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The Best Place to Celebrate the National Park Service’s 99th Birthday

Today is the 99th birthday of the National Park Service, and to celebrate, entry to all 408 parks is free. I just got back from a week at Glacier National Park, and, while it might be a little late for you to hop on a flight to Kallispell, Montana, to take advantage of the free admission, it’s worth getting yourself there for lots of reasons. Here are three important ones.

1. It’s Not Crowded

Quick quiz: Which National Park gets the most visitors a year? YellowstoneThe Grand CanyonYosemite?

Nope. It’s Great Smoky Mountain, which gets more than 10 million visitors a year. Glacier, on the other hand, gets a little more than 2 million. (Yellowstone and Yosemite get 3-4 million and the Grand Canyon gets close to 5 million.) And those folks are spread over more than 1 million acres of land, 95 percent of which is wilderness. You’ve got some room to breathe.

 2. It’s Not Burning Down

Speaking of breathing, you may have heard that there are fires burning in the park. This is true. But it didn’t stop us from doing anything we wanted to do. There are fires pretty much every year at Glacier. Earlier in the summer they caused some of the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road to be closed. When we visited, we could drive the whole thing, though there were a few lookouts that were closed. Over the course of the week, we had some clear days, and we had some hazy ones. (According to the people we talked to, most of the haze was from smoke blowing over from fires in Washington and Idaho, not the fires actually in the park.) When we were there, fires were burning on about 2 percent of the park’s total land. We did a hike on one of the hazy days, and we were bummed the views were not as spectacular as they might have been. But the sun rose over the peaks as this reddish circle that made it feel like we were on Tatooine, and it didn’t stop us from seeing bighorn sheep and mountain goats. We hiked the Highline Trail, which is about 11 miles. If you do it, you really should do the spur trail up to Grinnell Lake (above). The sign says it’s only .6 miles each way, but it’s really steep, so it feels longer. It’s worth it. It added a bit more than an hour to our trip.

3. It’s Good for Families

We were a multigenerational group, ranging in age from 6 to 83, and everyone was able to do fun stuff in the park. There are a number of easy, accessible hikes that the kids could do. We walked from Logan Pass to the Hidden Lake Overlook (the top photo was taken along that trail) without complaints from the little ones, and they were psyched to see a mountain goat and some hoary marmots, though they were mildly disappointed the marmot wasn’t a wolverine. With the grandparents, we did the aforementioned Going-to-the-Sun Road drive—fortunately we had a clear day for that one—and a couple of boat rides.

The ride on McDonald Lake was an easy morning trip from where we were staying in the nearby town of Columbia Falls, and the water was so still that we saw beautiful reflections of the surrounding peaks (above). That afternoon we also rented a canoe for an hour of easy paddling on McDonald Lake. On the other side of the park, in the Many Glacier area, we did the trip that takes you on a boat across Swiftcurrent Lake, followed by a short, easy stroll that leads to another boat that takes you across Lake Josephine, where you can do another short hike to reach Grinnell Lake. Both our 8-year-old son and his 80-year-old grandma could do this one (she’s a young 80, I will say), which meant they got to see frolicking moose, and a couple of loons.

OK, so maybe I was the only one who got excited about the loons.

And if you’re a parent trying to get your kid into nature, you have to love the National Parks’ Junior Ranger program. Glacier’s is great with lots of activities to choose from. And the rangers we talked with managed to be both friendly and serious in answering the kids’ questions and encouraging them to take their role as stewards of the park seriously.

 

Want more? Check out our guide to some of the best national parks in the country!