Rising in northwest Montana, southern Alberta and British Columbia, a swath of elevated geography is cast on a colossal scale: immense, vast and dramatic.
Here, Nature mustered many of her greatest powers to create a glorious, 13 million-acre masterpiece. Mountain building not only thrust massifs skyward, but also pushed them eastward over the sedimentary strata underlying the prairie grass. Eventually, massive forces of ice created valley and alpine glaciers, which when set in motion shaped an uncommon landscape that stands with the best mountain majesty on Earth.
Magnificence indeed! Glacier-carved peaks, some of their north faces still embedded with remnant glaciers, vast forests rising to the upper reaches of the high-altitude world, wandering river valleys, steep canyons, gushing creeks and waterfalls, flowered meadows, and a wild population that represents nearly all the major and minor critters of the Rockies form what many researchers consider to be the largest intact and most pristine ecosystem in North America.
Details of how life came to this storied landscape that would come to be known as the Crown of the Continent reach back into antiquity, much of its record lost in the mists of surmise.
On its sunrise flank, the space provided habitat for dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, viewed ancients from Asia as they followed the Great North Trail, and saw the passing of enormous bison herds. The Crown witnessed the intense interaction between the great indigenous nations, and allowed access for the first Europeans to explore, map, and trap in its forests, valleys and streams.
In modern times it has provided lessons in collaboration for conservation and, with an altering world climate, opened up its considerable outdoor laboratory to study many aspects of these changes.
Physical dimensions of the region have greatly expanded from the original concept. When the words “Crown of the Continent” were first used in 1901, they referred for the most part to Glacier National Park. Now one must look in all compass directions from the park to realize the scope of this ecological unit.
Following the crest of the Rocky Mountains, the Continental Divide is its defining landmark. A precise strand of peaks, it gives order to every drop of moisture that reaches it. All waters descending on the west slopes find their way to the Pacific Ocean. Snowmelt or rain falling on the east side of the Divide works its way through the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to the Atlantic.
Journeying north to south, the top tier of the Crown of the Continent commences north of Sparwood, British Columbia, and Crowsnest Pass on the Continental Divide in the headwater terrain of the Elk River and 11,319-foot Mount Joffre. The pass allows Canada’s Highway 3 to cross the Rockies and the Continental Divide between Fernie, B.C., in the west and Pincher Creek, Alberta, in the east.
Descending southward from Crowsnest, the Continental Divide follows the apex of Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park before busting out into Montana’s Glacier National Park and then on through the Bob Marshall Wilderness country to Rogers Pass and the Crown’s southern tip. For the uninitiated, “The Bob” consists of the contiguous Great Bear, Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas, as well as de facto wildlands that surround the federally designated wilderness. Gathered together, these wildlands occupy about 2.5 million acres.
Delineation of the exterior boundaries of the Crown begins with the eastern perimeter where the rolling, wavelike prairie lands of Alberta and Montana surge toward a collision with the reefs, walls and peaks of the Canadian and American Rocky Mountain Front. It’s an abrupt change; no space is wasted with gradually ascending foothills.
The southern frontier begins at Bowman's Corner — the Highway 287-200 crossing — and follows Montana Highway 200 over Rogers Pass, the Continental Divide and west through the Blackfoot River Valley. At the junction where the Blackfoot meets the Clearwater River flowing south out of the Swan Valley, the border makes a sharp, right-hand turn and begins moving north with the Clearwater and then westward along the southern edge of the fast-rising Mission Mountains and the Jocko Divide to the Flathead Reservation lands.
From there, the western limit takes in the Mission Valley and Flathead Lake, and extends north to the west slopes of the Whitefish Range and the Tobacco Valley. North of Eureka, Montana, Canada takes over again and ushers the western rim through the Kootenay (Kootenai in Montana) River Valley north to the area of the Columbia Lake and Canal Flats in British Columbia.
In the entire, approximately 250-mile Great Divide stretch between Crowsnest and Rogers passes, only one year-round road — Marias Pass, route of U.S. Highway 2 — traverses the Crown. In Glacier National Park, the Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs over the Divide through Logan Pass in the summer, but heavy snowfall, enormous drifts and avalanches seal this route for up to nine months of the year.
This, then, is the framework of today’s Crown of the Continent. But a look back in time is needed to understand how it all came about.
By the late 18th century, control of the hunting lands of what would become Montana east of the mountains had been rotating through various tribes. But it was the acquisition first of horses and then of guns that allowed the Blackfeet Confederacy to come to rule the prairie that the bison freely roamed, especially in the area within the shadow of today's Rocky Mountain Front and the Crown’s east side.
Eventually, with the white invasion of their claimed territory, the Blackfeet were pushed into the neighborhood they occupy today — the Blackfeet Reservation — hard up against the eastern flanks of Glacier Nation Park. Restricted to a smaller prairie landscape, the Native people ventured into the high country on the western segment of the reservation to hunt, fish and establish vision quest sites.
In awe of what they saw, the Blackfeet referred to the compilation of jagged, soaring edifices as the “Backbone of the World.” They were most likely referring to the soaring terrain of today’s Glacier and Waterton Lakes national parks.
In about 1877, a white man who would make an impact on them entered their world. Searching for adventure, James Willard Schultz, an educated easterner and accomplished author, migrated to Montana's high plains and came to live with the Blackfeet Indians. He took a wife from the Piegan band of the Blackfeet and, despite being a non-Native, Schultz blended in so well that the Piegan name Apikuni, meaning "Far-off White Robe, was bestowed on him.
Time spent as an outfitter, as well as guide hunting and exploring the mountainous terrain that rose abruptly west of the Indians' encampments, inspired him to write of his adventures and the beauty he witnessed, making him perhaps the first person to chronicle the magnificence of these western lands.
Schultz, in early 1885, sent an article called “To the Chief Mountain” to Forest and Stream Magazine, the forerunner of the current Field & Stream. The editor, George Bird Grinnell, was a Yale graduate educated in zoology, anthropology and history who, when he died in 1938, was referred to by the New York Times as the “father of the modern conservation movement.”
Grinnell was no stranger to the Northern Rockies; he first visited Yellowstone National Park in 1875. He was instrumental in saving the nation’s — and world’s — first national park from poachers and those who would diminish its size. With future president Teddy Roosevelt and others, he formed, in 1877, the Boone and Crockett Club, the nation’s first effective conservation lobbying organization devoted to the protection of America’s wilderness and wildlife. The Yellowstone country was their first major effort.
Impressed with what Schultz penned, Grinnell contracted with him to guide him in the region. He boarded a train from New York to Helena, then rode the mail stagecoach to Fort Benton, where in September 1885 he met the author. From there, the two journeyed by wagon to the Blackfeet villages.
Leaving the reservation, they initially camped somewhere in the vicinity of today's Triple Divide Mountain and then trekked to St. Mary Lake, which Grinnell called "Walled in Lakes.” From there, the duo traveled into the Swiftcurrent region and climbed to a large glacier just below Mount Gould and the Continental Divide; it now bears Grinnell's name. The two men named many of the features identified on maps of Glacier.
Grinnell was so enchanted with the entire landscape that he returned again and again over the next 41 years.
During the early 1900s, Grinnell and other notable folks began seriously lobbying for protection of the area by giving it national park status, building on past efforts to preserve this collection of alpine majesty. As far back as 1883, John Van Orsdale, an army officer on duty in the Browning area and the Blackfeet Reservation, wrote a letter to The River Press in Fort Benton, at that time the most prominent newspaper in Montana Territory. He suggested a national park should be considered for the region.
“Publicity now being given to that portion of Montana will result in drawing attention to the scenery which surpasses anything in Montana or adjacent territories. A great benefit would result to Montana if this section could be set aside as a national park.”
— John Van Orsdale 1883
In 1901 Grinnell heightened the campaign to enlighten the American public on the great natural features the area possessed; he christened the land “The Crown of the Continent.”
Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped corner — the Crown of the Continent.
— George Bird Grinnell 1901
Finally, in 1907, legislation was introduced. Residents of Kalispell vehemently opposed the action, fearing loss of logging and hunting lands. They felt there wasn’t anything up there that folks would want to see. It took three attempts before a bill passed, and in May 1910, President William Howard Taft signed a decree creating Glacier National Park.
In 1895, land contiguous to Glacier just across the Canadian border was reserved for Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. Now, an even greater collection of great mountains sculptured by ice, water and wind were in public ownership. Lofty recognition was given to the area in 1932 when the two parks were joined together as an International Peace Park.
Over the years scientists have come to recognize that whole areas are connected through an ecosystem — essentially a biological community exhibiting ongoing interaction among wildlife, terrain and climate. This region, 13 million acres in all, has had George Bird Grinnell’s moniker, “The Crown of the Continent,” aptly bestowed on it.
The grandeur of the pinnacles reaching toward the sky that awed the first visitors is now part of a world-renowned landscape with both nations protecting 83 percent of its habitat by statute.
Through its Crown of the Continent Initiative, established in autumn 2007, the University of Montana has become the umbrella and point program for the substantial work and study now being carried on in the Crown.