Pristine lakes, mountain goats, snow-capped mountains, stunning views: Glacier National Park has it all, but may lose its namesake glaciers before long. Take an amazing Northwest road trip to see glaciers while you can. Plan ahead and book your timed entry reservation for a successful trip. Yes! Glacier is on the NPS hot list of parks requiring timed entry tickets so it’s required.
Located in the northwestern corner of Montana, Glacier National Park was the United States’ 10th designated National Park, established in 1910. Before the influx of expeditions of French, British and Spanish explorers and long before the mining craze of the late 17th century, the mountains, valleys and prairies within Glacier National Park boundaries were once home to the Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai Indian tribes.
Don’t look for any of these tribes in the park today, although traces of indigenous Native American cultures still remain in the “Shining Mountains.”
Going Through Traffic on Going to the Sun Road
Once you’ve arrived in the area, before actually setting foot in the park, plan to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road. The winding two-lane road introduces majestic mountainsides and incredible wilderness. Note that vehicle reservations are required from the National Park Service to access both Going-to-the-Sun Road or the North Fork from May 27-Sept. 11, 2022.
You and your family should drive at least a portion of this busy, 50-mile span before entering the park. Start here by booking your reservation day one, to appreciate this impressive engineering undertaking. Did you known Going-to-the-Sun Road took a little over a decade to complete?
For those who want a more eco-friendly and sustainable option, choose between park shuttles (booked in advance with limited capacity) and private guided tours (escorted tour in smaller vehicle.) The NPS park’s shuttle service provides two-way service along Going-to-the-Sun Road between the Apgar Visitor Center and St. Mary Visitor Center, running frequently depending on location and time of day.
You adrenaline junkies should bike the road in summer. Contact the park service office beforehand to learn of possible road closures and keep in mind that in the tourist high-season, biking hours are restricted.
Hiking & Geology in Glacier National Park
We like to start our park visits by taking guided or unguided hikes. The guided hikes can range from a day hike to a week-long backpacking trip, and more information can be found at Glacier Guides. Hiking allows visitors to explore the area’s diverse landscape, filled with Junipers, Ponderosas, Douglas Firs and other indigenous vegetation. In areas of the park exceeding 6,000 feet in elevation, trees become stunted in size and twisted in a form known as krummholz.
Perhaps more fascinating than these are the exposed Precambrian, Cretaceous and Tertiary rocks, which tell of the park’s significant geological history. Massive beds of stromatolites – rock-hard buildups of bacterial mats containing fossil evidence from billions of years ago – can be found on the east side of the park.
Among the most prominent features resulting from the shifting of the earth’s crust is Mt. Cleveland, the park’s tallest peak, listed at 10,466 feet. The Granite Park Chalet overlooks spectacular Bear Valley and is a good location to spot wildlife, including grizzly bears. At Haystack Bend – just above the Weeping Wall and on Haystack Butte – you might get a chance to see mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Other wildlife you may see in the park includes moose, elk, coyote, and the rare mountain lion.
Understanding the Glaciers of Glacier National Park
The real attraction of the park, of course, is what it is named for: glaciers. While they are quickly disappearing from the area, glaciers, such as the notably receding Sperry Glacier, have contributed to the scoured look of the park’s landscape. During a 2015 survey, 26 active named glaciers over 0.1 km² (about 25 acres) each remained in the area. Compare that to the 80 that remained at the end of the Little Ice Age in 1850. The park’s numerous lakes – 131 of which are named – are remnants of long glacial valleys dammed at their outlets by end moraines. The water left from glaciers is surprisingly clear. So clear that you can often easily see details of the bottom of lakes beyond 30 feet.
To really get the lowdown on Glacier’s ever-changing environment and have fun while doing so, take the kids to the Apgar Nature Center in Apgar. Open daily from mid-June to late August, it provides helpful park rangers and kid-friendly activities. Use the Apgar cabin as the base for scheduled guided hikes led by park rangers. Or, stay inside and enjoy interactive puppet shows, a mystery touch box, rock sorting and animal habitat identification games.
Unafraid of heights? Test your courage at the bridge over Avalanche Gorge, a real kid-pleaser located on the Trails of the Cedars Nature Trail. Other nature trails appropriate for kids include the Hidden Lake, Sun Point, Running Eagle Falls, and Swiftcurrent Nature Trails.
Park visitor centers located in Apgar, Logan Pass and St. Mary’s also offer the Glacier Junior Ranger program, in which kids can receive a special badge after completing a list of fun and educational activities.
Other Active Ways to Explore Glacier National Park
While my story focuses on summer travel, in fact, families explore Glacier National Park in all seasons. The only winter limitation is road closures dictated by the amount of snowfall and available plowing power. The winter months do allow for great cross-country skiing or snowshoeing on backcountry trails. Strap on your gear to explore Marias Pass, North Fork and Two Medicine. (Snowmobiles are not allowed in the park.)
In summer, you can drive, bike, wade, fish and hike. Boating is another popular way of seeing the park, particularly on Bowman and McDonald lakes on the west side, or St. Mary and Two Medicine Lakes on the east side. Rentals are available at several locations, including Agpar, Rising Sun and Many Glacier. Boat tours with commentary are also available through Glacier Park Boat Company on four of the lakes in the park.
For more adventurous water activities, try canoeing, kayaking or rafting on the Flathead River. Go fishing at Lake McDonald as well, which does not require a license or permit and boasts many other activities. Visit this lake to clip-clop your way around the park trails on horseback, or mount up at a few other locations such as Many Glacier and Apgar. The horseback tours, run by Swan Mountain Outfitters, can range from an hour to a full day in length. Let your little ones know that riders of all skill levels are welcome.
Making the Trek to Glacier National Park
I’ve mentioned you can visit Glacier in all summer, but in summer, it’s easier to get to. Arrive at the park by car, plane, or train — though the park is remote, there are numerous shuttles to and from nearby airports and train stations.
The closest airport is Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana, 25 miles west of park headquarters which are in West Glacier, Montana. You’ll find Kalispell a terrific base for exploring the park and a fun town on its own. There are also airports in Great Falls, Montana (200 miles east of West Glacier) and Missoula, Montana (156 miles south of West Glacier). Car rentals are available at airports, and shuttles are available at the Kalispell airport.
To travel more sustainably, use the train, since Amtrak services the towns of East Glacier Park and West Glacier. Shuttles to from the train station to the park can be arranged.
Exploring Indigenous Peoples In & Outside Glacier
Don’t ignore the indigenous peoples who first called Glacier their home. In the summer, Sun Tours offers interpretive bus tours within the national park highlighting Blackfeet culture.
Outside the park in the town of Browning, the Blackfeet Nation Reservation encourages visitors to póóhsapoot! – Come here! Since their tribal lands closed for the COVID-19 pandemic, entry has been strictly controlled. Check their website for the latest protocols, as a visit is a great way to learn the tribe’s history. The Blackfeet are one of the six tribes out of 564 in the United States who still live on their ancestral lands. Their cultural practices were kept alive for many years through times of hardship and strife. Today, as times change, there’s also a golf course and a casino within the reservation grounds.
If you haven’t had your fill of national parks, just across the border with Canada is Waterton Lakes National Park, which connects to Glacier. In 1932, UNESCO designated both parks combined as Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, now on their World Heritage list. Waterton Lakes offers great hiking, mountain scenery, scenic boat cruises, wildlife and wildflowers. On the Canada side, there are several scenic drives centered around the town of Waterton.
Lodging In & Around Glacier National Park
It’s easiest and most convenient to stay within the park, but lodging fills up quickly. Especially for travel during July and August, make reservations as early as possible. There are a variety of options in the park, from historic hotels to motel type lodging to backcountry chalets.
Right on Lake McDonald is the Lake McDonald Lodge, a charming, Swiss chalet type lodge. Try first to book one of their 82 rooms: simple lodge rooms, deluxe hotel rooms, cabins and other lodging styles meet all budgets. The rooms are rustic yet comfortable and have private bathrooms. On the northeastern side of the park, Many Glacier Hotel is another Swiss chalet option whose views remind many of the Swiss Alps. The Grinnell Glacier Trailhead and Swiftcurrent Trailhead are just outside the hotel and worth a walk if the family feels active. All ages enjoy watching the sunset over Swiftcurrent Lake.
For all the lodging options within the park, visit the Glacier National Park lodging website. For those who wish to rough it and camp, sites at Fish Creek Campground, St. Mary Campground, and Apgar Campground are available to reserve in advance.
For more information on where to stay in the park and environs, see Booking.com Popular Hotels in Glacier National Park.
For the chance to explore unspoiled wilderness in many different ways, Glacier National Park makes for a great vacation. And if you’re thinking of going, you may want to visit soon. If current trends continue, some scientists have predicted that in several decades, or even, perhaps by the year 2030, the glaciers in Glacier National Park will have all disappeared as a result of global climate change.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.