ripple marks indicating shallow water at the time of deposition.

Click picture below to go to full resolution version

Cross section of Glacier National Park, showing the various stages of sedimentation
Cross section of Glacier National Park, showing the various stages of sedimentation



Last updated: September 24, 2018

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

PO Box 128
West Glacier , MT 59936



Contact Us

Stay Connected