Growing up right near Glacier, I’ve had a number of years to get to know it well. (I’m also getting married up there this summer!) As it becomes more and more popular to tourists and avid hikers, I’ve enjoyed talking to them about how they can make the most out of their trip (I’ve also created a Glacier National Park itinerary). Knowing a few tips and tricks can make the entire experience much more fun when you have a limited amount of time to enjoy the park!
Best Things to do in Glacier National Park
Summer is the best time to visit Glacier—and Montana in general. However, it can be super crowded and difficult to see everything if you don’t plan ahead. This can be especially true if you are planning on doing some camping and need to book a reservation in advance. In order to avoid some of the crowds, it might be better to come a bit before the rush happens. I recommend visiting in early June or September in order to have a bit more breathing room.
If you plan on flying in, then you will want to look up flights to Glacier International Airport (FCA). The best times to fly in are usually during the week and on the shoulder months. Once there, you will probably need to rent a car if you are coming in by air. The airport has several car rental companies available, including Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise.
Where you stay will depend on whether or not you have chosen to camp in or nearby the park. If hotels are more your style, then there are several options available in the towns of Whitefish, Columbia Falls, and Whitefish in all price ranges.
You can get a pass for Glacier for $35 for 7 days. This does not include camping fees, which you can find the prices for on the Glacier National Park website. I personally recommend making the investment in the “America the Beautiful” pass, which allows you to visit any national park in the United States over a year for $70.
Getting around the park
While renting a car is by far the best way to get around, there are some other options for those who are flexible on what they want to see and when. There are park shuttles available that stop at all the major sights and campgrounds, which can be helpful if you are hiking in the backcountry and you finish at a different trailhead than the one you started at.
Glacier has a schedule of shuttles and where the stops are on its site. The shuttle can also be a great option if you already know what you want to see—not having to deal with parking and traffic can make your time at the park much more enjoyable!
More information on camping
Camping within the park can be a major highlight, but it also requires a bit of planning in advance. In fact, I recommend taking a look at the options for your dates at least four months before you arrive in Montana. There are also several types of camping spaces, so you will need to identify your needs in a campground in order to book it.
There is a limited amount of spaces available for RVs and large vehicles and you will need to pay an additional fine. Determining the size of your car and how many people will be traveling with you can be essential when it comes to booking a spot in time.
However, if you don’t manage to get a camping lot in time, there are other options. I usually check out the KOA Campground website to see if there is an opening since there are a few that provide easy access to the park and have reasonable prices.
If you are looking to get to the backcountry of the park and you want to spend a few nights there, you will need to purchase a backcountry permit. You can do so at the Park Permit Office near St. Mary, or you can go online here and book in advance. This is highly recommended because there is no guarantee you will get a permit as a walk-in.
Backcountry camping costs $7 a night, and you will be charged $40 on the website upfront in order to make the reservation. After this is done, then you will be refunded the remaining money once your booking has been completed.
Also, a reminder that Glacier enforces a “leave no trace” philosophy. Remember to clean up campsites and store food properly. Remain on the trails and do not pick flowers or approach wildlife. Most of all, make sure all fire is extinguished properly—wildfires are a big problem in the park and they can spread fast.
Of course, one of the main reasons to visit Glacier is to check out the world-class hiking available. The park is over one million square acres, and even a lifetime of tromping around there wouldn’t be enough to try every hike. However, I’ve picked three that cover different levels of skill and that are the most memorable to me.
Avalanche: At 4.5 miles, Avalanche is a fairly easy up and back with stunning views. You can also see some beautiful glacial waterfalls and the occasional mount goat or herd of deer hanging out among the bushes. You should put aside about two hours to finish if you don’t plan on rushing. Also, because this is popular hike for families, the parking lot can get quite full. Arrive early in the morning in order to make sure you get a spot.
Hidden Lake: Starting at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, Hidden Lake goes down past the overlook and to the edges of the lake itself. It offers fabulous views of some of the glaciers that give the park its name, and the total elevation gain of 1,325 feet over 5.4 miles makes it a bit more challenging than some of the other hikes nearby.
Iceberg Lake: This is a popular hike among locals, and you’ll want to park at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in order to make sure you have a parking spot. The total trail length is 9.7 miles, but there is a minimal elevation gain and a chance to see some of the most outstanding views the park has to offer. Finally, you’ll come to a lake that is aptly named after the icebergs that float in the water all year round.
A note on wildlife
One of the main reasons to visit Glacier is to spot a variety of animals. There are thousands of species located within the park, and there’s nothing more exciting than seeing some of the wildlife enjoying the peace of their natural habitat. However, there are a few rules to keep in mind:
- Don’t leave your car if you spot wildlife on the side of the road. Also, do not approach or feed any animals—no matter what kind they might be.
- If you are camping, be sure to pack up any of your food and lock it in your car or keep it in a bear-safe container. Most of the deaths that happen in the park are related to bears invading campsites looking for food.
- Always carry approved bear spray with you on hikes, especially if you are going into the backcountry. Make sure it is in an easily accessible location in case you stumble across a bear on your hike.
Even if you aren’t planning on hiking or heading deep into the park, there are still a few spots that you will want to make sure you see while you are there. These include:
Lake McDonald: As the largest lake in the park, Lake McDonald is hard to miss. It’s also a great place to hop on a ferry and spot some wildlife on the shore. It doesn’t quite look the same as it did the years before because of some recent fires, but the water is as clear as ever and it’s easy to get to from either side of the park.
Going-to-the-Sun Road: Built as part of FDR’s New Deal, it’s still an outstanding feat of roadwork. Looping along the edge of the mountains, it offers some of the best views of the park—without having to sweat for it.
There’s a reason Glacier National Park is known as the “Crown of the Continent.” It’s home to some of the most beautiful nature in the United States, and it becomes more and more popular every year. It’s likely that the glaciers won’t last much longer, so now is a good time to see them before they melt away.
For additional tips, check out the Glacier National Park website.
Alex is a Montana-born traveler and writer. She is currently a New York dreamer living in Brooklyn, encouraging sustainable travel for millennials. You can read more about her travels at The Wayfaring Voyager. You can also follow her on Instagram at @wayfaringvoyager.