Glacier National Park contains some of the most rugged backcountry in the lower forty eight. Boasting over 700 miles of trails, backpackers and day hikers alike are able to find isolation and serenity, experiencing Montana’s wilderness as it stood before Lewis and Clark made their journey west. I have experienced this first hand and truly understand the appeal in visiting this national park’s back country wilderness.
For some, however, visiting Glacier entails a completely different experience. The Going to the Sun Road is one of the parks most visited attractions. Completed in 1932, Going to the Sun is the only road through the park. Curving through the mountainous heart of the park, GTTSR offers amazing backcountry views and vistas without the intensity of a backcountry experience. Entering the park by car, driving by the bountiful wilderness, and parking at Logan Pass (the high point and most popular location along the road that lies directly on the continental divide,) families who have never had a back country experience are hastily transported to the rugged land of the mountain goat, grizzly bear, and big horn sheep. This translates to high congestion, limited to no parking, and lots of unwanted wildlife-human contact.
As an avid backcountry hiker, I understand the delicate balance between human presence and the existing ecology. I know the LNT principles and their necessity, so I stick to them. But for those visitors who only wish to get out of their cars to take pictures along the road, these principles are not so engrained and often lead individuals astray. Bites from ground squirrels to false charges from rams to unwanted bear encounters along popular trails, some visitors face the harsh reality of their ignorance. Most evident is the loss of natural behavior in our mountain goat populations, which now flock to popular visitor stops and exhibits to forage for human sourced salt (urine or poisonous antifreeze in most cases) and protection from predators (link to study here).
This is not to say that all front country visitors are naïve and do not belong in such a wild park. Rather, I think that this says more to the failed responsibility of the park. If we wish to permit the public the right to access their own land we must ensure that they are educated by us for us. We must do more than provide rack cards and ranger talks on wildlife safety. We must ensure that the public is aware of any and all dangers existing in the park. As of now the guidelines and information we provide do not inspire the proper amount of awareness, responsibility, and fear necessary for entering Glacier’s wilderness.
Luckily enough, this past season did not result in any major visitor fatalities, injuries, or rescues. However, with expected increases in visitation in the centennial year, it is more important than ever to tackle this challenge. Over the winter when visitors are extremely sparse, I hope to develop a more effective way of informing the public of Glacier’s wild reality. I hope to break down the zoo-like façade that many visitors see, in place creating a new platform for the park’s true nature to come to forefront. As of right now, the how and where of accomplishing this are unclear but the why and what are more pressing than ever.
Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at Glacier National Park