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October 2000

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.

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).

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