The AFT Guide to Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is of the old guard of national parks. Encompassing one of the most spectacular areas in the country, Glacier is full of amenities, an extensive trail system, and one of the most scenic drives in the world, Going-to-the-Sun Road. There are hikes for every skill set, loads of pristine lakes and wildlife galore. This NP is heaven. (Read about our visit to Glacier here.)

a view of hidden lake in glacier national park

Where Glacier is located:

Glacier is in northern Montana, on the Canadian border.

Getting to Glacier:

The closest airport to the park is Glacier Park International in Kalispell, about 30 miles away. Public transportation in this region is sparse, but you can get to the park by train on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. The best way to get to the park is by car, either on US 89 or US 2. 

Getting around Glacier:

Once you’re in the park, it’s worth it to use the park’s free shuttle bus to get to popular spots along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Parking lots fill up fast along this road and the shuttles are a great way to skirt the parking issue.

Large buses run between Apgar Visitor Center and Avalanche Creek. From there, you’ll transfer to a smaller shuttle to get up to Logan Pass, then back into a larger shuttle to go down to St. Mary Visitor Center.

Beyond avoiding parking, the shuttle allows you to focus on the scenery of Logan Pass rather than the nerve-wracking drive on the narrow road.

Where to stay:

There are 13 campgrounds within Glacier. Most open in late May or early June. Some campgrounds accept reservations; some are first-come, first-served. There are also numerous backcountry sites. Get permits at any visitor’s center or wilderness office.

But your options for staying in the park aren’t limited to camping. Glacier has 5 hotels and 4 lodges, 2 of which are in the backcountry and must be hiked into.

Outside the park, there are loads of lodging and camping options. Since the park is huge, decide first which entrance you’d like to be near and search for lodging from there.

family with kids hiking to saint mary falls in glacier national park

How long to stay in Glacier:

Glacier is extensive and out of the way for most visitors. We recommend staying a week, more if you can swing it. If you only have time for a shorter visit, try to make it at least 3-4 days.

When to go to Glacier:

Many places in the park are only accessible from late June/July to September. July and August see peak visitation and the park can get extremely busy. A fall visit can mean more solitude and maximum accessibility. 

Best for:

  • Wildlife
  • Hiking
  • Paddling
  • History
  • Scenery

Pair with:

Glacier forms an International Peace Park with Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Waterton is a bit quieter than Glacier in the high season, and has great opportunities for paddling and hiking.

Activities:

Biking:

Bikes are typically allowed only on park roads, with the exception of a few short trails. But in the spring, before Going-to-the-Sun Road is open for cars but after it has been plowed, it’s open to bikers and hikers. We’ve heard this is one of the best possible ways to see the park. Make sure your hamstrings are ready for the incline!

Boating:

Bowman Lakes, Two Medicine Lakes and Lake MacDonald are opened to motorized watercraft. Non-motorized and hand-propelled boats are allowed on these lakes and several others.

There are also opportunities for white-water rafting and river floating, mostly on the Flathead River. Outfitters primarily run from West Glacier.

boats on the dock at lake mcdonald in glacier national park

Horseback riding:

Many of Glacier’s trails are open to stock. Bring your own horse, or hire animals and a guide from Swan Mountain Outfitters.

Wildlife Viewing:

Glacier is one of the best parks in the lower 48 for wildlife viewing. You might spot black or grizzly bears, moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, marmots and much more. 

Watch for sheep and mountain goats on the steep hillside of Logan Pass. Moose spend most of their time near lakes; the Swiftcurrent Valley sees large numbers of moose. Bears can pop up anywhere in the park (our one bear sighting at Glacier was on our way out—one jumped onto the road in front of our car. So, you never know!). Keep your eyes open and remember to keep your distance.

Rangers at Glacier told us people tend to give bears proper space and respect, but fail to do so as often with moose. Moose can be extremely dangerous, especially the mothers. As with most things in life, the best advice is to not be an idiot.

Hiking:

Glacier is one of the top hiking destinations in the country and hiking is the best and most accessible way to experience the park. There are trails here for everyone and the best way to find one suited to your ability is to ask a ranger or do some research on a site like AllTrails

Here are a few (a very few!) of our favorites:

Highline Trail

One of the parks most iconic hikes follows the ridge of the Garden Wall. It’s a narrow trail and not for the acrophobic, but it’s a great hike and gives incredible views over Logan Pass.

St. Mary and Virginia Falls

Two beautiful falls along an easy, kid-friendly hike.

Hidden Lake Overlook

A popular 1.5 mile trail behind Logan Pass leads up to a scenic alpine lake in a cirque. You have high odds of spotting mountain goats and big-horn rams along the trail.

Avalanche Lake

A 4 mile round-trip trail takes you by the popular (and beautiful) Avalanche Gorge and up to an alpine lake.

Grinnell Lake

One of our favorite areas of the park is Many Glacier. This 7 mile hike is an easy one, with relatively little elevation gain. Walk along the side of Lake Josephine and through wildlife-filled woods to the shore of this turquoise beauty at the foot of Mount Gould.

Bringing Kids:

Glacier is an easy park to do with kids. Although remote, there are plenty of services and facilities within the park. There are hikes appropriate for every level of ability and a thousand incredible places where you could just set up a picnic blanket and enjoy the views while the kids play. The shuttle service does not require you to bring carseats for kids.

As with any park that is home to bears and other dangerous animals, keep kids fairly close to you while on the trail. 

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Glacier National Park:

What time of year did you visit? How was the weather?

We went in early August and the weather was divine—never hot, only occasionally chilly in the mountain areas. The only downside of a high summer visit is the crowds—it can be difficult to nab a campground. In fact, Glacier rangers told us they call it “Angry August” because people frequently come to them upset about the number of other visitors ;).

How much time do you need to really experience it? Is there enough to do for days or just hours?

There’s enough to do for weeks! Honestly, Glacier needs as much time as you can give it. It’s a massive park and every bit is worth exploring deeply. Of course, if you’re passing nearby and only have a day, you could just drive Going-to-the-Sun Road and experience some of the majesty. But that experience alone will take you several hours, and we highly recommend stopping for some short hikes along the way (Avalanche Lake, Hidden Lake Overlook or St. Mary Falls would all be good choices for a one-day visit.)

How spread apart are the must-sees?

Quite spread apart. If your vehicle is too long to drive across Going to the Sun Road, you’ll have to take the road around the park which takes about 2 hours. Going through the park will take about 90 minutes, depending on traffic.

Other areas off the main road include Many Glacier, Polebridge, Bowman and Kintla Lakes, Two Medicine, and the adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park just over the Canada border. Every one of them is very much worth a visit.

Where can we see the effects of climate change in the park?

Sadly, everywhere. In 1850 there were about 150 glaciers in the park; today there are 25 and they are rapidly retreating. The U.S. Geological Survey has documented the retreat of several glaciers in the park. You can check out their photos here, then take a hike to see what these spots looks like today.

What is the usual trail difficulty?

There are so many trails in the park of such varying lengths and elevation gains —there really is something for everyone. That said, the area is obviously mountainous, so many trails involve at least some elevation gain.

What’s the availability of water?

Water is available at each visitor’s center, campground and lodge. On some trails (notably the Highline trail), shade and water are both limited, so you’ll need to pack a lot. If you’re hiking to a lake, you can bring a filter and fill up with lake water or in a creek.

Are there horse trails?

Yes! Almost every trail in the park is open to private stock use. There are exceptions; check the list of unsuitable trails here.

How do you get a first-come, first-served campsite?

You get there very early and wait near a spot where someone is packing up. Feeling like a creeper is optional ;). The visitor’s center keeps handy lists of each campground’s availability and how early the sites filled up the previous day. In early August when we visited, the popular campgrounds were full around 7:30 a.m. So again, get there as early as you can.

Which is the best side of the park to use as base camp if you’re not staying in the park?

There are advantages to both sides, and it might even be worth spending a few days based in each. Choose the activities that are most important to you, chart them on a map and see whether the East or West side will be more convenient.

For things along Going-to-the-Sun Road, either side is about equally handy. Stay on the east side if you’re planning to spend time in Many Glacier. The west side is a great place to stay if you want to do lots of paddling, as you have convenient access to Bowman and Kintla Lakes, as well as Lake McDonald.

How do you stay safe with kids in bear country?

Glacier is home to both grizzly and black bears. Here are a few bear-safety tips to keep in mind while you’re there:

  • First thing’s first: NEVER GET CLOSE TO WILDLIFE! Stay 100 yards from bears (when it doubt, get farther away) and 50 yards from moose, bighorn sheep and other large mammals.
  • Hiking with kids in bear country comes with a major advantage: kids are loud! Bears avoid noise and groups of people, both of which you’re more likely to have with kids in tow. For extra decibel power (if you’re very worried about animal encounters), wear bells.
  • Making noise won’t help if it’s drowned out by running water or high winds. Be aware of these conditions and make note of the direction your sound is traveling in. Watch for signs of bears (especially fresh scat on the trail) and be careful of situations where you might surprise one (coming up over a rise, places with steep embankments, etc.)
  • Carry bear spray. Either rent some from a visitor’s center or buy a canister if you’ll be spending a lot of time in bear country. The most helpful part of bear spray might be the confidence you gain while holding it—seriously, studies have shown that people carrying bear spray are more likely to stand still when charged by a bear, which is the best thing you can do to prevent an attack. So bear spray’s efficacy might be as much a product of making you stand your ground as it is actually impeding the bear.
  • Don’t let kids run ahead or get behind when hiking in bear country. They should always be within arm’s reach (young kids) or within a few paces of you (older kids.)
  • Trail running is highly discouraged. Never, ever trail run solo in Glacier. The risk of surprising a bear is high.
  • Grizzlies prefer open areas, while black bears favor forests. Both are more active early in the morning and in the evening; time your hikes accordingly.
  • If you come across a bear, stop and back up slowly. Group together with anyone else around you and pick up any kids in your group. Most of the time, that’s all you’ll have to do. If the bear doesn’t immediately run away when it sees you, talk to it calmly and continue backing up. The worst thing you can do is run away, tempting as it may be (seeing you run triggers a bear’s predatory nature and it will want to chase you.)
  • Bears almost never attack groups of 4 or more people. Hike with friends.
  • Store food properly when camping. Each of the campgrounds will provide you with specifics; follow all recommendations.
What are the seasonal openings for roads?

Most facilities are open from late May through September. Going to the Sun Road is usually clear of snow by early July. Check the park’s website for specific opening dates during the time you’re planning your visit.

What are the best places to eat?

There’s food available within the park at any lodges and in the Apgar, Lake McDonald, Polebridge, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Rising Sun areas. We brought our own food, so we can’t speak to the quality!

Do you need any extra equipment for weather, like snow chains or special camping gear?

You won’t need snow chains to get around the park, as any roads that haven’t been plowed won’t be open to traffic. If you’re coming in the snowy season, though, you’ll probably want snow tires and chains to get to the park itself.

As for camping gear, the basics should suffice: layers, sleeping equipment rated to the temperatures you’ll be experiencing, rain gear, etc. If you’re in the park during the off-season when facilities are closed, bring extra food and supplies since you’ll be some distance from services.

What are great things to do for groups of 10+ people?

I can’t think of any park activities that wouldn’t be appropriate for a large group! If you’re planning to take the shuttle, be aware that it might take a bit longer for a group to get space on smaller vehicles (the ones that run from Avalanche Gorge to Logan Pass). Or just be willing to split up your group.

What do you need to bring?

It depends entirely on where you’re staying and for how long! Glacier doesn’t require any special equipment beyond what you’d usually bring on a park visit or camping trip, with the possible exception of bear bells and/or bear spray.

What are some kid-friendly hikes? Scenic but not over-taxing . . .

Some great options for kids include St. Mary and Virginia Falls, Trail of the Cedars, Hidden Lake Overlook, Avalanche Gorge or Avalanche Lake, and Grinnell Lake (especially if you take off some mileage by riding the boat across Swiftcurrent Lake).

kids hiking at grinell lake in glacier national park

Tips from our Readers:

Hikes:

“Avalanche Lake was our favorite hike with kids. We also loved the boat tour at St. Mary’s Lake.”

“Floral Park Traverse is my absolute favorite hike.”

“Avalanche Lake . . . do not miss it!”

“Do Grinnell Glacier Trail and stay at Many Glacier Hotel (or don’t so there are more rooms for me!)”

“Highline Trail was absolutely stunning and one of the best hikes we’ve ever done in a NP!”

“Do a ranger-led hike!”

“To get away from crowds, Two Medicine area has some great hikes.”

“Just went in July and did the Iceberg Lake hike; it was so amazing!!”

“Scoot up to connected Waterton National Park in Canada. Crypt Lake hike is one of my favorites!”

“I am NOT a tour person, but the red bus tour is so worth it! The Highline trail is my favorite hike, followed closely by Avalanche Lake.”

“East Glacier (Many Glacier) is a MUST. While West Glacier is still beautiful, East Glacier is the gem of the park. Grinnell Glacier, Cracker Lake and Iceberg Lake are all insanely gorgeous hikes, all on the east side. If you do the Grinnell Glacier hike, I recommend taking the boat tour/shuttle across Swiftcurrent Lake to shave off a couple miles of the hike. The Many Glacier campground is also great to camp at!”

“I worked in Glacier for four summers at Swiftcurrent and my favorite hike is Cracker Lake and Trail of the Cedars. Gotta head up to Polebridge for some Mercantile Pastries!”

“We went last year with another family; we had 7 children, ages 1-7. Our favorite adventures were hiking to Avalanche Lake and kayaking at the Fish Creek Campground.”

“My favorite hike is Iceberg Lake and Mount Oberlin. The best hidden secret is Polebridge Mercantile. They have hands-down the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had!”

Camping:

“Camping in Apgar is the best but you need to stake out a spot and be a total creeper.”

“If planning last minute, there’s good camping right outside the east side of the park.”

“The camp sites are very tight for larger trailers. Believe the limits they place on them!”

“There’s a great boondocking area just a short distance from the park located near Hungry Horse Dam along the reservoir’s shores.”

Driving:

“Block out time to drive Going to the Sun Road in both directions.”

“Take the hiker shuttle bus whenever possible! Traffic is high on Going to the Sun Road.”

“Reading about the engineering and construction of Going to the Sun Road before driving on it really deepens your appreciation of just HOW incredible it is, and what a massive undertaking it was to build!”

“Use the free shuttles to get around the park. Going to the Sun Road is so gorgeous! It’s much more enjoyable if you can just sit back and look out the window from inside the shuttle instead of having one person having to drive up the pass and focus on the road. Take the option of having the shuttle do the work for you while you can sit back and relax! That way all of your party can enjoy the views and scenery.”

“Parking lots are usually always full in the summer months by afternoon, so an added perk of taking the shuttle is not having to worry about parking availbility.”

“Don’t drive your RV down the road to Many Glacier!”

Wildlife:

“Incorporate an evening drive or find a lake in the evening to wildlife watch at. Moose are always at Fishercap Lake in the evenings. Every bear we’ve seen within the park has always been in evening in the Many Glacier area.”

“Remember to buy bear spray! We saw three grizzlies on busy trails while hiking with our kiddos. We didn’t have any issues, just backtracker . . . but you need to be prepared.”

General:

“Arrive early.”

“The 4G LTE coverage at St. Mary Campground is amazeballs . . . FWIW.”

“Polebridge . . . remote but totally amazing. Mercantile is great for huckleberry treats.”

“Take a tour/ride in one of the red busses/jammers.”

“Do a boat tour! I don’t recall the exact name of it, but it was so nice to get a different perspective and knowledge from a ranger, while your children are contained to a seat.”

“Loved East Glacier, especially traveling over the two lakes by boat to hike to Lake Grinnell.”

“We went last July. Be prepared for any type of weather. Bottom was in the 70s; on the mountains it was in the 50s/60s.”

“Sadly I feel like Polebridge and Bowman Lake are getting pretty well discovered—but they’re so good!”

“My favorite area of the park is Many Glacier. It’s kind of out of the way, but a must-see spot!”

Final tips:

Epic mountain scenery combined with the accessibility of an old-school national park makes for an incredibly wonderful place to visit. Glacier is popular and well-developed, with plenty of maintained trails, campgrounds, lodges and visitor services, making it straightforward to visit.

But it’s also very easy to get a sense of true wilderness here. The park encompasses massive swaths of backcountry, has a few corners that see few visitors, and is so expansive that even when there are crowds jostling, you can look out over the landscape and be struck with the wonder of being a part of this planet.

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