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Glacier National Park chalets celebrate century

Lodges tucked in backcountry have history, no electricity

The Columbian
3 Photos
Photos by Erin Madison/The Great Falls Tribune
Granite Park Chalet sits on Heaven's Peak in Glacier National Park, Mont. Granite Park Chalet was built as part of the Great Northern Railway's "See America First" campaign.
Photos by Erin Madison/The Great Falls Tribune Granite Park Chalet sits on Heaven's Peak in Glacier National Park, Mont. Granite Park Chalet was built as part of the Great Northern Railway's "See America First" campaign. Photo Gallery

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. — On a rock outcropping, Granite Park Chalet sits as if suspended in the clouds.

Around a bend on Glacier’s Highline Trail, the chalet comes into view, notifying weary hikers their trek is nearly over, or for day hikers, that a cold Gatorade and a place to rest awaits them.

The chalet has stood on that outcropping for 100 years, a destination for backcountry travelers.

It faced destruction numerous times, by fire, disrepair and lack of funding. But it still stands, offering a place to sleep or a water, Coke, Gatorade or a Snickers bar for day hikers.

Tourism in the park: Granite Park Chalet was built as part of the Great Northern Railway’s “See America First” campaign, which aimed to enhance the railway’s existing freight business by adding passenger service and bringing tourists to the park, according to Beth Dunagan’s book “Welcome to Sperry Chalet.”

Great Northern president Louis Hill had the idea to build large lodges in the park, as well as a system of smaller chalets and tent camps, allowing tourists to take the train to Glacier and then travel by horseback from chalet to chalet.

Started shortly after Glacier was established as a national park in 1910, construction of the chalet system, which eventually numbered nine chalet sites, began.

Granite Park Chalet was one of the last chalets to be built, with construction starting in 1914. A dormitory, now called the Annex, was completed that summer. Crews returned the next summer, living in the dorm while they built the main two-story structure, which opened to guests in 1915.

“The site for Granite Park was personally chosen by Louis Hill,” said Dave Shea, who worked as a ranger in Glacier for 36 years.

While it’s easy to see why Hill selected the site, with its stunning views of Heaven’s Peak and the Livingston Range, the name is a misnomer.

“This of course is called Granite Park, but there’s no granite around here,” Shea said.

The chalet instead sits on a lava flow.

At 6,690 feet, it’s higher than any of the other chalets.

“Rafters, lumber, even the huge stove in the kitchen were brought in by mules over Swiftcurrent Pass,” Shea said.

“I would have loved to be a fly on the wall and watch this thing being built,” said Lars Phillips, manager of Granite Park Chalet.

A thousand head of horses: Before Granite Park Chalet was under construction, crews began work on Sperry Chalet, located east of Lake McDonald.

A crew of Italian stone masons built the kitchen and dining hall in 1912, according to Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison, authors of “View with a Room.” In 1913, the kitchen began serving guests who stayed in a tent camp. That same year, work began on the two-story, 24-bedroom chalet. It opened in 1914 with a capacity of 152 guests.

Sperry Chalet sits in a glacial cirque at 6,580 feet, according to “Welcome to Sperry Chalet.” It looks down at Lake McDonald and west toward the Whitefish Range. Across the cirque sits Sperry Glacier.

The chalets were instantly popular, but that success was short lived.

“The chalets were no more than finished in 1915 when they were shut down in 1917 for World War I,” Shea said.

The horses used to bring tourists went to the war effort, Phillips said.

When the chalets reopened after WWI, tourists flocked in the 1920s and ’30s to see the park by horseback.

At one time the horse concessionaire in Glacier had 1,000 head of horses, Shea said. Granite Park expanded with tents and log cribs and offered accommodations for 144 people.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road opened in 1932 and tourists used horses less to access Glacier, opting instead to drive their cars.

The chalets closed again for World War II, and when they reopened, hardly any guests came.

In disrepair: By the early ’50s, the Great Northern no longer wanted to run the chalet system, but didn’t know what to do with them, Phillips said.

Legend has it that a fire nearly burned Granite Park. When Hill received a telegram exclaiming that the chalet had been saved, he responded with one word — “why?”

In 1954, the railroad sold the chalets to the National Park Service for $1 each.

The park service was also at a loss as to what to do with the chalets. Gunsight Chalet was destroyed by an avalanche. Others were torn down after falling into despair, their log construction no match for Glacier’s harsh winters. The Two Medicine Chalet, where Franklin D. Roosevelt once gave a fireside chat, is still used as a camp store.

“A lot of these structures that were in the backcountry are now gone,” Shea said.

The only two chalets that survived were the two built with stone, Sperry and Granite Park.

• The modern-day chalet: In 1954, Kay Luding responded to an ad in the paper about the park service looking for someone to manage the chalets.

Today, Luding’s grandson Kevin Warrington runs Sperry Chalet, while his business partner Kathie Aasheim runs Granite Park. Together they operate Belton Chalets, which recently won the contract to continue operating the chalets through 2025.

Luxury wouldn’t describe the experience at either chalet, but neither would roughing it.

At Sperry, guests need to bring little more than a toothbrush. Meals and drinks are provided, as are linens for the bed.

Guests at Granite Park bring their own food, or they can pre-order food that will be there, delivered by pack train, when they arrive. The menu includes a selection of freeze-dried meals, breakfast items such as granola and instant oatmeal, drinks and desserts.

When guests arrive, they are shown to their rooms and then given a tour of the kitchen. A modern commercial-grade stove that was flown in by helicopter is available for cooking. Pots and pans are provided. Guests can prepare whatever they choose to haul in.

There’s no running water or electricity in the chalet, but the four staff members at Granite Park work hard to make guests comfortable. Boiled water in thermoses sit near a basin where guests can brush their teeth or wash their hands. Flashlights are handed out in the evening to help people find their way back to their rooms.

“They treat you like royalty here,” Shea said.