Glacier National Park: My master plan

 …access to wild places could be seen as an essential precondition to the pursuit of meaning in human life…national parks have done this by removing vast tracts of land from private ownership forever, an act and an ideal which contradicts such inextricably American things as manifest destiny and our pathologic fetishization of the right to private land ownership.

I wrote this last year in my post A 21st Century Park Service, where I concluded that the National Park Service has been something on a cultural anomaly in American history, and is thus is a priviledged location to help us reinvent our national identity in the coming century.  Creating a more mature, sustainable way of being on earth is vital for the United States.  With our democratic, individualistic ideals ever more thoroughly permeating the globe, and with the globe becoming ever more full, it is incumbent upon us to discover a way for democracy to exist outside of what Abbey called “the ideology of the cancer cell.”

crownmapThe Crown of the Continent, radiating from Triple Divide Peak in Glacier.  Map by the outstanding Mr. JC Ellis (investigate his other work!)

Glacier National Park is only indirectly imporatant because it is pretty.  It is important because it sits in a unique geographic position, has a full compliment of large predators, and together with the Bob Marshall complex is large enough to support genetically sustainable populations of said critters.  Visitors react to this, even if they can’t articulate why.  Seeing goats, moose, and especially bears is at least as big a draw as photographing glacial horns.  All of the above could be said of Yellowstone National Park, but it has more intrasigent issues and I know less about it.  So Glacier it is.

The primary mission of National Parks is not to be an ecological preserve; it is to be an educational institution.  Not didactic education, but experiential.  Many of the finer things in life can only be understood by being there yourself, and the NPS must first keep said things around, and then make them educationally accessible in perpetuity.  The crux of future plans for Glacier will have to be concerned with what kind of accessibility will best educate citizens for generations to come.


Older NPS map courtesy the internet, and used because it shows all current trails.

On the whole Glacier is in good shape right now, better than most parks.  This is mostly due to the relative absence of roads, given the number of annual visitors.  As can be seen above, only one road bisects the park.  Highway 2, which forms the southern border, bisects the greater Crown ecosystem and is open year round, does so via the gentlest pass for 100+ straightline miles in either direction, and is thus the most appropriate and likely least ecologically and spiritually impactful route for commerce.  Other than these two, all roads into the park follow valley bottoms and stop short of transition zones into alpine terrain.  Most of these roads are dirt, and of the two that are paved (Two Medicine and Many Glacier), the later is done so poorly. Predictably, the one road through the park gets a massive amount of traffic for the limited time (usually mid-June through early September) it is fully open.  While the park is of course open every minute of every day all year, most do not consider it open for real until the Sun Road can be driven end to end.

Therefore the first order of business in making Glacier ready for the 22nd century is to close the roads to private vehicles.  Abbey said this half a century ago; “we have agreed not to drive automobiles into cathedrals…we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.”  There is no better example of our national disease of more is better than the idea that you can see more during 1000 miles of car travel than 10 miles on foot.  National Parks need to lead the cultural charge here.  Within Glacier the Camas Road, Chief Mountain Highway, and the brief stretch of Highway 2 will be the only roads open to private vehicle traffic.  The Sun Road, many Glacier, Two Medicine, and the dirt roads (Cut Bank, Bowman, Kintla, Inside NF, and various spur roads) will all be closed to private motorized traffic forever.

The Sun Road will be open to human-powered travel with no restrictions.  A free shuttle will run between Apgar and Logan Creek from mid-April through early December, with the road plowed open as necessary.  The Logan Creek pit, currently a storehouse for gravel and culvert pipe, will become the terminus of the new Logan Pass cable car, which will provide access to the Logan Pass visitor center for a reliable 4-5 months a year.  The west side of Logan pass will never be plowed again, and exist as a conduit for ski, bike and foot traffic as the whims of visitors dictate.  On the east side the shuttle and plows will run to Siyeh Bend, beyond which visitors will be able to walk on a trail shoveled into the old road while the cable car is running.  Access to campgrounds such as Avalanche and Rising Sun will be by bike, foot (see below), or bus, with gear shuttled on the buses for free.  Many Glacier, Two Med, and Bowman will have comparable arrangements.  Kintla, Cut Bank, and the Inside Road will become backcountry road-access only, either via human power or with stock.

New trails will be built, in places like Two Dog Flats, East Flattop, the Apgar Range, the Belly River and the North Fork.  The number of patrol cabins will be doubled, the number of chalet quintupled, and all will be available for public use by advance reservation.  Places like Sperry, Granite Park, and the new Cosley Lake Chalet will be open year round, with guided tours in and out to make winter travel safer and more accessible.  Parties with proper qualifications will of course be free to use these facilities on their own, summer and winter.  Eventually the mission of the NPS will become so generally oriented towards experiential education that ranger guided week long trips will be common, and the park will take over all visitor facilities from concessioners.

Canada, British Columbia in particular, will have to get with the program and expand Waterton to include the whole North Fork drainage.  They stop logging, close dirt roads to private vehicles, and provide modestly priced shuttles for what will become one of the best wilderness float trips on earth.  A joint resolution will dispense with the border patrol within the park, and make travel within it seemless and unlimited.

The park will be funded by means other than visitor entrance fees, allowing an annual pass to cost five dollars.  Camping, front or backcountry, will cost 2 dollars per night.  Cabins, chalets, and the existing lodges and hotels will of course be much more, but a judicious combination will make luxury affordable for almost any itinerary, and backpacking less intimidating.

It will take most of the rest of the century, but in time Glacier will be seen as a revolutionary in both leisure travel and outdoor education.  The norms of 100 years ago, when visitors traveled by train, stayed for weeks, and most often traveled on trails via horseback, will come again with a contemporary conscience.  People will go to Glacier to learn outdoor skills, and/or enjoy a deep and affordable vacation experience.  To quote Ed again, “The only foreseeable alternative, given the current [slow] trend of things, is the gradual destruction of our national park system.”


11 responses to “Glacier National Park: My master plan”

  1. You have some nice ideas in there. I like the idea of banning private vehicles in the park. The act of plowing the Going-to-the-Sun road is destroying the very thing it is design to show off, the wilderness. According to Wikipedia, heavy equipment works for 10 weeks just to plow the road.

    I also agree that the Canadian government here needs to expand Waterton to match the boarders of Glacier. We have some great parks though this mountain range (Jasper being my favorite), and this area needs to be included.

    For your pricing, it certainly sounds nice, however I question if it is economically feasible. Perhaps the income from the expensive chalets would help offset entry fees as well as back country permits.

    In any case I can’t wait to visit Glacier this summer as I head down to stay in one of your government owned cabins in the swan lake area!

  2. I love this so much. I think many people would challenge your expansion of the chalet system – as the majority of Glacier is managed as wilderness, ironically you would have to make an exemption from that management philosophy to build any new buildings within the “wilderness” of the park.

    Also – how do you deal with the argument that 2 million people driving Sun Road but generally going no one else, actually preserves the landscape and it’s critters better than 100,000 people taking multi-day backcountry trips???

    I do particularly like that the cable car would run for 4-5 months as the worst part of working in a retail store near Glacier is listening to people tell me “Glacier is Closed!!!” when it is the Sun Road that is only Partially closed (to automobile traffic). Glacier has so many beautiful seasons that so many people ignore – guided trips into Glacier in winter would be amazing!

  3. Nice one Dave. Definitely forward thinking. I’ve envisioned similar progress for my backyard of Yellowstone NP- namely dealing with the issue of motorized traffic. Eff em I say. Shuttle only if there is going to be any. Ala Denali NP – which is arguably a good example of wilderness stewardship.

    Thanks for getting the wheels turning on such an important issue. Curious to see where it heads in our lives…

  4. Hey David! I enjoyed reading this entry, especially given my current fixation on your Monture Creek to Polebridge “dream” itinerary packrafting traverse. My plan is to take 2-3 weeks starting near the end of July, assuming good water levels. I’d love to pick your brain a bit more about it sometime, and also confirm a few thoughts I had regarding planning resources. I’m currently ordering the Nat Geo map and the Cairn Cartographics maps of the Bob for big picture planning, and may use them for routefinding as well. I’m working in the field for NOLS this spring/summer and so have limited planning time, but am pretty sure I can pull it off efficiently. I can be reached at — Thanks so much for the inspiration!

    1. Sent you an email, and redacted yours in the above post.

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