Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

Celebrate Glacier’s Centennial with great deals at Whitefish Mountain

May 25, 2010, 12:42 pm

I’m always amazed that Glacier National Park, which preserves more than 1,000,000 acres of forests, alpine meadows, and lakes, isn’t the most visited park in the National Park Service system. Aptly dubbed the Crown of the Continent, it is like no other place in the continental United States. Its diverse habitats are home to more than 260 species of birds and more than 70 species of mammals—including its trademark mountain goat, wolves, moose, elk and the largest population of grizzly bears outside of Alaska (in fact, it feels a lot like Alaska). The spectacular glaciated landscape is a hikers paradise containing 700 miles of maintained trails that lead deep into one of the largest intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states.

Glacier is one of a handful of parks that are easily accessible by train. Amtrak’s Empire Builder travels daily between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest (Seattle and Portland) along major portions of the Lewis and Clark Trail. Sit back and take in the rugged splendor of the American West. During the spring and summer, National Park Service rangers hop on between Seattle and Shelby, MT from the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park as part of the Trails & Rails program. The train stops in East Glacier, Essex, West Glacier and Whitefish, MT, all of which offer easy access to the park and the region.

If you’ve had some challenges finding rooms in the park this summer, you are not alone. Occupancy appears to be up as the park basks in publicity in connection with its centennial, which it will celebrate with educational programs, art events and special activities. The challenge in visiting Glacier is that, like Alaska, the summer season is relatively short. With most of the in-park properties are open between Memorial Day and the end of September, staying in the park comes down to an issue of supply and demand. In July and August, demand is high and supply is limited. Very limited.

Don’t give up, though, Glacier country, as it’s known, is well developed for tourism and there are lots of great options if you aren’t able to find rooms (or campsites) in the park. Below I’ve outlined a few of my favorite (and most reasonable) lodging options.

One of my favorite places to stay is at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain on the outskirts of hip and historic Whitefish, Montana. Whitefish Mountain is one of America's 10 largest ski resorts by acreage and gets ample winter snow. Its alpine setting and easy access to the Glacier, downtown Whitefish and Flathead Lake make it an ideal choice. When summer arrives, Whitefish transforms from a skier’s a paradise to a haven for other outdoor pursuits: great hiking, lift-serviced mountain biking (which is not allowed in Glacier National Park), alpine slides, and our newest favorite, zip lining. Strap on a paragliding-style harness and with your custom-built cable trolley, you’ll be ready to fly through the mountain’s forest canopy moving from platform to platform. The three-hour zip line tour will thrill riders of all ages. Six separate spans with side-by-side zipping action will carry you more than 300 feet off the ground at speeds as high as 50 mph. It’s the closest thing you’ll come to flying without a pair of wings. Whitefish is offering a Zip and Stay package from $82 per person per night. The rate includes two nights lodging for two people and one zip line tour for each person. The rate is based on double occupancy with a two-night minimum in a Deluxe Kintla Lock-Off unit and is subject to availability.

If you want to stay a little closer to the park but Many Glacier Hotel, Prince of Wales Hotel and the other in-park properties are booked, consider the St. Mary Lodge & Resort, just outside the east entrance. The recently renovated hotel offers easy access to the Two Medicine region and quicker access to Waterton Lakes in Canada if you want to take a day trip (remember your passport or passport card to cross the border between the United States and Canada). Situated at Glacier's east entrance, on the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, St. Mary Lodge & Resort provides the combination of natural beauty with modern comforts. In addition to its traditional hotel rooms, the lodge’s accommodations include tipi, which have many of the creature comforts of home, but don’t have electricity. These iconic structures of the American West stand 27 feet tall and have  700 square feet of usable space (that’s bigger than my apartment).  Each tipi is equipped with two queen beds, a queen sofa bed, dresser, table and chairs. Each has its own private luxury bathhouse with all amenities and a Jacuzzi tub. For more information, call (888) 778-6279.

If you want to avoid the crowds, plan to visit in October, most area lodges close. The Belton Lodge is one of the few lodges open year round. Also celebrating its centennial, the Lodge and Cottages will help you get truly disconnected and allow you to focus on the area’s amazing surroundings. Escape from television, radios or telephones and other daily distractions and become one with nature again. To book a room, call (888) 235-8665 or visit beltonchalet.com. One note to visitors: trains occasionally pass by the lodge so you might want to pick up a pair of earphones, which they offer at check-in.

If you are dead-set on staying in one of Glacier’s historic lodges, don’t give up hope. Call early and call often (406) 892-2525 and visit Glacier Park, Inc. website regularly. Cancellations occur all of the time; you just need to be in the right place at the right time.