12 EPIC Things to do in Glacier National Park

Rugged, remote, and wild, Glacier National Park is an incredible place to experience northwestern Montana. One of the crown jewels of the continent, Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana is rugged, remote, and wild. The park includes one million acres of immaculate forest, two mountain ranges, over 700 miles of trails, 131 named lakes, and countless opportunities to make incredible memories.

Even though Glacier was designated as a National Park in 1910, it’s story starts well before then. Archeological evidence suggests that Native American tribes inhabited the area as many as 10,000 years ago. And the mountain ranges that dominate the landscape began forming over 170 million years ago. Today, the park welcomes over 3 million visitors annually.

While the park is rightfully known best for its stunning scenery, pristine lakes, rocky mountain peaks, vibrant alpine meadows, and diverse wildlife, the man-made history of the park is interesting as well. After being designated as a national park, the Park Service undertook a campaign to construct numerous chalets and hotels throughout the park designed to portray the area as “America’s Switzerland.” Many of these lodging options remain in place today and an incredible 350 structures within the park are registered on the National Register of Historic Places. Glacier National Park is aptly named, as it is home to 25 different glaciers. That being said, at its peak in the mid-19th century, there were an estimated 150 glaciers in the area. Scientists have estimated that all glaciers in the park could melt by 2030, which should be reason enough not to hesitate if you are planning a trip.



Areas of Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is enormous, with several distinct sections to explore. Below is a brief summary of each area of the park:

  • St. Mary’s: The most popular area of the park, St. Mary’s is located on the eastern side of Glacier and includes one of the entrances to the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTSR). Logan Pass, the highest elevation reachable by car in the park (6,646 ft) is located within St. Mary’s. 
  • West Glacier/Lake McDonald: West Glacier is the main entrance to the park and includes the other start/end point of the GTTSR, as well as the picturesque Lake McDonald. 
  • Many Glacier: Many Glacier is located on the eastern side of the park and is definitely less visited than West Glacier and St. Mary, but is still a fairly popular hiking location. 
  • Two Medicine: Located at the southeastern tip of the park and more remote than the previously mentioned areas is Two Medicine. However, it’s growing in popularity as other sections of the park become overcrowded. 
  • North Fork: Located in the northwestern corner of the park, North Fork is only accessible by dirt road and is primarily used for longer backpacking trips, including Kintla Lake and Bowman Lake. 
  • Goat Haunt: Perhaps the most remote part of the park, Goat Haunt is only accessible by hiking and is nestled between North Fork and Many Glacier. This section of the park borders Canada and includes part of Waterton Lake.  

How to get to Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is located in Northwestern Montana, right on the Canadian border. Because the park is so massive, driving times vary drastically depending on which section of the park you are visiting. The main entrance at West Glacier can be reached from:

  • Whitefish, MT in 35 minutes
  • Missoula, MT in 2 hours and 30 minutes
  • Great Falls, MT in 3 hours 15 minutes
  • Helena, MT in 4 hours
  • West Entrance of Yellowstone in 6 hours and 30 minutes
  • Grand Teton in 9 hours

The most popular entrance on the Eastern side of the park is St. Mary’s, which provides access to the Going-To-The-Sun-Road. The St. Mary’s entrance can be reached from: 

  • West Glacier in 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Great Falls, MT in 2 hours and 30 minutes
  • Missoula, MT in 4 hours and 30 minutes
  • Helena, MT in 3 hours and 30 minutes
If you are arriving by plane, the closest airport is in Kalispell, Montana, located about 45 minutes from the West Glacier entrance and 2.5 hours from the St Mary Entrance. There is also an airport in Missoula, Montana, which may have better flight options but is further from the park, about 2.5 hours from the West Entrance and 4 hours from St. Mary.

Getting around in Glacier

To get around in Glacier National Park, you will need to either drive your own vehicle or rent a car. During the peak season, there is a park shuttle that runs the length of the Going-To-The-Sun-Road. That being said, it would be tough to get into the park or to any other section of the park without a vehicle of your own. The park shuttle is mainly useful for avoiding parking trouble at some of the most crowded spots. You can read more about the Going-To-The-Sun-Road shuttle on the NPS website.

There is also a seasonal hiker’s shuttle operated by Glacier National Park Lodges that connects West Glacier, Apgar, Lake MacDonald Lodge, St. Mary, and Many Glacier. Tickets for the hiker’s shuttle are first-come-first-serve, so we wouldn’t bank on it as a reliable form of transportation.

Entrance tickets and fees

Entrance to Glacier National Park is $35 per vehicle and is good for seven days. Alternatively, you can purchase an America the Beautiful Pass for $80, which gives you access to all U.S. National Parks for an entire year. If you plan to visit more than 2 parks in a year, it almost certainly makes sense to purchase an annual pass. 

When is the best time to visit Glacier National Park?

Because the area is at high elevation and gets so much snow, many roads and trails in the park don’t open until July or even as late as early August. For example, the full Going-To-The-Sun-Road typically opens in late June or early July and the trail to Grinnell Glacier is often snow-covered until mid-July. For many of the best things to do in Glacier National Park, we’d recommend visiting in late July, August, or early September to ensure that your options are not limited.

Things to Do in Glacier National Park

Boredom will not be a consideration when visiting as there are so many great things to do in Glacier National Park. For the purposes of this post, I’ll start in the west (West Glacier entrance) and move east, beginning with the side that I explored more of, and what you’ll be closer to if you fly into Kalispell or are coming in from North Idaho.
1. Perhaps Glacier National Park’s most famous lake, Lake McDonald is the largest in the park, at approximately 10 miles long. Like most others, it is characterized by its incredibly clear water, colorful rocks, and the mountains that frame it for a perfect sunset or sunrise. This was my first stop in the park; if you’re coming in from the West Glacier entrance, it’s likely to be yours, too. There are several places along the lake where you can pull off to enjoy it; if you arrive at sunrise or sunset, you can avoid the crowds.
2.  Avalanche Gorge and Avalanche Lake: are two of the more accessible things on this list. The Trail of the Cedars loop that leads to the gorge is wheelchair accessible, totally flat, and pretty short. It’s also one of the most popular trails in the park for that reason. You can add on another mile to get to the lake, if you feel so inclined, which will take you uphill. That said, the next lake on this list is worth a visit instead if you’re short on time.
3.  Road to Logan Pass: You’ll be on Going-to-the-Sun Road from the moment you enter the park from the West Glacier entrance and as you pass along Lake McDonald. This road is incredible in terms of views and the ideal way to see the park’s main features. Keep in mind that the road is also quite narrow, and can get very popular in the summertime. I recommend heading out right at sunrise if you plan on parking at Logan Pass, which is where the following trailheads depart from.

4. Hidden Lake: I was amazed by Hidden Lake. I had it almost all to myself when I went stargazing there after dark. Given that Glacier National Park is a dark-sky park, and since I was there during the confluence of several meteor showers, I just had to experience it after dark. After much research, I found that the Milky Way would be perfectly situated for just the right photograph of the lake. 

5. Many Glacier: Many Glacier is a valley that many consider being the most beautiful part of the park. It’s accessible from the St. Mary entrance in the east, after which you will also find the famous Grinnell Glacier trailhead if you’re heading there from Going-to-the-Sun Road, be sure to stop by St. Mary Lake as well, particularly to catch sunrise or sunset with a view of Wild Goose Island.
6. Grinnell Glacier Trail: This was the trail I had my sights on when I first started looking at options in Glacier National Park. It has it all in terms of views and finishes at an aquamarine lake and the famous Grinnell Glacier. The trail begins at the Many Glacier Hotel boat dock, where there’s an option to take a boat for part of the way. It’s a 7.6-mile out-and-back trail with a 1,840-foot elevation gain. If you hiked to the overlook on the Highline Trail, this will be a chance to see the glacier up close, and from another point of view.

7. Bowman Lake: If you’re looking for something more secluded, try this lake, which is supposed to be amazing. The road in can be difficult, which keeps most people out unless you have a 4×4 vehicle.

8. Backcountry hiking: If you’re more into backcountry, multiday hikes, read more on the National Park Service website. Apply for permits in advance. As a bonus, from Glacier National Park, you can head all the way into Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta. That would be one epic trip if you ask me.

9. Snowshoeing: If you’re visiting Glacier in the wintertime, definitely consider renting some snowshoes to explore. You can rent snowshoes in West Glacier; ask about which trails nearby are in the best condition.
10. St. Mary Falls: This hike is 1.7 miles and begins at the small car park on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Getting to St. Mary Falls is a pretty easy trek, as it’s mostly downhill. The waterfall itself has two distinct streams and is especially abundant in the spring and early summer, after the snow has melted.
11. Take a dip in a glacial lake: You know that feeling when you reach the end of a long hike on a hot summer day and all you want is a cold drink or something to refresh you? Well, the best way to cool down in Glacier National Park is to take a plunge into an ice-cold glacial lake.  You probably won’t last too long as the water will be so cold it quite literally takes your breath away (see my kiddos faces in the picture above…)! Nonetheless you will definitely feel refreshed as you scramble out of the frigid waters. There are many hikes in Glacier that provide a cold alpine lake as your reward, but a few of our favorites include Cracker Lake, Iceberg Lake and Hidden Lake. 
12. Spot wildlife (from a distance!): Glacier National Park is one of the largest intact ecosystems in the lower 48 and is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, grizzly bears, moose, marmots, and cute little pikas. If you spend any amount of time on the trails, you are likely to encounter some wildlife. We once got stuck waiting on a trail because a very grouchy mountain goat was blocking the way and was not happy with the noisy hikers disturbing his lunch!
 Note: You should always maintain a respectful and safe distance from all wildlife. The park asks visitors to maintain a distance of at least 100 yards from bears and 25 yards from any other wildlife. To make it simpler, if the animal notices you or changes their behavior because of you, you are too close!
Avoiding Crowds

The best way to avoid the crowds in Glacier is to head there during a shoulder season. September is apparently the most beautiful time in the park, provided there aren’t fires that close it for the season. You can also snowshoe in the winter, and enjoy the heavier water flow and higher lakes in the spring. In the summer, I was able to avoid the crowds by heading out at sunset, catching the stars, and making it in around 5am, before the sun had risen. Most people aren’t willing to do that, but if you are, then you’ll see the park in its best light and are sure to get parking!

Where to stay in and near Glacier

There are several unique lodging options inside the park, but please note that staying in Glacier typically comes with a high price tag, especially during peak season. We’ve already highlighted the Granite Park Chalet, but below are a few other options that take a bit less effort to access (ie. you don’t need to hike):

  • Many Glacier Hotel: The largest hotel in the park with an epic view looking over Swiftcurrent Lake, Many Glacier Hotel looks like it was plucked out of the Swiss countryside and plopped down in Montana. Staying here will cost you a pretty penny with prices for a double room in the $400 to $500 per night range during peak season.
  • Swiftcurrent Motor Inn & Cabins: The nearby Swiftcurrent Motor Inn is a more budget-friendly option in the Many Glacier Area, with rates running around $200 per night.
  • Lake McDonald Lodge: Located on the eastern shore of Lake McDonald, this rustic Swiss-style lodge is the perfect home base for exploring the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
  • Village Inn at Apgar: Located just minutes from the West Entrance on Lake McDonald, the Village Inn offers suites with lake views and full kitchens.
  • Rising Sun Motor Inn  & Cabins: Located a few miles from the St. Mary entrance, the Rising Sun Motor Inn and Cabins offers more reasonably priced rooms in the $200 – $250 per night range.
  • Sperry Chalet: A rustic mountain cabin, similar to the Granite Park Chalet, that is only accessible by trail but with the amenities, you would expect from any hotel (linens, full restaurant, a warm bed, etc).

WHITEFISH MONTANA: If a nice dinner and/or cold beer at a brewery sounds like the perfect way to end a busy day in Glacier, Whitefish is the place for you! Located about 35 minutes from the West Entrance, Whitefish is convenient for any activities on the western side of the park. There are plenty of places to stay in Whitefish, such as these adorable modern cabins, the lovely Lodge at Whitefish Lake, or the more budget-friendly Chalet Motel.

COLUMBIA FALLS MONTANA: The small town of Columbia Falls gets you even closer than Whitefish to the West Entrance of Glacier, making it a perfect place to stay if you plan to drive the Going-To-The-Sun-Road or visit Lake McDonald. 

KALISPELL MONTANA: As the largest major town (and by major we mean… a population of roughly 23k!) near Glacier, Kalispell will be the easiest place to find lodging. That being said, it is located about 45 minutes south of the West Entrance, which puts you close to 3 hours from Many Glacier and over 2 hours from Two Medicine. Therefore, it’s a suitable option for exploring the Going-To-The-Sun-Road, but will involve more driving than staying in the park or one of the smaller towns nearby. We loved our stay at “TRAVELODGE by wyndham” and would highly recommend these cute, cozy and convenient hotel! 

In 2022, tickets are required to enter the Going-To-The-Sun-Road and North Fork section of the park. Check the NPS website well in advance of your trip for details on getting tickets.


 

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Len Parent

“The most important thing to remember is that you can wear all the greatest clothes and all the greatest shoes, but you’ve got to have a good spirit on the inside. That’s what’s really going to make you look like you’re ready to rock the world.” —Alicia Keys

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