In this two-part article, we’re going to start an exploration of those far-flung wilderness regions of the United States whose rustic lodges have inspired some of Disney’s grandest hotels, from the Wilderness Lodge in Florida to the Grand Californian Hotel in Anaheim to the Sequoia Lodge in Paris.

Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy is an unofficial guide to the world beyond Disney, exploring the original stories and sources of beloved films and attractions.  – Cory

“Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped corner—the Crown of the Continent.” These words, penned in 1901 by famed naturalist George Bird Grinnell, introduced the world to the natural majesty of the area known today as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. It is comprised of two national parks in two countries – Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and Glacier National Park in the United States – linked by their ecosystem, geology, cultural history and scenic beauty.

St. Mary’s Lake, Glacier National Park
Upper Waterton Lake, Waterton Lakes National Park

Waterton Lakes National Park in the province of Alberta was created first, in 1895, as Canada’s fourth national park. It is contiguous with Glacier National Park in Montana, established in 1910, and that connection led to the creation of the world’s first International Peace Park in 1932. Within Glacier’s borders lies the southernmost tip of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the younger, sedimentary range of mountains that comes to an end at the Marias Pass in Montana, south of which lie the older, igneous and metamorphic ranges of the American Rocky Mountains. Neither the waters nor the wildlife of each park respect national borders: Upper Waterton Lake and Cameron Lake have shorelines in each country. Both parks lie within the traditional territory of the Nitsitapii (otherwise known as the Blackfoot/Blackfeet Native Americans) who tell many stories of the lakes, valleys and mountains. One of those tells of Ksiistsikomm, the Thunder, who lives at Chief Mountain just inside Glacier National Park:

Ksiistsikomm, Thunder, was jealous of a man and wanted his wife. He struck their lodge, knocked them unconscious, and stole the woman. When the man recovered he wandered all over, asking many animals to help him find his wife. All were afraid of Thunder. Finally, Omahkai’stoo (Raven) agreed to help. He flew to Thunder’s home and challenged him.

Ksiistsikomm shot lightening bolts at Omahkai’stoo, trying to kill him. But Omahkai’stoo used his own power and, by flapping his wings, brought on the cold north wind and snow. Gradually, the cold slowed down Ksiistsikomm until he could no longer send out the dangerous bolts of lightening. It was a long battle, but eventually Ksiistsikomm gave up and returned the man’s wife.

Omahkai’stoo insisted that he and Ksiistsikomm divide the year into two parts: winter, which is Omahkai’stoo’s season, and summer, which is Ksiistsikomm’s time.

Omahkai’stoo also ordered Ksiistsikomm to make a peace treaty with the man and to give our people his pipe as a sign of this agreement. Since that day we have opened our Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundles each spring at the first sound of thunder. We ask for good weather, good crops, and good luck for the coming year. [source

Chief Mountain, also called “Ninastako” in the Blackfoot language
Cameron Lake, on the Canadian side. The far shore is Mount Custer, named for topographer Henry Custer, in the United States.

One of the main attractions of Glacier is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark built as a Depression Era public works project in 1932. Its 53 miles of cliff-hugging road crosses the Continental Divide at the spectacular Logan Pass. Above and paralleling the road on the Western slope of the Divide is the Highline Trail, one of the most popular hikes in the park. A less strenuous and harrowing boardwalk to the jewel-like Hidden Lake departs from the visitor centre at Logan Pass. A popular sight along the Going-to-the-Sun Road are the historic red “jammer” buses. Throughout the Thirties, the US National Parks adopted a fleet of touring buses produced by the White Motor Company, nicknamed “jammers” because of the gear jamming that drivers would have to employ to get them up steep hills. Today, only Yellowstone’s fleet of yellow buses and  Glacier’s fleet of red buses remain in regular operation.

A view from the Going-to-the-Sun Road
Logan Pass and the silver sliver of the Going-to-the-Sun Road
Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, after which the road is named
Beginning of the Highline Trail
Ashley provides us with a sense of scale along the Highline Trail
Looking out from a viewpoint along the Highline Trail. Going-to-the-Sun Road descends into the valley below
The boardwalk to Hidden Lake
A marmot sunning itself at high altitudes
Glacier’s most stunning jewel, Hidden Lake
Red Jammer Busses

Before the road, however, was the railway. Railroad companies in both Canada and the United States readily adopted National Parks as virtual private fiefdoms, providing hotels and concessions for the tourists who they hoped to lure with the promise of sublime, untrammeled wilderness. Northern Pacific supported the creation of Yellowstone, Southern Pacific staked out Yosemite, and Santa Fe laid tracks directly to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Union Pacific claimed the North Rim, as well as Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Teton and the southern entrance to Yellowstone. Canadian Pacific Railway ran through Banff, Yoho, Glacier (British Columbia) and Mount Revelstoke National Parks in Canada, and Grand Trunk Pacific – later Canadian National – brought tourists to Jasper National Park. Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks fell to Great Northern Railway. And each one attempted to outdo the other in the competition for tourists, offering unparalleled luxury and appointment.

These hotels and their services became parts in a chain that we would recognize today as the all-inclusive vacation. When “The Empire Builder” James J. Hill consolidated a hodge-podge collection of failing railways into Great Northern, he introduced a line dubbed the Oriental Limited. The Oriental Limited was so-named because it was, Hill asserted, the premier route from the Eastern United States to the Far East, via Great Northern Steamship from the Pacific coast. It was also the premier route to Glacier National Park. Great Northern’s Glacier Park Lodge, on the southern fringe of the park, was mere steps from the station. Inside its grand lobby with towering tree trunk pillars, the oriental theme continued with Japanese lanterns and tea service. It was Great Northern, during the dark days of the Great War, that coined the “See America First” campaign. With the European tourist market shut down, it was the needed opportunity to strike a blow for homegrown tourism. This was quickly leapt upon by the National Parks Service itself.

Vintage exterior view of Glacier Park Lodge
And the soaring interior of Glacier Park Lodge during its golden age

Glacier Park Lodge, still welcoming Amtrak passengers and disciples of the open road, served as the disembarkation point for adventurous visitors. Seeing Glacier National Park in those days was no pleasure jaunt. A string of backcountry chalets were sprinkled across the parks mountaintops, each a day’s ride from the previous one. Of the original eight, only Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet remain, the latter serving as the terminus of the Highline Trail. The former chalet at Two Medicine Lake now serves as a store. Along the route through the Marias Pass, Great Northern also built the Belton Chalet as another launching point for park excursions. Belton Chalet is still in use today as a privately owned hotel.

Granite Park Chalet’s veranda
Rooms at Granite Park offer rest for weary hikers
The view from Granite Park Chalet back towards Logan Pass isn’t bad either

Glacier Park Lodge, built in 1913, was joined by the magnificent Many Glacier Hotel in 1915. It is situated on the picturesque Swiftcurrent Lake, directly opposite the stunning Grinnell Point, named in honour of George Bird Grinnell. Louis Hill, head of Great Northern, deliberately chose the spot for its symmetrical qualities. The hotel itself was built in a style similar to that of Glacier Park Lodge, which was itself inspired by the Forestry Building of the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. That building featured an interior  colonnade of 48′ high logs to architecturally recall the majesty of the Pacific Northwest coastal rainforest. Because no trees of such immensity grow in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains, Great Northern was forced to import the Douglas Firs necessary to build the lobbies of Glacier Park and Many Glaciers.

Historic photo of the Forestry Building interior, 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition
Many Glaciers Hotel on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake
Grinnell Point and Swiftcurrent Lake
The lakefront side of Many Glaciers Hotel
The hotel’s lobby and giant fireplace
Many Glacier’s recently restored dining room
A Red Jammer Bus awaiting passengers outside Many Glacier

Had Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park only had such incredible natural wonders and two gorgeous hotels, that would be enough. Yet there is still more! Our coverage of one of my favourite places in the whole world continues in two weeks with the remaining Wilderness Lodges of Glacier National Park!