Glacier National Park is located in Montana’s Rocky Mountains right at the U.S. and Canada border. It’s often called the “Crown of the Continent” and is one of the most photogenic of all the national parks. With the park’s abundance of beautiful landscapes and wildlife, it’s truly a paradise for nature lovers.
Why Visit Glacier National Park?
If the photos of the park themselves don’t convince everyone to visit Glacier National Park, I’m not sure what will. The park is home to some of the most pristine forest, meadows, mountains, and lakes. In fact, there are 762 lakes in Glacier National Park, 131 of which are named.
It’s also home to 26 glaciers and 175 mountains! Not to mention the wildlife you’re guaranteed to see with 71 species of mammals roaming the park. Mountain goats are the official symbol of the park and bears are spotted so often you’ll want to be armed with bear spray at all times.
In addition to its natural beauty, Glacier National Park has other unique qualities that set it apart from other parks. It has over 300 historical structures that are on the National Register of Historic Places.
From chalets and hotels to visitor centers and barracks, you’ll feel like you’re in Europe when you visit these buildings. The park also neighbors one of Montana’s most popular ski towns, Whitefish. It’s definitely worth a visit to stroll down the main street, check out the shops, and grab a bite to eat.
You can also enjoy the public beach at Whitefish Lake during the summer! If you’re feeling extra adventurous you can cross the border into Canada and visit Waterton Lakes National Park.
Things to Do
With over a million acres there are a lot of activities to enjoy in Glacier National Park! Before planning any activities, though, you’ll want to start your trip with a stop at the visitors center.
Due to Glacier’s extreme weather conditions and dangerous wildlife, it’s not uncommon for roads and trails to be closed. The park rangers will be able to give you the best advice on what to do inside the park based on the time of year and your needs.
Drive on Going-to-the-Sun Road
If you only have time to do one thing in the park, driving through the park on Going-to-the-Sun road is a MUST. It will take you at least two hours to drive the full 50-mile road, but chances are it will take longer with how often you’ll want to stop for photos.
It’s known as one of the most beautiful drives in the U.S. and will take you right along the edge of the mountains. While it’s not for the faint of heart, its truly a modern marvel and offers some of the most spectacular views. There are several stops to enjoy along the drive, but you’ll be able to enjoy waterfalls, vistas, and wildlife right from your car window.
Keep in mind that only vehicles under 21 feet length, 8 feet wide, and 10 feet tall are allowed on the Going to the Sun Road, due to how narrow and dangerous the road can be. There are also no gas stations inside the park, so be prepared. If you’d prefer to leave the driving to someone else, you have a lot of options that will allow you to sit back and take in the views.
This is the most obvious thing to do in the park, with over 700 miles and 151 trails. I’d also argue that Glacier has some of the best hikes in the country!
There’s a trail for everybody, whether you’re looking for an easy, difficult, or quiet trail. Here are a few of my favorite hikes that I’d highly recommend.
Avalanche Lake is a popular hike because it’s convenient, fairly moderate, and leads to an absolutely stunning emerald colored landscape! The lake is fed by waterfalls pouring off the Sperry Glacier.
If you go during the calmer parts of the day, you won’t know where the water ends and the mountain begins because of the reflection in the water. The lake has a large beach area with benches so you’ll have plenty of time to soak in the scenery.
This is one of the park’s most heavily trafficked trail, but it’s a great hike for all ability levels. You can either hike the entire 2.75 miles to the lake shore or choose to shorten the hike to 1.35 miles and stop at the viewpoint.
The trail is conveniently located behind the Logan Pass Visitors Center and is often still snow-packed into July. While the snow adds to the excitement and fun, it can also be challenging and tiring. However, the views from the top are worth it!
You’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the lake and Bearhat Mountain. You’ll also be able to soak in views of Mount Cannon, Fusillade Mountain, Gunsight Mountain, and Sperry Glacier in the distance. Mountain goats are very common in the area and are comfortable getting pretty close to hikers! Obviously, avoid getting too close to the wildlife, though.
Turquoise waters, wildlife viewing opportunities, and the option to take a boat ride across Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes, make this hike incredibly unique and memorable. The trail begins at the beautiful Many Glacier Hotel, where you can walk to the dock and hop on a boat to shave off several miles of the hike.
You’ll also get a different perspective from the water and enjoy an interpretive talk that comes with your ride. Be sure to make a reservation for the boat ride at least a few days or weeks in advance as tickets sell out quickly during high season.
After the boat ride, the shaded and easy 1.3-mile trail will take you to one of the most turquoise and most photographed lakes in the park. Dip your feet in the freezing cold water that comes from Grinnell Glacier. When the rest of the trail is open in late summer, you’ll then have the opportunity to continue along the trail a couple more miles to reach the Grinnell Glacier Overlook.
Get on the Water
Don’t let the cold waters keep you from leaving the shore and enjoying the activities that Glacier’s lakes and rivers can offer. Lake McDonald, Bowman Lake, Two Medicine Lake, St. Mary Lake, and Swiftcurrent Lake are great opportunities to enjoy a leisurely float on a kayak. If you’re looking for more of a thrill, you can take a rafting tour on the Flathead River.
The abundance of water also offers great fishing in Glacier National Park. Whether you like lake fishing, fly fishing, or even ice fishing, the park has it all. Be sure to review the NPS website for the park’s regulations, limits, and other information, including types of fish in the area and the best bait and equipment to use.
Make a Stop at Lake McDonald
Lake McDonald isn’t just your average lake and because it’s so easy to access, you won’t want to pass it up. The best time of day to visit the lake is early in the morning to witness it’s glass like water and reflection or in the evening for one of the best spots to watch a sunset in the park.
What makes Lake McDonald even more special are the colorful pebbles that lie underneath it and along its shore. It’s an especially great spot for photography.
Get Lost in a Winter Wonderland
Ski and snowshoe trails throughout Glacier offer all the same great views but with fewer crowds. If you’re okay battling the colder temperatures, winter time in the park can offer true serenity. The park rangers offer guided snowshoe tours on the weekends, as many routes aren’t marked.
When to Visit
Only ten miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road is open year-round, making much of the park inaccessible for most of the year. Typically, the road will open in late June and close in October. As you can imagine, summertime in the park is extremely crowded.
While spring and fall are the best times in most other parks, much of the facilities in Glacier are closed during those seasons. So, unless you’re okay with only accessing certain parts of the park and braving the harsh conditions, you’re better off fighting the crowds and visiting during the summer months. You can, however, find a little more peace and quiet earlier or later in the season, such as early June and late September.
Where to Stay
There are accommodations to fit every traveler’s needs, even the glampers. There’s plenty of lodges and motels throughout the park if camping isn’t an option.
Otherwise, the park has 13 drive-in campgrounds with over 1,000 sites to choose from. Most of the campgrounds first-come first-served except for Fish Creek, St. Mary, and part of Many Glacier and Apgar. The Campground Status Page is a helpful tool for receiving detailed information about each campground, including their fees, amenities, availability and RV accommodations.
If you’re unable to secure a campsite inside the park, you still have plenty of options. You can find several RV parks and campgrounds in nearby Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Kalispell, and Babb. Some of the best-rated parks are St. Mary / East Glacier KOA, Columbia Falls RV Park, Whitefish RV Park, and Rocky Mountain Hi Campground in Kalispell.
Getting to and Around Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is in the northwest corner of Montana and has four different entrances: the West Entrance, St. Mary, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier. To enter through the west entrance, you’ll take Highway 2 north 33 miles from Kalispell to West Glacier. The other three entrances can be reached by taking Highway 89 125 miles north from Great Falls to Browning. You’ll then follow the signs to the different entrances.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder train line stops year-round at West Glacier and seasonally at East Glacier. Glacier National Park Lodges offer shuttles to Amtrak passengers from the train depot. So, if you’d rather leave the transportation entirely up to someone else, this is a great option. You can then take the seasonal hiker’s shuttle to get to and from the trails or hop on the buses and shuttles that run along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Whether you choose to drive yourself around the park or utilize the parks tours and shuttles, you’ll want to be sure to plan ahead. Make reservations, check road conditions, and be prepared for busy parking lots and traffic!
Tips and Tricks Specific to Glacier National Park
- Glacier National Park is one of the largest parks in the U.S. and covers over a million acres, making it really important to plan your transportation logistics ahead of time. It’s helpful to refer to the park by it’s 5 different districts: Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, North Fork & Goat Haunt, St. Mary including Logan Pass, and Two Medicine.You may even consider staying a few days on the east side of the park and then moving your accommodations to the west side for another few days. This will allow you to enjoy the whole park without having to do too much driving.
- You simply can’t visit the area without enjoying some huckleberry ice cream. You can even find opportunities for huckleberry picking in late summer!
- Be very bear aware during your time in the park. Since much of the park is only open for part of the year, bears aren’t as used to tourists being in their territory. Carry bear spray, hike in large groups and make lots of noise on the trails to warn bears of your presence, and always properly store your food and trash.
For the latest info on visiting Glacier National Park, visit their website: Glacier National Park.
Have you been to Glacier National Park? What tips can you share?