Are you thinking about visiting Glacier National Park? There is so much to experience, from crystal clear lakes, diverse wildlife, lofty mountains, flowery meadows, and stunning forests. There are hundreds of hiking trails that cross various types of terrain and offer exceptional views. You can also rent a kayak or paddleboard and get a better look at the beautiful clear waters of Lake McDonald. Adventure is out there and you can find it through exploring this breathtaking National Park. I hope this travel guide helps you with planning a trip to Glacier!
Glacier National Park is located in the northwestern part of Montana State, USA. West Glacier is the most popular entrance as many people stay in the cities of Kalispell and Whitefish which are only 45 minutes from the park entrance. I stayed in Kalispell on my trip and went through the West Glacier entrance two days and the East Glacier entrance on the last day. Even though visiting Glacier National Park in the summer is most popular and crowded, this is when the Going-to-the-Sun Road is most likely to be fully open.
Even though it’s in the name, seeing glaciers wasn’t the highlight or focus of this park in my opinion. Wondering how many glaciers are in the park? Here is the answer directly from the Glacier National Park Service Website: “At the end of the Little Ice Age around 1850, there were about 80 glaciers in what would eventually become Glacier National Park. In 2015, the last year with satellite imagery available, there were 26 named glaciers that met the size criteria of 0.1 km², nine fewer than in 1966. Of the 26 remaining in 2015, some may now already be too small to be considered glaciers. In addition to the roughly two dozen named glaciers that are monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey, the park also hosts several unnamed glaciers, about a dozen rock glaciers, and many snowfields.” Visit the website for more history and information on glaciers.
Entrance Fees & Reservation System
As of August 2021, in addition to a park pass you also need a reservation for the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTSR) when entering Glacier National Park.
The passes/reservations for the GTTSR are only $2 but if you don’t get one, you cannot enter the park between 6 am-5 pm. Currently, this reservation is set to be in place until September 6th, 2021.
I was able to snag a 7-day vehicle pass for the GTTSR a couple of months ahead of time. Tickets for the vehicle pass or shuttle tickets sell out very fast! At first, I wasn’t able to get shuttle tickets because they were instantly selling out as soon as they were released. However, I learned that people were only getting these to get into the park and wouldn’t show up for their reserved shuttle times. This ended up working out great for us. After entering through West Glacier we parked at Apgar Visitor Center and waited in the shuttle standby line. We didn’t have to wait too long to get a shuttle. Parking at trailheads in the summer fills up super early in the morning, so taking a shuttle around the park was so convenient. You need to check in at the Visitor Center in order to get a wristband to ride the shuttle.
Here is a link to all the park pass options. If you’re thinking of going to multiple National Parks in one year, consider getting the $80 Annual National Park Pass. A pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees, and day-use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person). There are also great deals for seniors (62+).
What To Do
The way I like to see a National Park is through hiking! There are plenty of amazing hikes here but I will highlight just a few:
- Avalanche Lake (via Trail of Cedars) 5.9mi out & back
- Good for all experience levels of hikers. Some hills but not too much of an elevation gain. Many people stop as soon as they see the lake, but I recommend walking a little further. There are several more spots to get down to the lake and won’t be as crowded. It’s a beautiful location but it is one of the most popular hikes and parking here is difficult. In the summer parking can be full by 7:00 am! This is a main shuttle stop so I would park at Apgar Visitor Center and take the shuttle if you can. Off-season parking may be easier.
- Iceberg Lake 9.3mi, 1,450ft elevation gain, out & back
- Another beautiful glacial lake trail! This one is harder than Avalanche and is located on the east side of the park. Beautiful valley views along the way. Roughly halfway to the lake, you will arrive at Ptarmigan Falls. This is a good spot to rest or turn around if you’re not up for doing the whole hike. There is a pit toilet near here as well.
- Hidden Lake Trail & Overlook 5.3mi, 1,374 elevation gain, out & back
- This popular trail is behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center right at the peak of the Going-to-the-Sun road. We were only able to access this by taking the shuttle, once the parking lot gets full they don’t let anymore cars in for most of the day! We only hiked to the overlook, because the rest of the trail down to the lake was closed due to bear activity. The hike to the overlook is fairly easy with most of it being boardwalk. We saw so many mountain goats (including some babies!) and several bighorn sheep!
- Highline Trail 14.9 mi, 2578 elevation gain, Logans Pass <–> The Loop
- For this hike, I would highly recommend having a shuttle reservation. You start at Logan’s Pass Visitor Center and end at “The Loop” on the GTTSR. At The Loop, you can either take a shuttle back to the Visitor Center to your car or take the shuttle to your next destination! There are some spots where the hike is narrow and high up so keep that in mind if you’re scared of heights! Another option is to hike to Haystack Butte and back to Logans Pass, which shortens it to about 8 miles round trip. (Remember to ride the shuttle you will have to have a reservation ahead of time, meaning you would have check in at the Apgar or St Mary’s Visitor Center and received a wristband for the day. You can get off and on all day after that).
- Grinnel Glacier Trail 11.2mi, 2181ft elevation gain, out & back
- Another popular hike in East Glacier. It’s recommended to start as early in the morning as you can. More of a challenging hike for those that are up for it!
These are definitely some of the more popular ones so they can get busy. There are SO many trails in Glacier! There are really easy short ones as well as all-day (or multi-day) challenging options! Check out the AllTails website & app for more ideas, current conditions, and recent trip reports!
In addition to beautiful hikes, the main way to see Glacier National Park is driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road! It is estimated to take around two hours to drive the full length, without stopping. There are plenty of great overlooks, trailheads, and a visitor center along the way. We also saw several grizzly bears in the meadows! Some do find it nerve-wracking to drive this road. I didn’t think it was too bad but taking the shuttle is definitely more enjoyable in my opinion because then you can appreciate the views instead of staring at the road. However, the shuttles aren’t going to stop at every lookout, so keep that in mind. We drove the road some days and took the shuttle when we were hiking. There are tours like Red Bus Tour if you don’t want to drive the GTTSR but still want to stop at all the points of interest along the way.
This is a stunningly clear, calm, and large lake that is a must-visit. There are boat rentals, tours, and a beautiful lodge here. This is a great spot to relax on the shore after a long hike! There are restrooms, a gift shop, and food here as well.
Where To Stay
As this is an extremely popular National Park, there are lots of different options. My main advice is to book early! We stayed in a hotel in Kalispell. Here are some other ideas ranging in prices & comfort levels:
-Kalispell or Whitefish Hotels/AirBnBs
-Check current conditions, weather updates, and closures here at the official website
-Be Bear Aware! I saw about six bears while at the park. Have bear spray at the ready on any hiking trails (not buried in your backpack). Make sure you test it beforehand & know how to use it. Make noise, talk while hiking. I know sometimes you just want to enjoy the sounds of nature, but trust me you don’t want to come around a corner and startle a bear!
-Make sure you have a full tank of gas if you’re planning on driving all day throughout the park
-Manage your expectations if you go during peak season. The summer is when more things will be open and accessible but it is the height of tourist season and it will be crowded, even if you get to the park early in the day. This is also fire season for Montana and there could be closures due to wildfires or smoke obstructing views.
-West Glacier Village is located a little bit before the West Glacier Ticket Entrance. This is a good place to stop on your way in or out. It has gift shops, restrooms, a little gas station, ATM, and restaurants.
I hope this Glacier National Park travel guide helps you plan your trip and make the most of your time visiting this beautiful place! Comment down below any questions you have or your experience at the park! Feel free to send me a message on Instagram as well @melissa_junker.
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