Glacier-Waterton National Park

Environment
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The Weeping Wall, Glacier National Park
The Weeping Wall, Glacier National Park (courtesy, National Park Service)

The geologic history of Glacier National Park is read in the numerous exposed layers of Precambrian sedimentary formations. These extremely well preserved sediments date back to over one billion years ago. Subsequent sculpting by massive bodies of ice has transformed this area into a dramatic example of glacial landforms. Today several small alpine glaciers of relatively recent origin dot the mountains. Due to its geographic location and geologic history, Glacier National Park contains a particularly rich biological diversity of plant and animal species. This combination of spectacular scenery, diverse flora and fauna, and relative isolation from major population centers have combined to make Glacier National Park the center of one of the largest and most intact ecosystems in North America.

Towering mountains, exquisite wildflowers, and diverse wildlife are the hallmarks of Waterton and Glacier national parks. This lush, striking environment came about through dramatic changes in the land millions of years ago. The mountains began as sediments deposited in an ancient sea and slowly hardened into thick layers of limestone, mudstone, and sandstone. About 60 million years ago, tensions building within Earth's crust could no longer be contained, and the rock layers began to warp, fold, and finally break. A huge slab of rock moved from the west and began to slide up and over the softer rock of eastern ranges. Eventually a 300-mile long portion of the crust had been thrust more than 50 miles to the east. Throughout the world similar processes created other mountain systems, but few can rival the Lewis Overthrust of Waterton/Glacier.

Once the mountains were in place, wind, water, and glaciers went to work on the raw landscape. Glaciers shaped and carved the land, cutting U-shaped valleys; smaller tributary glaciers created hanging valleys. Today abundant waterfalls plunge from these hanging valleys to lower elevations. While glaciers are no longer found in Waterton Lakes National Park, glaciers are still at work in the high country of Glacier National Park.

Today, this landscape is a wilderness full of wildflowers and wildlife with distinct local variations. The high mountains that bisect the park from north to south capture rainfall on the western slopes. This warm, moist, Pacific-like environment produces dense forests of larch, spruce, fir, and lodgepole pine. In the Lake McDonald valley, forests of western red cedar and hemlock are common. The alpine areas provide the setting for some of the best wildflower displays in North America. It is a short-lived spectacle made glorious bye heather gentian, beargrass, and glacier lily. East of the divide, where the plains roll up to the mountains, pasque flower, lupine, Indian paintbrush, gaillardia, asters, and shooting stars paint the prairie.

Wildlife is equally spectacular. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wapiti (elk), black bear, and whitetail and mule deer are frequently seen. Grizzly bear, moose, wolves, and mule deer also live here year-round. Waterton Lakes National Park maintains an exhibit herd of bison in a paddock. Beaver, hoary marmot, river otter, marten, and pika make Waterton/Glacier their home. Locally prevalent birds include osprey, ptarmigan, golden eagle, Clark's nutcracker, and Harlequin duck. The endangered bald eagle also nests and fishes here.

Park Rangers conduct naturalist activities at St. Mary, Apgar, Logan Pass, Many Glacier, Goat Haunt, and Two Medicine. A complete schedule of programs is listed in the publication Nature with a Naturalist. Activities include evening slide programs, guided hikes, boat tours, junior ranger programs, and day-long hikes.


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