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At 3900 acres, Saint Mary Lake is the second-largest lake in Glacier National Park. Saint Mary Lake is one of the most visited lakes, because the popular 'Going To The Sun Road' travels along the northern side of the lake for several miles. The road offers several spots where car travelers can get down to the water, and the two campgrounds in this part of the park are reached from the same road. The route for 'Going To The Sun Road' was specifically chosen to make the most of Glacier's unusually scenic vistas, so sights at Saint Mary Lake don't disappoint. The nearly 10-mile long lake offers picturesque views of a number of surrounding peaks such as East Flattop, Singleshot and Red Eagle Mountains, often best viewed from the tour boat that takes tourists and hikers the length of the lake.
Saint Mary Lake is one of the few for which statistics are available. The lake reaches depths of 300 feet and holds a healthy population of lake trout, whitefish, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout and even a few bull trout. The lake actually gets little fishing pressure except at the outlets along the shore near the campgrounds, so those anglers who can find the rare calm day suitable for fly fishing will have excellent luck. Because the water seldom gets warmer than 50 degrees and the choppy waves make floating difficult, most find that float tubes and canoes don't work well. A motorized boat is almost necessary for successful fishing here, except for the whitefish that stay in the shallow shore areas. There is only one launch ramp, so few motor boats ply the lake. In winter, the lake usually freezes over with up to four feet of ice some winters. Visitors do not swim in the lake due to the frigid temperatures.
Two campgrounds on the lakeshore offer campsites with potable water and restrooms. Many of the popular trails begin from the campground areas, with several leading to waterfalls. The tour boat concession has docks at the Rising Sun Campground halfway along the shoreline near the road. This campground offers token-operated showers for campers only and has nightly ranger-led evening programs and activities scheduled by the same rangers. A camp store and small restaurant are also located here. The free shuttle service that serves locations on 'Going To The Sun Road' stops here, making this an excellent place to embark on hikes in the area. The St. Marys Campground is located near the east end of the lake near the Glacier National Park Visitors Center. The campgrounds take reservations from June 1 through September 3, with a number of sites restricted to first-come basis. Primitive camping is available all winter, but there are no water or toilets available and campers must obtain a pass from the local rangers. In honor of the local Native American culture, Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai tribal members take part in the park's Native American Speaks program featuring performing artists and local drummers and dancers at the St. Mary Visitor Center.
It is possible for first-time hikers and those less physically fit to access the vistas featured at the end of some of the hiking trails by utilizing the shuttle buses and the tour boat. Saint Marys Falls is less than a mile from the trailhead, which can be accessed by shuttle bus, but is a mile and a half walk after taking the boat. Virginia Falls is on up the same trail at the 2.2 mile marker. This trail connects to a much longer trail for backcountry hikers who must obtain a backcountry pass to stay overnight in the park. The trail to Otokomi Lake is a bit over five miles from the trailhead. Baring Falls is only a third of a mile from a shuttle stop. The Sun Point Nature Trail leads along the lakeshore for seven-tenths of a mile from the Sun Point parking area. Wildlife is plentiful; moose, bears and wolves can often be glimpsed.
Not everyone wants to camp during their stay, and the local area just outside of the park offers many options for more modern lodgings. The concessionaire that operates hotel facilities within the park manages a motel, lodge and cabins just past the Visitors Center. The little village of St Marys, population 50 during the off-season, boasts several motels, campgrounds and other lodging facilities during the season when the park is open. Groceries, gas and gifts are also available here. One large chain campground in the area offers a swimming pool and pet-sitting for park visitors, since dogs are not allowed on any trail within the park. The town swells in size in the summer months with accommodations for Glacier National Park workers provided. Several small restaurants also do a booming business here. Much of the area is Blackfeet Reservation land, but the small town of Babb halfway down the east side of Lower St. Marys Lake has a small motel and cafe that welcome overflow visitors from the park. There are neighborhood bars in most towns, and several guest ranches offer excellent lodgings, back country horseback trips and fishing trips. The entire area is geared to tourism and welcomes park visitors.
For those wishing to awaken to mountain views every morning, real estate is available in the area. Some properties can be found with frontage on lakes, although not on Saint Mary Lake. The winter season brings snow-lovers who enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing along the more accessible trails. Some of the rivers in the area offer rafting adventures, and working ranch vacations can be found. A rodeo or two can often be located nearby during the warmer months. There is never a shortage of things to do and see, inside the park and out. Glacier National Park and Saint Mary Lake await . . .and so do the local residents who want to make your vacation complete. Make sure to bring the hiking boots, binoculars and camera on this trip.
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