Described as “fifty Switzerlands in one”, Glacier National Park, in southeastern British Columbia, was established in 1886. At 1350 km², the park is known for its glaciers, mountain views, lush vegetation and deep snow. It also tells the stories of Swiss guides and early mountaineering in Canada, and transportation routes connecting the country from coast to coast. Glacier National Park is part of the Columbia Mountains Natural Region.
Rogers Pass National Historic Site is located in the centre of the park and commemorates Major A.B Rogers’ surveying trips to identify a route through the Columbia Mountains to complete the Canadian Pacific (CP) Rail line.
The lands where Glacier National Park is located were used by the Syilx, Sinixt, Ktunaxa, and Secwepemc peoples.
Located halfway between Calgary and Vancouver, the park was created following the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1885.CP recognized the tourism opportunities that mountain scenery provided and petitioned the federal government to set aside forest reserves in what are today Yoho and Glacier national parks.
Heavy snowfalls and unpredictable avalanches made the rail line over Rogers Pass dangerous and difficult to maintain. In March of 1910, an avalanche killed 58 rail workers and led to the decision to move the rail line underground. In 1916, the Connaught Tunnel opened.
In 1962, the transportation route over Rogers Pass re-opened, this time as part of the Trans-Canada Highway.
Today, both the Trans-Canada Highway and the CP rail line run through Glacier National Park. Since 1961, Parks Canada and the Canadian Forces have worked together to operate the world’s largest mobile avalanche control program, using live artillery, to keep the highway and rail line safe.
Geology and glaciology
The Columbia Mountains are older than the Rockies to the east, and include a complex mix of quartzite, slate and granite. The Columbias are made up of massive mountains with steep slopes and deep, narrow valleys carved over time by ice and water. The mountains are further divided into four ranges – the Purcells, the Selkirks, the Monashees and the Cariboos. The majority of Glacier National Park is located in the Selkirk range with the most eastern portion in the Purcells.
As per the name, Glacier National Park’s landscape includes significant glacial coverage. Monitoring of the park’s glaciers began in 1887 with the Vaux family. Over the years, steady glacial decline has been noted. In 2018, there are 129 glaciers in Glacier National Park, down from 337 in less than 40 years.
The Columbia Mountains are in the Interior Wetbelt region of British Columbia. The region is characterized by heavy annual precipitation, abundant snowfall and relatively moderate winter temperatures. On average 10 metres of snow falls in Rogers Pass each year. The surrounding mountain peaks can receive double that amount. In winter, the heavy snowfall and steep slopes result in complex avalanche terrain in many areas of the park. Mean temperature averages (average of daily high and low temperatures) are around -9°C in January and 13.5°C July.
Three distinct vegetation zones occur in the park.
- Interior rainforest - extending from the valley bottom to about 1300 metres, this zone is characterized by western red cedar and western hemlock trees up to 1000 years old and measuring up to 4 metres in diameter.
- Subalpine - Above 1300 metres the snow lingers longer than in the valley bottom. This zone features subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce trees as well as subalpine meadows with vibrant
displays of wildflowers in the short summer months.
- Alpine – Above 1900 metres the trees disappear altogether and patches of lichen, heather and sedges cling to the rock and thin soil near permanent ice and snow.
Glacier National Park is home to several large mammals, including black bears, grizzly bears, and mountain goats which can sometime be seen right along the road. Woodland caribou and wolverine are more elusive, sticking to backcountry areas. Other mammals include hoary marmots, pikas and Columbian ground squirrels, and several species of bats.
Some 235 species of birds use the area in summer, many, like hummingbirds and olive-sided flycatchers, travelling incredible distances from their wintering grounds. During the winter you might see Steller’s jays, ravens and four types of chickadees.
The mountain environment is not favourable for cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians, however, a few species can be found in Glacier such as the elusive Coeur d’Alene salamander, western toad and though uncommon, the northern alligator lizard.
Attractions and trails
Glacier National Park offers something for everyone. Ambitious adventurers can follow in the footsteps of the Swiss guides and early mountaineers; outdoor enthusiasts can unwind at one of three frontcountry campgrounds; and roadside explorers can take in views of a glacier-studded landscape you will not find anywhere else. In winter, experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders can
enjoy world-class powder.
The Rogers Pass Discovery Centre is open seven days a week for visitors looking to discover more about the park’s rich history as both a national transportation corridor and the birthplace of Canadian mountaineering.