Montana is all golden plains, sparse pines, crystal-clear rivers, and sky-high mountains. Its landscape is pure America—not the Americana postcards of California beaches or the grandiose skyscrapers of New York, but a quiet, sweeping, Home on the Range-style beauty.
All this culminates in Glacier National Park, a million-acre haven whose vast backcountry bleeds up past the border and into Canada. Designated as the 10th national park in 1910, the land here is that of the Blackfeet tribe to the east and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes to the west. Within its borders, you’ll find over 700 miles of trails, which’ll lead you through alpine forests and green meadows, past enormous lakes and glacier-carved valleys, and up into the heights of the Rockies.
On a visit to Glacier, you’re almost guaranteed to make a few friends, whether that’s with fellow outdoorspeople on the trail, or with the park’s animal residents from a distance. Black bears, grizzly bears, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and elk all call this wilderness home.
No matter how many other national parks you’ve visited, it’s near impossible to leave Glacier without seeing a view that makes you go “wow” out loud. Here’s everything you need to know about planning a visit to Glacier National Park, the Crown of the Continent.
The best time to visit Glacier National Park
Most of Glacier is frozen from November through June, which pretty much rules out winter and most of spring (although there’s cross-country skiing during the cold months). Fall in the park is gorgeous, but Going-to-the-Sun Road—the mountain byway that runs 50 scenic miles across the length of Glacier, and one of the park’s most popular attractions—closes for the season in Mid-October.
That leaves summer, between mid-June and September, but the limited window means there’ll be crowds. Wake up early in the morning to beat the masses, especially if you’re hiking Glacier’s most popular trails from Logan Pass. You’re also almost certain to run into wildfire concerns, such as poor air quality or reduced visibility due to smoke. Keep an eye on NPS wildfire updates. If you can stay a few days, be patient and the problem may resolve itself: rain will sweep through, clear out the smoke, and free up the views.
Which side of the park is better: West Glacier or East Glacier?
The debate surrounding whether to visit East or West Glacier is a dispute as old as time, and one that’s entirely subjective. It takes about two hours to drive from one end of the park to the other—not counting potential traffic or the ongoing delays around Many Glacier—so you’ll need at least a few days (3-4 is ideal) if you want to see both sides. If you only have a day, pick a a side and stick to it. The way I see it is this:
Here on the busier side of the park, you’ll find plenty of families laughing and lounging on the rocky shores of Lake McDonald, kayakers and boaters out on the water, and a convivial summer camp vibe. Popular hikes include Avalanche Lake via Trail of the Cedars. It’s also worth noting that the drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road from here is a little more thrilling and, in this writer’s humble opinion, more picturesque.
Where to stay in West Glacier: Fish Creek and Apgar Campgrounds, both of which sit on the shores of Lake McDonald, will treat you well. Apgar Village has a general store, lodging, and restaurants (including Eddie’s Cafe, whose to-go cocktails are surprisingly good). For more remote camping, try Bowman Lake Campground further north. And if you can’t snag a spot inside the park, check out what’s available in Kalispell or Whitefish, both about 30 minutes from the west entrance; we stayed at Wander Camp, where the yurts are extra cozy and the bathroom facilities are almost miraculously good.
If you’re looking for a remote getaway, head to East Glacier. As you descend from Logan Pass, you’ll notice cars thinning out as the mountains open up to wide, yellow plains and quiet lakeshores. Great hikes in East Glacier include Grinnell Glacier, Rockwell Falls, and Piegan Pass. If you want to avoid the summer crowds, this side of the park is for you.
Where to stay in East Glacier: St. Mary Campground is the largest in the entire park, while Many Glacier is next door to the area’s most popular trails. Out this way, lodge loves can check into the Glacier Park Lodge, St. Mary Village, and Jacobson’s Cottages (as well as Summit Mountain Lodge, which sits just outside of the park). A little further south, you’ll also find Two Medicine, one of the most underrated and least-trafficked areas in the park.
Keep in mind that some campgrounds, including St. Mary’s and Avalanche Lake, are still closed for the 2021 season. Be sure to check for closures before heading out.
How to get a first-come, first-served campsite in Glacier National Park
The most difficult thing about visiting Glacier isn’t long-distance hiking or roughing it for a few days—it’s finding a solid campsite. Since reservations for the campsites, cabins, and historic lodges peppered throughout the park can fill up as far as a year in advance, book as soon as possible. If you can’t find anything, keep checking back; you can sometimes snag a spot if somebody cancels.
If you’re trying your luck at first-come, first-served camping, get to the park early—in the height of summer, campsites fill up as early as 6am. Check the NPS Glacier campsite status updates, which’ll tell you what campgrounds are open, plus what time the grounds filled up the day before, so you can get a better idea of when you’ll need to arrive.
Here’s how it works: Say you’re headed to Apgar Campground. You’ll roll up around 4am and likely find a few cars parked in a line just outside the entrance. Just sit tight for a while (I recommend bringing early morning snacks and coffee). Eventually, a ranger will come along and have everybody move their cars to the lot just down the road; from there, you’ll need to hop out of your car and physically line up at the entrance. Around 7:30am, a ranger will return and post the available campsites on a whiteboard, plus hand out payment forms (most campsites are $20 or so; you can pay with cash or card) and maps of the area. Group by group, you’ll be able to walk through the campground and claim an empty site.
If all else fails, Montana is basically one big campground. The state has twice as many cattle as people, and probably five times as many places to set up a tent. Just outside the park, you’ll find—no exaggeration—dozens of sites in Whitefish to the west or in Babb to the east.
What to bring and other essential tips
First and foremost: you’re gonna want a solid ride. The roads in some areas of Glacier are rocky enough to be considered off-road, the lack of service calls for a solid GPS system, and if you plan on camping, you’re gonna want a place to lock up all your food, lest Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo descend on your s’mores supplies. Needless to say, my Nissan Rogue was truly my best friend (especially when we found ourselves in an overnight torrential downpour and had to camp out in the back seat).
As for supplies, some basic camping gear should serve you well (and car camping gear should serve you even better!). Even in the summer, temperatures can take a drop and the brisk wind may catch you by surprise, so pack warm clothing, and make a headlamp your new favorite accessory (trust me—a flashlight is fine, but a hands-free headlamp is ideal).
Last but not least, bear spray. Hopefully you won’t need it, but considering Glacier is home to the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48, you’ll definitely want it. It’s available at general stores throughout the park.
Now let’s get to the good stuff: Here are the best things to see and do in Glacier National Park.
Drive 90º up Going-to-the-Sun Road
So you won’t actually drive 90º uphill on Going-to-the-Sun Road, but it’ll definitely feel like you are. Let your friend with the steeliest nerves (or Jesus) take the wheel and drive slow up the narrow, snake-like mountain route, which reaches heights of 6,647′ at its highest point and halfway mark, Logan Pass.
The speed limit along the way will sometimes read 40mph. You will take one look out your window, say a big “hell nah,” and drive 20 max, guaranteed—all good, since you’ll constantly want to stop and savor the views on the way up. Keep an eye out for sights like Bird Woman Falls and the Jackson Glacier. If the heights prove to be too much, you can also catch a shuttle to the top. And for the absolute mad lads, yes, you can bike it.
Hike past wildflowers, mountains, and—of course—glaciers
Just as contentious as the best side of Glacier is the best trails in Glacier, of which there seem to be a near-infinite amount. But a few are pretty essential. On the west side of the park, you won’t want to miss the 5.9-mile, relatively easy Avalanche Lake Trail via the Trail of the Cedars. You’ll trek past a variety of landscapes—a whitewater river nestled between colorful boulders, a cedar forest, a berry patch—but the payoff is what makes this one of the most popular hikes in Glacier: a giant, crystal-clear glacial lake flanked by mountains and several rushing waterfalls where you can take a dip in refreshing waters.
Along GTTSR is Logan Pass, the gateway to what I’d call the best hikes in the park. About 1 million people live in Montana, and I’d say 900,000 of them can be found in the Logan Pass parking lot by 6am, so plan to head up at the crack of dawn. The hikes are worth the early call time, and significantly more beautiful when you don’t have to wait an hour to park your car, as is sometimes the case.
From Logan Pass, any trail you pick is going to blow your mind. The 5.3-mile Hidden Lake Trail will take you up into the hills, through fields of wildflowers, and to one of Glacier’s most recognizable sights: a (surprise!) hidden lake overlooked by craggy mountains. If you don’t want to hike too far, this trail has a number of great stopping points like Hidden Lake Overlook, all of which will make you feel like you’ve “arrived.” If it’s a challenge you’re after, try the 14.9-mile Highline Trail (which skirts the Continental Divide) or the nearby 9.7-mile Siyeh Pass Trail, both known for their abundance of wildlife. The further you trek, the fewer the crowds and the more unobstructed the views.
In East Glacier, get ye to Grinnell Glacier Trail, an 11.2-mile hike through thick forest brush up a gradual incline where you’ll gain 2,200 feet of elevation and on to one of the only remaining glaciers in the park. (Some experts predict that if carbon dioxide levels continue to rise at a high rate, all the glaciers in the park may disappear by the year 2030. So, you know, let’s continue to rally for climate change prevention.)
People call the Caribbean Sea “turquoise,” but that’s only because they haven’t seen the water that pools out from this glacier. This is true turquoise, a shocking vibrant blue. If you don’t feel like hoofing it that far, you can either book a ride on the Lake Josephine boat shuttle to shave a few miles off your trip or hike the equally satisfying but slightly easier 7.1-mile Grinnell Lake Trail, where you’re just as likely to spot bears, moose, and sheep along the way.
Gaze into the cosmos in one of America’s best Dark Sky parks
Although desert states like Nevada get all the street cred when it comes to stargazing, don’t count out the Treasure State’s potential for some truly excellent night skies—especially in Glacier, the first Dark Sky Park to span two sides of an international border. Considering the park’s relative isolation, there’s really no “bad” place to check out the firmament, but you can’t go wrong with a perch on the shores of Lake McDonald or up near Logan Pass. You can also head to the St. Mary Observatory, Montana’s biggest observatory and one of the largest in the entire National Park Service, or participate in the ranger-led Half the Park Is After Dark summertime stargazing series.
Top off your trip with a drive down to Bozeman
When your state is this big, a few hours’ drive is akin to a city dweller’s morning commute, which is why a trip to Glacier also warrants a relatively quick (aka four-hour) drive down to Bozeman, one of America’s coolest small towns. If you leave from West Glacier, make a detour to the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas; from the East Entrance, you’ll likely spot a litany of roadside dinosaurs, as well as the Montana Dinosaur Center in Bynum, part of the greater Montana Dinosaur Trail.
Once you’re in Bozeman, you’ll find everything you need on Main Street, so stay nearby (the Element Bozeman and the Kimpton Armory are both steps from the main strip). It’s not too difficult to create a stacked itinerary: Shop The Johnny and June Vintage Shop beneath Headwest Bozeman for racks of ultra-cool, vintage Western clothes; make an afternoon out of the Museum of the Rockies, where you can see the skeletal remains of dozens of dinosaurs; or take a dip at either the Bozeman or Chico Hot Springs.
Also, eat—like, as much as you possibly can—specifically at Jam! for an enormous, buttery brunch, and later at Plonk for dangerously good cocktails and farm-to-table food so fresh, you probably drove past the chicken who laid the eggs you’re eating on the way down from Glacier. As far as drinking goes, your best bets are neon-lit Crystal Bar, a dive lined with memorabilia, lost bras, and confiscated 90s-era fake IDs where you can knock back four drinks and only spend $13 (yes, actually), or Kitty Warren, a speakeasy hidden beneath Main Street that’s only open Thursdays to Saturdays.
And if by the end of it all you still haven’t had enough national park-goodness, there’s good news: from Bozeman, Yellowstone National Park is just 90 minutes south.