GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. -- The late July storm broke over the valley like a wave over the prow of a ship. Hikers, emerging from the forest, dashed across stretches of lawn as lightning cut across the darkening sky. Couples in canoes awkwardly zigzagged their way toward the dock as thunder rumbled overhead.
In front of the Many Glacier Hotel, picnickers packed up their lunch and scurried toward the first open door.
Inside, a hastily built fire gained strength and filled the lobby with the scent of burning pine. Wet shoes and socks lined the hearth and, in time, not an empty sofa or chair could be found.
"Look how big it is, Daddy." A girl opened her palm to reveal a handful of hail, which was now bounding off the deck.
A man in his mid-40s shared a chocolate bar with his ponytailed daughter. A young girl fell into the pages of her novel. Someone pushed a trash can beneath a leaking skylight, and over by the piano one guest stood, violin poised, and began to play "Music of the Night," accompaniment for the din of strangers and friends that suddenly filled the room.
The rain and hail lasted two hours that afternoon, but no one seemed bothered. At the Many Glacier Hotel, where storms and bears and rugged expanses of mountainous beauty abound, the communal experience is a welcome, if temporary, respite from the call of the wild.
My wife, Margie, and I stayed here last summer during a 10-day trip to Glacier National Park. We planned to divide our time on the eastern side of the park in a district known as Many Glacier and at the Prince of Wales Hotel in the Canadian township of Waterton. I initially had come here to tell the story of a man returning to the park after being attacked the previous summer by a grizzly on one of its trails.
Confident that encounters like his are the exception, I extended our stay to sample a vacationer's summer experience of Glacier and, in the process, discovered that the park is a glorious combination of the raw and the cooked, the wild and the civilized, a place where the hand of man is surprisingly at home in a world teeming with predators and untrammeled nature.
OK, I admit it: I was beat. By the time I finished the 12-mile round-trip trek to Grinnell Glacier, my dogs were barking. It was my first full day in Many Glacier, and I was hiking with a group that included Johan Otter, the survivor of the bear attack.
Described as a moderate climb -- a 1,600-foot gain over six miles -- the trek to Grinnell Glacier is one of the most popular in the park, and we felt safe. As we slowly ascended the switchbacks above Lake Josephine, calling out "aaa-ooo" to keep any unseen bears at bay -- always best to make a lot of noise when hiking on these trails -- the Grinnell Valley spread out before us.
Steep mountains with jigsaw patches of snow near their peaks cradled turquoise lakes. Meadows of wildflowers -- false hellebore, penstemon and columbine -- lapped against copses of alder and forests of elfin spruce. No wonder hikers think of Switzerland when they see these vistas.
To understand the appeal of Glacier, you must go back more than 20,000 years, when an ice sheet covered this part of northwestern Montana so deeply that only the tallest mountains were visible, rising like islands in a frozen sea. The pressure of the ice carved the horns, aretes, cirques and hanging valleys for which the park is known.
Blackfoot Indians called this stretch of the northern Rockies "Miistakis," the Backbone of the World. Naturalist George Bird Grinnell named it the Crown of the Continent, a title fitting both the park's location and its mountains' majesty.
Nowadays, however, its glaciers are getting all the attention.
Toward the end of the 19th century, explorers documented more than 100 glaciers, some covering nearly 1,000 acres. Five years ago, there were 37, and today, 27. By 2030, scientists predict, they all will be gone.
As we ate lunch, rested and watched waterfalls drop into the lake at the base of Grinnell Glacier, we felt humbled to know that perhaps we were watching snow that had turned to ice from before the time of Lewis and Clark slowly disappear.
Sights to behold
Two flights of stairs came easily after the trail to Grinnell Glacier. Down a long hall and to the left, our room at the Many Glacier Hotel had a stone fireplace and a balcony overlooking the lake. In the afternoon, the sun and a strong breeze streamed through the open windows.
When it opened July 4, 1915, the hotel was improbable for its ambition. More than four stories tall, longer than a football field, it was built no fewer than five days from the nearest town and railroad depot, but Louis Warren Hill was a determined man.
President of the Great Northern Railway, sole proprietor of the rail lines to the park and champion of its tourist potential, Hill was intent upon turning a profit and 100 years ago embarked on an ambitious program of building chalets and lodges throughout the park. Today, seven of the 11 buildings that Hill -- and other like-minded entrepreneurs -- constructed still stand, the others victims of fire and neglect. Some are accessible by car, others by hiking. Architecturally, each was set on the edge of the wilderness and designed to rival the wilderness.
Towering on the eastern shore of Swiftcurrent Lake, the Many Glacier Hotel overlooks the Grinnell and Swiftcurrent valleys, each green with forests of lodgepole pine and each shadowed by the broken-toothed peaks of the Continental Divide in the distance. In the still of the morning, the reflection in the lake picks up the near-perfect symmetries of the adjacent valleys.
With its white trim and brown siding and the diamond-and-cloverleaf patterns cut into the balusters on the decks and balconies, the Many Glacier Hotel is a rugged kind of gingerbread. In the lobby, 20 Douglas firs, each 30 inches in diameter, rise four stories and support timbers of nearly equal girth. Nothing here is too perfect, too clean or too well-matched, giving the hotel a rustic ease.
The Many Glacier Hotel and the other lodges inside the park are "the last front porches in America," said bellman Jason Snow, stepping in one morning from the porte-cochere. "In the evening, people talk with each other. Strangers go hiking with each other; they have dinner together."
Later in our stay, after taking a tour of the hotel, I spoke with Joanne Reid, who first visited Many Glacier in 1956 and spent two seasons working in the hotel's dining room. She had returned with an Elderhostel group.
"I think people come to Glacier and are changed," she said, describing the park's allure. "There is the sudden realization that if you don't get off the deck and outside, you'll miss something bigger than yourself, something really grand, mysterious and powerful. It's both humbling and rejuvenating."
With 700 miles of hiking trails, Glacier is an open invitation to wander. One afternoon, Margie and I joined a group for a ranger-led wildflower hike.
Toward the end, we came to a lake, and standing on its banks, looking west, we saw a bull moose in the shallows, his back to us, grazing among the underwater reeds. With binoculars, we watched him slowly submerge his huge head deep into the water and then rise up, reeds in his mouth, water, silvery in the light, dripping off his antlers and from his slender beard.
If the Many Glacier Hotel is toast and coffee, the Prince of Wales Hotel is high tea. We packed our bags and set out for Canada. The two-lane highway passes through magnificent grasslands and swaths of aspen and cottonwood groves. Chief Mountain, a lone edifice at 9,000 feet, towers above the plain.
Straddling the Continental Divide, Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada share a 19-mile border. Seventy-five years ago, the United States and Canada decided to unite their parks and create the Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park. Originally meant to commemorate peace and good will between the two countries, the designation today allows for an easy exchange of science, study and resources.
We zipped across the border without a hitch and stopped at an overlook to gaze upon the long blue sliver of Waterton Lake and the circle of mountains that dwarfs the streets and homes of Waterton. Even from a distance and amid such a setting, the Prince of Wales Hotel is conspicuous.
Seven stories tall, with broad decks and rows of windows, it sits on a hill above the township like a wayward ocean liner.
The Prince of Wales opened in 1927. Some say that Hill built the hotel to circumvent Prohibition. During those dry years, Americans could take a boat across Waterton Lake, refresh themselves at the hotel and return the next day, slightly worse for wear. Others simply mention Hill's affinity for dramatic location.
Our beverage of choice was a blend of black and green teas, and as we waited to be served in the lobby, at a table set with white linen and china painted with scenes of English gardens, we gazed through picture windows at Waterton Lake and the mountains rising above it.
Feeling slightly out of place amid such luxury, we asked our tartan-clad server how she reconciled the experience of high tea in the presence of this austere wilderness.
"But this is no pinkie-up high tea," Lynlee Spencer said, reminding us that there is no dress code. "The people who have high tea here are just as likely to be coming in from the mountains. It's like the world nowadays. You can enjoy rap music and Mozart at the same time, can't you?"
Later that evening, we wandered the streets of Waterton, and when we returned to our room that night, the city illuminated by street lamps seemed like a pixie town from our posh little aerie.
The famous Waterton wind that so bedeviled construction of this hotel howled all night, and then at dawn it stopped. The morning stillness was stunning. To the northeast, out over the prairie, fog hung low beneath the towering cliffs.
We had reserved a spot on the International Peace Park Hike, an eight-mile trek from Waterton, down the western shore of the lake, to Goat Haunt, a ranger station in the U.S., where a boat would pick us up and take us back to Waterton. That morning, the streets were filled with hikers heading off to the various trail heads. A cool breeze blew through the city. The sun was crisp, clear and warm.
We met our American and Canadian guides, rangers from their respective parks, at 10 a.m. There were 21 of us, some from as far away as Hawaii and New England. The trail along Waterton Lake makes an easy elevation gain, and at various overlooks we stopped to listen as the rangers shared their knowledge of the park, its plant life and geology. The hike is as much a nature hike as it is a lecture on the meaning and merits of this international park.
Later, at our last stop, one of the rangers invited us to be quiet, to sit still and take in the moment. As I leaned back and watched the clouds, white and silvery in the bright afternoon sun, drift above the forest in a sea of blue, I thought back on our week at the Crown of the Continent.
That summer, one year ago, the news of the day focused on Israel's war in southern Lebanon and our own battles in Iraq, and suddenly the meaning of this wilderness and the promise of a peace park became clear.
Thomas Curwen writes for the Los Angeles Times.
If You Go
From Baltimore, connecting service (change of plane) to Kalispell, Mont., Glacier's Gateway, is offered on Delta, Alaska, United, American and Northwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $647.
Reservations for Lake McDonald Lodge, the Many Glacier Hotel, Glacier Park Lodge and the Prince of Wales Hotel, among others, can be made through Glacier Park Inc., the park concessionaire. 406-892-2525, glacierparkinc.com/Lodging.htm or nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/lodging.htm.
-- The menu at the Babb eatery is as eclectic as the ambience. Soup, salads, sandwiches, main dishes, $3.50-$22. 406-732-5535.
Cattle Baron Supper Club
-- At this restaurant on the road to Many Glacier, you might think you've entered a frontier stockade. The menu features steak ($25-$30) and seafood ($29-$40). 406-732-4033.
-- At the St. Mary cafe, the motto is "Pie for Strength." Breakfast, lunch and dinner. I ordered the razzle-dazzle - a mix of blueberries, boysenberries and raspberries - and Margie ordered a cranberry and blueberry combination. The pies' crust is paper-thin, and they're served with vanilla ice cream. Pie is $3.70, dinners (sandwiches, burgers, pork chops, etc.) $9-$15. 406-732-4482.
Pizza of Waterton
-- It calls its pizza the "best in the world." We wouldn't disagree. We tried the special (spinach, olives and tomatoes) with a Caesar salad. Pizza $12.40-$20, pasta $12.40. 403-859-2660.
Check out the Park Service Web cams' views of the park. Situated at Lake McDonald, St. Mary, Two Medicine, Many Glacier, park headquarters and Goat Haunt, they provide a real-time look at the park. Go to nps.gov/archive/glac/webcams/mcdcam.htm.
[Los Angeles Times]