Special Merit Classification IV

swiftcurrent motor inn

Above, the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn photographed on a rainy day in June, 2010. Looking at the front, the coffee shop (restaurant) is at left, the lobby is in the center, and at the extreme right is the general store. The front facade has a breezy, Gulf Coast appearance. But look at the left hand end of the building, and the rustic styling is apparent. Below, the lobby is comfortable but little-used. Visible through the double door is the "coffee shop" built circa 1941, now functioning as "The Italian Garden." It's a popular restaurant serving pizza and other Italian foods.

interior of the swiftcurrent motor inn

Photos by NPLAS volunteers

Lake McDermott TeePee Camp, 1911
Many Glacier Auto Tourist Camp, 1935
Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins Glacier NP
Classification IV
Swiftcurrent Pass trailhead, Swiftcurrent Lake, Montana
Theme: Rustic storefront/lobby/restaurant structure with associated rustic cabins and facilities, and mid-century modern motel structures.
Construction: Teepee camp: Great Northern Railway. 1933 Cabins: Superior Building Company. 1934 Cabins: Civilian Conservation Corps. Main building: CCC; additions by Glacier Park Company. Motel buildings & Shower building: Glacier Park Company. Cost of original 1933-1935 complex was $38,500.
Structure of Main Building: One story wood framed building on concrete foundation, weatherboard walls, shingle roof.
Known Timeline:
Lake McDermott teepee camp developed, 1911
27 cabins "Many Glacier Auto Tourist Camp" (now "A" & "C" circles) constructed, 1933
Campground, Cabins in "D" "E" and "I" circles constructed, 1933-34
Main building (general store) constructed, 1935
Shower building constructed, 1936
54 cabins prior to fire, 1936
31 cabins destroyed by forest fire, August 1936
"B" circle cabins constructed, 1937-38
Additional cabins replaced in "C", "D" and "E" circles, 1937-38
Revisions to shower building, 1940
Restaurant & lobby area added to main building, 1941
Private baths added to 5 cabins, 1952
Employee dormitory & three motel units constructed, 1955
"Shed" addition to main building, 1955
Alterations to shower building, 1957
Dormitory converted to additional "Pinetop" motel unit, circa 1957
Circles "A" and "E" converted to employee housing, circa 1957
7 cabins removed from circle "B" and "I", circa 1960
Employee shower constructed, circa 1960s
10 cabins removed and shipped to Lake McDonald Lodge, 1965
Motel rooms redecorated & original beds moved to cabins, circa 1980
Original coffee shop linoleum floor replaced, 1992
Circle "A" cabin (NPS #841) destroyed by fire, 1993
ADA accessible bath added to shower building, 1993
Added to National Register of Historic Places, 1996
Presently operated by Glacier Park, Inc. with 88 guest rooms, some ADA accessible.


If any of the Glacier lodging facilities could be compared to the fabled Camp Curry at Yosemite, Swiftcurrent would be it. Offerings range from coldwater cabins to blandish motel rooms, with a number of variations available. Like Curry, the Swiftcurrent structures are aging but well maintained. Cabins are cramped, but the linens are immaculate. Private baths are found in some, while other guests march to a camp shower building. The layout of the complex is somewhat confusing and haphazard, yet it has an undeniable quirky appeal. And like Curry, the cabins at Swiftcurrent are infinitely more charming than the motel buildings.

At that point, however, the similarities end. Swiftcurrent is a fraction of the size of its infamous Yosemite cousin. It has none of the raucous patio scene, nightly entertainment, twinkling lights, nor massive crowds. It tends to be an excellent base for budget-oriented hikers who aren't quite into camping. And it tends to be a dreadful choice for touristy families expecting to find color televisions and Disneyesque activities.

For those in the know, Swiftcurrent is a great way to take advantage of the Ranger programs and lobby scene at the nearby Many Glacier Hotel, at a fraction of the room rate. It's not that the lobby at Swiftcurrent lacks charm; it just lacks people using it. It looks like a good lobby for relaxing, it's decorated as such, but the nature of the Swiftcurrent complex just doesn't lend itself to it. Guests tend to either crash in their rooms or sit out in the cabin circles. A few, as mentioned, seek out the atmosphere at Many Glacier prior to turning in for the evening.

front porch at swiftcurrent motor lodge

Like the lobby, the porch on the main building sees mainly foot traffic.

At this point in time, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins seems to have found its niche in the world. It started as a teepee camp, where guests slept on cots after a day of hiking or fishing. The Great Northern Railway intended the teepees to be a temporary offering until the McDermott Chalets could be built, about 3/4 mile away near Swiftcurrent Falls. (The lake had been renamed McDermott at the time, but eventually went back to the original Swiftcurrent name). When some of the budget-minded guests resisted the pricier Chalets, the teepee camp lingered on. The teepees may be long gone, but the site's history of providing lower-cost, no-frills lodging remains unchanged.

The American "auto cabin camp" was a forerunner to the motor hotel. Adventurous early motorists willing to trek to National Parks were the same breed who enjoyed pack trips and canvas tents a few years earlier. These intrepid auto enthusiasts thought nothing of pulling off the road and camping under the night sky, until some insightful entrepreneurs began offering tent camps, then cabin camps. By the late 1940s these were renamed "motor courts" to remove the stigma of camping; post-war Americans wanted private showers. As we entered the jet age, cabins were deemed obsolete and the modern "block" motel came into vogue.

Thus the hodge-podge development of Many Glacier Auto Camp, and ultimately, the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn makes sense in a historical context. Beginning with tents, then the addition of cabins during the 1930s, an attempt to add baths to those cabins in the 1940s, and mid-century modern motels in 1955.

motel building at swiftcurrent

Rustic tones do little to hide the "Mission 66" inspiration for the motel buildings.

As the cabin and shared bath concept became unpopular during the 1950s, the NPS and Glacier Park Co. actually drew up plans to demolish the cabins. More motels would be built, because that is what the public demanded. Fortunately the wheels of progress turn slowly, and the cabins managed to hold on. By the turn of the new century, rustic cabins with common baths returned to popularity as an outdoorsy movement sought out simpler -- but still private -- lodging. Americans rediscovered the joys of chatting with like-minded strangers during the evening hours, and today at Swiftcurrent the simple cabins sell out well in advance of the motel units.

typical cabin circle at swiftcurrent

Cabins were laid out in "circles" to create a sense of community among guests.

The Experience

A new community every night

The facilities at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins are dated, so if your preference is toward candies on a pile of pillows, this isn't for you. But that's ok with the thousands of outdoor-oriented guests who pack into Swiftcurrent each season. They know that the linens are clean, the rooms are well cared for, and the spontaneous conversations with new friends in the cabin circles are to be truly treasured. Dinner in the old "coffee shop" is hardly for the gourmand, but it represents a fine value considering the location. The general store is well stocked. Because it serves as a camp store as well, it offers more groceries than similar stores in the park.

The motel units are of course well maintained and clean, although some "prissy" guests may find the fixtures and decor a bit dated. A motel stay rarely offers the camaraderie of the cabin circles. These units are better suited for people who prefer complete privacy in all aspects of their stay.


Special Merit Classification IV

The cabins at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn provides a location and atmosphere that will enhance a visit to Glacier National Park. With the cautionary statement that they may be too rustic for some guests -- especially for those unaccustomed to semi-private bath facilities, the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn Cabins are classified in the fourth tier for "Special Merit" by the National Park Lodge Architecture Society. The motel units offer virtually no enhancement to the park experience other than location, and are not classified by the NPLAS.

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Random foliage

That's the local slang for the seasonal employees at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins, and has been for as long as anyone can remember. Although it has snarky undertones, it's more a term of endearment than anything else. Swifties enjoy the same rate of pay as their counterparts at the more glamorous hotel down the road, but only a fraction of the guests and related aggravation. It's a much more relaxed atmosphere, and the Swiftcurrent complex is located right at the key trailheads.

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