A Comprehensive Guide to Glacier National Park, Montana
A Comprehensive Guide to Glacier National Park, Montana was originally published in May 2023
Been wanting to go to Glacier National Park and just don’t know where to start in the planning process?
Not to worry, in this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know to plan your first visit to Glacier, from when to go, how to get around, where to stay, and the best things to do in Glacier National Park.
You will also find information on the best scenic drives, hiking trails, and photo stops in Montana’s most famous national park.
Famed for its beautiful blue lakes, jagged ice-capped peaks, the renowned Going to the Sun Road, and scores of wildlife Glacier National Park is a must-visit for those headed to explore Montana’s Nature.
Here is everything you need to know to visit Glacier National Park after my visit as I passed through Montana on my road trip/move from Alaska to Colorado.
- Best Time to Visit Glacier National Park
- How Many Days to Spend in Glacier
- How to get to Glacier National Park
- Drive the Going to the Sun Road
- Explore the Many Glacier Area
- Check out Colorful McDonald Lake
- Wander in the Forest among the Trail of Cedars
- Sunrise at Two Medicine Lake
- Snap a Photo of Wild Goose Island on St. Mary Lake
- Get Away from the Crowds at Bowman Lake
- Take a Red Bus Tour
- Keep an Eye Out for Wildlife
- Make a Side Trip to Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada
- Take a Hike in Glacier National Park
- Campgrounds inside Glacier National Park
- Hotels inside Glacier National Park
- St. Mary
- East Glacier Park
- West Glacier
Best Time to Visit Glacier National Park
Much like its counterparts on the other side of the border in Canada, Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, the best time to visit Glacier National Park in the summer months of May to September for the best weather conditions.
Just know that this also means you’ll encounter the biggest crowds in these months, particularly from June to August, during the summer break for most families in North America.
Because of this, I feel that June-August is best avoided unless those are the only months you have to work with. If you do fall into this category, make sure to reserve campsites or hotels far in advance.
So, when is the best time to visit? Well, if you ask me it’s the shoulder months of May and September (and even early October depending on the year).
In May and September you still generally have decent weather and smaller crowds.
Glacier National Park is not maintained in the winter months, so unless you plan to snowshoe your way in or cross-country ski, there isn’t as much to do in the park for the usual visitor.
How Many Days to Spend in Glacier
You could spend as little as one single day in Glacier National Park or several, it just depends on your interests and how much time you have to dedicate to your trip to Montana to the park.
For the average visitor wanting to hit the highlights of what Glacier has to offer, I’d say 2-3 days is the sweet spot.
If you only have a single day set aside for exploring Glacier National Park, I would recommend taking on the Going to the Sun Road and squeezing in some time for a couple of short hikes along the journey to maximize your time in the park.
If you have multiple days, in addition to the Going to the Sun Road, I would set aside time for many of the stunning hikes within Glacier National Park.
I had the luxury of visiting over a few days as I have a good friend who lives just outside the park near the road to Many Glacier.
How to get to Glacier National Park
Being located in the US and a fairly remote corner of Montana, there is zero public transport to Glacier National Park. So the best course of action for getting to Glacier National Park is to rent a car.
Closest Airports to Glacier National Park
If wanting to fly as close as possible to Glacier, the nearest airport is Glacier Park International Airport. The airport is located in Kalispell, which is roughly 40 minutes from the western entrance to the park.
Other reasonably close airports include Missoula International Airport located about three hours south of West Glacier, Great Falls International Airport located roughly two hours thirty minutes east of St. Mary, and finally Calgary International Airport across the border in Canada which is about three and a half hours from St. Mary.
Getting to Glacier by car
As mentioned above, renting a car will give you ultimate freedom and flexibility for exploring Glacier National Park (that is unless you’ll be self-driving from home as I did).
Arriving at Glacier National Park by car can bring you in a few different ways. Most will arrive from the west on Highway 2 which will bring you to West Glacier.
If coming from the east, you’ll arrive by Highway 89 to St. Mary (or Babb if you continue further afield).
From the north, the Chief Mountain International Highway crosses the border from Canada to Babb, Montana.
Entry to Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park has varying entry fees depending on the time of year and how you enter the park ranging from $20-35 for 7 days of entry.
Depending on how long you plan to visit and if you plan to visit other national parks in the US, it may be worthwhile considering purchasing the America the Beautiful annual pass. For $80, this gets you entry to most of the national parks in the United States. Note that you can purchase these passes at most entry points to any US national park.
Glacier National Park Permits
I lucked out in this category, having done little research before I arrived at Glacier National Park. Being that I was visiting so late in the season, I did not need to have a permit to drive the Going to the Sun Road, a newer requirement of Glacier National Park.
Starting in 2023, vehicle reservations will also be required to drive the road to Many Glacier, the North Fork, and Two Medicine, in addition to the permit required for the Going to the Sun Road. Although this is kind of annoying, it will help alleviate some of the crowds during the peak season.
For more information on the permit system and how to apply visit the Glacier NPS website. Note that after September 10, 2023, you will not need a permit for any of the scenic drives in Glacier National Park until the start of the 2024 season.
Getting Around in Glacier National Park
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: renting a car is the best way to get around Glacier National Park.
If getting around by your own means isn’t really in your game plan, you do have a couple of options for getting yourself around Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park by Tour
Not keen on renting a car and doing it yourself? Taking a tour of Glacier National Park is the next best option.
You can opt for multiday Glacier National Park tours that take in large parts of the park and take away the headache of logistics and planning.
Another great option is to string together a series of Glacier National Park day tours that cater to your interests and give you the ability to pick and choose what you want to do day to day (or even take a day off mid-trip).
Things to do in Glacier National Park
Drive the Going to the Sun Road
Driving the Going to the Sun Road is the main attraction for most visitors to Glacier National Park and is larelgy considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the world.
Going to the Sun is a 50-mile-long road that traverses Glacier National Park mountains that at some points is harrowingly narrow and clung to cliff edges and you make the winding journey through the high mountains and beautiful forest.
The Going to the Sun Road will take you through countless scenic areas of Glacier National Park including Logan Pass, over the Continental Divide, and Lake McDonald.
The road is typically open from late June to mid-October, depending on weather conditions that particular year.
Note that you will need a permit arranged in advance if planning to take on the Going to the Sun Road between May 26 and September 10, 2023.
Explore the Many Glacier Area
While the Going to the Sun Road seems to get all the glory, I liked the drive along the Many Glacier Road more, albeit much shorter at only 10 miles (and it dead ends too, so you’ll have the treat of driving back down it to Babb, Montana.
But there’s more to the Many Glacier area than just the drive up the scenic road- this is the jumping-off point for trekking to Grinnell Glacier, Cracker Lake, Iceberg Lake, and Swiftcurrent Pass.
Those looking for a more relaxing exploration of the Many Glacier area may want to consider a visit to the famous Many Glacier Hotel or opt for the boat trips along Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine.
Check out Colorful McDonald Lake
McDonald Lake is one of the most recognizable places to visit in Glacier National Park due to its crystal-clear waters and rainbow rocks that adorn the lake floor.
There are plenty of activities around McDonald Lake that will keep most visitors happy, including boat trips, fishing, barbecuing, or just relaxing on the lake’s shore.
Wander in the Forest among the Trail of Cedars
The Trail of Cedars, located along the Going to the Sun Road is a great opportunity to get out and stretch your legs.
This short trail meanders through the forest along a boardwalk taking in some of the most gorgeous stretches of woodland inside Glacier National Park.
Those wanting a bit longer of a trek can access the trailhead to Avalanche Lake through the Trail of Cedars.
Sunrise at Two Medicine Lake
Did I manage to do it? No.
Do I think you should try to? Yes, of course.
Two Medicine Lake is touted as one of the best places to catch the sunrise in Glacier National Park and I think the photos you’ll find on Google image search will back up this popular belief, even though I couldn’t get myself out of bed early enough to catch it.
Snap a Photo of Wild Goose Island on St. Mary Lake
St. Mary Lake is set in a wide valley with mountains on either side that seemingly rise thousands of feet toward the sky, giving this overlook of Wild Goose Island an iconic backdrop.
Much like Two Medicine Lake, the Wild Goose Overlook is a superb spot for sunrise.
Get Away from the Crowds at Bowman Lake
Located in the northwest of Glacier National Park, Bowman Lake doesn’t see the same volume of traffic as more popular spots such as Going to the Sun, Lake McDonald, or Many Glacier owing to the 90 minute drive it takes to reach it from West Glacier.
Those that make the journey to Bowman Lake will be rewarded with scenic mountain lake views and a more intimate experience as it is less popular than its nearer to the main tourist towns counterparts.
Take a Red Bus Tour
Not keen on taking on the Going to the Sun Road on your own? Taking on the trip in one of these historic 1930s vintage red buses is a great option that gives you the ability to watch the scenes go by rather than paying attention to the road.
Those looking for a more immersive and in-depth visit may want to opt for the Red Bus Guided Tour. Other options include a shorter 2.5 hour trip or a longer 9.5 hour trip that makes stops for several scenic hikes en route.
Note that these Red Bus Tours do sell out in the high season, so it would be smart to make a reservation in advance.
Keep an Eye Out for Wildlife
There are countless wildlife viewing opportunities in Glacier National Park. The park is crawling with grizzlies- just to give you an idea an estimated 300 grizzly bears are living within the Glacier National Park boundaries alone!
Other wildlife stars to look out for are the Big Horn sheep, beavers, mountain goats, coyotes, and the tiny and adorable pika.
To increase your likelihood of spotting wildlife visit the park early in the morning just before sunrise or later in the evening as the sun sets. As always keep a safe distance and carry bear spray with you on hikes in Glacier National Park.
Make a Side Trip to Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada
Sat just across the border in Canada and a mere 90 minute drive away from Glacier is Waterton Lakes National Park.
Unfortunately, I did not make the time to visit Waterton Lakes on my visit to Glacier National Park but there’s always a next time, right?
With plenty of scenic stops, hikes, waterfalls, boat trips, and even golfing Waterton Lakes National Park makes for a nice addition to any Glacier National Park itinerary.
Take a Hike in Glacier National Park
Hiking in Glacier National Park is an absolute treat with stunning mountain sceneries, emerald valleys, and impossibly blue glacially-fed lakes.
In the next section, find a list of many of Glacier National Park’s most famous hikes with distance and time information, separated by difficulty.
My favorites included the Grinnell Glacier Hike, the Hidden Lake Overlook, and Avalanche Lake.
I think I would have loved the Cracker Lake Hike but unfortunately, the trail was shut when I visited Glacier National Park due to grizzly activity (which is not too uncommon!).
Hiking in Glacier National Park
Easy Hikes in Glacier
- Apikuni Falls | 2 miles | 1 hour
- Avalanche Lake | 4.6 miles | 2-3 hours
- Baring Falls Trail | 0.6 miles | 30 minutes
- Hidden Lake Overook | 2.8 miles | 1.5 hours
- Johns Lake Loop | 6 miles | 2 hours
- Paradise Point | 1.4 miles | 30 minutes
- Red Rocks Trail | 3.6 miles | 1-2 hours
- Saint Mary Falls | 2.4 miles | 1 hour
- Trail of Cedars | 1.4 miles | 30 minutes
- Virginia Falls | 3.8 miles | 2 hours
Moderate Hikes in Glacier
- Grinnell Glacier | 10.6 miles | 5-7 hours
- Highline Trail | 11.6 miles | 5-6 hours
- Iceberg Lake | 9.6 miles | 5-7 hours
- Ptarmigan Tunnel | 10.6 miles | 5-7 hours
Difficult Hikes in Glacier
- Cracker Lake | 12.6 miles | 6-8 hours
- Gunsight Lake Trail | 13.2 miles | 6-8 hours
- Piegan Pass | 9 miles | 6-8 hours
- Pitamakin Pass & Dawson Pass | 14.8 miles | 7-9 hours
- Siyeh Pass | 9.2 miles | 6-8 hours
- Sperry Chalet Trail | 12.6 miles | 8-10 hours
- Swiftcurrent Pass | 13.6 miles | 8-10 hours
Accommodations & Campgrounds in (and around) Glacier National Park
Truth be told (and I think I mentioned this above) that I was spoiled on my visit to Glacier National Park as I have a good friend in Babb who offered me a place to crash the entire time I was visiting.
Had I not had a friend who lives on the fringe of Glacier National Park I, in all honesty, would have opted to camp during my visit, although many of the hotels in and around the park look quite nice.
So here are some places that came recommended by other hikers I met on the trails around Glacier National Park.
Campgrounds inside Glacier National Park
The National Park Service manages several campgrounds within Glacier National Park, some of which are available on a first come first serve basis and others are reservable online at Recreation.gov.
Campgrounds reservable in advance include Apgar, Avalanche, Fish Creek, Many Glacier, Sprague, St. Mary, and Two Medicine.
First come first serve campgrounds include Bowman Lake, Cut Bank, Kintla Lake, Logging Creek, Quartz Creek, and Rising Sun.
There are also backcountry camping options for those that are taking on some of the more off-the-beaten-path hikes deep into Glacier National Park.
Hotels inside Glacier National Park
East Glacier Park
Eating & Dining in Glacier National Park
There are several restaurants to choose from in Glacier National Park itself centered around Lake McDonald and the Many Glacier area. It’s worth noting that although there are restaurants they are mostly located at the peripheries, so it’s best to snacks, especially for those taking on the Going to the Sun Road.
In the main towns outside the park including Kalispell, East Glacier, West Glacier, and Saint Mary you’ll also find an array of dining options.
For those wanting to keep to a lower budget and self-cater and for campers, it’s recommended to pick up groceries in Kalispell as that is where you’ll get the best prices on provisions.
Other Tips for Visiting Glacier National Park
- Bear spray and bear vaults are recommended for hikers taking on the trails in Glacier National Park. Bear spray cannot go on airplanes, so if flying in, plan to pick it up at a shop in Kalispell, East Glacier, West Glacier, etc.
- Dressing in layers is a wise decision regardless of the time you plan to visit as the weather can change quickly.
- Keep a safe distance from wildlife.
Have any questions about visiting Glacier National Park?
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