Natural thrillers: Glacier, Waterton parks

Feeling a little overheated? Let’s talk snow.

My guy and I missed by one measly day the opening of Going to the Sun Road – the 50-mile-long, steep and winding Glacier National Park thruway of hairpin turns. Known as one of the most thrilling and beautiful roads in America, it requires at least two hours of driving.

But what is most spectacular also is dangerous for snowplows because of complications from avalanches. Guardrails on the two-lane road are automatically removed and reinstalled every year. The biggest of snowdrifts are 70 to 80 feet deep. Some potholes are sinkholes.

So readying the road is an arduous task and, on average, Going to the Sun Road is open only three months per year, usually until early September.

For us, getting as far east as Avalanche Creek (15 miles) and west as Jackson Glacier Overlook (14 miles) before backtracking was only mildly disappointing. Glacier National Park is a stunner in so many places, even though only 26 of the park’s estimated 150 glaciers remain.

Only hand-powered watercraft without trailers are permitted on park waterways this year, thanks to the growing threat of zebra and quagga mussels, but tour boats do a good job of moving visitors deeper into the already-remote and idyllic acreage.

Time it right and a boat ride turns into a narrated hike with a naturalist at no extra cost. The trained guides include Kenosha native Katlin Brennan, at Glacier for her eighth summer; her tales include an eye-widener about meeting up with a mama bear and cubs while hiking.

Katlin and lots of average hikers carry bear spray, a deterrant whose container looks like a little fire extinguisher. Others wear “bear bells” on shoes to backpacks, to alert grizzly and black bears of their approach. The optimistic and skinflints, like us, just stick to the more popular routes, guided hikes or chatter louder and more nervously than usual while walking.

Our own bear encounters were along roadways, from the safety of a rental car. But you know bear talk and preoccupation is serious when a hotel room comes with a voluntary Day Trip Plan, to let the front desk know where and when you plan to hike. It “can be a valuable tool for emergency search and rescue personnel,” the form explained

The midpoint Going to the Sun Road blockage meant we left Montana without stepping near Logan Pass, the park’s highest point at 6,646 feet and along the Continental Divide, but it was good reason to divert our attention north for a day, to Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Waterton and Glacier share a national boundary, a biosphere reserve and a World Heritage Site. They share the world’s first International Peace Park, too, and the world’s first multi-national dark sky park (a testament to the area’s lack of light and air pollution).

At least weekly is the International Peace Park Hike, 8.5 miles and co-led by one U.S. and one Canadian park official. The moderate trek crosses the national border, with a return by boat. Pre-register by calling 403-859-5133 and bring a passport.

Where to stay? You can’t go wrong on either side of the border.

Fifty twisty, hilly miles separate the Many Glacier and Prince of Wales hotels, both historic lodges. The latter turns 90 years old this month.

Expect century-old Many Glacier to be more remote and rustic in décor, although a recent renovation updated amenities. My twin bed and pillows in a “value room” were beyond comfortable. Don’t think twice about popping your own bottle of wine while watching the sun set over mountains and water. Lounge on the big porch or one of many cozy couches indoors. glaciernationalparklodges.com, 303-265-7010

At Prince of Wales in Canada, décor feels a bit more formal, and male staff wear Scottish kilts. Big windows on the hotel’s hilltop perch show off a Waterton lake, mountains and classy little village with fun shops, bistro dining and craft cocktails. mywaterton.ca, 403-859-2231

At this time of year, look for saskatoon pie in Waterton and huckleberry pie across the border. Both berries are indigenous, plentiful and popular with both humans and wildlife.

The faint-hearted can see Going to the Sun Road by booking a seat on a Red Bus Tour, a rugged and 17-passenger ride that costs $34 to $96, depending upon tour type and pickup point. glaciernationalparklodges.com/red-bus-tours, 855-733-4522

A hop-on, hop-off shuttle system, which began July 1 and ends Sept. 4, is another way to experience the famed road without driving. The air-conditioned rides are free, a roundtrip takes seven hours and seating is first-come, first-served. If you disembark to take photos or hike, you wait a while for the next ride and hope there’s room to board. nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/shuttles.htm, 406-888-7800

If you are 62 or older, one of the best-value offers around is a Senior Pass from the National Park Service. The one-time cost of $10 ($20 when applying online) provides lifetime admission to the 2,000-plus sites managed by five federal agencies (NPS, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).

The Senior Pass covers admission for you and others in your vehicle at national parks. Check out details at store.usgs.gov/faq#Senior-Pass, 888-275-8747 – and don’t procrastinate. The cost increases to $80 on Oct. 1.

Regardless of age, this is an excellent year to visit national parks in Canada. As a part of the country’s 150th anniversary, admission is free to national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas throughout 2017.

Free admission applies to Canadians and international tourists. For details: pc.gc.ca, 888-773-8888.