GLACIER NATIONAL PARK protects a representative example of the Selkirk Mountains in the Columbia Mountain Range adjacent to the Rockies. Canada’s second oldest national park, its mountains are older than those to the east, with harder rock and sharper peaks; these glacier-clad mountains are credited with being the birthplace of sport mountaineering in Canada. Here weather systems from the Pacific meet the mountains making for highly variable conditions – you can set off in blazing sunshine and meet a blizzard by lunchtime – but despite this, the soaring alpine scenery and vast wilderness attracts climbers, backcountry skiers and hikers from across the world. There are 147 glacier masses in the park with 8.3 percent of the park permanently blanketed with ice. The most famous of these glaciers, the Illecillewaet Glacier, is easily seen from the Trans-Canada Highway and is the birthplace of glaciology in North America. It was first photographed in 1887 and is still monitored today.
The park’s highest point, Mount Hasler, in the Dawson Range, is 3399m tall – and historically it and its neighbours have presented as much of a barrier as their Rocky Mountain cousins. The “impenetrable peaks” of the Selkirk Mountains were the last great obstacle to the completion of the great transcontinental railway. In 1881, Major A.B. Rogers, an American railway surveyor, made his place in history when he discovered Rogers Pass (1321m) for the Canadian Pacific Railway, the final link that brought Canada together as a nation.
Despite the railway’s best efforts, its pounding by repeated avalanches eventually forced the company to bore a tunnel through the mountain, but the 1962 completion of the Trans-Canada Highway along the pass once again made the area accessible. This time huge snowsheds were built, backed by the world’s largest mobile avalanche-control system.
Some of the park’s twenty trails (140km of walking in all) push close to glaciers for casual views of the ice – though only two spots are now safe at the toe of the Illecillewaet – and the backcountry is noticeably less busy than in the Rockies parks.
The easiest short strolls off the Trans-Canada are: the Abandoned Rails Trail (1.2km one way; 30min; suitable for wheelchairs), along old rail-beds to abandoned snowsheds between the Rogers Pass visitor centre and the Summit Monument; the Loop Trail (1.6km) from the viewpoint just east of the Loop Brook campground, full of viewpoints and features relating to the building of the railway; the Hemlock Grove Boardwalk (400m), a stroll through old-growth stands of western hemlock trees, some more than 350 years old (wheelchair-friendly; trailhead 5km from the park’s western boundary).
The hub for most of Glacier’s day-hikes is the Illecillewaet campground near the confluence of the Asulkan Brook and the Illecillewaet river, which can be appreciated on the easy Meeting of the Waters Trail (30min). Otherwise six manageable day-hikes leave the campground to provide superb views of glaciers, particularly the Great Glacier, Avalanche Crest and Abbott’s Ridge trails.
The longest Glacier backcountry option is the Beaver Valley Trail (30km-plus), which peels off from the highway at the Mount Shaughnessy picnic area on the eastern edge (also a favourite mountain-bike route). This can be combined with a trail up Copperstain Mountain (2595m) to form a loop of around 40km through forests and meadows and bleak alpine tundra – two backcountry campgrounds are available en route; contact the visitor centre for a permit (see Glacier National Park).