Glacier National Park in Montana is one of my favorite places in the world! But it can be a little daunting to plan a vacation to such a remote place, and I’ve certainly learned a few lessons about traveling there. Hopefully some of these ideas will make your vacation less stressful and more fun!
Planning is absolutely key when it comes to enjoying Glacier! I recommend having a solid plan but also remaining flexible. Sometimes the National Park Service closes trails because of bear activity, the parking lots fill up earlier than you expected, or wildfire smoke makes it hard to be outdoors for too long. And wifi can be pretty spotty, so it might be hard to make an alternate plan on the fly. Bring a sense of adventure, and have some extra plans in your back pocket.
1. Familiarize yourself with the general layout of the park. Going-to-the-Sun Road is the main road that crosses the park from east to west. Without stops, it takes about an hour and a half to drive from one side to the other. In the east, you pick up Going-to-the-Sun Road at St. Mary’s, and in the west, you pick up Going-to-the-Sun Road at West Glacier/Apgar. Many Glacier (discussed below), Two Medicine, and Bowman Lake are separate parts of the park, disconnected a bit from the main thoroughfare.
When you arrive at the park, you can snag a free map at most hotels and gift shops near the park.
2. If you plan on hiking, a rental car is a must. It’s expensive, but I don’t think you can really access the park and make the most of your visit without one. As you probably know, you need a pass from the National Park Service to enter Going-to-the-Sun Road in a private vehicle between 6 am and 5 pm. (This doesn’t apply to most tours.) Once you’re inside the park, you can hop on a shuttle bus if you have a reservation.
If you’re not a fan of long hikes, or if driving on windy mountain roads makes you nervous, you might forego a rental and instead take a cab from the Kalispell Airport to the park (about a 40-min ride) and jump on the Red Bus Tours. I’ve never taken one of those tours, but it looks like a lot of fun!
3. Plan around your long hikes. I recommend splitting your lodging reservations between the east and west sides of the park. Remember that you may need to move your hiking plans to other days depending on weather, the need to acclimate to the altitude, or air quality. Allow for transition/rest days when you can meander through the park and stop at all the lookout points along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Consider buying a book that describes various hikes and shows them on a map (I highly recommend this one, shown below) (affiliate link). If you need to change plans and don’t have access to wifi, you’ll be very glad you have an old-fashioned book to flip through!
And it pays to get an early start! Not only is sunrise the best time to see wild animals, but popular parking lots fill up early. On a weekday in August, we found that the Logan Pass parking lot (an hour-long drive from St. Mary’s or West Glacier) was full by 6:15 am.
4. Stay in the park if you can. Many Glacier Lodge is one of my favorite places in the world, and Lake McDonald Lodge is no slouch, either. These places are not fancy–think small rooms and thin towels–but they are charming and cozy! Both have restaurants (a rarity in the park) that offer standard menus (hamburgers, veggie burgers, chicken strips, salads), cocktails, wine, and beer. Apgar Village has a great hotel for families and a casual restaurant (Eddie’s). In-park lodging books up a year or so in advance, but sometimes you can snag a spot if there’s a cancellation.
If lodging in the park is full or out of your budget, there are plenty of small motels near the park entrances, particularly on the west side. I’ve stayed at a few places and they were all fine, but I particularly enjoyed the Historic Tamarack Lodge (nicest staff ever, plus they serve drinks at night and fancy coffee starting at 8 am). I also really liked the Silverwolf Log Chalets (tucked away in the woods, continental breakfast delivered to your cabin). Note that not all motels near Glacier have air conditioning. I haven’t found this to be an issue, since it gets pretty cool at night.
5. Make a plan for food. We’ve found that many of the restaurants outside the park don’t keep regular hours, close relatively early, or don’t serve takeout (a consideration during COVID). If you aren’t staying in a park lodge, I strongly recommend visiting the local grocery stores and getting some basics. The Super 1 in Columbia Falls is open 24/7, and there are small grocery stores in Hungry Horse, West Glacier, and St. Mary’s. Don’t forget to buy sandwich bags and plastic silverware (nothing worse than trying to make a PB&J without silverware). I recommend packing a collapsible cooler if you plan to switch hotels or travel from one side of the park to the other. And don’t forget to check that your hotel has a mini fridge!
During our most recent trip, I kept reminding myself that this is not a foodie trip! We ate a lot of sandwiches, trail mix, and crackers and cheese. That said, I particularly enjoyed the BBQ and salmon tacos at the DeSoto Grill in Kalispell, the cocktails at Glacier Distilling in Coram, the ice cream at Eddie’s in Apgar, the huckleberry pie at Two Sisters in Babb, and the thin crust pizza at Rising Sun in St. Mary’s (order online before 6 pm for takeout).
6. If you’re flying to Glacier, consider renting bear spray instead of buying it. We learned that USPS will not ship bear spray, and you definitely can’t take bear spray on the plane!
7. Bring more water than you think you need. I brought 64 ounces on a long hike and ended up having to ration my water. Not fun. Consider bringing a small water filter, if you have one, so you can enjoy fresh water from an alpine waterfall!
Day 1: Fly into Kalispell, enjoy a fun dinner in Kalispell or Columbia Falls.
Day 2: Use the West Entrance to the park. Visit Lake McDonald Lodge and walk along the lakeshore. Consider eating lunch at the lodge and taking a boat tour (contact the Glacier Park Boat Company for available times). Hike Trail of the Cedars (easy, handicapped-accessible) and Avalanche Lake (moderate).
Day 3: Arrive at Logan Pass early (at least by 6 am) to get a parking space. Hike the Highline Trail (moderate but long). Consider hiking out to the Granite Park Chalet and back along the same route. (You can hike a shorter trail from the Chalet down to the Loop parking lot, but that trail is exposed to the sun and very rocky. Not pleasant at all.)
Day 4: Drive through the park on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Stop off at various overlooks. Consider eating lunch at Red Rocks waterfall and dip your toes in the freezing water. Consider hiking St. Mary’s Falls (easy).
Day 5: Arrive at the Swiftcurrent Lodge parking lot early (by 7:30 am) and hike to Iceberg Lake (moderate). If you arrive early, consider the very short hike to Fishcap Lake to look for moose. (look for the “exhibits”)
Day 6: Book a boat ride from Many Glacier Lodge over two alpine lakes to the trailhead for Grinnell Lake (easy). Make sure to enjoy a cold drink on the deck at Many Glacier–the sunsets there are amazing!
Day 7: Wake up early and take the boat ride from Many Glacier Lodge to the same trailhead as day 6. Hike to the Grinnell Glacier (strenuous).
Day 8: Make your way back to the west side of the park. Consider renting a kayak or paddle board at Apgar, and make sure to get some ice cream at Eddie’s!
Have an amazing adventure!!