Glacier National Park in Montana is a testament to wilderness at its finest. Pristine lakes shine in gorges dug out by the glaciers long ago, and the rocky mountains spire high above. This park attracts more than a million visitors each year, and will probably enchant you should you venture within its borders. It was the home of the Blackfoot and Flathead Natives, and is currently home to a myriad of animal and plant life. This unique ecosystem is often referred to as the "Crown of the Continent."
Getting to the Park
Depending on how long your journey is, there are several options for getting to Glacier National Park.
Going by car is probably the simplest way to get there and it makes it easier to transport yourself around the park too. Anyone with a GPS or smartphone will be able to find it easily, and those without one can find directions on the park's website. Just be sure to choose which entrance you want to use ahead of time, as the park is large and the entrances are far apart. RV camping in Glacier National Park is another excellent option.
If you fly to Glacier National Park, the closest airport is the aptly named Glacier Park International Airport, which is about 30 miles from the West Entrance. Missoula International Airport is about 150 miles away. If you fancy the Eastern side of the park, Great Falls International Airport is between 130 and 160 miles away from the East entrances.
Taking the train is a great way to experience the delightful countryside and amazing wilderness even before you get to the park. It also allows you to skip the hassle of airport security or packing for a long road trip. The train has some other advantages too.
Erin Gartner wrote for Associated Press that taking the train was "about half the cost of flying" and their "mammoth backpacks with protruding hiking poles fit, with creative maneuvering, into the train's overhead compartments." Trains can be booked through Amtrak.
If you didn't bring a car, Glacier National Park offers a shuttle system. While Gartner notes that misinformation about shuttle schedules can cause problems, it's a reasonable bet that you'll be able to get around the park this way. The full shuttle schedule is provided online. Perry Rosenbloom even recommends hitchhiking in the Glacier National Park Travel Guide, saying that visitors with cars are friendly and it is easy to get a ride.
What to Expect
Here are a few basics on what to expect when you arrive at Glacier National Park.
Summer entrance fees range from $15 (for a single person) to $30 (for a car), both of which cover a full week in the park. If you'll be returning often, the $45 annual pass could be a better value.
Camping and Lodging
No matter whether you're looking for a true outdoor living experience or a historic hotel with all your preferred amenities, you can find something to suit your style here.
Some campsites can be reserved ahead of time, while others are on a first-come, first-served basis. Camping fees typically range from $10 to $23 per night. You can see a full list of campsites, with prices and amenities, on the park's website. Hikers can also camp in the backcountry for a mere $7, but be sure to get your permit before 4:30 pm. Campfires are allowed in designated campsites only.
You want it? They've got it. Anything from cozy cabins and chalets to historic hotels, vacation rentals, and reasonably priced motels are available in the Glacier National Park area. Many Glacier Hotel is a popular choice, probably because of its character and rustic charm. There are quite a few options, each to fit a particular budget and style of travel, so look around a bit before you make your choice.
There are places to eat and buy supplies in all the major locations, including Apgar, Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, Rising Sun and Two Medicine. Either eat at one of the restaurants or cafes within the park or stop in a camp store to pick up supplies. A list of stores and restaurants can be found on the park's website.
Pets are allowed (with restrictions) in some areas of the park, but not all. Be sure to review the guidelines if you plan on traveling to the park with one or more pets.
Where Pets Are Allowed
Pets are allowed in certain areas, but only if restrained in a crate/cage or on a leash that is six feet long or less. Areas where you can have pets, assuming the restraint requirement is met, include:
- Campgrounds (frontcountry only)
- Picnic areas
- Parking areas
- Along roads, but only when those roads are open to vehicle traffic
- In boats (that are being operated in accordance with park regulations)
- The bicycle path between West Glacier and Apgar, but only when the area does not have any snow on the ground
Areas Off Limits to Pets
Pets are not allowed in areas other than those specifically listed above as "allowed" locations. This includes trails, the shoreline of the lake, in park buildings or in any part of the backcountry. Note that when weather causes roads to be closed to vehicle traffic, the roads are then considered backcountry areas.
Limiting pets to allowed areas is important, but does not represent the full scope of regulations that apply to bringing your animal companions to Glacier. Additional requirements include:
- Do not leave pets unattended.
- Do not tie pets to objects and leave them unattended.
- Pick up after your pets.
- Deposit pet waste in trash cans.
- Do not allow pets to bark excessively or otherwise create noise that could be considered "unreasonable."
What to Do at Glacier National Park
There are nearly as many possible activities in Glacier National Park as there are people who visit. For the sake of space and sanity, you'll find some of the most popular ones below.
- Boating: Motorized boats are permitted on Glacier National Park's rivers, though you will need a permit in order to launch. Canoeing is also a great way to see the park's pristine lakes and rivers.
- Fishing: What does it feel like to catch your dinner in the middle of untouched wilderness? No license is required to fish in the park, though there are still rules to follow in order to protect the local ecosystem.
- Whitewater Rafting: Ready for a thrill? Try whitewater rafting in Glacier National Park. Glacier Raft Company offers whitewater rafting tours during the warmer months. If you're not in the mood to get wet, the same company also offers horseback riding tours.
- Cross-Country Skiing: Glacier National Park's winter months are reminiscent of the park's namesake. With fewer visitors in winter, cross-country skiing is an opportunity to experience this magnificent wilderness all alone. There are trails for a variety of skill levels.
- Going-To-The-Sun Road: This famous road cuts through the entire park from east to west. Driving through the midst of one of the wildest places in America is exhilarating and awe-inspiring. It passes through a variety of landscapes and crosses the Continental Divide through Logan Pass. There is also ample opportunity to view wildlife like mountain goats and bighorn sheep. If you don't have a car, you can opt for a ride in one of the park's red "Jammer" buses.
- Ferry Tour: Take a ferry to see the park's majestic wilderness from the water. Glacier Park Boat Company offers regular ferry tours of the park's beautiful landscapes.
Most people who have been there love Glacier National Park. Indeed, it has a full 5-star overall rating on both Yelp and TripAdvisor. Reviewers often use words like "awesome," "gorgeous," or even "the closest thing to perfection that exists in the world."
The only negatives that come up consistently are troubles with parking or conversely, getting from place to place without a car. Reviewers also note that Going-To-The-Sun Road is much nicer in July after the park's team has finished clearing off all of the snow.
A few people were disappointed that they didn't see any wildlife, however, with patience, most people will get a chance to see some. Unfortunately, the park's namesake is swiftly melting away, so if glaciers are your reason to visit, try planning your trip sooner than later.
Key Travel Tips
For many people who get to travel to Glacier National Park, their visit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Whether this is your only trip, or if you've been before or plan to go again, it's certainly advisable to prepare to make the most of your time in this majestic location.
Stay for a While
There is a lot to see and do in the park, and these attractions are spread out over quite a large area. There is no way you can see everything in a weekend, not even a long one. That's why Glacier Park Inc. recommends setting aside at least four nights and five days for your visit. If you opt for the recommended stay length, they further suggest dividing your time between different areas of the park. A local resident suggests at least two nights in West Glacier/ Lake McDonald area, one night at Glacier Park Lodge and one night at St Mary Lodge & Resort.
According to U.S. News and World Report, July and August are the best months to visit the park. They like this time of year because of the comfortable temperatures and the fact that this is when you can expect the majority of park areas to be open and accessible. During these months, you can expect daytime temperatures in the 70s and nighttime temperatures in the 40s. However, as this is peak tourist season, you should be prepared for the largest crowds and the highest room rates of the year.
The National Park Service (NPS) indicates that the fall months of September and October can be a wonderful time to visit the park, indicating that "the park is a lot quieter, wildlife is more active, and the trees are turning colors." The park is less crowded during these months than during the summer, but you also need to know that not all park services will be available after mid-September. So, if you are planning a fall trip, you may want to go early in the season. If not, NPS cautions that you'll "have to be more self-sufficient." It might be worth it, though, to capture the leaves changing in this idyllic locale!
Prioritize Your Hikes
With so many trails, there is no way you will be able to hike every area of the park. Before your visit, spend a little time studying the options so you can make an informed decision regarding which trails are best suited for your physical condition and sightseeing interests. HikinginGlacier.com has a great top ten list that provides detailed descriptions of some of the most highly recommended hikes within the park. Use the list to narrow down your choices and then do more detailed research on the specific trails that capture your attention.
Feast on Huckleberry Delights
No trip to Montana is complete without indulging in the delicious flavor of fresh huckleberries, a regional favorite throughout the state. According to Condé Nast Traveler, the Park Café located near Glacier's east entrance is the perfect spot to savor "juicy, decadent huckleberry pie." One thing that you'll notice is that the crowd will be filled with locals in addition to tourists-a sure sign of delightful dining. You don't have to stop with pie though; huckleberries are quite common in menus throughout the area surrounding the park. Additionally, TravelCaffeine recommends feasting on huckleberry ice cream when you are in the area.
Enjoy the Park!
There are few places left in the United States, or even the world, that are truly untouched. Glacier National Park is one of those places and is an example of the intense beauty and majesty of nature at her finest. If you can, take some time just to be in the park, without expectation, and experience what it has to teach you.