The adventure took root in a bar in Bozeman, Montana
Sept, 2019. I wound up there after a hiking expedition outside of Melrose, about 4 hours north-west of town. Weather in the mountains can be unpredictable in late September and impending snow had forced my return to the comforts of civilization. Having holed up in a cabin along Canyon Creek for days on end, there were miles of trails at my disposal. Trails leading to glacial lakes brimming with trout, through ponderosa pine forests full of wildlife, across meadows of wildflowers and ruins of ghost towns left abandoned long after the mines in the Pioneer Mountains closed. With no cell service, computers or television, it was easy to get lost in the simplicity that the wilderness provides.
For a while, life in the mountains was good. But as the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end”. Waking up to a sky full of grey altostratus clouds with snow evident on Black Lion Mountain, no formal weather forecast was necessary to know that in a few short hours a major snowstorm would be underway and the only road leading in or out of the area would be impassable. The time had come to pack up and head to safer ground. Bozeman seemed like a good choice.
A modern day boomtown, finding affordable available lodging in Bozeman was a real challenge. A hot shower and a fresh cooked meal was my top priority that evening so I cozied up to a nice seat at the bar of The Club Tavern and Grill, ordered up some soup and began to contemplate my options. The gentleman sitting next to me struck up an immediate conversation. It wasn’t long before we were comparing notes and exchanging adventure stories, casting aside the old wives tale which warns against talking to strangers in bars. He was a seasoned hiker so upon learning about my most recent exploits in the East Pioneers he recommended I look into Glacier National Park’s Chalets. “You’re going to love it!”, he said with much certainty then quickly added this little tidbit, “Make note of the date and time that reservations become available; the rooms sell out in minutes”. Well, that definitely caught my attention. It must be a heck of a place. I thanked him, paid my bill and left to check into my room for the night.
I had yet to make it as far north as Glacier National Park(GNP) although it was a high priority on my bucket list of hiking destinations. Having been a passionate summer backpacker during my college years, exploring the National Parks made a lasting impression on my life. I was finally at a point in time where I could strap my pack back on and hit the trails. This conversation proved to be the best excuse to move GNP to the top of the list. I was intrigued by what he had to say about the Chalets and I’m always up for a challenge. So began my quest to secure a place and hike the famed backcountry of GNP in the summer of 2020
-a park which boasts 360 degree views of rugged mountains and some of our countries last remaining glaciers. It turns out that getting there would be a feat much easier said than done. There was no way to predict what was looming on the horizon for our country in the year to come.
The Crown of the Continent
First order of business, learn all you can about the park, about the Chalets specifically but most importantly about the intricacies of the reservation system if I was going to have a fighting chance of making this work out. How fortunate we are to live in a time of Google! Seemingly, everything I needed to know was only a click away.
The park’s first chapter is a story which has its roots in the great Westward Expansion of the United States in the 19th Century and of the economic opportunities provided by the growth of the railroads. It brings Teddy Roosevelt, the gold rush, and the Great Northern Railway front and center. Who doesn’t love a good tale about the Wild West!
The Crown of the Continent, as it is known, had its beginnings in 1910 when President William Howard Taft signed a bill establishing Glacier as the country’s 10th national park. The area had been the domain of 3 Native American tribes. The Blackfeet Indians controlled the prairies east of the mountains with the Salish and Kootenai Indians living in the forested western side, all hunting and living off the land which proved bountiful in every way. Clear mountain streams were stocked with fish; thousands of bison roamed the prairies; grizzly bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose and elk among others called the majestic mountains their home. Treaties and agreements during the late 1800s changed those dynamics (that’s a history lesson best saved for another day). Covering 1,012,837 acres, its northern boundary ends at the Canadian border where Glacier National Park meets Waterton Lakes National Park. Together they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Upon the park’s establishment in 1910, new visitor accommodations began dotting the landscape. Many were built by the Great Northern Railway(GNR) with the intention of enabling visitors to journey through the park following established trail routes. These routes were curated with accommodations spaced a day’s horse ride apart. The GNR oversaw the development of 3 large hotels/lodges, 9 chalets and a couple of tent villages. Today the lodges and hotels are still in operation but the tent villages are long gone. The chalets were built to provide comfortable but rustic accommodations for visitors traveling into the backcountry by horseback, carriage, or boat. Hiking, or “tramping” as it was called, was promoted as an inexpensive option as the GNR tried to expand its reach to attract hiking and mountaineering groups. I don’t think they could have ever imagined the record-breaking 3 million visitors the park attracted in 2019!
Chalets of the Past
The 1930’s and 40’s marked drastic changes to how the chalets were used. The Great Depression took its toll on visitation. With the rise of automobile use coupled with completed construction of the 52 mile long Going to the Sun Road people increasingly visited the park by car rather than by train, and reluctance to take a slower moving back country trip by horseback increased. The new road permitted direct access to 7 of the Chalets leaving only 2 chalets in the backcountry- Sperry and Granite Park. After WWll the GNR deemed the Chalets unsupportable. Most fell into disrepair and were torn down- except for Belton, Sperry and Granite Park. Both Sperry and Granite Park owe their survival and their ability to withstand the brutal Montana winters to the use of native stone as their primary construction material. If not for a group of enthusiastic park employees during the 1950s, these Chalets too may have met their demise. The Chalets were to see a resurgence in popularity spurred by the back to nature movement of the 1960’s and backpacking boom of the 1970’s. These once hidden backcountry gems, now having been exposed on social media, are seeing an increased demand. The Chalets have moved into a new era of high desirability.
Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet are the destinations for avid hikers who want the backcountry experience without sleeping on the cold hard ground. Both are tucked miles away from the traffic on Going to the Sun Road, offering unprecedented views. Both require a certain level of physical ability to reach due to the length and difficulty of the access trails. It’s definitely not your average walk in the park.
The dormitory at Sperry Chalet suffered extensive fire damage in August of 2017 (it has subsequently been rebuilt). As a result Granite Park Chalet remains the only all original backcountry chalet in Glacier National Park. Sperry Chalet also caters a bit more to people who want a back country experience without necessarily roughing it. In comparison to Sperry, Granite Park is the more bare bones of the two with virtually no amenities. There’s no electricity or meals served. Overnight guest are required to bring their own food or purchase pre packaged food which is available on site. All trash must be packed out. To add to the overall ambience, there is no running water and no flush toilets. The description notes ‘advanced’ pit toilets on site but in all honestly, I can’t say I’ve ever come upon a pit toilet that was advanced by any stretch of the imagination! Water is available for purchase or you can fetch your own pail of water from a stream located .25 miles away along a rocky trail. Not to mention that getting to the Chalet involves hiking nearly 8 miles straddling the Continental Divide with a full pack along a trail that in-part has a narrow ledge with a steep drop off that bottoms out on Going to the Sun Road. Talk about amazing photo opps! Nothing about this sounded easy or comfortable. It became very clear that it takes a certain mentality to want to stay the night. And pay money to do so. The only other things I needed to know was ‘How do I sign up’ and ‘How long can I stay’? I’m in! Now I’ve got a general idea of what to expect. Figuring out the booking process was a bit more complicated.
The Reservation Situation
Reservations for both Chalets go up for grabs on the same day at the same time. You had better know what you want before you log on to the website, or you risk losing the opportunity to stay at either of them. It’s not a luck of the draw lottery. Scoring reservations takes a concentrated effort. There are people who try year after year and fail. The park employs an antiquated online system. At the moment the site goes live with hundreds of people logging on at the exact same time, the servers seem to time out. You just have to hang in there and hope that when they come back up you’ve still got your place in the queue. Demand is high and availability is low which makes the process highly competitive. The weather in Northern Montana dictates only 10 operational weeks during the summer season with no guarantees that the early or latter dates will not be affected by snow closures so most people vie for a late July/early August stay. Plowing Going to the Sun Road is a monumental task which can take weeks to complete. Most years the road is impassable, blanketed in snow right up until mid June. To add insult to injury, there are only 12 rooms available at Granite Park Chalet! There are no waiting lists, no requesting multiple rooms together, no transferring rooms, no refunds due to inclement weather and no room for error in the application process! It’s the epitome of a no nonsense process. I was determined to give it my best shot.
Finally the day arrived. I set an alarm to be sure not to miss my chance. Actually, I set two and sat in-front of the computer waiting for the digital clock to turn from 7:59 to 8:00. It was the longest minute on record. 3-2-1 Its go time! I pushed the send button and….. BINGO! I scored a 3 night reservation!
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
7 months later I’m on a plane back to Montana but the months in between left me guessing about whether or not it was all going to go down as planned. I managed initially to work out all the fine details to make this trip as smooth as possible. Flights, lodging, transportation, in park shuttle schedules, pack list, you name it-it was accounted for. At that time, COVID-19 was not a word in our vocabulary.
Then came the daily updates about cancellations, closures and general uncertainty about whether or not the park was going to be operating at all. Ultimately in 2020, the west side of the park remained open while the east side was closed. Access to the east is through the Blackfoot Indian Reservation which was unfortunately hard hit by COVID-19 and stayed on lock down.
A chance like this may only come around once in a lifetime. Uncertainties aside, I boarded that plane and hoped for the best. At this point there was no looking back and no way of knowing what lay ahead. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Glacier National Park and Granite Park Chalet. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Google doesn’t tell you everything.
It was a most exhilarating adventure from start to finish! I am still in awe of the things I experienced and the things I saw. No amount of research beforehand could have prepared me for the wonders that unfolded before my eyes. There is no doubt in my mind as to why the scenic Highline Trail is ranked Montana’s top hiking trail. From the curly horned ram that I came face to face with along the trail to the Grizzly Sow and her 2 cubs that I spotted down in the valley below, these experiences will be etched forever into my memory.
When Opportunity Knocks, Open the Door
If you have the desire and the opportunity to visit Glacier National Park, be sure to check out Granite Park Chalet. I can tell you this with much certainty, “You’re going to love it!”. Just make sure you “Make note of the date and time that reservations become available; the rooms sell out in minutes”. And whatever you do, don’t let anyone convince you not to talk to strangers in a bar.
I’ve hiked in some pretty amazing places but the Granite Park Chalet experience is one of the best adventures I’ve ever been on. You can thank me later!