Dreaming of Travel: Glacier National Park
A visit to Glacier National Park in Montana can feel daunting. The park is difficult to get to, has only one main road, and has an overwhelming amount of things to see and do. But with a little bit of planning, you're likely to encounter wildlife, find an amazing view, and even leave the crowds behind.
Climate Change is changing the park. Only 26 Glaciers remain in the park and they are rapidly melting, affecting the other water features in the area. While there is plenty to see beyond the Glaciers, evidence of the changing landscape is stark.
You will want at least two full days in Glacier National Park, although you could easily spend a week in the area. Glacier National Park is easily combined with its Canadian neighbor, also called Glacier National Park. If you want to do some driving, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks are seven hours by car.
Things to know:
- There is only one road that runs through the majority of the park - Going to the Sun Road. The road opens (depending on snow levels) sometime in July and closes in October.
- Reservations are required for Going to Sun Road (3-day pass) as well as Polbridge Road (1-day pass) until after 4 pm each day. You cannot even reach the main visitors center without access to Going to the Sun Road.
- Kalispell (29 miles southwest) is the closest city followed by Missoula (50 miles south), and Great Falls (200 miles southeast).
- Visitors come to see wildlife (particularly bears, moose, and mountain goats), hike, camp, climb, stargaze, and boat.
- The Glacier National Park shuttle, which runs between popular trailheads, can be crowded and run inconsistently.
- The park has a Jr. Ranger program for all ages. Stop by a visitors center to pick up your packet.
When to Visit:
Glacier National Park is largely a summer park. The main road, Going to the Sun Road, is only open seasonally and requires a reservation. The road typically opens sometime in July and is closed by mid-October. Concessioners run tours along Going to the Sun Road if you cannot get a reservation, although they often book up as well.
Where to Stay:
Glacier National Park and the surrounding entrance gate cities have plenty of lodging opportunities from camping to pricey hotels. There are Air BnB's and cabins galore, but driving distances can be long.
Glacier National Park has 13 campgrounds (some are first-come, first-serve) and a few park property lodges. Many Glacier Hotel is in a remote corner of the park with views of the lake, while Lake McDonald Lodge is more rustic. These options require the least amount of driving each morning to get to where you want to go and give you the advantage of coveted trailhead parking spots.
Whitefish Montana has plenty of lodging and rental properties. Just be sure to check your drive time to the entrance gate before booking. The days in Glacier can be long.
What to do:
- Hike. Glacier National Park offers 151 established trails. (There are even more options if you want to head into the backcountry.) There are trails for every level from easy boardwalk loops to strenuous mountain summits.
- Drive Going to the Sun Road. Driving Going to the Sun road just to do the pull-offs and see the sights is one of the park's highlights. Pick up a self-guided tour brochure in the visitors center. You won't want to miss the tunnel with windows, the weeping wall, or the grand vistas you can only get from the road pull-offs.
- Scenic Boat Trip with the Glacier Park Boat Company. Each of the park's lakes offers boat tours. These range from one-hour guided tours to hiking tours where your boat brings you to places you can only reach by boat. These tours book up fast, so make sure you make reservations.
- Kayak or Canoe. Unlike scenic boat tours, you don't need to make advanced reservations to go out on one of the lakes in a boat. Most of the boat docks rent boats by the hour you can take out on your own.
- Horseback Ride. Guided horseback rides are popular in the park and should be booked in advance. They are great ways to see parts of the park that are harder to reach.
- Red Bus Tour. Guided park tours on vehicles designed to look like the tour buses of olden times. This is a great way to see the park if you don't want to drive, love to get tons of information, or didn't get a Going to the Sun Road reservation.
Hikes to Consider:
- Avalanche Lake: This popular trail is a 6-mile out-and-back trail with a steep incline. It runs along one of Glacier's rivers and ends at a beautiful lake with waterfalls pouring into it.
- Trail of the Cedars: Easy boardwalk loop part of which is the entrance hike to Avalance Loop. Shaded with huge cedar trees the boardwalk also crosses some rivers for an easy and beautiful walk.
- Hidden Lake Overlook - Very popular trail at Logan Pass with stunning views and frequent bear and mountain goat sightings. (Tip: Before 6 am and after 4 pm parking at Logan Pass becomes much easier and the trail a bit less crowded.)
- Hidden Meadow - This Polebride Area hike is less crowded than the central area of the park and leads to a lovely meadow. (Tip: Stop at the Polebridge Mercantile for a sweet treat before or after your hike.)
- Grinnell Lake - The Many Glacier Area is far less crowded than other parts of the park. This hike starts on the handicap-accessible Swiftcurrent Nature Trail and then continues around the lake with some slight elevation gain. You can make this a much longer hike by continuing on to Grinnell Glacier.
- Highline Trail - The Highline Trail is one of the best-known in the park, but it is not for the novice hiker. The hike traverses the Garden Wall. You will need to utilize the shuttle for this one-way hike, or arrange a drop-off/pick-up. It leaves from the Logan Pass area which suffers from a small parking lot.
The key to an amazing trip to Glacier National Park is preparation. Make all your reservations early. Check driving times. Have alternate plans in case things are crowded. Then once you arrive just let yourself be completely immersed in this stunning landscape.
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