Stories on the Trails

I never tire of learning more about the wild and wonderful history of Glacier Park

By Justin Franz

I have had the great fortune of living in two of the most beautiful states in the country, Maine and Montana. Because of that, I have a high tolerance for stunning scenic vistas, but the one place that gets me every time is Glacier National Park.

It’s not just the rugged mountaintops and clear waters that wow me. Just as often I am captivated by the stories of the park. Every trail, building and scenic pull-off holds an amazing tale of those who have come before us to enjoy the scenic wonders of Northwest Montana.

Take the trail to Grinnell Glacier on the east side of the park. It’s through that same rugged landscape between Swiftcurrent Lake and the glacier that the “father” of Glacier Park, George Bird Grinnell, hiked some 130 years ago. Along the way, you’ll pass Elrod Rock, named for naturalist Morton J. Elrod, which once marked the edge of the massive glacier. Today, however, when you pass the boulder, you still have to hike another mile or so to reach Grinnell’s icy mass, a stark reminder of just how much the park’s landscape has changed over the last 13 decades. Another interesting story about that otherwise unremarkable rock: In 1997, Vice President Al Gore ducked behind it to change out of his sweaty shirt before talking to the media about glacial recession and climate change.

Another location oozing with history is the Lake McDonald Lodge. According to Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison’s fantastic book “View with a Room,” tourists first began flocking to this scenic corner of the park in the mid 1890s, when a fellow by the name of George Snyder opened a hotel along the shore. Snyder ran his hotel for a decade until, according to legend, he lost the property in a card game. The new owner, John Lewis, added more cabins to the site and a few years later built brand new accommodations. The Lake McDonald Lodge cost $68,000 and was built to compete with the hotels and lodges that Louis Hill’s Great Northern Railway was constructing on the east side of the park. Among the many guests who frequented the lodge was legendary artist Charlie Russell, who was known to drink with guests in the main lobby well into the night.

Further up the road, on the trail to the Granite Park Chalet, you can walk through the leftover scars of the 2003 Robert Fire. When the massive blaze made a run toward The Loop, three-dozen hikers found themselves stuck at the chalet. That evening, three hikers slipped passed the trail closure sign to try and make it out. When park officials realized they were three people short they feared the worst and, when the trail cooled that night, they hiked down to see if they could find the hikers. The hikers were never found, but no one was ever reported missing. Most likely, when the hikers realized the danger of trying to go through the fire, they turned around to safety.

When I first came to the Beacon five years ago this month, I didn’t know any of these stories. But today, after writing dozens of articles about the park, these little factoids litter my brain and I frequently bring them up when hiking with friends (much to the dismay of my girlfriend who has probably heard me say “Have I ever told you about the railroad’s role in building this chalet?” more than she’d care to remember). But I never tire of learning more about the wild and wonderful history of Glacier Park; a history as spectacular and alluring as the mountaintops and waters that wow us all.

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