Glacier National Park Mountains: Higher Than You Think!

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Glacier National Park Mountains: Higher Than You Think!
Glacier National Park has over 200 named peaks and countless un-named peaks, and are truly some of the most majestic mountains found anywhere in North America. And in addition to Glacier’s incredible peaks, Glacier National Park also has some of the tallest walls in North America, such as the North Face of Mount Siyeh and the North Face of Mount Cleveland which are both 4,000+ foot vertical walls. With this being said, it often shocks visitors to learn that the highest peak in Glacier National Park is “only” 10,479 feet above sea level. They are accustomed to thinking that peaks in the rockies need to be 12,000 to 14,000 feet to be considered “tall”.

Visitors are often amazed at the mountains of Glacier National Park because when they are looking at these towering peaks, or standing on their summits, these mountains seem to be absolutely gigantic and seem to nearly disappear into the sky.  But when they see that they only range between 8,500 and 10,500 feet in elevation, it puzzles them.  Well guess what everyone… the mountains of Glacier National Park are indeed gigantic, and it’s all because of their amazingly large “vertical expressions”, rather than their overall vertical elevation.

“Vertical Expression”
Vertical Expression is what truly makes the “height” of a mountain. This term describes the distance between the lowest point that surrounds the mountain (i.e.valleys), and the actual summit. Or put another way, its the distance between the perceived “base” of the mountain, and the very top of the mountain. And Glacier National Park is home to some of the most “vertical expressions” in North America, which is why they appear to be much, much taller than their actual elevation above sea level.

An example of an amazing vertical expression in Glacier National Park is Mount Stimson.  Mount Stimson is “only” 10,479 feet above sea level, but has a vertical expression of nearly 6,000 vertical feet in almost all directions surrounding the mountain. But even though Mount Stimson has this tremendous vertical expression, it’s only 10,479 feet high because the surrounding valleys are EXTREMELY LOW. The Nyack Creek surrounds much of this famous mountain, and is only 3,500 to 4,000 vertical feet in elevation. Therefore, the perception of Mount Stimson is that it’s HUGE, and rightly so. It is huge because of how high it towers over its surroundings, even though it’s overall elevation is 10,479 feet.

Another example which anyone driving on the Going To The Sun Road will definitely notice is the vertical expression of Cannon Mountain from the McDonald Valley. As the Going To The Sun Road winds along McDonald Creek just east of the Avalanche Campground and Trail of the Cedars, you can’t help but notice just how incredibly tall the north face of Cannon Mountain is as it seems to literally disappear into the heavens directly above the road. Seemingly straight up, the summit of Cannon Mountain is over 5,500 vertical feet above the Going To The Sun Road, which is only about 3,200 feet above sea level at that particular spot. It’s an amazing example of the incredible vertical expression that is found in Glacier National Park.

Low Starting Point
So the reason the mountains of Glacier National Park look so incredibly tall but only actually range between 8,000 feet and 10,479 feet in elevation is because they start so low. Their bases are only 3,000 to 4,000 feet in elevation, which is far below the average base of a typical peak in the rockies.

In comparison, the base of the Teton Mountain Range in Grand Teton National Park is about 7,000 feet, but it really doesn’t seem like it. The entire east base of the Tetons is quite flat and is sagebrush prairie land. You’d never think you were “high”, and yet this prairie is 400 feet higher than Logan Pass, which is the highest point along the famous Going To The Sun Road in Glacier National Park at 6,646 feet above sea level!

So the Teton Mountain Range starts at about 7,000 feet, whereas the mountains of Glacier National Park start between 3,000 to 4,000 feet. That’s why many of the mountains in Grand Teton National Park and Glacier Park seem to be equally impressive, and yet many of mountains of Grand Teton National Park are anywhere between 11,000 and 13,000+ feet in elevation, whereas the mountains of Glacier Park range between 8,000 and 10,400+ feet. They are both impressive because their vertical expressions are similar.

Another interesting example of the differences in the “starting point” of mountains is Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Lake, which appears to quite low in elevation, and you’d never think you were “high” as you stood on its shore, is 7,733 feet in elevation. This is over 1,000 vertical feet higher than Logan Pass, which as stated earlier is the highest point along the Going To The Sun Road in Glacier Park! So as you are standing on Logan Pass, thinking you’re on top of the world, you are 1,000 feet lower than standing on the shore of Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

If You Could Move Glacier Park’s Mountains….
So if you could “move” the mountains of Glacier National Park to Yellowstone National Park, or to Grand Teton National Park, the overall elevations of Glacier Park’s mountains would be anywhere between 12,000 and 14,000+ feet high!

So this explains why the mountains of Glacier Park seem so gigantic. Vertical Expression is really what makes a mountain either look small or tall, and Glacier National Park has some of the most vertical expressions in North America. So remember, it’s not the overall elevation of a mountain that truly matters, what really counts is how much elevation there is between the base and the summit of the mountain. That’s what makes a mountain a mountain.

So when you’re standing on one of the countless summits in Glacier National Park, you are enjoying some of the most impressive vertical expressions on the continent…. so enjoy the view!!!

For “View From The Summits” of Glacier National Park, click here.

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