Global warming is melting the glaciers that give Glacier National Park its name and much of its spectacular scenery. By 2030, they all could be gone. Meanwhile, the retreating ice is dramatically altering the alpine ecosystem, making it more vulnerable to fire and threatening the habitat of the park’s numerous wildlife species, including large populations of bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and grizzly bears.
Blackfeet tribes call this northern stretch of the Continental Divide “the spine of the world,” which, as you no doubt remember from geography class, is the ridge of the Rockies from which all rivers flow either east or west. When the Ice Age ended millennia ago, retreating ice floes revealed a stunning valley gouged out of what is now the state of Montana and lower Alberta,Canada. Majestic mountain crags loom above the valley, their crevices hiding lakes and ponds that are really just melted glacial leftovers. Icy waters spill over the crags in spectacular waterfalls.
The glaciers are still receding—faster than ever, in fact, adding opalescent runoff to those mountain lakes and exposing rocky slopes that haven’t seen the sun for eons. In 1850, early European explorers documented some 150 glaciers draping the limestone peaks; by the early 1960s,aerial surveys showed 50 glaciers; by 1998, there were only 26. Scientists estimate they may be gone entirely in 25 years. With the ice dwindling, the ecosystem is in the grip of radical, rapid change.Trees, foliage, and meadows take over, creating a habitat that’s increasingly vulnerable to fire (Glacier Park’s white bark pine trees are rapidly disappearing) and prone to more avalanches in winter. Avalanches carve out meadows of low scrubby growth, hospitable to bighorn sheep (Glacier has a booming population), nimble snow-white mountain goats, and birds, including predatory hawks and golden eagles. Meadow berries make good food for foraging grizzly bears as well, of which Glacier has more than its share.
Between late May and mid-September, you can circle the park on the spectacular 50-mile (80km) Going-To-The-Sun Road, running from the West Glacier park entrance (U.S. Hwy. 2 near Columbia Falls, MT) to the St. Mary visitor center at the eastern edge of the park. You’ll wind dramatically up 3,400 feet (1,036m) into the mountains (keep an eye out for circling hawks) to the Logan Pass visitor center, open summers only; there’s a popular turnout for Jackson Glacier (once connected to neighboring Blackfoot Glacier, now a separate and much smaller entity).
With more than 700 miles (1,127km) of hiking trails, Glacier is a park that truly rewards getting out of the car to explore on foot. Visitors do everything from day hikes and rafting on the Flathead River to cross-country skiing in winter and weeklong backcountry camping trips; for more info contact Glacier Guides, Inc.. Climb through alpine meadows spangled with glacier lilies, cool off in newgrowth conifer woods, scramble over rock faces striated from glacial grind, and hope you don’t encounter grizzlies.