100 Years Of The National Park Service

IMG_1961On Thursday, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary.

That’s a bit deceiving, because America’s first national park, Yellowstone, was actually created by a statute signed by President Ulysses S. Grant 144 years ago.  Initially, Yellowstone, and then other parks that were created, were under the control of the Secretary of the Interior.  The NPS was created in 1916 to provide for unified management.

Now, there are more than 400 national parks, and the NPS employs more than 20,000 people — but an additional 220,000 people volunteer in national parks.  That’s impressive, but not particularly surprising, because national parks are beautiful places.  And that employment number doesn’t count people who are employed by private companies that offer rafting trips, red bus tours, and other services related in some way to a national park.  In 2015, more than 307 million people visited one of our national parks.

America has has some good ideas in its history, but the concept of national parks — striking and special areas that are to be preserved and maintained for the American people — is one of the best of those ideas.  Anyone who visits a national park can’t help but feel a certain pride in our country, which not only has such beautiful areas but also has carefully cared for them.  And with people hiking, biking, rafting, camping, and otherwise enjoying the magnificent scenery and clean air, national parks tend to be enclaves of enthusiastic, active folks who care about their country and its environment.

I’ve had the good fortune to go to many national parks — including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, the Grand Canyon, and this year, Glacier National Park — but I’ve not visited Yosemite and many others . . . yet.  Hitting many more of our national parks is a bucket list item for me.  And whenever I got to a national park, I’m grateful for the NPS people who keep them patrolled and well maintained, because those parks are a true national treasure.

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Lodge Lobbies

IMG_1726One last thing about the Glacier National Park area:  I really liked the entrance halls of the lodges and hotels we visited.  It’s not that I’m a huge fan of taxidermy or hanging animal heads (I’m not), but the lobbies all conveyed a very strong sense of place — woodsy, wild, and recognizing the roles played and the traditions created by the native Americans who treated this part of the world as a sacred place.

A favorite of ours was the Lake McDonald Lodge, which is located on the grounds of Glacier National Park itself.  Like many of the lodges in the area, it has an exterior that looks like a Swiss chalet, which evidently was part of a campaign to convince rich people back east that the Montana Rockies were like the Swiss Alps.  The lobby, though, is a more evocative place, with a vaulted central area open to several floors of the lodge that features stuffed animals and heads everywhere you look and a unique central light fixture with shades that were hand-painted by members of the Blackfeet tribe.

At one end of the lobby there is an enormous, two-tier fireplace decorated with pictograms.  The fireplace creates a kind of initial gathering area, complete with rockers, and with an interior fireplace behind.  It’s not hard to imagine what it would be like to come in from the cold, shake off the snow, and then sit by that fireplace to be warmed.  And it’s got a moose head, too, of course.

I wouldn’t want a moose head in my home, and the lodge decor obviously wouldn’t fit in Columbus, Ohio — but when you are going on vacation and looking to get away from it all, a lobby that physically and tangibly reminds you that you are someplace different really helps.  It sure as heck beats the generic lobbies you find in most hotels.

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Music At Many Glacier


Last night the guests at Many Glacier Hotel on the east side of Glacier National Park were treated to a concert of bluegrass and American roots music in the lobby.  This young woman played a very moving rendition of Ashokan Farewell on her fiddle.  The song has been a favorite of mine since I first heard it on Ken Burns’ brilliant Civil War series on PBS.  Hearing the song on our last night at Glacier was a fitting end to a great vacation.

Floating Down The Flathead


Yesterday Kish and I took a raft trip down the middle fork of the Flathead River, courtesy of the nice folks at the Great Northern Raft Company.  It wasn’t a whitewater excursion, but rather a gentle float down the river, which forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park.


It was a beautiful day, and our guide steered us through Box Canyon (the beginning of which is shown above) and the Devil’s Elbow.  The sky was clear, the air was cool, and the water — which is almost entirely the product of snow melt — was ice cold and astonishingly clear, as the photo below shows.


The Flathead is designated a wild and scenic river, which means no dams and no meddling by man.  It’s teeming with fish, and fly fishermen, too.  A leisurely float down the Flathead is a very nice break from the rigors of hiking.

On The Trail To Avalanche Lake


The trail to Avalanche Lake is the most popular hike in Glacier National Park.  Measuring between 5 and 6 miles round trip, without significant elevation changes or rough trails, it’s well suited to hiking novices like us.  The parking lot at the trailhead is always jammed, but we lucked out and drove in just as some other hikers were leaving.


The trail begins at the Going-To-The-Sun Road.  The first section of the trail is a loop that is built with cedar planking and is so flat it is wheelchair accessible.  It winds through towering pines, cedars,  hemlocks, and cottonwoods.  At the bridge over the roaring falls of Avalanche Creek, pictured above, the trail to the lake veers off the planking and takes you up onto a well-worn, well-marked dirt path into the virgin forest.


Shortly after we left the plank trail we encountered a young buck circling a huge boulder, on the prowl for forage, close enough that we could almost reach out and touch it.  It moved quietly through the woods, vanishing as silently as it appeared, without paying much attention to the hikers who stopped to admire it.


As we moved along the path toward Avalanche Lake, we felt like we were in one of those “Discover the Forest” public service commercials.  Although we didn’t get into a staring contest with a deer or marvel at a frog, we did gape at the size of the trees and, especially, the colors.  Artists could only dream of their palettes having the rich variety of shades of green on display on the Avalanche Lake trail.


Ultimately the trail emerges at Avalanche Lake, a pure, cold lake created by the melting glaciers high up in the surrounding mountains.  The first look at the lake is framed by countless huge logs pushed to one end of the lake by the water.  If you then follow the trail around to the right, you emerge onto a huge and spectacular natural amphitheater created by the lake and framed by by the towering peaks.


The water is crystal clear and the air is cool.  It’s a quiet place, with only the rustle of the wind moving through the trees behind you and the whisper of the multiple waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside in the far distance.  We sat for a while on a log bench, taking in the immense natural splendor, and I tried to fix the scene in my memory as best I could.


The hike back seemed shorter than the hike out, as is so often the case.  We walked over rocks and exposed tree roots that had been turned bright and glossy by the feet of innumerable other hikers who had gone before.  We were very glad we had joined them in taking the trek to Avalanche Lake.

Crossing The Border


Yesterday we crossed the world’s longest unguarded border — that is, the one between the U.S and Canada — at the Chief Mountain border station in western Montana, next Glacier National Park.  It may be the smallest border crossing, too — there’s only one guard hut, staffed by a very friendly Canadian.  But on the Alberta side it does have a nice little peace park sign, complete with the American and Canadian flags.

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