The Historic Hotels of Glorious Glacier National Park

We had only just arisen in our room at Many Glacier Hotel, and already it was a two-bear morning. I picked up the binoculars and scanned the slope on the far side of Swiftcurrent Lake, where yesterday Sue and I had seen several bears. Sure enough, I quickly spotted one, then another brown lump moving among the bushes, probably chowing down a breakfast of berries.

Each morning of our week-long, late-August trip through Glacier National Park and its Canadian next-door neighbor, Waterton National Park, offered its own rewards: the smoky aroma and crackling log fire that greeted us in the grand lobby of Glacier Park Lodge, the stunning view down Waterton Lake from our gable window high up in the Prince of Wales Hotel, the silence of the fog-dampened forest around our lakeshore cabin at Lake McDonald Lodge. If you love alpine scenery, wildlife watching, and rustic lodges with a history, Glacier-Waterton is hard to beat.

Glacier Park Lodge

Just outside the southeastern edge of the park, Glacier Park Lodge is a sprawling, Swiss chalet-style, log and wood wonder. Inside, it’s a veritable forest. Massive Douglas fir and hemlock logs—bark covered and up to 4 feet in diameter—tower from floor to lofty ceiling around the sky-lit atrium as though they had grown here. In fact, they grew for five to eight centuries or more in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, before being felled and shipped here by rail when the hotel was built in 1912–13.

Constructing a lodge like this would be unthinkable today, but not back then, when the Northern Pacific Railroad was promoting this newly established national park along its northerly route as the American equivalent of Europe’s Alps. The railroad coined the slogan “See America First,” and built grand hotels and backcountry lodges designed to look like Swiss chalets to draw its well-heeled traveling clientele to the remote park. To complete the Alps theme, some hotel staff even wore traditional alpine garb.

No one runs around here in lederhosen anymore, but it still isn’t hard to imagine you are somewhere far from northern Montana. Our room in the annex had a fine view of the mountains—a mere taste of scenes to come—and a door to the balcony, where we could enjoy the mountain air. Half of the fun of staying in a place like this is exploring all its nooks and crannies, of which the hotel has many. One of my favorite spots was the window-lined breezeway connecting the main building and the annex. Furnished with cozy chairs, couches, and writing tables, the area provided a relaxing, inspirational spot to write postcards.

Glacier remains one of the few national parks you can still reach by train. The Amtrak station lies a short walk from the hotel, down a path bordered by wildflower gardens. You can arrive by train, as most people once did, then sightsee in style via the park’s famous red vintage 1930s motor coaches with their roll-back canvas tops.

We chose to tour around on our own. Since there were no trails nearby, we drove the 10 miles to Two Medicine Lake to break in our hiking boots. The trail along the south side of the lake was mostly flat and provided wonderful mountain, lake, and meadow views. A side trail led up several hundred feet to Aster Park and a terrific overlook.

Many Glacier Hotel

The largest hotel in the park, Many Glacier Hotel hugs the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake, surrounded by mountains, forests, and those previously mentioned bears. Compared with Glacier Park Lodge, Many Glacier had a shabbier feel; indeed, its dire need of restoration landed it in 1996 on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of endangered historic places. The lobby, similar in style but smaller in scale than the Glacier Park Hotel’s, has suffered such indignities as the addition of a gift shop that intrudes way into the lobby. No aroma of smoldering logs greeted us here; instead, the lobby’s huge stone fireplace was being used to store a tour group’s luggage. The other fireplace, a circular, copper construction, sat cold.

Though we made reservations a year in advance, the lake-view room with private balcony we had booked was not available. We were given two choices: a depressing basement-level room with one small fly-covered window, and a room with several windows and a nice view of the lake but no balcony. We chose the latter.

But those disappointments aside, Many Glacier is mostly about location. And what a location it is—a perfect jumping-off point for exploring the heart of the park. We took a long, but again mostly flat hike along Swiftcurrent and Josephine lakes to Grinnell Lake. Had we not literally missed the boat, we could have taken a cruise most of the way. We braved the trails instead, though I felt a little nervous, having seen so many black and grizzly bears (one with cubs) feeding on the slope across from the hotel. We took care to make noise as we hiked, and we stayed alert.

Grand as the mountains in Glacier are, I was even more taken by the waters: the rushing streams, waterfalls, and glacier-fed lakes. A photo I took of Grinnell Lake shows a startling turquoise band across the bottom that looks like a photo-processing error but isn’t—the lake is really that color.

Back at the hotel in the evening, we came across a live presentation in the auditorium beneath the lobby, a cabaret-style stage show featuring student workers performing songs of the 1940s. The thoroughly entertaining program was part of a long tradition at the hotel, where many of the seasonal workers are selected for their musical talents. Some return here year after year, waiting tables during the day and performing at night.

Prince of Wales Hotel

We crossed the U.S.-Canadian border into Waterton National Park and drove on to the Prince of Wales Hotel. Perched on a bluff above Waterton Lake, Prince of Wales commands a superb view—for sheer spectacle, its location rivals that of Many Glacier Hotel. While Glacier Park Lodge and Many Glacier are big and sprawling and horizontal in form, Prince of Wales is shaped more like a cupcake and looks something like a frilly gingerbread house seven stories tall. It compact atrium also rises seven stories, and 18-foot-high windows on the main level frame a stunning view of the mountains and lake.

Though once again denied our requested balcony room, we lucked into a tidy, L‑shaped room tucked up under a dormer on the fifth floor, reachable by stairs or by the oldest operating elevator in Alberta. Our window provided a view of the lake and the town of Waterton Lake nestled at the foot of the bluff. Compared with the décor and ambience of its American counterparts, Prince of Wales is more refined than rustic. We got our stay off to a proper Canadian start by having afternoon tea—which included a multi-tiered dish filled with scones, tea sandwiches, cakes, strawberries, and other goodies—in front of the huge lobby windows.

The town of Waterton Lake was a pleasant surprise. Nothing like the gaudy gateway towns that disgrace some U.S. national parks, Waterton Lake is a quiet, pretty village, a nice place to stroll around or to look for something to eat when you start to tire of the concessionaire cuisine served up in the park hotels.

We walked along a path that completely rings the town, admiring the cottages and watching the resident deer munching on plants in people’s yards. We also took a cruise from the town dock down the length of the lake, over the U.S.-Canadian border (marked by an arrow-straight swath cut through the forest) to a nature center at the American end. A naturalist on the boat told us about the geology of the area, where to look for bears, and how the appearance of the trees along the mountainside indicates the extent of a forest fire that swept through the area years ago and threatened the town and hotel.

Lake McDonald Lodge

After a night at the Prince of Wales, we headed back south into Glacier, drove west across the park over the continental divide on the renowned Going-to-the-Sun Highway, and arrived at our final destination. On the shore of its namesake, Lake MacDonald Lodge is the smallest of the four hotels. It is designed in the familiar Swiss chalet style, but the inside is decorated like a hunting lodge, complete with taxidermy specimens, comfortable wood furniture, and a crackling fire. The pale orange walls and the smaller scale of its public spaces lend it a cozier, more relaxed atmosphere than the other places we stayed. Built in 1913, the lodge predates Going-to-the-Sun Highway. Back then you had to take a boat to reach the lodge. Today you arrive by car, which is much more convenient but far less romantic.

We stayed in a cabin just down the lakeshore from the main building. Though rustic on the outside, the cabin was bland motel-modern on the inside. No matter; the rustic ambiance of the lodge was only a short stroll away, where we relaxed in log rockers on the lakeside porch and lounged in armchairs in front of the lobby fireplace. The intimate, woodsy atmosphere of the dining room more than made up for the unremarkable food.

Lake MacDonald is close to a number of lovely hiking trails through the lush forests of the wetter, western side of the park. The woods here are damp, the gushing streams blue-green, and the waterfalls plentiful. It felt to me more like the Olympic peninsula in Washington State than northern Montana. The Trail of the Cedars provides a nice, easy walk through a cedar forest, and a trail leading to Avalanche Lake rewarded us with a spectacular view of a mountain lake surrounded by cliffs and high waterfalls. In the evening we drove to the village of Apgar, near the western entrance to the park, where we discovered a shop that sold Montana crafts. We picked up some nice handmade pottery as a memento of our trip, which was now coming to an end.

We found it impossible to pick a favorite among the hotels we stayed in that week. Each offered its own unique charms: the spectacular lobby of Glacier Park Lodge, the stunning location and evening entertainment at Many Glacier Lodge, our quirky little room with its wondrous view at the Prince of Wales Hotel, and the coziness of Lake MacDonald Lodge. The hotels are as diverse, surprising, and endearing as the park itself. So why choose? My advice: plan to stay at them all.

David Romanowski, 1999


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