National Parks: Best Overall Park

Glacier National Park possesses scenery that'll suck the breath out of your lungs, quiet so intense you'll wonder if your ears still work, and enough wildlife to make a zookeeper drool with envy.
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Glacier National Park possesses scenery that'll suck the breath out of your lungs, quiet so intense you'll wonder if your ears still work, and enough wildlife to make a zookeeper drool with envy.

Still, for me and for many others, the beating, wild heart of Glacier is its bears: more grizzlies than you can shake a case of pepper spray at. By current count, some 437 of the big shaggy boogers roam the 2-million-acre Glacier ecosystem; stack this, for comparison's sake, against about the same number of grizzlies in the Yellowstone ecosystem's 4 million acres. While my math isn't great, I calculate that Glacier has roughly twice the grizzly population density of Yellowstone.

If you want to see a grizzly, cruise Yellowstone's roads with binoculars or a spotting scope. But if you want to experience grizzlyness, whether you see one or not (and few do), backpack Glacier's primeval forests.

In Glacier's backcountry, the predator-prey roles we're used to are dramatically reversed, and even though only 10 people have been snared by bears since the park was established in 1913, you instinctively become hyperalert here. Even in frontcountry campgrounds, the scintillating scent of risk electrifies the air. And way back in them boonies, where grizzers sleep any damn place they want, you know what it is to be alive.

Wildness is an unfettered state of evolutionary, genetic, physical, and spiritual self-determination with no guarantees, and wilderness is the place where wildness lives. Neither exists without the other. Glacier shelters both.

The flying fog thickens as I lope out along the cliffside Garden Wall, where rope handrails are provided for the faint of heart or clumsy. But farther on, the fog pulls back, unveiling snow-frosted, shark's-tooth peaks above and the sigmoid Going-to-the-Sun Road far below.

I approach the apogee of this stretch, The Haystack, where I break for lunch. I've been amongst mountain goats (fellows that we are) all morning-they're as common as clouds up here-and 100 yards ahead stands a bachelor band of bighorns.

As I draw near, they hold their ground, feigning insouciance. When I stop and unpack my lunch, a brash young half-curl moves in for the kill. As he eases ever closer, his twitching nostrils and bulging eyes signal that he wants my sandwich. When I pretend to ignore him, he lowers his armored head, threatening to butt me into submission. But just in time, a bald eagle makes a low, dive-bombing pass. The sudden, loud whoosh of its wings and the big, black speeding shadow spook the ram away.

As I prepare to move on, the clouds close in again. That's to be expected, though, in a place so close to heaven.

If you love this place as I do-as the Backpacker poll suggests you do-please, do all you can, now and forever, to help keep Glacier wild. Come here. Hike here. Lie sleepless in a tent at night here, so zonked on adrenaline your eyeballs are sparking. Give thanks that such a place exists, and fight like a bear to protect this,

the last best backpacking park.

More on Glacier, and other "campfire voodoo," can be found in David Petersen's The Nearby Faraway: A Personal Journey Through the Heart of the West (Johnson Books).

Glacier National Park Expedition Planner

The Highline Trail is one of North America's classic high routes, and you're almost guaranteed to see goats and sheep. It's one of Glacier's most popular and easily accessible hikes, however, so for wilder options, keep reading.

The trail: It's a fast 7 miles from Logan Pass to Granite Park, where I usually spend the first night out. Here, glacier lilies by the millions yellow the summer slopes and grizzlies congregate to devour them.

Dominating Granite Park is the old stone visage of Granite Park Chalet. If you make reservations well ahead, you can rent shelter for the night in the adjoining bunkhouse, though it's a tad pricey and scant on frills. It boasts four wood-plank sleeping platforms per cell and thin walls between rooms, and the outhouse has the loftiest views from here to Nepal. No meals. No showers.

Half a mile down the hill from the Chalet sits Granite Park Campground, strung along a narrow ridge with scenic views all around. Facilities include tent pads, a pit toilet, food-hanging poles, and little else. Don't sweat all the bumping and crunching you'll likely hear in the night; it's (probably) just the local deer.

From Granite Park, it's a speedy, knee-gnarling 4 1⁄2 miles down the Loop Trail, plummeting from tundra through dark, spooky woods (past bear mauling sites), back to the road. Loop to Loop: A sweet little 2- or 3-day adventure.

Of course, you can hike up the Loop to Granite Park, too. But having done it, I must warn that it's not for weak legs or lungs.

Trail options: Jump onto the Highline Trail and bear north to Waterton Lake in Canada, or east to Many Glacier--two massively magnificent treks, each well worth a week and requiring a long road shuttle. For yet another multiday hike, try the Nyack/Coal Creek loop, along which you're free to select your own campsites.

The Harrison, Lincoln, McDonald, Quarts, Logging, Bowman, and Kintla Lake Trails are outstanding, as well. All are relatively low in elevation and, therefore, open in spring and fall when snow chokes out the high-country trails.

Weather: As this is Glacier Park, snow generally limits high-country hiking to July through September. Earlier and later, the action (like the bears) is down lower. Along the western edge of the park below the mountains, two favorite dayhikes-both requiring an early start and all-day hiking-are Huckleberry Mountain (Doug Peacock country) and Numa Ridge. Cactus Ed Abbey spent a summer at the latter as a fire lookout, depressed by the "endless sea of green" and longing for his dusty deserts.

Camping: By necessity, most on-trail camping in Glacier is limited to designated sites; free permits are required and fires are rarely allowed. While you're free to roam off-trail and camp where you will, this is not a nice place to be lost.

Bears: Don't let the bears (or me) scare you off. Keep a clean, low-profile camp. Don't hike at night. Carry bear spray (see "Packin' Heat," September 2000, for a review of bear spray). Stay alert. Relax. Enjoy. Be thankful.

Contact: Glacier National Park, (406) 888-7800; www.nps.gov/glac. You can request a copy of the free Glacier Backcountry Camping Guide, or read it on the Web. The Backcountry Permit Office is located at the Apgar Visitor Center.