Ready for a fantastic adventure in one of the best US National Parks? Here’s a guide to some of the best things to do in Glacier National Park, including hikes, scenic drives, recommended campsites, and tips for getting around.
Glacier National Park is the kind of place that makes you realize you’re little more than a speck in the universe. That human civilization is but a blip in the entirety of time. Because long before we were here, there were glaciers.
Glaciers that conquered entire continents. That stayed while the rest of the earth’s climate shifted, slowly melting and carving out deep canyons as they went. Glaciers that continue to recede a little bit each year and serve as a very dramatic indicator of just how much impact humans are having on the world that we live in.
Glacier National Park has a certain precariousness about it. 110 kmh winds blowing over high mountain passes and the looming possibility of wolf and grizzly bear sightings. Snowfall that averages 4 m in winter and summits over 3,000 m high. There are forces of nature at play in Glacier National Park that are so powerful that you can’t help but recognize your own powerlessness.
It’s a place to be humbled by the wild. It’s both a great adventure and a true privilege. You’ll definitely want to go. Here’s how.
At a Glance
Glacier National Park sits in Western Montana along the border with Canada. Because of the harsh weather and heavy snowfall, Glacier is only fully open June through September with reduced hours in May and September. The West Entrance and St. Mary’s Entrance are open mid-May to October while Many Glacier and Two Medicine are open late May to September. You can still access parts of the park for winter sports, but expect lots of snow.
Entrance to Glacier National Park costs $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, and $20 per individual. If you’re planning to visit 3+ National Parks, you should consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands.
Before You Go
You’ll get park magazine at the park entrance, but if you’re looking to do some planning before your trip, here are some of the best resources on the market.
- Glacier & Waterton National Park Map (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map) ($14.95)
- Lonely Planet Banff, Jasper, & Glacier National Parks (from $19)
Reasons to Dig Glacier National Park
Going-to-the-Sun Road is Awesome
Not only is the Going-to-the-Sun Road a stunner of a scenic drive; it’s also the best way to travel between the park’s East and West.
The narrow 80 km road starts at Apgar Village on the West and traverses Logan Pass en route to the Saint Mary’s Visitor Center on the East Side. There are officially 28 pull-offs points of interest designated along the route – Bird Woman Falls and Logan Pass are especially worth a stop – but I’d argue that actually driving this road is the best part of the experience.
The two-lane road cut into the mountain’s edge is a feat of engineering. Parts of the road are carved out to allow waterfalls to pass through. It climbs past the continental divide. There are dramatic drop-offs and tunnels and thrilling bends. What is a foggy and isolated experience in the morning becomes a particularly beautiful traffic-jam in the evening. But it’s pretty awesome to watch nature unfold outside your car window with your favorite album playing. It’s the road trip experience at its best and one of the best things to do in Glacier National Park.
You’ll See All Kinds of Wildlife
There are 71 species of mammal and 278 species of bird found in Glacier. And while many parks have wildlife that you’ll probably never see, you’ll surely see some wildlife in Glacier. Not just squirrels and deer; even sightings of large mammals like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, and black bears are exceptionally common.
The best place to see wildlife in Glacier National Park depends on what you’re trying to see. You can watch for bears in forested areas or valleys while the sheep and goats tend to prefer high passes. But I can’t stress it enough: these animals are actually wild.
Throughout the park, you’ll see warnings posted about feeding animals, leaving food out, or indicating when you’re entering bear country. While you’re more likely to encounter a bear in quiet, remote areas, it’s recommended you actively avoid an encounter by traveling in groups. If you do see one, keep your distance and have your bear spray accessible. These recommendations are made both for your own safety and the safety of the animals. It’s up to us to follow them!
There are tons of hiking trails
The hiking in Glacier National Park is next level. You’ll find an intricate network of trails in almost every area of the park, with clusters in the McDonald Lake Valley, Logan Pass, Many Glacier Valley, St Mary Valley, and Two Medicine Valley areas.
By going out for a hike, you can get away from the crowds that really impact the Glacier experience and see some of the more epic parts of the park that you can’t see if you’re just using the pullouts on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The most accessible and rewarding hike in the park is probably the Highline Trail to Granite Chalet that departs from Logan Pass. The trail is cut out from the Garden Wall and wanders above the Going-to-the-Sun Road with epic views and very limited incline. Even the quick 8km St. Mary Falls, Virginia Falls & Baring Falls got recommended to us by more than one park ranger.
And if you’re looking for more strenuous hiking and backpacking in Glacier National Park, you’ll have even more options. Some of the best were Siyeh Pass and Grinnell Glacier, which I’ve covered more in the “Hiking & Backpacking” section below.
Of course, the glaciers
“Losing a namesake”. It’s the headline of the park magazine’s section on glaciers. And according to feature, every one of the named glaciers from 1966 has receded. Many have receded hundreds of acres and some to a completely inactive state.
The mountains in Glacier were carved out by glaciers, and the remaining glaciers are a sustaining force for the region. As they melt off at an increasingly rapid rate as a result of climate change, both the future of the park and the future of much of the North American continent that depends on this water is in jeopardy.
All this goes to say that Glacier National Park has some pretty incredible glaciers. Some of the best that you can hike to are Grinnell, Sexton, and Sperry. While you’re in the park, you should visit and use that memory for reference when you come back someday to see just how much has changed.
And then there are the Historic Structures
While building is now prohibited on National Park land, there are several historic lodges, chalets, and cabins that were built throughout the park during less regulated times that are still in operation today.
Many Glacier Hotel was built in 1915 in the style of a Swiss Chalet. With a backdrop of Altyn Peak and a view of Swiftcurrent Lake, there’s probably no more picturesque lodging in the park.
Another standout in Glacier’s historic structures is the Granite Park Chalet. Reachable on a 24km roundtrip hike on the Highline Trail, the 1913 chalet is a good spot to stop for a tea or an overnight at some times of year.
Hiking & Backpacking in Glacier National Park
There are 60+ trails in Glacier National Park including easy walks, loops, out-and-back or hikes that travel across the park. The Glacier National Park NPS page offers a good overview of some of the easier hikes in the park here, but below are a couple of my favorite moderate or difficult hikes in Glacier National Park.
Ready for one of the best views in the park? You’ll get them on the Siyeh Pass trail that runs between Siyeh Bend to Sunrift Gorge.
The hike is 16km in total with a gain of about 720m on the ascent and 1070m on the way down. On the way up, you’ll alternate between open meadows and gradual inclines until you finally climb above treeline and pass through a scree-field to Siyeh Pass. The way down is even more beautiful along switchbacks that look out on the Sexton Glacier and the Baring Creek that rushes through the forested valley below.
Wanna do this hike? It’s one of the best hikes and probably one of the best things to do in Glacier as a whole. More information on the Siyeh Pass trail coming soon.
One of Glacier National Park’s most epic hikes is also one of its most popular.
The hike to Grinnell Glacier is roughly 12km along well-marked (and usually crowded) trails. It begins with an easy climb from the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead just next to Many Glacier Campsite, but it gets a bit more arduous in the final kilometer as you climb to the glacier. But stick it out. The Grinnell Glacier hike finishes at a glacial lake fed by Grinnell Glacier in an otherwise otherworldly setting.
HOW TO GET TO GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
The closest airport to Glacier National Park is Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell. You can catch a direct flight from most major US cities during the summer.
Renting a car? While roads are great within the park, you’ll want to keep weather in mind. Go for a vehicle with good tires and perhaps 4WD in case of unexpected snow. You’ll also want trunk space if you’re traveling with a lot of gear. Here are a couple of rental car or campervan companies I can recommend:
- Hertz has 22 pickup locations in Montana and their car rentals are competitively priced (starting from about $90 per day including tax). They also have a program for drivers aged 20-25 who are unable to rent a car from other major agencies. Check prices and availability on hertz.com.
- Escape Campervans offer fully equipped campervans which can be a really fun way to travel! While they don’t have 4WD or get as good of gas mileage, you might be able to save by having an indoor spot to sleep on the nights you may have splurged on a hotel.
It’s about a 45-minute drive from the airport to the Apgar Visitor’s Center or there is a free shuttle that runs from Kalispell to Glacier during the summer (check out the schedule). Once you’re in the park, you can either drive yourself or take the shuttle.
GETTING AROUND THE PARK
The NPS is still figuring out transportation logistics with the parks growing increasingly popular. A private vehicle is still the best way to travel. But while it’s tough, it’s not impossible to travel Glacier without a car.
During the summer, free shuttles and paid tours will take you around the park. Between early July to early September, there are regular Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttles between 9 am and 5 pm that will take you between Apgar and St. Mary. There are also hiker shuttles to Many Glacier and the West Side between mid-May and late September. Fares start at about $10, and you can make reservations through Xanterra by calling 855-733-4522 You can find more information about the Going-to-the-Sun Road Shuttle stops here.
Accommodation in Glacier
Of all the US National Parks, Glacier National Park has some of the most spectacular lodging and campsites around. Throughout the park, there are 13 campsites and 9 historic structures you can overnight in. I won’t even try to cover all of them, but here are some of the better spots you can stay.
Many Glacier | Many Glacier is one of the most sought after campgrounds in Glacier and the only one that gives immediate access to the Many Glacier section on the east side of the park. You’ll be sleeping in a forested campground beneath some major peaks within walking distance to several trailheads.
The campsite has flush toilets and each site has its own picnic table and fire pit. In addition, you’re in walking distance to a couple of dining rooms and camp stores where you can re-up on supplies or take a shower.
Many Glacier is typically open late May to late September with primitive camping available outside of this season. Half of the sites can be booked in advance while the rest are available first-come-first-served. But be warned – you’ll need to get there well before the gates open at 8am to snag a site. Sites from $23.
St Mary | St Mary is the second largest campground in the park (the largest is Apgar) with 148 sites, each with a fire pit, picnic table, and access to flush toilets. It’s crowded, sure, but the reason to stay in St Mary is all the location.
The immediate views of St Mary Lake are stunning and it’s one of two sites that sits conveniently between Logan Pass in the center of the park, and Many Glacier and Two Medicine on the east side. Advance reservations are recommended, but keep in mind that St Mary and neighboring Rising Sun are regularly closed in late summer because of high bear risk. Sites from $23.
Sprague Creek | While Lake McDonald Valley takes a backseat to the eastern parts of the park, Sprague Creek is an intimate, tent-only campground with 25 sites nestled in the trees beside Lake McDonald. For seasons when St Marys is closed and Many Glacier is just too far away for your approach from the west, Sprague Creek is a lovely spot to camp.
Campsites are fully equipped (fire pits and picnic table) and the campground has flush toilets. Sites from $20 and offered on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Many Glacier Hotel | Many Glacier Hotel was built in 1915 in the style of a Swiss Chalet. With a backdrop of Altyn Peak and a view on Swiftcurrent Lake, there’s probably no more picturesque lodging in the park. Located in the Many Glacier section of the park, it’s also close to many of the popular trailheads. Rooms from $211.
Swiftcurrent Motor Inn | Also located in the Many Glacier area, the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn offers more affordable cabins and motel-style rooms. Pretty much everyone describes the inn as clean and comfortable, but otherwise lackluster. The real reason to stay is all location. Rooms from $115.
Village Inn at Apgar Motel | The Village Inn Motel is a retro-and-rustic property on Lake McDonald on the west side of the park. Like many of the historic properties, the rooms are just alright, but the access to the park and the view of the lake from your window are well worth it. Rooms from $174.
Rising Sun Motor Inn | Want a base to explore the rest of Glacier? The Rising Sun Motor Inn near St. Mary is probably your spot. There are 72 cabins and rooms available in the basic 1940’s hotel, most of which are decorated with kitschy vacationer decor. Rooms from $173.
Backcountry Lodges | There two backcountry lodges in Glacier is Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet. The dormitory of Sperry, unfortunately, was recently burned down in a fire, but organizations are fundraising for the reconstruction. You can still stay the night at Granite Park which is rustic and hike-in only, but a pretty cool experience. The backcountry lodges are really just a bed and a roof over your head (you’ll need to bring your own sleeping bag and food if you plan to stay the night) but it’s impressively comfy after a long day of hiking.