Glacier National Park, one of Montana’s best known features and home to some of the best mountain scenery in the country! Making up the southern half of the world’s first International Peace Park (the northern half being Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park) this stunning park is simply magical and deserving of a visit! In this blog we’ll show you some of the best things to do in Glacier National park as we go over everything you need to know before you visit!
Growing up right next Glacier, I’ve had a number of years to get to know it well. And as it becomes a more and more popular destination I’ve enjoyed talking to tourists and hikers about how they can make the most of their time & trips. Knowing a few tips and tricks can make the entire experience much more fun when you have a limited amount of time to enjoy the park!
When to Visit Glacier National Park
Summer is the best time to visit Glacier—and Montana in general. In fact, much of the park isn’t plowed of snow and accessible by car until mid June! In summer however, the park can be super crowded making it difficult to see everything if you don’t plan ahead. This can be especially true if you are planning on doing some camping and need to book a reservation in advance.
In order to avoid some of the crowds, it might be better to visit a bit before or after the rush happens. I recommend visiting in June right as the roads open or September following the summer break rush in order to have a bit more breathing room. And, as always, weekdays will be better than weekends!
The Basics Of Glacier National Park
If you plan on flying in, then you will want to look up flights to Glacier International Airport (FCA). The best times to fly in are usually during the week and the shoulder months (mid summer weekend get crazy!). Upon your arrival, you will probably need to rent a car, the airport has several car rental companies available including Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise.
Where you stay will depend on whether or not you have chosen to camp in or nearby the park. If hotels are more your style, then there are several options available in the towns of Whitefish and Columbia Falls in all price ranges (discussed at length below).
Upon entry to the park propper you can get a visitors pass for $35, it’s good for 7 days. This entry pass does not include camping fees however, which you can find on the Glacier National Park website (assume $25-35 per night). If you visit the ‘States often I’d personally recommend making the investment in the “America the Beautiful” pass, which allows you to visit any national park in the United States over the course of a year for only $80, a great value if you’ll be visiting 3 or more!
Getting Around Glacier National Park
While renting a car is by far the best way to get around, there are some other options for those who are flexible on what they want to see and when. There are park shuttles available that stop at all the major sights and campgrounds. These can be extremely handy if you’re hiking in the backcountry and you finish at a different trailhead than the one you started at.
Glacier National Park has a full schedule of shuttles and stops on its site. The park shuttle can also be a great option if you already know what you want to see—not having to deal with parking and traffic can make your time at the park much more enjoyable!
Things to Do In Glacier National Park
With over one million square acres of land to explore you might find yourself wondering what the best things to do in Glacier National Park might be. Never fear, we’ve got you covered! From hiking to swimming & photography to fine dining Glacier National Park has something for everyone!
Hiking in Glacier National Park
Of course, one of the main reasons to visit Glacier is to check out the world-class hiking. The park is over one million square acres, and even a lifetime of tromping around there wouldn’t be enough to try every hike or trail. When you speak to people who enjoy the park regularly, every one of them will tell you that hiking is on of the best things to do in Glacier National Park! I’ve picked a few that cover different levels of skill and that are the most memorable to me.
At 4.5 miles, the Avalanche lake trail is a fairly easy up and back with stunning views. Located just east of Lake McDonald Lodge the trail begins at the Trail of the Cedars Trailhead which you’ll find marked along the road.
Along the trail you’ll encounter beautiful glacial waterfalls and the occasional mount goat or herd of deer hanging out among the bushes before breaking out at Avalanche lake nestled stunningly below the rugged Bearhat mountain.
You should put aside about two hours to finish if you don’t plan on rushing. Also, because this is popular hike for families, the parking lot can get quite full. Arrive early in the morning in order to make sure you get a spot or jump the tram from nearby lake McDonald Lodge.
The highline trail is one of the most difficult we’ll list but the views and experience you’ll have are worth the effort! This 11.8 mile point to point hike traverses the mountainside high above the going to the sun road from Logan Pass to “the Loop” a hard 180° corner on the road via the Granite Park Chalet where many hikers will spend a night in the wilderness.
One of the most popular hikes in Glacier National Park, the Hidden Lake trail is a heavily trafficked 5.3 mile out and back hike. Starting from the Logan Pass Visitor Center, you’ll climb through open alpine meadows towards Clements Mountain. Veering left of the peak, the trails provides you with a surprise overlook of Hidden Lake tucked well below.
The trail goes down past the overlook and to the edges of the lake itself. It offers fabulous views of some of the glaciers that give the park its name, and while the total elevation gain of 1,325 feet over those 5.3 miles makes it a bit more challenging than some of the other hikes nearby its well worth the challenge!
This is a popular hike among locals, and you’ll want to park at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in order to make sure you have a parking spot. The total trail length is 9.7 miles, but there is a minimal elevation gain and a chance to see some of the most outstanding views the park has to offer. Finally, you’ll come to a lake that is aptly named after the icebergs that float in the water all year round.
Must-See Sights in Glacier National Park
Even if you aren’t planning on hiking or heading deep into the park, there are still a few spots that you will want to make sure you see while you are there. These include:
Wild Goose Island & St. Mary Lake
Saint Mary lake, the 2nd largest in the park, is an attraction all its own. Most visitors to the park never stop to enjoy it however, choosing rather to simply snap a photo at the roadside pullout and continue on. The water is cool & clean and the slabs of rock along the shore make for a perfect spot to enjoy a quick nap in the sun! Wild goose island in the middle of the lake is a draw for photographers and some awesome compositions can be made in the right light!
St Mary Falls
Clear turquoise water tumbling down a two step cliff? What’s not to like! St Mary falls, located at the west end of Glacier’s Saint Mary lake, is accessible by a short, well graded forest hike from the parking lot on Going to the sun road. Most visitors to the park overlook this attraction which makes it a great spot if you find yourself visiting the park in the peak of high season! If you continue past St Mary falls where most will turn around, you’ll be rewarded with the secluded Virginia Falls and likely have the area all to yourself!
As the largest lake in the park, Lake McDonald is hard to miss. It’s also a great place to hop on a ferry and spot some wildlife on the shore. It doesn’t look quite the same as it did in years past. Recent forest fires have scarred the hills and changed the landscapes, but the water is as clear as ever and it’s easy to get to from either side of the park.
Built as part of FDR’s New Deal, this piece of park roadway is an outstanding feat of roadwork, engineering & sheer will—especially once you consider it’s age. Completed in 1933 & looping along the edges of the park’s towering mountains the Going-to-the-sun road offers some of the best views of the park—without having to sweat for it. It can be difficult to keep your eyes on the road with such spectacular views, so drive slow and look out for the other guy!
Located along the Continental Divide at the summit of the famous Going to the Sun road you’ll find Logan Pass and its full featured visitors center. Out from the parking lot branch numerous amazing hikes ranging from hour long saunters through alpine meadows to multi-day expeditions into the rugged backcountry wilderness. One thing’s for sure however, you’ll get some amazing photos from multiple viewpoints only a short walk away! So make sure you bring your Camera gear!
Where to Stay in Glacier National Park
Like many other national parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite etc.) Glacier National Park offers a variety of park operated lodges. If you want to stay within the park itself these spots or camping ( discussed below) are your only options. If you’re not taking advantage of the amazing camping options within the park here are a few excellent choices for accomodation in Glacier national park to make into your home base!
Accomodations in West Glacier
The Going To The Sun Chalets are quiet and secluded, yet still close to the action glacier national park offers! The chalets offer all the comforts of home just minutes from West Glacier’s stores & restaurants and a short drive from lake Mcdonald. A great option for your family getaway or group who wants to cook their own meals and save a bit of money!
A crowd favorite with a hip mountain feel, Under Canvas: Glacier offers a glamping experience like no other unique to the park. Each tent is equipped with bedding, a wood burning stove and small ensuite bathroom with in-tent shower! A really cool experience that shouldn’t be passed up! Only a few miles from the best of Glacier national park you’re right in the heart of the action too! These aren’t your father’s waterlogged tents pitched on lumpy soil!
Accomodations in East Glacier
On the east side of the park accommodation is somewhat more limited, but that’s not to say it’s any less amazing.
Glacier Park Lodge is the grandest of all the accomodations in the park. Constructed over a century ago by the Great Northern Railway the lodge features stunning architecture through it’s use of gigantic timber framing, grand fireplaces and oversized great rooms. For a lodge built over 100 years ago you might expect it to be dated, however it has just the right amount of rustic feel to get you into the history and pioneering spirit of the park!
Saint Mary Lodge & Resort is a common base for travellers exploring the park. Rooms are available in the rustic lodge or if you’re feeling like spending a few dollars extra a cabin along the river is the perfect place to put your feet up after a long day of exploration. While it’s not what most would call luxury, the property is clean and functional with the proximity to the park being its main selling feature.
Glacier National Park Campgrounds
Camping within the park can be a major highlight of any trip. But it also requires a bit of advance planning. In fact, I recommend taking a look at the options for your dates at least four months before you arrive in Montana. Glacier National Park Campgrounds also offer several types of camping spaces. You will need to identify your needs in a campground in order to book it, are you traveling with a camper? A trailer? Simply tenting?
There is a limited amount of space available for RVs and large vehicles at Glacier National Park’s campgrounds and you will need to pay an additional fee over an above the base rate. Determining the size of your vehicle and how many people will be traveling with you can be essential when it comes to booking a campsite spot in time.
Most campgrounds in Glacier National Park are first-come first-served with the exception of Fish Creek, St. Mary, part of Many Glacier, and half of the group sites in Apgar which can be reserved in advance here.
Even if you don’t manage to get a camping spot in time, there are other options. I usually check out the KOA Campground website to see if there is an opening as there are a few that provide easy access to the park and have reasonable rates.
If you are looking to get to the backcountry of the park and you want to spend a few nights there, you will need to purchase a backcountry permit. You can do so at the Park Permit Office near St. Mary, or you can go online here and book in advance. This is highly recommended because there is no guarantee you will get a permit as a walk-in.
Backcountry camping costs $7 a night, and you will be charged $40 on the website upfront in order to make the reservation. After this is done, then you will be refunded the remaining money once your booking has been completed.
Also, a reminder that Glacier enforces a “leave no trace” philosophy. Remember to clean up campsites and store food properly. Remain on the trails and do not pick flowers or approach the abundant wildlife. Most of all, make sure all fire is extinguished properly—wildfires are a big problem in the park and they can spread extremely quickly!
A Note On Park Wildlife
One of the many reasons to visit Glacier National Park is to spot the vast variety of wild animals. There are thousands of species that call the park home and while there’s nothing more exciting than seeing some of the wildlife enjoying the peace of their natural habitat, there are a few rules to keep in mind:
- Don’t leave your car if you spot wildlife on the side of the road. Also, do not approach or feed any animals—no matter what kind they might be.
- If you are camping, be sure to pack up any of your food and lock it in your car or keep it in a bear-safe container. Most of the deaths & injuries that happen in the park are related to bears invading campsites smelling improperly stored and easily accessible food.
- Always carry approved bear spray with you on hikes, especially if you are going into the backcountry. Make sure it’s in an easily accessible location in case you stumble across an aggressive bear on your hike.
Be a good tourist, respect the animals, avoid interaction & remember they are WILD! Rather than inching closer and closer for a photo, consider buying yourself a better lens or camera!
The Take Away
There’s a reason Glacier National Park is known as the “Crown of the Continent.” It’s home to some of the most beautiful nature in the United States, and it becomes more and more popular every year. Add to that that it’s the southern half of the world’s first international peace park and that it’s likely that the glaciers won’t last much longer, and you’ve got plenty of compelling reasons reasons to go visit!
For more on the park, check out the Glacier National Park website.