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ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT GLACIER NATIONAL PARK


Many Glacier Hotel
If you appreciate wildlife, mountain views, and lakes everywhere you look, then Glacier National Park is for you! It’s popularity has drastically increased over the past couple of years, so make sure to plan ahead in order to get the most out of your trip.

 

Glacier National Park sits at the very top of Montana, with part of the park crossing the Canadian border and becoming Waterton Lakes National Park. This is an extremely unique area with Native American Reservations on either side. Notable features of the park include the beautiful Going-to-the-Sun Road that winds through the park, over 700 different lakes, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, and some of the most diverse wildlife you can find in North America.



Lake McDonald

 


1. The Different Sections of Glacier

Glacier is a very large park, with much of it accessible without a lot of hiking. The west side offers landscapes more closely related to the Pacific Northwest, while the east side is more like the mountain landscapes of Banff in Canada.


· The West Side

The west side of the park is often the most popular side of the park.

  • The main attraction in this area is the Lake McDonald area and the start of the Going-to-the-Sun road.

  • Gateway cities are Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Whitefish, and Hungry Horse.

  • There are more amenities on this side of the park, with more options for gas and electric charging stations.

  • Crowds are often a problem, especially in July and August.

  • The Apgar Visitor Center is located just inside the west entrance station.

  • The main hotels on this side are the Village Inn at Apgar and Lake McDonald Lodge. (There are also several smaller properties like the Motel Lake McDonald)


· The East Side

The east side of the park is VERY remote. It can be difficult to get to this side, especially if you aren’t able to take the Going-to-the-Sun road from the west side.

  • Until you enter the park on the east side, you are on the Blackfeet Reservation. This means that there may be certain restrictions (like no alcohol) at different times. Please be respectful of the people and the land!

  • Hiking is the main attraction in the area, with the Many Glacier Valley being called a “Hiker’s Paradise”.

  • The main lodging options are the Many Glacier Hotel, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Rising Sun Motor Inn, and the East Glacier Park Lodge.

  • The east side has a couple of different entry areas: St. Mary, Two Medicine, and the Many Glacier Valley.

  • Amenities are more difficult to find, with limited gas and food options.


· Going-to-the-Sun Road

This is the most popular attraction of the park, but with the most complications.

  • You must reserve tickets in advance in order to drive on this road.

  • Tickets are $2, last for 3 days, and are separate from the park entry fee which you can buy as you enter the station entrance on either the east or west side.

  • Your vehicle can be no longer than 21 feet long or wider than 8 feet.

  • You can make reservations online at Recreation.gov or call the Reservation Line at 877-444-6777

  • Parking can be very difficult, especially at Logan’s Pass.

  • There is also a Shuttle System once the road fully opens. You can find detailed information for it on the NPS website.


· Waterton Lakes National Park

This is the section of the park that is located in Alberta, Canada. This means that you will need a valid passport and your own form of transportation.

  • You will most likely need to cross at the Carway Station, as the Chief Mountain Station has still not reopened as of 2022.

  • It is about a 1.5 hour drive from the Many Glacier Valley to Waterton Lakes.

  • There are plenty of amenities here, with Waterton being a small town located within the park.

  • You will need to buy a park pass at the entry station of the park.

  • I would highly recommend going to High Tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel, featuring an assortment of teas and finger foods. You can make a reservation for this on their website here

  • I would also recommend driving the Akamina and Red Rock Parkways, as they are both beautiful drives that lead to different hikes and lakes along the way.



 

2. Personal Favorite Spots in Glacier



· Iceberg Lake Trail:

This is a popular trail, but worth it.

  • If you want to see wildflowers, this is an amazing hike.

  • Bears frequent this area every month of the year, so bring bear spray, make noise, and hike in groups.

  • Park around the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, and follow the trail signs.

  • This hike is best in July when the lake has begun to thaw, but there are still plenty of icebergs.


· Going-to-the-Sun Road:

This is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, with waterfalls, lakes, and glaciers all along the way.

  • I would recommend driving east to west in the morning. This gives you the best views, going under the Weeping Wall, and avoiding crowds.

  • One downside is parking, especially at Logan’s Pass. If you’re not there by about 6am, don’t expect a parking space.

  • You can access several major hiking trails, like Highline, along this road.

  • If you don’t want to drive it yourself, I would recommend taking a historic Red Bus Tour

  • You have to make reservations for this road in advance!!! You can reserve tickets at Recreation.gov as early as a year in advance.


· Waterton Lakes National Park:

This is the Canadian side of Glacier.

  • Crowds aren't quite as packed as those in Glacier.

  • It's an easy way to see another country, especially if you've never travelled outside of the USA before.

  • There are a lot of nice shops and places to eat in the town.

  • There are plenty of great hikes and water activities in the area.


Going-to-the-Sun Road

 


3. When to Visit


Each month in the park has different pros and cons for visiting.


· April:

Not Worth It:

  • The weather can be crazy at times, with sunshine and warm weather turning into a snowstorm the next day.

  • Wildlife isn’t really out yet, with bears still usually hibernating until May.

  • All of the mountains are topped with nice layers of snow, making the views absolutely spectacular!

  • Many hiking trails are still closed due to snow and ice. If you do go hiking, make sure to have trekking poles and crampons or else you risk falling.

  • The nearby towns aren’t really open yet, with most businesses still being closed.


· May:

Still Not Ready:

  • The weather can still be bad. Days can start to get warm, only to have a blizzard the next day.

  • The Going-to-the-Sun Road and many hiking trails are still closed, so there aren’t a lot of options for activities.

  • Nearby towns are only just starting to open up.

  • Some of the views from snow-covered hikes are amazing, particularly the Apgar Lookout Trail overlooking Lake McDonald.


· June:

Good for Beating Crowds and Seeing Wildlife:

  • June is a nice time of year to visit the park because it’s late enough in the year for more hotels to be open, and people haven’t started swarming the park yet.

  • More hiking trails are open, but be make sure to have bear spray since it’s bear season. These hiking trails will also still have snow, so be sure to have some trekking poles and good shoes with you.

  • Bear can be easy to see since they’re coming out of hibernation and looking for food. Please keep in mind that they may be more aggressive while hunting!!

  • Moose are also starting to give birth, and bears often target these moose calves.

  • The weather is still unpredictable, but June definitely has more rain than other months. The wind can also be very strong on the east side of the park this time of the year.

  • The Going-to-the-Sun road may also still be closed, with it opening usually around the last week of June.


· July:

Peak Season and Best Wildflowers:

  • Temperatures can get very warm by this time, and lodging inside the park doesn’t have air conditioning. Nights are still very cool though.

  • Crowds are definitely becoming a problem, with long lines at entry stations during midmorning times.

  • This is also a time of year where smoke from wildfires around the country can be heavy.

  • The wildflowers are amazing, and hiking trails are usually more open by now. If you want to hike, July is the best time!! Just bring your bear spray and plenty of water!

  • If you do go in July, try and avoid the week of and the 1st week after the 4th of July.

  • The Going-to-the-Sun Road will probably be open by the second week of July.


· August:

Peak is Happening:

  • Crowds are very intense, with parking being a major problem throughout the park.

  • It’s also very warm during this time of year, so swimming in one of the many lakes is a favorite pastime.

  • Wildlife has moved a little higher into the mountains, but is still abundant and fairly easy to see.

  • Smoke can be a problem, especially if there was little rain in June or July. Wildfires can often start by dry lightning and spread quickly.


· September:

Fall is Coming:

  • The crowds have started to dwindle (though they’re still there).

  • Temperatures are starting to cool.

  • One thing to keep in mind is that the days are getting shorter, so plan your time so that you aren’t having to navigate in the dark.

  • If the weather works with you, seeing the Northern Lights is a possibility (though slim).

  • The weather can also be sporadic, with smoke becoming a real problem at times.

  • All of the hotels and campgrounds within the park close during this month, starting with the east side, so plan accordingly.


Overall, my favorite time to see the park was July. The crowds were definitely there, so planning was essential. However, with everything being open, the amazing wildflowers, and the wildlife all out and abundant, no other month really compared.





 


4. Lodging and Amenities

There are hotels and campgrounds located on both the east and west sides of the park. An important note, especially if you plan to stay in one of the hotels, is that you’re in a National Park. Amenities that you often find in average hotels are not common due to the remote location. That being said, here are some quirks about staying inside the park:


Cell Service is VERY Limited:
  • The best cell provider for the park seems to be AT&T.

Wi-Fi is a Luxury:
  • You can find limited Wi-Fi access if you have reservations for one of the hotels in the park, like Lake McDonald and the Many Glacier Hotel. Once you’re checked in, you’ll be able to access the Wi-Fi at that property.

Microwaves are Fire Hazards:
  • Fire restrictions are taken extremely seriously, so microwaves are not allowed in the rooms for any reason.

Daily Housekeeping is Not Common:
  • Often, there is not enough staff to clean every lodge room each day, so only turnover rooms are cleaned. Each location is different, so be sure to check at the front desk.

Maintenance Issues Happen:
  • Most properties in the park are very old, so there will be quirks with each one. Most issues are easy to fix, so just call the front desk so they can send someone. Please be patient with wait times, especially in the evenings.

Air Conditioning is Not Used:
  • Park temperatures can vary during the summer, with overall temperatures being on the cool side. During the day, the rooms can get very warm, but the nights are much cooler. Because of this, none of the hotels have air conditioning.


Lake McDonald Lodge (West Side):

  • Built in 1913 on the edge of Lake McDonald with a rustic hunting lodge style

  • About 82 rooms of various sizes and styles, ranging from more hostel-like accommodations in the Snyder Building to the Cobb House Suite

  • Usually open from mid-May through mid-September

  • You can take boat tours from right behind the main building

  • There is a dining room, general store, and gift shop all within the main building or nearby.

  • Since this hotel is located along the Going-to-the-Sun road, reservations here will get you access to the ticketed entry system for your reservation dates.

  • For more information or to book reservations, you can use this link.


Village Inn at Apgar (West Side):

  • Built in 1956, this is an underrated property also along Lake McDonald.

  • Usually open from mid-May through late-September

  • Some rooms have individual bedrooms and kitchens.

  • More rustic in style

  • It's fairly close to the west entrance of the park, so there are plenty of amenities nearby.

  • You may have some phone signal here, but probably not.

  • Since this hotel is located along the Going-to-the-Sun road, reservations here will get you access to the ticketed entry system for your reservation dates.

  • For more information or to book reservations, you can use this link.


Rising Sun Motor Inn (East Side):

  • Built in 1940 (but renovated in 2015), this property has both cabins and motor inn types of rooms.

  • Usually open from early June through early September

  • Only 12 miles from Logan Pass

  • Being the most central location, there are plenty of amenities like a gift shop, Two Dogs Flats Grill, a general store, boat cruises, and Red Bus Tours at this location.

  • Since this hotel is located along the Going-to-the-Sun road, reservations here will get you access to the ticketed entry system for your reservation dates.

  • For more information or to book reservations, you can use this link.


Many Glacier Hotel (East Side):

  • Built by the Great Northern Railway in 1914/15 (partially renovated in 2016), this is the largest hotel inside of Glacier (and my personal favorite property).

  • This hotel sits right next to Swiftcurrent Lake, giving some of the rooms absolutely stunning views.

  • For anyone interested in "ghost hunting", certain rooms and areas are said to be haunted: the dining room (lights will move or someone plays the piano), Room 262 (door will open), Room 148 (has the infamous ghost cat), and particularly the 3rd floor of the Annex building (multiple occurrences).

  • Usually open from early June through mid-September

  • No two rooms are just alike, and there are so many different room types that people staying multiple nights often have to move rooms during their stay (depending on how the reservation was booked).

  • This side of the park is VERY remote, so I suggest bringing some snacks and necessities with you.

  • There is a restaurant, coffee shop, gift shop, boat tours, and Red Bus Tours at this location.

  • This hotel DOES NOT give you access to the Going-to-the-Sun road, but if you're interested in hiking, this is a very central spot.

  • For more information or to book reservations, you can use this link.


Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins (East Side):

  • This is probably the most rustic property, with a mixture of motel rooms and cabins (some of which don't have private bathrooms).

  • If you're wanting to hike, this is THE place with the trailheads for Iceberg Lake, Ptarmigan Lake/Tunnel, Red Rock Falls, and Swiftcurrent Pass mere feet away.

  • Usually open from early June through early September

  • This is a VERY remote location, so I would suggest bringing snacks and necessities with you.

  • There is a restaurant and gift shop at this location.

  • This hotel DOES NOT give you access to the Going-to-the-Sun road.

  • For more information or to book reservations, you can use this link.





 


5. Wildlife

Glacier is home to a wide variety of different animals, ranging from elk to bears to bald eagles. No matter what you’re viewing, keep a safe distance! Even if the animal seems calm, it can quickly become agitated and get aggressive. You can never know what you might happen to see while visiting, but here’s a brief overview of what to expect:


· Mountain Goats
  • Mountain goats are very common to see on the east side of the park, especially around the Many Glacier Hotel in the early summer.

  • Later in the season, the goats often move further up into the mountains.

  • BE CAREFUL around any wild animals. Experts recommend keeping at least a 25 yard (30 meter) distance between yourself and the goats. They seem docile most of the time, but you can never predict their movements.


· Bighorn Sheep
  • Bighorn sheep are sometimes hard to find.

  • They tend to stay higher up, often near the Highline or Grinnell Glacier Trails.

  • They can also be spotted on the slopes of Mount Altyn behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.


· Black and Grizzly Bears
  • Bears have been sighted all over Glacier starting in May.

  • BE CAREFUL AROUND BEARS!! Keep at least 100 yards (90 meters) between yourself and a bear.

  • If you go hiking in or around the park, TAKE BEAR SPRAY with you and travel in groups of 3 or more. The more noise you make, the more nearby bears can hear you and will move away. You never want to accidentally surprise a bear!

  • The best area to see bears is definitely in the Many Glacier Valley. Grizzlies are more prominent, but plenty of black bears can be spotted as well.


· Moose
  • Moose are one of the more commonly sighted animals in the park.

  • The absolute best place to see a moose is Fishercap Lake, located along the Red Rock Falls Trail near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.

  • Experts recommend keeping at least a 25 yard (30 meter) distance between yourself and a moose.





 


6. What Should You Do If You Don't Want to Hike and/or the Weather is Bad?


While the main attractions in Glacier involve at least a bit of hiking, there are still options if you want to focus on indoor activities.



The West Side:

There are more amenities on the west side of the park, so you have a few more options over here.

  • Check out the Lake McDonald Lodge lobby where you’ll find a traditional hunting lodge atmosphere.

  • There’s also a reading room just on the other side of the creek across the bridge.

  • Visit Bad Rock Books in Columbia Falls, with a stop at the Montana Coffee Traders for a nice brunch.

  • Bad Rock Books is only open certain days, so be sure to check online for their hours first. Be aware that cats roam the bookstore, so if you’re allergic, you may want to skip this one.

  • Roam the streets in downtown Whitefish.

  • You can explore the covered sidewalks on Central Ave or visit the historic Railway District for more locally owned shops.


The East Side:

The east side of the park is much more remote than the west side, so there are fewer indoor options.

  • Visit the Museum of the Plains Indians in Browning.

  • This museum is small, but packed with unique information about Native American (mostly Blackfeet) history and tradition. Be sure to ask questions if the docent isn’t busy!!

  • Grab a coffee and sit in the lobby or Interlaken Lounge of the Many Glacier Hotel.

  • This hotel is over 100 years old, with the interior focusing on a combination of Swiss and Japanese elements. It’s a strange combination that really works!

  • Grab something to drink and sit looking out the windows at the magnificent view that is one of the best in the park.


Waterton Lakes:

If you happen to be further north on the Canadian side, there is Waterton town that offers more amenities.

  • Have High Tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel. This is a personal favorite activity, with great views and fantastic finger foods.

  • Explore Downtown Waterton.

  • There are a lot of small shops and places to eat along the main drag.

  • I would recommend parking near the public restrooms and walking a short distance from there.







 



7. What Are the Best Hikes?


Glacier is a Hiker’s Paradise, with hundreds of miles of trails. While I’m not the greatest hiker in the world, I definitely spent a lot of my time here trying out the different trails.



The West Side:

The hikes on this side are a little easier (for the most part) and have terrain more similar to that of the Pacific Northwest.


Avalanche Lake/Trail of the Cedars

  • This is a hugely popular hike, and for good reason. I first tried this hike in early June, but I could only go so far due to the snow pack.

  • You can easily combine this hike with the ADA friendly Trail of the Cedars, that has signposts of information all along the way.

  • Up the hill from Trail of the Cedars is Avalanche Creek, with beautiful blue water cascading down the redish rocks. From there, you hike mostly uphill until you get to Avalanche Lake.

  • I finally did the full hike in early August, and it was really worth it. The waterfalls all along the cliff edges around the lake were pouring down, and the water in the lake was warm enough to swim in.

  • Overall, it’s an easier hike that I saw people of all ages enjoy. Just be aware that parking is tough! Go either earlier in the morning or wait until later in the afternoon.


Apgar Lookout

  • I did this hike in early June when it was still covered with feet of snow. While this made for a difficult hike, the views at the end and lack of people made it well worth it!

  • This is a longer hike that basically goes up the side of a mountain one way, and back down the other.

  • If you go early in the season, be sure to have good hiking shoes and trekking poles. It would have been impossible without them.

  • There is a webcam at the top, so be sure to let your friends and family know to check it out when you’re up there.



The East Side:

The east side of the park has so many hiking options that it’s difficult to narrow them down. It really just depends on what you want to see and your skill level.



Grinnell Glacier

  • This is by far the most popular hike in the area.

  • Be aware, that THIS IS NOT AN EASY HIKE.

  • The mileage of the trail (if you actually go all the way to the glacier) is closer to 14 miles roundtrip.

  • The hike is almost entirely uphill, with the last quarter mile being kind of brutal.

  • It’s absolutely stunning, especially when wildflowers are blooming.

  • Bighorn sheep often frequent the area.



Iceberg Lake

  • This is a personal favorite.

  • It’s a bit over 10 miles roundtrip, with it going uphill to the lake and back down.

  • It’s not a very difficult hike, and I saw people of varying ages all along it.

  • July is the best time, with a huge variety of wildflowers lining the trail along the way.

  • Be aware that this trail is often closed for bears frequenting the area. If there’s a sign blocking the trail, DO NOT GO.


Cracker Lake







 


Overall, Glacier National Park is a magical place that should be treasured and protected as we continue to visit it. As John Muir once said about Glacier:


"Give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening it, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal."


And I couldn't agree more.






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