Origin of the Scenic Features of the Glacier National Park
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Glacier Park includes the portion of the great Front Range of the Rocky Mountains lying between the Great Northern Railway and the Canadian line. Curiously enough, few if any, of its striking features can be seen from the railroad, and probably thousands of persons have passed along this line without seeing any more of its beauties than here and there in the distance a snow-capped peak and without realizing that just over the ridge is a mountain region full of big game and abounding in all the beauties of the Swiss Alps.

At the other extremity of the park the international boundary line cuts Waterton Lake and crosses the main summit in some of the most rugged and beautiful scenery to be found in the region. This is well illustrated by figure 5, which shows the rugged character of the high mountains in the vicinity of Brown Pass, a few miles south of the line. Although this part of the park is still remote from lines of transportation and, on account of its broken character, difficult of access, it was the part first to be explored. The earliest pioneers were the surveyors of the international boundary line, who began work on the Pacific coast and in 1861 set the stone monument shown in figure 6 on the summit west of Waterton Lake.


Photograph by W. C. Alden.

Between the two borders of the park mentioned above there is a bewildering maze of rugged peaks, glaciers, and beautiful valleys studded with innumerable lakes. The traveler may well imagine that the particular valley he has seen is the most beautiful spot in the park, but upon visiting others he will learn that each one has its own peculiar charm, and when he becomes familiar with them all he will be loath to say that one is more beautiful than another, but he will learn that all are wonderful and that they combine to form an incomparable setting for the high peaks that tower in rugged grandeur far above them.

The dominant feature of the park is a broad mountain range trending in a northwest-southeast direction. On both sides of this range are areas of low relief, the Great Plains on the east and the broad valley of Flathead River on the west. On the west the ascent to the top of the mountain is gradual, passing through a series of ridges and spurs of greater and greater altitudes until finally the crest of the range is attained, but on the east the change is abrupt from the even surface of the gently sloping plains to the rugged heights of the mountains. In most other regions there is a wide belt of foothills through which the traveler has to pass before he reaches the mountains proper, but on the east side of the Front Range in the Glacier Park there are no such features to consume the traveler's energy. and he passes at once from the smooth, treeless plains to alpine scenery, embracing rugged peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, and beautiful lakes nestling in every valley heading into the range.


View from the Canadian side looking southeast into the United States. Photograph by Bailey Willis.

The abruptness of the mountains is well shown in figure 7, which is a view from Sherburne Lake, in Swiftcurrent Valley. The bold front, although somewhat sinuous in outline, is well shown in the photograph as it towers several thousand feet above the valley floor. Grinnell Mountain occupies the center of the picture, Grinnell Glacier with the Garden Wall at its back shows on the left, and Swiftcurrent Pass can almost be seen at the head of the valley on the right.


Grinnell Mountain and Grinnell Glacier with the Garden Wall at its back in left center; Swiftcurrent Pass on right. Overthrust fault at foot of cliffs on both right and left; crosses valley in the distance. Photograph by Bailey Willis.

Many people 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 saw-tooth crest. Such a conception may be true in a few cases, but generally a range is many miles in width and consists of a maze of ridges and high spurs, in some cases as prominent as the main dividing watershed. The mountain range which crosses the park is of this character, and it varies in width from about 18 miles in the southern part to 25 miles in the northern part. Into this broad mountain mass the streams from 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 mountains have 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 Great Northern Railway to a short distance beyond Ahern Pass, and there it crosses Flattop Mountain to the summit of the Livingston Range on the west.

The two mountain crests just described form a sort of rim around an inclosed basin of comparatively level land known as Flattop Mountain, which stands at an altitude of about 6,500 feet. Although this constitutes the top of the mountain and forms the Continental Divide for a distance of about 20 miles, it is in effect a great topographic basin, as it is rimmed round by a wall of mountain peaks (figures 8 and 19) which rise to heights of 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 ago, before the present valleys were excavated. It was then as now a beautiful park with a rolling or undulating surface that stretched up to and blended with the slopes of the surrounding rocky rim, as shown in figure 19. Some of the old gently rolling surface is still preserved on Flattop Mountain, which with its cover of open forest forms a beautiful natural park, as shown in figure 8. Through this park the traveler can ride at will, and he can find many beautiful camping sites, especially early in the season, when water is plentiful.


The background shows part of the mountain rim that surrounds the basin. Photograph by Bailey Willis.


Only the upper end of Grinnell Glacier shown in the picture, With a miniature glacier hanging on a shelf on the left. Wall fully 1,000 feet high at the right of the small glacier. Photograph by T. W. Stanton.

Flattop Mountain is a striking topographic feature, but as its origin is to be sought in the erosive processes that have gone on in the past a discussion of its mode of formation must be deferred to that part of the paper dealing with the geologic and physiographic history of the park.

The high peaks grouped around the basin of Flattop Mountain constitute the rim previously mentioned. In other parts of the park they have no particular arrangement, except that they occur along the Continental Divide and on the high spurs that project on both sides from this irregular watershed. The map shows the high barren parts of the mountains; it also shows the locations of the highest peaks, those rising above 10,000 feet being as follows: Cleveland Mountain, 10,438 feet above tide level; Stimson Mountain, 10,155 feet; Kintla Peak, 10,100 feet; Jackson Mountain, 10,023 feet; Siyeh Mountain, 10,004 feet.

The most ragged topography is on the north and east sides of the high ridges and peaks, for the present glaciers are generally located on these sides and the ancient glaciers, although present on all sides, were most active in their work of excavation on the north and east slopes. 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 smoothness of the slopes and crests. If he looks north or east he sees generally rounded slopes and dome-like crests, which seem to present little or no difficulty to the climber and he might readily imagine that reports of the ruggedness of the mountains had been exaggerated, but if he turns about he will see that these gently rounded crests are cut by nearly vertical walls which no mountain climber, no matter how hardy he may be, can scale, and that the slopes are rugged in the extreme.

The ruggedness of the north side of the main dividing ridge is well shown in figure 16, which is a view of the upper end of the valley of Middle Fork of Belly River. Enormous cirques were cut by the ancient glaciers in every ravine opening into the main valley, leaving the sharp pyramid seen in the center of the picture towering up to a height of over 3,000 feet. It also shows the smaller cirque cut by the present (Shepard) glacier.

As explained more fully in Mr. Alden's paper describing the glaciers of the park, the glaciers have eroded, in the peaks and ridges, great cirques with nearly vertical walls ranging in height from a few hundred to three or four thousand feet. Such amphitheaters are extremely abundant, nearly every valley terminating at its upper end in such a feature, with countless smaller cirques high up on the mountain slopes. In many places the existing glaciers have cut so deeply into the range that the ridge behind the cirque is reduced to a "knife-edge," and the presence of such features at other points along the main crest and on the high spurs shows clearly that the old glaciers which long ago occupied these summits were even more active than their modern representatives. Probably the best example of a "knife-edge" crest is the Garden Wall back of Grinnell Glacier, which is shown in figure 9. This is a conspicuous feature when viewed from Swiftcurrent Valley on the east or from Granite Park on the west, and can readily be seen on a clear day from any part of McDonald Lake.

No matter which route the traveler selects he will see these great cirque basins quarried out of the mountain side. If he crosses the range from Two Medicine Lake he will see no existing glacier, but he will find cirques cut by the ancient glaciers that swept down this and neighboring valleys. If he climbs the trail to Dawson Pass he can not fail to see the beautiful cirque in which lies the upper lake and also the shallow basin up which the trail ascends to the crest.

At the head of Cut Bank Creek he will see many little lakes or ponds, each of which lies in a little cirque of its own, while they all form a group in a broad cirque platform at the extreme head of the valley. When he reaches the summit he can look into a small cirque on the northeast side of Stimson Mountain, and if he descends the trail beyond the narrow spur projecting into the valley of Nyack Creek he will see an immense cirque or shelf on which once lay a large glacier that found an outlet to the west down Nyack Creek.

On the summit crossed by the trail from Red Eagle Lake to Nyack Creek the traveler will find himself surrounded by evidences of the former existence of great glaciers which have cut deeply into the upper slopes and have formed a broad platform in a corner of which the Red Eagle Glacier now finds a resting place. He can also see the shelf which Pumpelly Glacier has cut on the southeast side of the crest, besides many smaller cirques on the slopes around him.

In the trip up the valley of St. Mary River, which most travelers take, many cirques can be seen on the south side, but few if any on the north side. In the distance the traveler catches beautiful glimpses of Fusilade Mountain, which seems to be a sentinel watching his approach. This mountain has a smooth regular slope on the south, but a nearly vertical wall on the north. The traveler will soon learn that such a wall means that a glacier is lying at its foot, or if not present now that one formerly occupied this position, and the steep wall is a part of the cirque it has formed. On traversing the trail leading to Sperry Camp he will find that Gunsight Lake and Lake Ellen Wilson1 on the opposite sides of the summit both occupy cirques, and that below the lake on the west there is still another lake occupying a cirque whose walls are almost 1,000 feet high.

1This lake is sometimes locally called Lake Louise.

On Piegan Pass the traveler will find many similar features showing that long ago the glaciers were very active in this region and that many cirques were formed as a result of their activities.

A lake at the head of Canyon Creek occupies an enormous cirque which has been largely excavated in the north flank of Siyeh Mountain. The peak is cut almost in half, and the depth of the cirque below its crest is fully 4,100 feet.

In Swiftcurrent Valley large cirques abound. One of the most noted is that which holds Iceberg Lake. This ideal cirque is described on page 38. Well up on the main trail to Granite Park the traveler can not fail to note the great cirques both to the north and the south of the trail. He is conscious of the steepness of the bounding wall of the cirque on the south as he painfully labors up the trail in its steepest place, but this is easy compared with the nearly sheer ascent of the back wall where the present little glacier almost overhangs the lip of its own small cirque 1,500 feet above the floor of the larger one. West of the crest he sees only smooth regular slopes which by contrast seem almost flat.

On the main trail across Flattop to Waterton Lake the traveler sees cirques only at a distance, and he may imagine that he is beyond the limit of their development. If, however, he wishes to learn the truth he has only to climb the ridge on his right and he will find himself standing on a crest cut, on the opposite or northeastern side, by a number of glaciers to such an extent that he may wonder whether the thin crest will bear his weight or whether it will crumble, precipitating him down hundreds of feet onto the blue ice of the glacier or into the still deeper blue of the glacial lake. As he looks around he will see immense cirques now abandoned by the glaciers that carved them, but giving rise to some of the most rugged scenery in the park.

On the trail from Waterton Lake across Brown Pass to Bowman Lake the traveler can see many well-developed cirques, especially on the south side of the trail. Here again there is a striking difference in the scenery on the two sides of the valley. On the south there is a succession of deep cirques, several of which are now occupied by glaciers, and between the cirques there stand out prominent projecting spurs that are rugged in the extreme. On the north side of the valley there is only one insignificant cirque, and the valley wall is smooth and regular, but should the traveler be curious and climb this regular wall he will find that it also is deeply notched on the farther side by cirques opening into Boundary Creek and that the crest which looks so smooth and regular from the trail is a mere "knife-edge" bounded on the farther side by nearly vertical walls.

The foregoing paragraph describes a few of the cirques to be seen by the traveler on the summit trails that are now open. As new trails are built other parts of this wonderful region will become accessible and the traveler will find on each new trail features very similar to those along the old and well-known routes, but having individual characteristics and beauties all their own.


The curve in the outline of the valley has been produced by the glacier that formerly flowed out by this route from the mountain center. Photograph by Bailey Willis.

In places the backward cutting of the glaciers has extended so far, especially where cirques were developed on opposite sides of a ridge, that the wall between them has been removed so that the basins coalesce and form a low pass. It seems probable that all of the better known passes in the park, such as Gunsight, Swiftcurrent, Ahern, Brown, and Jefferson, were formed in this manner by glaciers that formerly occupied them, but have long since disappeared.

Forests add greatly to the beauty of the park, for the trees grow only on the lower more gentle slopes, forming as it were a foreground or setting for the higher peaks, which, by contrast, look much more rugged than they would were the surface entirely barren of vegetation. The mountain ranges of the Great Basin of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and southern California are almost devoid of vegetation, but they are forbidding and have no more picturesqueness than an artificial pile of barren rock. In Glacier Park the vegetable cover sweeps down with long gentle curves to the bottoms of the valleys in which there nestle scores of lakes varying from mere ponds to sheets of water 9 or 10 miles in length and a mile or more in width. Where these lakes receive the wash from the glaciers they are milky white in color, but in other locations the water is clear and pure and reflects all the varying phases of the sky and clouds above. On a clear day they are beautifully blue, but when storm clouds gather the color of the water changes to darker and darker shades which make it look dangerous and forbidding.

The larger and more prominent lakes are McDonald, Logging, Upper Quartz, Bowman, and the Kintla on the west side of the range, and Waterton, Upper St. Mary, and Two Medicine on the east side. Views of Bowman and Lower Kintla Lakes are shown in figures 17 and 10, and of Two Medicine and Waterton Lakes in figures 1 and 22. Many of the lakes have been sounded, and the deepest water recorded is as follows: McDonald Lake, 440 feet; Upper Quartz Lake, 254 feet; Bowman Lake, 256 feet; Waterton Lake, 317 feet;1 and Upper St. Mary Lake, 292 feet.1

1Sounded by Prof. Morton J. Elrod. Only a few soundings were made by Prof. Elrod in Waterton and Upper St. Mary Lakes, and it is not at all certain that the point of greatest depth was ascertained. See "Some lakes of Glacier National Park," Washington, 1912, sold by the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C., for 10 cents.

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 bottom of the stream bed or breaks in feathery torrents from the summits of precipitous cliffs that abound on every hand. In this connection it is interesting to note that the mountains of the park constitute not only the Continental Divide between the Atlantic and the Pacific, but also between these systems and Hudson Bay. A small peak lying between Cut Bank Creek on the east, Nyack Creek on the west, and Red Eagle Creek on the north is the exact point on which the waters divide, and for this reason it is called Triple Divide Peak. (Fig. 11.) Of the streams mentioned above as draining this culminating point of the continent Cut Bank flows eastward into Missouri River and thence into the Gulf of Mexico Nyack flows west into the drainage basin of Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, and Red Eagle Creek flows north into Saskatchewan River and Hudson Bay.


A marks the small peak on which the waters divide. Great vertical Cirque Walls abound on north side of every peak and ridge. Photograph by T. W. Stanton.

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Last Updated: 09-Nov-2009