Glacier National Park: The Complete Guide

Glacier National Park

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

When it comes to breathtaking views, beautiful mountains, and year-round outdoor activities, the Rocky Mountains are home to some of the country's best national and state parks, including Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana between St. Mary and Whitefish.

The best time of year to visit Glacier National Park for warm weather is in July, August, and September, but the park can feel crammed with tourists. June and October are lovely shoulder season, but the higher elevations of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, including Logan Pass, may be blocked by snow. If you love cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, winter is an excellent time to visit Glacier National Park. Spring can be cold and wet, but it's ideal for visiting the park before the massive amounts of summer tourists arrive.

Whether you enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, backpacking, and cross-country skiing or would just like to take a scenic detour on your cross-country vacation, this national park makes for the perfect pit stop on your trip.

Things to Do

When it comes to things to do in Glacier National Park, the activities and events largely depend on the time of year you're visiting.

No matter what time you visit, Glacier National Park is all about the scenery. Called "The Crown of the Continent" and "The Backbone of the World," the sharp peaks and steep valleys in this section of Montana combine with clear waters and wildflower-filled meadows to yield spectacular views. During your time in the park, you can experience this unbelievable scenery on a scenic drive, a day hike, from a horse's back, on a boat tour, on a bike, or while floating the Flathead River.

Other activities include hiking and backpacking, watching wild animals, guided tours, ranger-led programs, camping, photography, biking, fishing, boating, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and a variety of special events.

Read more about the best things to do in Glacier National Park.

Kayaking is popular activity in the Two Medicine lakes

 

Praveen P.N / Getty Images 

Best Hikes & Trails

Many visitors drive the scenic loop around Glacier and never even get out of their car, seeing just a tiny sliver of what Glacier National Park has to offer. Whether you're seeking out an adventurous day hike or total solitude in the backcountry, there are plenty of options with over 700 miles of hiking trails to explore.

  • Highline Trail: This 11-mile trail is considered one of the most scenic in the park, hugging the Garden Wall with sweeping views of the valley below. It's also easy to reach, since you can park at either the Logan Pass Visitor Center or the Loop right off the Going-to-the-Sun Road and then take the shuttle back to your car. There's a steep 4-mile section, so start at the Logan Pass entrance to hike it down instead of uphill.
  • Grinnell Glacier Trail: In the area known as Many Glacier, this 10-mile hike passes by alpine lakes, open meadows, and the eponymous glacier. The trailhead starts at the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake near the Many Glacier Hotel. If you want to cut out some of the hiking time, you can also take a ferry from the hotel across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, cutting out 3 miles from the total journey.
  • St. Mary and Virginia Falls: For a no-sweat hike with a big payoff, you can reach two different waterfalls just 3 miles from the trailhead. The St. Mary Falls trailhead is right off the Going-to-the-Sun Road for easy access and there's also a St. Mary Falls stop on the national park shuttle. It's ideal for families with kids since it isn't too challenging, and there are plenty of nearby trails to continue exploring if you want more.

For even more scenic ideas, read up on the best hiking trails in Glacier National Park.

Spotting Wildlife

Many people who drive across or hike through Glacier National Park enjoy looking for wildlife along the roads and trails. There are even ranger-led programs offered by the National Parks Service that help guests identify the different species of flora and fauna that call the Rocky Mountains home.

The large animals are dangerous and should be enjoyed from a distance, so be sure to review the NPS' bear safety guidelines before you go. Smaller animals such as chipmunks, marmots, and Clark's nutcrackers can be quite amusing and enjoyed up close.

Grizzly bears, black bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, gray wolves, elk, cougars, bats, shrews, skunks, badgers, river otters, beavers, marmots, chipmunks, ladybird beetles, harlequin ducks, and ptarmigans are all among the creatures you might encounter on your trip through the park.

Scenery and Wildlife in Glacier National Park

Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Fishing

Fishing is allowed in Glacier National Park without any type of license, but there are strict rules about when, where, and what you're allowed to fish in order to preserve the natural ecosystem. In general, the fishing season lasts from the third Saturday in May until the end of November, although some areas close when the fish are spawning. Most importantly, anglers are only allowed to keep invasive species. If you catch any native fish to the area, you're required to release it back into the water.

Biking

Take in the scenery of Glacier National Park from the seat of your bike. Biking season begins in April and continues to grow throughout the spring as the snow thaws and the roads are plowed. Biking the Going-to-the-Sun Road includes some long uphill stretches with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain between the Avalanche Campground and Logan Pass, so be sure to plan out your route so you know exactly what you're getting into before pedaling off. Plan your rides to start and end at shuttle stops so if you don't feel like riding back to your vehicle or campsite, you can load your bike on the shuttle and get a ride back.

All roads in the park are open to bikes as well as cars, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road, so ride carefully and with a helmet. From mid-June to Labor Day weekend, parts of the Going-to-the-Sun Road are closed to cyclists to keep traffic moving, but other roads with fewer cars are open. Most unpaved hiking trails are off-limits to bikers.

Cross-Country Skiing

Glacier National Park wouldn't live up to its name if it didn't have cross-country skiing. Winter is a particularly magical time to visit Glacier not just because it's a completely different landscape from what most visitors see in the warmer months, but you can also explore the park without hoards of tourists.

Upper Lake McDonald is one of the most popular skiing areas in the park since it has reliable snow and isn't too difficult to reach. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is open to vehicles in winter up to the Lake McDonald Lodge and then closes, but you can continue the route on skis or snowshoes. McDonald Falls are just 2 miles away from the Lodge, but many skiers trek the 6 miles to the Avalanche Picnic Area.

If you're visiting in the winter but not confident to hit the trails on your own, you can join ranger-led snowshoe tours to fully experience the glacial terrain.

Scenic Drives

While any drive through Glacier National Park promises to be scenic, the most famous route is practically synonymous with the park itself: the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This 50-mile route begins at the West Entrance of the park in West Glacier, Montana, and crosses the Continental Divide before exiting in the town of St. Mary. It takes at least two hours to complete if you drive straight through, but factor in a few extra hours for photogenic viewpoints, picture taking, and impromptu hikes.

Driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road can be nerve-wracking for several reasons, but mainly because it's a narrow, two-lane road with steep drop-offs. Also, traffic often backs up for summer road construction or wildlife, making progress across the park slow, and parking at turnouts and visitor centers is limited. As a result, Glacier National Park offers a free shuttle service along the Going-to-the-Sun Road to cut down on traffic. There are no gas stations along the route or within the park, so make sure you fill up before entering.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the most complicated routes to snowplow in the country and the project takes months every year to fully complete. The exact dates vary from year to year, but the road is generally open from start to finish from the end of June to mid-October.

Where to Camp

There are 13 campgrounds spread across Glacier National Park, and five of them are located on the Going-to-the-Sun Road (which means you can take the shuttle to other areas of the park and not worry about hiking back or driving). Most campsites are given on a first-come, first-serve basis, but a couple of campgrounds do use reservation systems.

  • Avalanche: This campground is one of the most popular in the park and is located on the Going-to-the-Sun Road about 15 miles in from the West Entrance. Cedar and hemlock trees provide ample shade during the hot summer months and picturesque Avalanche Lake is just a short trek away.
  • Many Glacier: Located near Swiftcurrent Lake, this is one of the campgrounds where campers can reserve a site online before arriving. It's located on the east side of the park away from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, so you won't have nearly as much traffic going by. The trailhead for Grinnell Glacier is nearby, one of the largest glaciers in the park.
  • Two Medicine: Before the Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed, this was the most popular campground in the park. Today, it's still just as beautiful as always but since it's away from the main route, it's not nearly as crowded. Two Medicine is especially entertaining for families since rangers often host educational events in the amphitheater.

Where to Stay Nearby

Getting to Glacier National Park is a three-hour drive from Missoula, which could be considered the nearest big city. However, there are plenty of accommodation options in the vicinity of the park in nearby towns like Whitefish or Kalispell.

  • Firebrand Hotel: If you're not into the idea of "roughing it," then the Firebrand Hotel in Whitefish is the most luxurious option around. The cedar building feels like a cozy cabin but with an elegant cocktail bar and a spa for winding down after a day of hiking. It's about 40 minutes to the West Entrance from Whitefish.
  • Cedar Creek Lodge: A favorite for families, the Cedar Creek Lodge has pull-out beds in the room, WiFi to keep little ones entertained, and plenty of food options nearby for picky eaters. It's located about 25 minutes from the West Entrance in Columbia Falls.
  • Many Glacier Hotel: One of the hotel options located within the park boundaries, the Many Glacier Hotel feels like a European retreat nestled in the Swiss Alps. It's a historical building dating back to the railroad days in the 1910s and the hotel holds on to its roots by limiting modern amenities like television or air conditioning.

For more lodging options, check out the best hotels around Glacier National Park.

Many Glacier Hotel

 

Teacherdad48 / Getty Images 

How to Get There

Glacier National Park is located in the northwest part of the state of Montana, between West Glacier and St. Mary. While it may be a little out of the way on a cross-country trip, there are several ways to access this Rocky Mountain park. The Glacier Park International Airport is located in Kalispell, Montana, approximately 30 miles from the West Entrance to the park. The charming mountain town of Whitefish is nearby and you can either rent a car or take a shuttle from the airport to access it.

If you'd rather travel by train, the ​Amtrak Empire Builder rail route stops right in Glacier National Park at West Glacier, Essex, and East Glacier. Nearby stops are Whitefish to the west and Browning to the east.

If you are driving, the primary freeways to Glacier National Park are Interstate 90 from the east and west and Interstate 15 from the north and south. US Highway 2 runs along the southern border of the park with access to the West Glacier, Walton, and East Glacier entrances. US Highway 89 reaches the Many Glacier, St. Mary, and Two Medicine entrances on the east side of the park.

Accessibility

The Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle is fully accessible for visitors in wheelchairs and each stop along the way has a varying amount of accessible trails. The most picturesque stops on the route all have ramps or cement roads to reach the dramatic overlooks, including McDonald Falls, the Loop, Road Camp, Oberlin Bend, and Logan Pass. Several campgrounds also have ADA-compliant sites that are available upon request.

Other accessibility materials that are available with advance notice include large-print brochures, handouts with Braille, and closed-caption educational videos in the visitor centers.

Visitors with permanent disabilities can also apply for an Access Pass which is a free lifetime pass for recreation sites across the U.S., including all national parks.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Purchase your entry pass online before arriving to get into the park quicker and not spend time waiting at the entrance gate. There's a cheaper winter rate in place from November 1 to April 30.
  • You can enjoy free entry into Glacier National Park on certain federal holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Veterans Day, and throughout National Park Week in April.
  • In the summer and especially in July and August, parking lots at popular destinations like Logan Pass and Avalanche are typically filled by 8 a.m. Be prepared for crowds and consider getting away from the tourist route if you're looking to connect with nature.
  • Have a Plan B and Plan C ready. Between traffic, summer crowds, road closures, weather, and fires, it's very possible that what you wanted to see ends up not being an option. Take it in stride and be ready to experience another gorgeous part of the park.
  • To plan out where you want to visit, check out the live webcams that show traffic flow and parking lot occupancy around the park.
  • Because of its remote and mountainous nature, there is very limited cell phone and WiFi access in the park, so be sure to plan accordingly by knowing directions before you travel as you likely won't be able to check Google Maps while you're on the trail.
  • Dogs are not permitted on hiking trails or in any of the park lodges and facilities. Dogs on a leash are permitted in your vehicle, the parking lots, and at campgrounds.
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