Diving in Glacier National Park
Split shot of diver and historic cribbing
Glacier is an artful composition of water in various forms playing on rocks. Its name gives due credit to the “artist” that carved its valleys and filled its lakes and waterfalls, although wind and water have done their part. This parks terrain is much steeper than Yellowstone’s: a drive over Going to the Sun Highway can be a literal trip through the clouds. Its hard to believe that this park is lower in elevation than the more topographically subdued Yellowstone. The vistas from the top of the pass on Going to the Sun are awe-inspiring even though the elevation at this point is roughly equal to that of downtown Santa Fe.
Like Yellowstone, Glacier is older than the Park Service itself. The park was established in 1910, but had been a popular wilderness retreat since before the turn of the 19th century. The mountains surround large glacial lakes whose clear water becomes emerald green in the sun. Such a dramatic setting attracted tour boat operators as early as 1895.
Glacier is part of an International Peace Park, the result of a happy convergence in thinking between Canada and the United States. The grizzlies and mountain goats don't seem to care whether the wild huckleberries grow under a maple leaf or the stars and stripes-and neither do the visitors. The Canadian portion of this international protected area was declared Waterton Lake National Park in 1895, 15 years before Glacier was so designated.
The park brochure states that you'll find "lofty mountain ranges with sculptured glacial valleys and cold lakes that mirror mountains and sky." The mirror effect is more than idle prose. On several occasions, while we were examining the park's historic photos of boats on the lake, the archivist gently pointed out that we were holding the pictures upside down.
Although Glacier is open year-round, more visitors come during the summer months. Thus the pressure from humans on most wild animal habitats is minimal compared to the rest of the Lower 48. Those who get off the crowded roadways have an opportunity to see some of the wild animals that are part of the methodology of the American West: black bears, grizzly bears, bison, and wolves.
Location: Straddles the U.S.-Canadian border between Montana and Alberta
Elevation: Lake McDonald: 3,153 feet; Saint Mary Lake: 4,484 feet
Skill level: Intermediate-advanced
Access: Shore or boat
Dive support: Kalispell
Best time of year: April-November
Visibility: Often 50 feet at Lake McDonald, considerably less at Saint Mary Lake (roughly 15 feet)
Highlights: Geology, submerged trees, wrecks
Concerns: Altitude, frigid water
Rules and Regulations
Dive Site Map
The Canadians have been quietly ahead of the pack in the area of underwater park development. We found that Parks Canada had beaten us to the scientific punch at Glacier, where they had already conducted archeological research on a steamer sunk on their side of the border-today one of the chief attractions to divers here.
The water temperature in midsummer is surprisingly moderate, ranging from 60 degrees at the surface down to about 40 degrees at 100 feet. That's not toasty, but you'd be pleasantly surprised if you had just driven there from Lake Superior. The visibility was often 50 feet at Lake McDonald and considerably less at Saint Mary Lake, roughly 15 feet when we have been there.
Pay attention to the weather if you're diving from a boat. The placid lake waters plied by canoes can turn into a boat-eating cauldron very quickly, and drownings are the chief cause of visitor fatality at Glacier. In most parks for that matter, falls and drownings account for the majority of visitor deaths.
SPRAGUE CREEK UNDERWATER FOREST AT LAKE McDONALD
East of the Sprague Creek Campground there are a number of trees emerging from the silt about 100 yards east of the picnic area. (No, they're not growing-they probably slid there the same way those trees got into Jenny Lake.) They are in about 50 feet or so of water.
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APGAR: LAKE McDoNALD
Quite a few people dive here because they can park at the Apgar visitor center, and concessions are close at hand. The lake makes for excellent diving just about any place, and you'll see many reminders of human activity-such as pieces of an old dock, some tools, a small boat.
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This site is at the southern end of Lake McDonald, up a short road from the visitor center. Snorkeling is possible from the shore, but dive access here is primarily by boat, obtainable from the park concessionaire on the lake. An interesting wreck, the Fish Creek Bay Wreck, is located here and makes for a great snorkel or scuba as it lies in nearly 10 feet at its deepest point.
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The Gertrude was a stern paddle-wheeler 100 feet in length, built in 1907 and scuttled in 1918 in the north end of Upper Waterton Lake. Today, this is a popular dive site on the Canadian side of the park. The vessels stern is in about 20 feet of water and the bow is in about 60 feet of water. The hull is still intact but most of the superstructure has collapsed. The site is easy to find and easy to dive. The ship is a short swim off the picnic area at Waterton Park Townsite, resting on the bottom of the north side of a small bay. When we dove here, there were other divers just finishing a dive who were very happy to show us the location of the site. The visibility varies depending on the amount of diver activity and the algae content in the water. The bottom is very muddy and is easily stirred up, so watch your buoyancy control. Avoid hanging on the ship's structure as this hastens the deterioration of the wreck.
To get here, drive toward the Waterton Park Townsite and stop at the visitor center. The people at the desk can give you specific information about how to find the site.
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Diver-down flag must be displayed while divers are in the water.
National and historic objects protected.
National Parks fishing permit required for those over 16 years old.
Obtain permit and information on regulations at visitor centers or townsite service stations.
No diving in swim areas during summer season.
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