Into the Wild

At Glacier National Park correspondent Diane Cole discovered a rugged paradise of rustic lodges and dramatic overlooks

Glacier
The lawn of Glacier Park Lodge is a popular outdoor gathering place.

Credit: Glacier Park, Inc.

So there we were, in the heart of Montana's Glacier National Park, perched before snow-speckled mountain peaks and massive rock walls that stretched far into the distance. Our cheeks red from striding uphill against a stiff wind, my husband and I reached an elevation of almost 5,000 feet and spied our accommodations for the night below: a sprawling yet rustic timber-and-stone lodge called Many Glacier Hotel. Situated on the shore of a gray-blue lake, the lodge seemed like nothing less than a vision from an alpine dream.

Nearly a century ago, railroad baron Louis W. Hill used the slogan "See America First" to lure tourists to Glacier's more than one million acres of pristine wilderness. In 1910, Hill and others pushed Congress to establish a national park, forever protecting the jagged mountains and valleys left behind by receding glaciers. Hill's love for the great outdoors was matched by his desire to make a buck; his Great Northern railroad, therefore, stopped conveniently  near the park. And for the eastern city slickers who feared roughing it, Hill built a collection of upscale lodges—Many Glacier included—that transformed the nation's 10th national park into a thriving vacation mecca.

Tourists, including first-timers like my husband and me, have never stopped coming. We wanted to visit Hill's grand lodges—now National Historic Landmarks—which sprang from his vision of an upscale rustic life. Built of timber and stone and filled with handcrafted furniture, they blend with—and highlight—their surroundings: trails lined with aromatic cedar and hemlock, meadows of yellow wildflowers, and mountain ranges and lakes populated by wild sheep, grizzly bears, mountain goats, and songbirds.

Seduced by the setting of Swiftcurrent Lake, Hill envisioned Many Glacier as a chalet-style hunting lodge. He launched a design competition between architects Thomas D. McMahon and Kirtland Kelsey Cutter, and though McMahon won out, many of Cutter's Swiss design elements were retained, including the lodge's arched windows and gabled roof. Construction was hardly easy, given the unforgiving climate and remote location. Of course, Hill could tap into his own army of workers: Bridge builders from the Great Northern railroad, for example, installed the 40-foot-tall supports for the lodge's main hall. In 1914, the lodge opened.

Today, you can take in the picturesque surroundings from the lakeside veranda, or you can head inside to the rocking chairs that face giant picture windows. The lobby features majestic rows of Douglas-fir timbers that rise five stories to the lodge's exposed rafters. With no elevator, visitors must climb the stairs (bellmen tote the luggage) to reach small but comfortable rooms, located on three floors lined with rustic wood balconies. 

Though we visited in June, the fireplace in the lobby was constantly ablaze. A midsummer storm had arrived the week before we did, dropping two feet of snow. And sure enough, the roaring fire could do little to drown out the 50-mile-per-hour gusts swirling outside. 

In 1910, the same year Glacier became a National Park, Louis W. Hill opened the Belton Chalet, the first of his hotels in the region. Located on the western edge of the park, the Belton Chalet enjoyed a bright few decades. But the hotel closed down for half a century, and its buildings were left to decay. In 1998, restoration began, culminating in 2000. That year, the Belton Chalet received a National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award. Next season, the hotel, a National Historic Landmark, will ­celebrate its 100th anniversary, and commemorative events are being planned. Go to beltonchalet.com for more information.

Indeed, extreme weather has taken its toll on the lodge over the years, with emergency repairs required in 2001 (including the stabilization of the exterior balconies, which were on the verge of collapse). At that time, the National Park Service also renovated the building, restoring the original paint color (milk chocolate), bolstering the wood frame with steel girders, and installing energy-efficient exterior doors. 

The unpredictable weather, it turned out, forced us to alter our plans. Before heading to the second lodge on our itinerary, we had hoped to travel along the poetically named Going-to-the-Sun Road, a dizzying 50-mile route that connects the east and west sides of the park and was, upon completion in 1933, one of the greatest engineering projects of its time. But the snowstorm had made Logan's Pass, the summit of Going-to-the-Sun, impassable. So we enjoyed an outdoor picnic and walk around Two Medicine Lake. The narrow zigzag road leading to the lake begins on land belonging to the Blackfeet Indian tribe, which dubbed the region "the backbone of the world"—long before hunters, trappers, and miners arrived in the 1800s.

Then it was on to the Theodore Roosevelt Highway, which winds its way south and around to the western side of the park, our ears popping as we navigated the steep hills. One particularly popular lookout point allowed us to spy on groups of white-haired goats licking mineral-rich rocks, high above a gorge where rafters were riding the currents of a mountain river.

By nightfall we reached historic Lake McDonald Lodge, a landmark of Glacier's western reaches and the brainchild of a Montana fur trader named John E. Lewis. In 1913, Lewis approached Kirtland Cutter (who would later miss out on the Many Glacier commission) about designing a grand but rustic hotel. Roads and rail access were nonexistent, meaning that building materials had to be hauled for many miles across a frozen lake. Astonishingly—given the difficulty of the task and the bitterness of the winters—the 65-room hotel was completed in less than a year, in June 1914.

With its exterior gingerbread detail and Swiss chalet sensibility, the lodge seemed at first like a smaller version of Many Glacier. Then we entered and discovered it had a quirky charm all its own. Terra-cotta-colored walls and floor-to-ceiling cedar beams dominated the handsome lobby. On the hearth above the fireplace, etched pictographs depicted scenes of Native American life. Incised into the floor were words and sayings in the Blackfeet, Chippewa, and Cree languages—phrases such as "looking toward the mountain" and "big feast." Dozens of trophy heads—deer, elk, moose, caribou, sheep, goats—stared back from their mounts along every balcony and wall. More than anything, however, a feeling of coziness imbued every detail, from the thick-legged wood furniture to the honey-colored sapling stairways to the hanging lanterns decorated with Native American motifs. If the tableau resembled what the first guests would have experienced, it's because of an immaculate $1.2 million rehab in the late 1980s that took the lodge back to the spirit of its earliest days. 

That night, we sat by the lake as darkness enveloped us, and chatted with fellow travelers from across the country. Some were planning horseback rides along the trails. A couple tired from hiking had booked a relaxing boat ride for the next day. Still others were eager to hop aboard one of the park's 1930s "Red Jammer" buses, delegating the navigation of harrowing pinwheel turns to someone else.

Our goal: to see the sections of the Going-to-the-Sun Road that remained open. And what magnificent views greeted us, especially along the eastern part of the route, with its creeks and canyons, gorges and waterfalls, and dizzying glacier overlooks, not to mention blue lakes and red mountain peaks. After all that nature, the gardens and neatly manicured front lawn of Louis Hill's 1913 Glacier Park Lodge, the only one of three main historic hotels located outside the park proper, presented a stark contrast. Then again, maybe it was merely the cacophony of cell phones in the lobby. In any case, as we entered the cathedral-like lobby, we realized how seamlessly the outdoors had been integrated with the interior décor, with two dozen giant Douglas-fir beams, topped with carved Ionic capitals, supporting the four-story-high ceiling.

It's no coincidence that the lobby reminded me of a church. Louis Hill had been deeply enamored of early Christian basilicas, whose floor plans subsequently influenced that of his hotel. But this was not to be some austere getaway. When it opened, after 75 men toiled away for 15 months, the lodge represented the epitome of luxury. The high life notwithstanding, we shouldn't forget about the awesome powers of nature in these parts. Legend has it that during a particularly heavy snow one winter, a ram climbed onto the roof, fell through a skylight, and landed on the lobby floor.

Standing in the lobby, I could envision an earlier time—the age of Louis Hill and his Great Northern railroad, which transported the elite to this unspoiled terrain. I could see all those wide-eyed, well-heeled tourists disembarking from their train, moving across the lawn and into the hotel, where even the luxe interiors paled next to the mountain peaks and alpine lakes outside. Yes, standing here, I really could go back in time. It wasn't until I heard the brassy whistle of the Amtrak train arriving at the depot across the way that I realized that I already had.  

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