Glacier National Park, Montana -
Beautiful Lake McDonald
by Joseph A. Sprince - Photography by Gerald B. Allen
With its alpine glaciers, jagged peaks, teeming wildlife, lakes, lush forests,
wildflowers, and many waterfalls, Glacier National Park is often referred to as
"North America's Crown Jewel". One of the Crown Jewel's crown jewels is beautiful
Lake McDonald valley.
One of the Glacier National Park's largest and most scenic lakes, Lake McDonald is ten miles long
and 472 feet deep, having been carved by a huge glacier. Located on the park's west side, it is surrounded by
mountains on the north, south, and east. The contintental divide with its
jagged backbone runs north-south east of the lake. Called the Lewis Range,
it provides a spectacular backdrop for the lake and also acts as a rain block.
Much of the blocked precipitation ends up falling on the McDonald valley. The
result is a mild, damp climate with an environment very similar to the Pacific
Northwest coast. The forests here are extremely dense with very lush undergrowth.
The western red cedar and hemlock trees, mainstays of the northwest coast,
predominate. Spectacular wildflower displays are common. The photo, above right,
shows beargrass blooms. The flower heads are fist-sized and quite common in the area.
In the early part of the 20th century, railroad baron, James J. Hill, sought to
drum up tourist business by building a series of grand lodges in Glacier National Park as well as tent camps
and mountain chalets. The Lake McDonald Lodge (right) was actually started earlier,
in 1895, as a hunting lodge. The lodge today is similar to the others in the park,
aging but filled with rustic charm and a lovely fireplace in the lobby. At the bottom
of the stairs is a boat rental dock for the fisherman. The lake holds 17
kinds of cold water fish, primarily varieties of trout. Left, tree-lined Apgar Village offers quaint
and quiet lodging on the west end of the lake.
Also, be sure to check out the
Historic Tamarack Lodge just outside
the park's west entrance.
Above the lake, McDonald Creek provides plenty of scenic beauty. The white water
section of the creek (right) starts at Sacred Dancing Cascade (left), then passes
through McDonald Falls before feeding into the lake.
During the spring, Glacier can also be called the land of 1,000 waterfalls,
due to the enormous snowmelts, and the creek flows can be an awesome thing to watch.
This creek is somewhat calmer above the cascade (left) but still very scenic.
Heading east on Going-To-The-Sun Road, you start to climb. The massive
mountains above the lake come into view. Sadly, on this unsettled day, they are
shrouded in fog and rain.
The heavy rain during this period has exacerbated the snowmelt, and there are waterfalls
everywhere. On some of the large mountains,
all of the drainage channels have waterfalls! Note the huge waterfall in the
photo, below right. The closeup, below left, shows at least three more, smaller falls.
About Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is in northern Montana along the Canadian
border. West Glacier is accessed from Missoula, Montana, via US-93 North (160 miles) or Montana routes 200,
83, and 40 (about 170 miles, a bit slower but very scenic). St. Mary, the east side entrance, is accessed
from Helena Montana via I-15 North, US-2, US-89 (255 miles) or I-15, US-287, US-89 (203 miles but a bit
The remoteness of Glacier National Park gives the park a feeling of wildness and less congestion than you
will find in Yellowstone National Park or Jackson, Wyoming. You can
usually find a campsite even during prime summer season if you stop early enough in the day. Unfortunately,
the long driving distances will add days to your trip. If you are coming from Yellowstone, allow at least
five extra days to see some of the park.
The west and east sides of the Glacier National Park offer very different environments. The Continental
Divide creates a rain shield over Lake McDonald Valley, the heart of
Glacier's west side. The result is a mild, moist climate with dense forests and lush undergrowth similar
to the Pacific Northwest. Glacier's east side is drier and more open. Popular east side locales
include Many Glacier (north) and
Two Medicine (south). The remote
Goat Haunt, on the north side, can be accessed only by a unique boat ferry across Waterton Lake,
originating from Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park. There are no cars at the Goat Haunt
(but many mosquitos), and it has the feel of a different world.
There is a variety of lodging
available in Glacier National Park. There are historic grand hotels dating back to the early 1900's,
including the Lake McDonald Lodge and the Many Glacier Hotel. Here you can sit in beautiful old greatrooms
in front of a huge fireplace with a roaring fire. Other lodging ranges from modern motels to rustic cabins.
There are also two backcountry chalets available to hikers.
The most famous highlight of Glacier National Park is the
Going-to-the-Sun Road. The scenic drive is considered one of the most
spectacular in America. It climbs over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. The most stunning section
is the sheer western face of the divide below the pass. Many beautiful waterfalls can be seen in this
area as well as wonderful alpine views. Going-to-the-Sun is generally closed due to snow until after
The park offers opportunities for fishing, boating, and wildlife viewing. Moose are especially prevalent
in the Many Glacier region. Hikers need to be prepared for the possibility
of grizzly bears anywhere in the park. You can also obtain boat rentals, horseback rides, and guided hikes
For more park information, ranger programs and visitor services, visit the
Glacier National Park Website Visitor Center.
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Glacier National Park is located in northern Montana adjacent to the Canadian border. Access to the park's east side is by secondary roads from I-15 north of Helena. Access to the west side is by secondary roads north of Missoula which is on I-90.
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