Planning Your Trip to Glacier National Park

Small yellow wildflowers carpet the ground with snow-covered mountains in the distance.

Summer sees the most visitors, but Glacier is beautiful year-round. Photo © Becky Lomax.

There’s plenty to see and do in Glacier National Park, whether you’re going to be there for a few days or a few weeks. If you’re only there for a day, be sure to drive over Going-to-the-Sun Road. If you have a few more days, visit Many Glacier. If you have a whole week, add West Glacier, Waterton, and Two Medicine Lake to your itinerary. If you’re lucky enough to have two weeks, make trips to the North Fork, U.S. 2, and Flathead Valley as well.

West Glacier and Apgar

West Glacier and Apgar form the park’s western portal. Divided by a nationally designated Wild and Scenic River, the area whips into a summer frenzy with white-water rafting, trail riding, fishing, kayaking, boating, hiking, and backpacking. Apgar houses the largest campgrounds on the park’s largest lake—Lake McDonald.

North Fork

For those looking to escape the crowds, the remote North Fork on Glacier’s west side has real rusticity, not just the look of it. Without electricity, Polebridge Mercantile and Home Ranch Store attract travelers who relish bumpy dirt roads, solitude at Bowman and Kintla Lakes, and wolf serenades.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

As the park’s biggest attraction and the only road bisecting the park, Going-to-the-Sun Road leads drivers on a skinny cliff shimmy into the craggy alpine. The National Historic Landmark crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, a wildflower wonderland dancing with glaciers, waterfalls, mountain goats, and top-of-the-world trails.

St. Mary and Many Glacier

Small seasonal St. Mary bustles as a hub of campgrounds, lodges, cabins, cafes, shops, and Going-to-the-Sun Road’s eastern portal. In Many Glacier, glimmering sapphire lakes attract hikers. The historic Many Glacier Hotel is in the center of this grizzly-bear haven.

Two Medicine and East Glacier

In Glacier’s southeast corner, the park’s historic headliner hotel, Glacier Park Lodge, greets travelers with its flowered walkway and huge lobby. It buzzes with golfers, swimmers, and trail riders. But Two Medicine Lake yields a quiet contrast for hikers, boaters, anglers, wildlife-watchers, and campers.

Marias Pass and Essex

Pale next to Going-to-the-Sun Road’s drama, U.S. 2 crosses mile-high Marias Pass in the fastest route over the Continental Divide along Glacier’s southern end. The scenic drive squeezes between Glacier and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, passing the Goat Lick, historic Izaak Walton Inn, and a Wild and Scenic River.

Waterton

In Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park, Glacier’s sister park, provides access to Glacier’s remote north end. Visitors on Waterton Lake travel by boat to cross the international boundary to Goat Haunt, USA, and walk to the International Peace Park Pavilion. Below the historic Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Townsite is a nucleus for boat tours, hiking, shopping, bicycling, dining, and camping.

Flathead Valley

More than Glacier’s western gateway, Flathead Valley is an attraction in itself, with Kalispell, Whitefish, Bigfork, and Columbia Falls drawing visitors for their unique personalities. The valley lives up to its outdoor reputation with boating, fishing, rafting, camping, biking, golf, swimming, hiking, and skiing.


When to Go

Summer attracts hordes when lodges, campgrounds, and trails are open. Barring deep snows, Going-to-the-Sun Road is open mid-June—mid-September, with peak visitation crammed into four weeks during midsummer. Snow buries some trails into July, when moderate weather rides in. Mosquitoes descend with a vengeance in early summer, wildflowers peak
in late July, and huckleberries ripen in August.

Although saddled with unpredictable weather, off-season offers less-hectic visits. Low-elevation trails are usually snow-free in late spring and early fall, but few commercial services are open. While Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed to vehicles, bikers and hikers tour it without cars in spring and fall. In spring, May- June rains intersperse with cobalt-blue skies. In fall, warm bug-free days and cool nights usher in the larch and aspen turning gold and peaktop snows by September’s end. In winter, snow closes most park roads, which become snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails.


Before You Go

Nondriving travelers usually fly into Glacier Park International Airport in Flathead Valley—the closest airport—or hop the Seattle-Chicago Amtrak train that stops daily in East Glacier and West Glacier. Once at Glacier, shuttles aid travel, but only in summer and only to certain locations. Summer travelers should reserve rental cars in advance. Visitors heading to Waterton will need appropriate documentation to cross the international border.

Northwest Montanans have a saying: “Wait five minutes…the weather will change.” Because snow can fall in August, dress in layers—lightweight wicking synthetics, fleeces, and breathable waterproof or water-resistant fabrics. Bring gloves, a warm hat, and rain gear for cold snaps and a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses for sun. Sturdy walking shoes or hiking boots work best on the rugged trails.

In Montana, dressing for dinner means putting on a clean shirt. Casual attire is the restaurant norm, as are hiking boots and river sandals. Cool weather brings out fleece rather than cashmere. Despite the Wild West heritage, cowboy hats and boots are only for wranglers.

For hiking, bring a pack, a water bottle, and binoculars for wildlife-watching; buy pepper spray for bears. Don’t forget the camera, as Glacier’s scenery creates foolproof photo opportunities.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Glacier National Park.


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