These Top 10 Tips for Visiting Glacier National Park are answers to the common questions I get every year as a local. I put together everything I know, plus what I’ve learned from friends and family to help you have the best trip possible!
Glacier National Park is spread out over 3 main regions. There is so much to see, you’re going to want to pack as much adventure as possible into your trip!
After visiting Yellowstone National Park, I wrote about my Top 10 Tips for Visiting based off all of our experiences. Since then, so many people have wrote to tell me how much they enjoyed it. So today I’m writing out my tips for each park we visit!
I’m struggling a bit more to write out my tips for Glacier because I’m a local. I’ve lived here my whole life, and that it makes it harder to write from a visiting perspective. But I hope you’ll find this helpful.
We’ve talked to so many people visiting in Glacier that we’ve met while hiking. And some of the same questions keep coming up over and over again. I know that whenever I’m visiting somewhere new, I get almost overwhelmed with the amount of options available.
It’s hard to figure out exactly what you want to do in your limited vacation days. I’ve been hiking and exploring Glacier National Park for over 15 years now. So I hope my list of tips below will help you to have the best trip possible!
Now… let’s dive right into my Top 10 Tips for Visiting Glacier National Park!
1. The first thing you need to know about Glacier National Park is that the glaciers for which is was named, are on their way out. So many people come to Glacier and are disappointed that they can’t see massive glaciers right from the road. You can see a couple of glaciers while driving the Going to the Sun Road. But they’re definitely not as big as anything you’d see in Canada or Alaska.
For the best glacier viewing experience I would try hiking Grinnell Glacier in the Many Glacier region of the park. The above and below photos are from that hike. The trail climbs up to the remains of Grinnell Glacier, past the mesmerizing Grinnell Lake, (above photo). And then it finishes in a mountain cirque filled with the last of Grinnell Glacier and beautiful aqua colored glacial melt water, (photo below).
2. My next tip would be to know your basic itinerary because like I mentioned Glacier is spread out over 3 main regions. It really helps to know what hikes you want to do, and what region it’s in so that you can arrange your lodging. Having a basic plan also helps you make the most of your time. And you don’t want to spend half of your vacation driving all over the park stuck in traffic, (even though the views are stunning along the way).
Glacier has also started a shuttle bus system that’s a really fantastic way to get around the park. Parking is very limited! You can even be turned away from entering the Logan’s Pass Visitor Center during peak hours of the day because the parking lot is too full. Glacier also has some great through hikes to consider. Instead of needing a car at each end of the hike you can take the shuttle which is really awesome.
As far as I know at this time the shuttle buses don’t go into the Many Glacier region of the park. But if you’re not planning on renting a car there are other taxi services that will pick you up on that side of the park, taking you back to St. Mary where you can hop back on the shuttle bus.
3. My third tip goes along with the second – figure out the top hikes you know you want to do and prioritize around those. All sorts of things come up on vacation, so it’s best to know which ones you really want to do when the weather throws you a curveball! I would definitely have different recommendations for which hikes to do depending on what region you’re in and how many miles you normally hike in a day.
Overall my favorite hikes based off of amazing views would be Grinnell Glacier, Iceberg Lake, Ptarmigan Tunnel, and Cracker Lake. The Swiftcurrent Pass hike is also in the same area. But while it’s incredible I’m listing it last because it’s a long and strenuous hike, (these 5 are all in the Many Glacier region).
On the west side of Glacier, the Hidden Lake hike starting from Logan’s Pass Visitor Center is top notch. And it’s short hike as well (although it’s very crowded). The Highline Trail is much longer but it’s also one of my all time favorite hikes for it’s amazing views throughout the whole hike.
(I always recommend doing the Grinnell Glacier Overlook spur trail that’s part of the Highline if you are up for the extra mileage.)The views are more than worth it because it looks down on Grinnell Glacier and into the Many Glacier valley).
At the bottom of the Going to the Sun Road you can visit Avalanche Lake (5 miles roundtrip). Lake McDonald (the last picture in this post) is also worth a visit for the views. It’s a great place to end the day. And you can go for a swim, have a picnic, or rent a paddleboard or canoe.
The St. Mary’s side also holds a few great hikes including Siyeh Pass, Piegan Pass, St. Mary and Virginia Falls, Sunrift Gorge, and Otokomi Lake. I’ve linked to each of the hikes that we’ve written about individually. That way you can read more about each one, and see more photos.
I personally haven’t explored much in the Two Medicine area of the park, so I can’t give recommendations at this time. But if you do have a little extra time in your schedule, the Two Medicine area is beautiful, and much less crowded because of the drive to get there.
(Update: we’ve now done Scenic Point, Two Medicine Pass, Cobalt Lake, Rockwell Falls, and Dawson Pitamakan Loop and they were all fantastic!)
4. What to do about lodging is also one of the most common questions. We even met one couple in Yellowstone who were going to skip Glacier because they couldn’t reserve a campsite. Luckily, Glacier is just starting to implement a reservation system, and you can now reserve campsites at the St. Mary campground.
All the other campgrounds are first come first serve, which I’ll have to admit can be an absolute headache sometimes. The best way to get a camp site is to arrive first thing in the morning when people are moving to another campground or headed back out of the park. By 10 am, or earlier the camping sites have pretty much filled up, and you’re not likely to get a spot.
You can see the ‘fill by times’ on the website for Glacier National Park. The Apgar campground at Lake McDonald and the Avalanche campground seem to be the last to fill up. But depending on where you’re hiking these campgrounds can be a long ways from your trail head.
For instance, Many Glacier is about 1 1/2 hours from the Apgar campground at Lake McDonald. It’s not that many miles, but the speeds are very slow on the Going to the Sun Road. And summertime traffic can double your driving time. If this doesn’t sound like fun to you, (and why would it?) there are KOA campgrounds just outside both the west side of the park and the St. Mary side of the park between St. Mary and Many Glacier.
You can also book a room at any of the 3 main lodges. There’s one on Lake McDonald, one in St. Mary, and another one in Many Glacier, (with perhaps the best views). And just a quick note on the lodges, they are really gorgeous (with restaurants to eat at and gift shops) but they’ve been kept completely original which means no pools, hot tubs, and other such frills. This really burns some people who didn’t seem to realize they were staying in an old school environment!
Some people like to stay in Whitefish which is a really quaint resort town with great restaurants to eat in. The only drawback to this is that Whitefish is about a 40 minute drive, (if there’s no construction) from the park entrance.
Then there’s at least another hour after that to get up the Going to the Sun Road to Logan’s Pass, and yet another 1 1/2 hours to Many Glacier. Bearing the driving time in mind, it’s best to stay in or near the park to get the most out of your time there.
5. My fifth tip is to stay away from the wildlife. I can’t tell you how many times this comes up even in a single season! When you see an up close picture like the one above, it’s not because people are actually close to the wildlife. Many photographers have fantastic zoom lens that create the most beautiful wildlife photos. But it’s really unsafe to approach wildlife, and it can even be life threatening.
Bears are an obvious example of animals to keep your distance from. But big horn sheep and goats can also harm you, and should be treated with the utmost respect. There are also wildcats and wolverines in the park. All of which should be avoided at all costs – no photo is worth your life!
One afternoon while photographing wildflowers, man with his wife and kids came charging up the trail. He had heard there were big horn sheep somewhere on the trail, and he wanted to get close for a photo. He asked me where they went. And I said they had just went charging by, on the trail behind me, and off into the woods after being spooked by the traffic on the road.
I mentioned to him that they can be really aggressive, especially when they’ve already been upset, and that it might be a good idea to keep a good distance away. He was completely surprised to learn that they could be dangerous, and thanked me for warning him and his family. Wildlife is just that – wild – and getting close is never a good idea!
6. Another common question is ‘when is wildflower season’? This one is hard to answer because it varies from year to year. It’s based off of snow pack in the mountains and the amount of rain/warmer temperatures we receive in the spring. But in general the wildflowers are usually at their peak in the 2nd and 3rd weeks of July.
7. And speaking of seasons, lets talk about the seasons of Glacier for the next tip. Glacier has a very short season in which the whole park is open. The Going to the Sun Road usually opens at the end of June, (at the very earliest). And it’s almost always open by the first week in July. The road closes to ‘through use’ somewhere between September and end of October.
Even after the road closes you can usually still drive as far as Avalanche Lake through November on good years. And you can take the highway the long way around to access Two Medicine and Many Glacier. The website for Glacier National Park is great because they keep you up to date with road closures, campground status, and any kind of fire restrictions.
The winter becomes even more limited with the Going to the Sun Road being closed at the Lake McDonald Lodge on the lake. The road into Two Medicine isn’t maintained in the winter so there is limited access there as well. Many Glacier is open (mostly for views, I don’t think any of the businesses are open) but it’s a long long way to get there if you’re staying on the west side of Glacier.
I wrote a post about Wintertime in Glacier detailing a bit more if you’re interested. I would try to come in the summertime when you can see more, but if you do happen to be in the area during the wintertime, Glacier has a certain magic to it when it’s covered in snow, (and there more than enough activities to fill up your time).
8. Where to find food is of utmost importance when you’re out pounding the trails day after day – you’ll likely find your appetite sky rocketing after a couple days of this! There are restaurants and food options in the Lake McDonald area, the town of St. Mary which is just out side the park after you’ve driven the entire Going to the Sun Road, and there are places to eat in Many Glacier. As far as Two Medicine goes, the eating options are in East Glacier before you make the drive down into Two Medicine.
It’s important to note that there are no restaurants at Logan’s Pass. The visitor center there has bathroom facilities as well as information, but no food. And speaking of facilities, finding a bathroom along the Going to the Sun Road isn’t too hard if you have more than one driver in the car. The parking lots are often filled up through the mid-day hours. And if you’re driving by yourself you might just have to wait through the whole drive before you can stop. This has happened to me on a number of occasions, so it’s best to plan ahead! If you have someone with you, they can double park and stay with the vehicle if you need to stop.
9. There are all kinds of recreation available in the park. You can take a tour in the famous red buses with open tops to see the entire Going to the Sun Road. There’s paddleboard/canoe rentals at Lake McDonald like I mentioned. And there’s horseback trail rides available at both Lake McDonald and Many Glacier.
Park rangers lead guided hikes on certain trails at certain times. So you can check with the visitors center to see which one might interest you. You can also ride your bike through the entire Going to the Sun Road. But there are time restrictions with this, so be sure to check with the rangers for more info.
10. My final tip is to relax and go with the flow. Avacation rarely goes off as planned, but it’s always a blast anyways! Traffic can be bad, weather refuses to cooperate, and sometimes injuries happen that can put a damper on the amount of miles you planned to hike. No matter what happens, you’re going to see some of the best views of your life, and hike in the ‘Last Best Place’.
Simply let the Montana magic happen!
51 thoughts on “Top 10 Tips for Visiting Glacier National Park”
These tips and links are great! If we are entering the park from the west at 7 am, do you think it would be helpful to drive to St Mary and then have less traffic coming back? Thanks in advance! Leaving this week.
So far the Going to the Sun Road isn’t open yet this year. Also the east side of the park is shut down due to the recent decision by the Blackfoot Tribe to close to non-essential travel. I’m not sure what will happen with this being such a different year, so I recommend following the park’s website closely. What I do know right now is the west side has been open to Avalanche, but they’re closing it down mid-morning until late afternoon every day. So if you want to go around the lake, definitely get an early start, in fact get an early start for everything this year. The park is extra crowded with so much of it shut down!
Thank you for this very informative and helpful post. We’ve been planning to go for a few years now but it always fell through. We are hoping to take a road trip there next summer. As much as I enjoy hiking, I’m worried it might not be suitable for small children. Do you have any tips or suggestions?
I’m going to include a link below to my favorite short hikes in Glacier that I hope will help you plan your trip! What hikes will be suitable would really depend on your children’s age as well as how used to hiking they are. We have family with small children and they all hike several miles with a small amount of elevation by the time they’re 3-4, but they’re used to getting out. There are a few things you can do that are very short, Avalanche Gorge is 1 mile and very flat, and there’s also Running Eagle Falls in the Two Medicine area of the park that I think is around .2 miles roundtrip and really no elevation there either. They also have boat tours and rides on most of the major lakes and John’s Lake loop can be explored starting at any point and returning when you’re ready to be done. You can also spend the afternoons picnicking at any of the major lakes in the park you can drive to, and exploring any of the tourist shops as well. And finally as I’m sure you know, a day out and about with kids is best kept pretty short the younger they are. Whenever we’re out with family, we try and not hike more than an hour or two and then spend the rest of the times doing more kid friendly things like hanging out at a lake! I hope this helps, and I’m sorry I can’t be more specific without really knowing how old your kids are or if they’re used to hiking.
Thanks for taking the time to respond to all comments and sharing all this useful info. My husband and I are headed to glacier the beginning of September. The only thing I can say I didn’t see was clothing suggestions. We live near Houston and aren’t used to the weather we will experience. We have read a lot of info on layering, waterproof etc etc however I am looking for brands. Most brands that are worn up there aren’t typically seen down here so there will be a lot of online shopping. I love your outfit in the 3rd pic… I believe. Would you mind sharing the brands of jacket, shoes, pants etc? To shop here for glacier is kind of like going to Antarctica and expecting to find a swimsuit lol so lots of time trying to gather proper (yet cute and comfy) attire.
Thanks for asking about clothing, and it’s something I’ve been working on putting together! We do have an REI here locally now, so you could do some shopping when you get here. In regards to the photo in the post, I’m wearing a tunic style shirt from Columbia that’s SPF 30, Lululemon wide leg leggings, a Lululemon tank top underneath, and Merrell barefoot style trail runners. All items are quite a number of years old at this point but still doing well. I wouldn’t recommend the barefoot style trail runners for most people, instead I would look for something more along the lines of the Gortex trail runners from Merrell or from Brooks which are the 2 brands that best fit my feet. If you feel like you might need more ankle support, try looking into some hiking boots, Keen and Merrell are very popular fits in both low top and high top although it’s difficult to order boots online. September can go either way here in Montana and be on the hotter side (think 75º-85ºF) or it can occasionally snow! Mornings are usually on the chilly side, often between 40º-50ºF so layers like you mentioned are nice. I personally don’t go anywhere without my down coat and a rain jacket, but being from Texas I’m not sure you’d want to invest in a down coat, although Northface is a more affordable option than some like Patagonia or Arcteryx. Both my husband and I wear almost all Arcteryx now from pants/shirts to layers and coats because it’s performance is more than worth the price. However it’s very expensive and we’ve invested in it slowly over the last 5 years, one Black Friday/Christmas sale at a time! Anything Columbia/Northface is usually more affordable, Patagonia/Marmot/Mountain Hardware are all great too, but a little more expensive. I also did a quick price search and it seems you can get a Northface down jacket between $100-$200 where my Arcteryx coat cost over $500! So that’s what I mean about investing, that jacket is the best down coat I’ve ever owned and I wear it year round, but that suggestion just might not make sense for you! I have found that Lululemon which is widely available works alright in the mountains but doesn’t breath nearly as well as these other outdoor brands. Also one more tip is to have more than one pair of hiking shoes if you can in case one pair gets wet! I hope all of this helps you out, and be sure and let me know if you have anymore questions!
I love your blog! I also love visiting Montana. My mother lives outside of Polebridge, so it is always a treat to visit her and of course grabbing a few huckleberry bear claws from the mercantile. We just published our article about our take on Glacier National Park. Have a look if your interested…
Thanks so much, and I agree it’s always a treat to be in Polebridge! 🙂
This has been such a helpful resource!
Planning four or five day trip in early September this year. Could really use some advice for less strenuous hikes but also to maximize the number of glaciers we see and finding some surprise out-of-the-way spots. We haven’t sorted out lodging yet because we haven’t picked our primary must sees. We will have a vehicle at our passports and don’t mind long beautiful drives cat Also wanted to know if you had any advice on boat tours since I’ve heard those might be a good option.
I would check out my Top 3 Short Hikes in Glacier for less strenuous options, although none of them have any glaciers involved. The glacier in Glacier National Park aren’t usually visible unless you plan to hike a ways to see them. However you can see Jackson Glacier from the Going to the Sun Road on the Saint Marys side, so that is one you’ll get in for sure. If you’re up for 1 strenuous hike, I would recommend Grinnell Glacier because it’s one of the most stunning hikes in all of the park and of course includes a glacier. You can take boat tours on both McDonald Lake and Saint Marys Lake and either one is beautiful. Also if you happen to pop up into Waterton, they have boat tours there as well that are beautiful. I believe there’s also a boat tour in the Two Medicine region of Glacier, but that’s a little out of the way for most trips. And if you really would love to see some spectacular glaciers right from the road, consider adding the Icefields Parkway drive to your list of future vacations. It’s located in Alberta, Canada and leads north from Banff National Park all the way up to Jasper. I think they said you can see something like 30 glaciers from the road, and it’s truly amazing! I sure hope this helps!
@Kari, Thanks a lot for this wonderful informative post. Planning a road trip from DC, and was confused on how many days should i plan, what to include for must experience and all…
I was also thinking to combine with YellowStone NP, as guessed my next stop is your blog on that. meanwhile any recommendation on 5-6 days backpack route.
So glad you’re enjoying the post! I couldn’t tell you how many days to plan since that would completely depend on how many miles you drive per day from DC and how many stops you’d like to make. Since I’ve never traveled that way before I don’t know what to advise. You’ll definitely want at least 3 days in Yellowstone to see most of it, and a week in Glacier is nice to get a feel for the different regions of the park. I haven’t backpacked in Glacier, rather doing day hikes, but I do know many who have loved backpacking in the Belly River area as well as the Highline Trail which runs from Logan’s Pass all the way into Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, (you’d need a passport of course for that one). I’ve also found Google Maps to be very helpful whenever we plan a road trip to get a good idea how long it will take in between stops once you figure out where you might want to be stopping along the way. I hope this helps, and have a wonderful trip!
This had been a Bucket List item for me – to drive from one end to the other of the Going-To-The-Sun road. Bring a camera and lots of patience if you visit in the summer. We didn’t take the shuttle buses; and there were places where the parking spots for a scenic viewpoint were filled. Also heed the vehicle size limits – this is a narrow road with rock walls on one side and a steep dropoff on the other. But the views are stupendous!!
Agree, bring lots and lots of patience if you come in the summer months!
Hey Kari, nice advice for Glacier visitors! I’m a local also. Have you ever taken a bicycle up Going-to-the-Sun before the road opens to vehicles? In April/May you can ride from Lake McDonald Lodge, prior to the road opening to Avalanche parking in May/June. Of course the parking is getting crazier every year because the word is getting out about cycling the road during the early season, but shuttles run with bicycle trailers able to shuttle 20 bicycles. You really get a sense of the road that you would never otherwise experience by using the bicycle.
Yes I’ve been part way up bicycling before, but haven’t made it to the top yet! It’s a really nice way to experience the park early in the season, and I agree it is getting crazier every year with how busy it is even in the off seasons.
Hi Kari, I’m visiting Glacier the first week of Sept — will only have 3 days in the park and am trying to plan my itinerary for hikes. I checked out your pics from the Many Glacier Area of the park and it looks amazing! I’m staying in West Glacier. Is it reasonable to plan for those hikes given where we are staying? And would you recommend taking the bus or driving? Thanks in advance for any tips!
It’s definitely feasible to plan for some hikes in Many Glacier, I would just recommend leaving very early in the morning to avoid the crowds on Going to the Sun if it’s opened up again, and so that you get a parking space when you get there. If Going to the Sun hasn’t reopened, the drive around will take longer, but it’s still doable, and I would recommend driving. As far as I know, the shuttle bus system doesn’t go to Many Glacier, but you could check their website just to be sure. With the crowds this year, people are often having to wait hours for the next shuttle bus so that’s been a challenge as well.