Glacier National Park: Guide for First Time Visitors
Of all the places we’ve been to in the world, Glacier National Park continues to top our list. It’s my (Sara’s) favorite place on earth (it's even better than Alaska in my opinion) and my husband Chris says it’s in his top 5 favorite places, too. It's a hop, skip, and a jump away from other iconic USA national parks including Grand Teton National Park and Yellow Stone National Park. If you've ever wanted to get away and take the great American road trip, Glacier must be on your itinerary! I'll try my best to describe and show you pictures of Glacier National Park to show you just how special a place this park is, but here's the truth: you have to experience it for yourself to get the real experience!
I know, I know-- that’s a terrible way to start telling you what to expect in Glacier National Park. This blogpost will answer a lot of questions you may have when planning your own adventure into the great wilderness known as Glacier. However, if you have more questions past what we’ve answered here, be sure to drop us a comment below and we’ll answer that for you ASAP. :)
Alright, let’s get going!
Want to see what Glacier is like? Checkout our vlog from Glacier National Park!
Looking for something specific? Jump to a section using the links below!
How big is Glacier National Park? 1 million acres / 1,583 square miles
Numbers of visitors annually: 3.3 millions visitors per year
Cities near Glacier: Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Kalispell
Peak season: July and August
Where is Glacier National Park?
Glacier National Park is nestled in the rugged wilderness of the U.S. state of Montana. It's situated along the Canadian border, sandwiched between the Great Plains to the east and the towering mountains of the Rockies to the west. This expansive park, named after its beautifully sculpted glacial landscapes, offers an unparalleled adventure that's just a road-trip or a flight away, depending on your location.
How far is Yellowstone National Park to Glacier? 391 miles | ~6 hr 29 min | Google Maps
How far is Grand Teton / Jackson Hole to Glacier? 523 miles | ~8 hr 22 min | Google Maps
How far is Badlands National Park to Glacier? 792 miles | ~12 hr 18 min | Google Maps
How to get to Glacier
Getting to Glacier National Park can be an adventure in itself, but it's well worth the effort. Part of what makes Montana so spectacular is its vast remoteness. If Montana were easy to get to everyone would go and it would be a bit of a mystery still! You have three main options for getting to Glacier: flying, driving, and train (Amtrak). No matter how you're planning on getting there, Glacier is worth the bit of extra effort it takes to get there.
Where to fly into Glacier
If you’re planning on flying to Glacier National Park you’ll need to book a flight into Kalispell into Glacier Park International Airport (FCA). While this is a relatively small airport, it does host multiple major airlines including Alaska Airlines, Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and United Airlines.
Glacier National Park is a ~30 minute (24 mile) drive from the airport so you’ll want to be sure to rent a car. Avis, Budget, Hertz, National/Alamo all operate rental stations inside the airport while Dollar, Enterprise, and Thrift offer rentals closely nearby off airport property. Shuttles, taxis, and ride shares including Uber and Lyft are available as well. However, given the fact that Glacier (and Montana in general) requires a good bit of driving, we recommend renting a car.
Driving to Glacier
If driving your own car or RV is an option for you, this is likely the most economic way to visit Glacier National Park (and you get to enjoy incredible views on the way to Glacier no matter which direction you’re coming from). Glacier is located toward the northwest corner of Montana and is situated right along the USA-Canada border.
Having a car while visiting Glacier will give you the freedom to explore surrounding areas as well as driving the Going to the Sun Road.
Alternatively, you can take the Amtrak train to Glacier National Park for a unique and scenic experience. Amtrak's Empire Builder route, which travels between Chicago and Seattle, stops at two stations near the park: West Glacier (Belton) and East Glacier. West Glacier is a seasonal stop available from April to October, while East Glacier is available only from October to April. Both stations are within a short distance to entrances of the park. Remember to check the train schedules and plan your trip accordingly, as the trains only stop once per day in each direction. This is not only an environmentally friendly option but also a chance to start your adventure with breathtaking views of the American landscapes.
When to visit Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park offers a unique charm in every season, but the best time to visit primarily depends on the activities you plan to indulge in. If hiking is your priority, the best time is summer, specifically July and August. During these months, the weather is typically warm and all the park's trails, including the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road, are generally snow-free and accessible. This time of year is also when the park's flora bursts into a riot of color, turning the landscape into a painter's palette of wildflowers. Be aware, though, that this is the peak tourist season, so expect larger crowds and consider booking your accommodation well in advance.
For those seeking a quieter, more tranquil experience, consider visiting in late spring (May and early June) or early fall (September and October). While some high-altitude trails may still be snowbound in spring, lower elevation hikes are usually accessible, and you'll get to see the park's wildlife awakening from its winter slumber. Come fall, the crowds thin out and the park presents a spectacular display of autumnal hues. The weather during these shoulder months can be a bit unpredictable, so pack layers and be prepared for a variety of conditions.
Winter in Glacier, from November to April, offers a completely different Glacier National Park experience. Although many facilities and roads, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road, close during this time due to snow, the park transforms into a winter wonderland, perfect for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and wildlife spotting. Visiting in winter requires more planning and preparation due to the challenging weather conditions, but the serenity and stark beauty of the snow-laden landscape provide a reward worth the effort. Regardless of when you visit, Glacier National Park promises an unforgettable adventure.
What to Pack for Glacier National Park
Like I mentioned above, you need to go to Glacier prepared. You may encounter all sorts of weather conditions from snow to 90 degree days, not to mention wildlife. Here is our list of essentials to bring to Montana no matter the time of year you will be visiting.
Binoculars – We purchased these binoculars right before we visited Alaska and have loved taking them with us to all the national park since. If you haven’t already, invest in binoculars!
America the Beautiful Pass (National parks pass) – Every year we purchase the America the Beautiful Pass because it ends up saving us so much money. The pass is $79.99 for unlimited access to any public lands managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. Denali alone costs $15 per person. If you have any intention of visiting any of the other national parks in the lower 48, get this pass!
Bug spray – This is a MUST. Trust me, the mosquitos can be terrible, especially during the first half of the summer. You’ll need a good bug spray just about every time you step outside.
Bear Spray – Glacier National Park is bear country so go prepared. Trust me, if you’re going to be stopping off on any sort of trail along the way, you’re going to need bear spray and bear spray holster.Lots of layers – The best way to travel (especially to places like Glacier where you’ll encounter all sorts of weather) is by wearing layers. This way you can easily add or subtract clothing as the temperature rises or falls. Here are a few of our favorite clothings items we recommend for Glacier:
Synthetic down jacket that packs small
Warm socks good for hiking
Cost of admission to Glacier National Park
Admission to Glacier National Park isn’t free except on 5 select days every year: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (January), First Day of National Park Week (April), National Park Service Birthday (August), National Public Lands Day (September), and Veterans Day (November).
Cost varies depending on type of transportation, season, etc. Below is a current breakdown of admission cost. For the most up to date cost breakdown visit the official NPS fees & passes page.
Per Car - $35 peak season / $25 November 1-April 30
Single Entry - $20 peak season / $15 November 1-April 30
Motorcycle - $30 peak season / $20 November 1-April 30
MONEY SAVER:Purchase the America the Beautiful Pass! If you plan to visit any other national parks in America this year such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, etc. you’ll want to buy this pass. The pass is $79.99 for unlimited access to any public lands managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. If you are a veteran or senior then annual pass is deeply discounted from the $79.99 rate for you.
Where to stay in or near Glacier National Park
Choosing the right place to stay is a crucial part of any visit to Glacier National Park. Whether inside the park or in nearby towns, there is an accommodation option to suit every traveler's needs and budgets. Inside the park, you can opt for iconic lodges that offer incredible views and easy access to trails. Campgrounds are also available for those who prefer an authentic wilderness experience. Alternatively, nearby towns like Whitefish and Columbia Falls offer a range of hotels, motels, and vacation rentals. They also provide easy access to local attractions, dining, and shopping, giving visitors a chance to experience Montana's charm beyond the park boundaries. Always remember to book your accommodation well in advance, particularly if you plan to visit during the peak summer season.
Campgrounds inside the park
Most camp spots in Glacier National Park are secured on a first come first serve basis. There are four campgrounds in the park that do allow reservations though: Fish Creek, St. Mary, some of Many Glacier, and half of the group sites in Apgar. All other campsites work on a first come first serve basis. While standing in line for a spot can be frustrating, it’s not impossible to snag one!
If you plan to snag a spot on first come first serve basis you can increase your chances of getting a spot by getting there early. Take your time and keep circling the campsites until you see someone leaving. We've always been able to snag a first come first serve spot when we've wanted to but that doesn't mean it's always been easy. It can take a while sometimes!
Lodges inside the park
Hotel type accommodations are also available inside park Glacier National Park. For the western side of the park we’d recommend Lake McDonald Lodge or Village Inn at Apgar. On the eastern side of the park we’d recommend Many Glacier Hotel (which might have some of the best views in the park!). The lodges on site at Glacier will definitely cost significantly more than camping or even staying at a different hotel or rental property in Whitefish. However, if you’re looking to wake up with Glacier right in your backyard, the extra price might be worth it to you.
Hotels in Columbia Falls, Whitefish, and Kalispell
Staying outside Glacier National Park in one of the nearby towns is convenient for dining, shopping, and other amenities. Each town has a very different feel and vary in distance from the park entrance.
Columbia Falls, Montana to West Glacier Entrance: 17 miles | ~21 minutes | Google Maps
Whitefish, Montana to West Glacier Entrance: 26 miles | ~33 minutes | Google Maps
Kalispell, Montana to West Glacier Entrance: 33 miles | ~43 minutes | Google Maps
Best hotels in Columbia Falls, Montana
Columbia Falls, a charming town near Glacier National Park, offers an array of delightful accommodation options. The Cedar Creek Lodge and Conference Center is a standout choice with its modern amenities and close proximity to the park. For those seeking a boutique experience, Moss Mountain Inn is an ideal choice; it's an eco-friendly bed and breakfast providing cozy rooms with a personal touch.
Best hotels in Whitefish, Montana
Whitefish, Montana, offers a delightful selection of hotels for every traveler's need and budget. The Lodge at Whitefish Lake stands out as a premier choice, combining rustic charm with modern luxury and offering picturesque views of the Whitefish Lake. For those who desire a boutique hotel experience, The Firebrand Hotel provides contemporary, upscale accommodations right in the heart of downtown. Those looking for a budget-friendly yet comfortable stay might consider the Grouse Mountain Lodge, known for its warm, welcoming atmosphere and proximity to the outdoor adventures of Glacier National Park. Lastly, the Best Western Rocky Mountain Lodge offers spacious rooms and an array of amenities at an affordable price point, making it an excellent choice for families.
Best hotels in Kalispell, Montana
Kalispell, Montana offers hotels for various budgets and preferences. The SpringHill Suites by Marriott Kalispell is a solid choice for its comfortable rooms, and close proximity to both the city center and Glacier National Park. For those seeking a boutique-style experience, The Kalispell Grand Hotel offers a historic charm coupled with modern comforts right in the heart of downtown. The Homewood Suites by Hilton Kalispell is another excellent option, especially for longer stays, as it offers spacious rooms with kitchenettes.
State park campgrounds
If you’re unable to snag a spot inside the park, consider booking a reservation at one of the state or county parks in the surrounding areas. Montana's state parks are basic but if camping is your preference the this is a good option if you prefer to have toilets and showers when camping.
Whitefish Lake State Park
Open May 1-September 30
The Whitefish Lake State Park Campground is located right on the lake with direct access from the campground. It is also conveniently located ~2.5 miles from downtown Whitefish. The only downside to staying here is that there is a train track that runs right next to the campground. Honestly, it did wake us up when we were staying there, but there was no other availability around Glacier when we were there so we made it work and we still had a really great visit! Just maybe bring some earplugs.
Whitefish Lake State Park to West Glacier Entrance: 29 miles | 41 minutes | Google Maps
Wayfarers State Park Campground
While we’ve never stayed at this campground but we have spent some time enjoying Flathead Lake and it is a gem! The campground looks beautiful from the pictures and it has a five star review on AllStays.
Wayfarers State Park to West Glacier Entrance: 40 miles | 45 minutes | Google Maps
Free camping in Flathead National Forest
For those seeking a more off-the-beaten-path experience, camping in the National Forests surrounding Glacier National Park provides an incredible opportunity to immerse oneself in Montana's wilderness. Many areas within the Flathead National Forest, which borders the park to the west and south, allow dispersed camping for free. This means you can set up your camp wherever you'd like, provided you follow Leave No Trace principles and regulations set by the Forest Service, such as camping at least 100 feet from lakes and streams and 150 feet from roads or trails. These sites do not offer amenities like restrooms or potable water, so come prepared to be self-sufficient. The breathtaking solitude and scenery of the National Forests make it an unforgettable option for the adventurous traveler.
What to see and do in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is an adventurer's paradise, boasting of stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife, and an array of exhilarating activities for every kind of traveler. The park is home to over a million acres of verdant forests, rugged mountains, pristine lakes, and impressive glaciers that leave visitors in awe. From the sweeping panoramas of Going-to-the-Sun Road to the tranquility of Lake McDonald, there's a unique experience waiting for you at every turn.
First-time visitors to Glacier National Park can indulge in a variety of activities. For the avid outdoor enthusiasts, there are over 700 miles of trails for hiking with varying levels of difficulty, from the easy Trail of the Cedars to the challenging Grinnell Glacier. You can also explore the park's stunning terrain on horseback or embark on a guided rafting adventure on the Flathead River. If you're an animal lover, be prepared to encounter the park's diverse wildlife such as mountain goats, black bears, and the occasional grizzly. For those seeking a more relaxed experience, scenic boat tours on the park's beautiful lakes or a leisurely stroll around the Logan Pass Visitor Center are excellent options. No matter your preference, Glacier National Park promises an unforgettable experience.
Drive the Going to the Sun Road
The Going to the Sun Road is a must for anyone visiting Glacier National Park. The road runs along lakes and rivers before twisting and turning over the Continental Divide. This drive offers breathtaking views the entire route, just be sure to keep your eyes on the road! At the summit, Logan Pass, you’ll find a visitor center as well as several different trail heads heading in various different directions.
VERY IMPORTANT: If your vehicle is longer than 21 ft, taller than 10 ft, or wider than 8 ft, you cannot drive the Going to the Sun Road!
If you’re driving a vehicle that does not meet the requirements for driving the road, don’t worry! You can still experience the road by one of four ways:
1. Bike the road (keep reading below for more details)
4. Rent a car and drive the pass (see rental car details above in the transportation airport section)
NOTE: During the summer the Logan Pass parking lot will be full by early morning. We’ve actually witnessed people intentionally rear ending each other in the parking lot fighting for parking spaces (with the whole family loaded up in the car, of course). It’s not worth it people, keep moving. If waking up early isn't your thing and you really want to check out the Logan Pass area, try taking the shuttle or a guided tour to the top.
Keep in mind that the Going to the Sun Road is not a loop. Once you drive to the east side of the park via the road you have three options 1) drive the opposite way back down the road again, 2) take highway 2 around the south of the park, or 3) stay overnight on the east side of the park. Personally we'd recommend staying at least one night on the east side of the park, but do know that there are far fewer campsites and hotels on that side of Glacier. If you intend to stay the night over there, book your reservation way in advance! Highway 2 is far less scenic that the Going to the Sun Road, so if you do decide to complete the entire road in one day, we'd recommend going the same way back that you came.
How much time should I allow for the Going to the Sun Road?
Adequate time allotment for traversing the Going-to-the-Sun Road is crucial to fully appreciate the scenic beauty and numerous points of interest along this iconic route. The length of the road itself, from the West Glacier entrance to St. Mary, is approximately 50 miles, or 80 kilometers. Without stopping, you can expect the drive to take around two hours. However, this does not account for any time spent exploring the various viewpoints, hiking trails, and visitor centers along the way.
When planning your excursion, it's advisable to set aside a full day for the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This allows time for frequent stops to absorb the breathtaking vistas, capture memorable photographs, embark on a few short hikes, and perhaps spot some wildlife. Keep in mind that during peak season, from late June to early September, traffic can be heavy and parking areas may fill quickly, particularly at popular spots like Logan Pass. Therefore, starting your journey early in the morning can help you avoid the largest crowds and secure parking throughout the day. Remember, your adventure through Glacier National Park is not a race, but a journey to be savored!
Hiking in Glacier
Hiking is definitely the most popular activity in Glacier National Park. Whether you’re hoping to take a quick walk along Lake McDonald, or you’re planning to go off into the backcountry for a week or two, Glacier National Park has something for you. There are dozens of trails to choose from depending on what most interests you. Before hitting the trail you should carefully consider your hiking ability and be realistic about what you can safely complete.
If you want an expert’s advice, talk to a park ranger at one of the visitor centers. Tell them how long you have in the park and what your level of fitness is and they can suggest lots of great hiking options (this is often how we find our hikes, too). If you want a lesser known trail, tell them that! They can help you find one.
NOTE: If you’re planning on backcountry camping in Glacier, you’ll need a permit so make sure you secure that before setting off on the trail.
Fishing in the park
While Glacier National Park does allow fishing, it’s not allowed in every body of water throughout the park. There are strict rules in place regarding where you can and can’t catch, consumption limits, as well as other restrictions such as boat permits. For more information regarding fishing rules, regulations, and permits, visit the official website fishing page. If you do enjoy fishing, you won’t be disappointed by Glacier's crystal clear waters and stunning mountain views.
Wildlife watching in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is a wildlife enthusiast's dream, home to a diverse array of animals in their natural habitat. For those looking to catch a glimpse of Glacier's notable wildlife, early morning or dusk are the best times. The park is teeming with smaller creatures like chipmunks and squirrels, but it's the larger wildlife such as mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, and bears that truly captivate visitors. Always remember, however, to maintain a safe distance from all wildlife for your safety and theirs, as these are wild animals.
In terms of specific locations, the Highline Trail, which runs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, is a popular spot for goat and sheep sightings. For a chance to see moose, head to the Fisher Cap Lake near the Many Glacier Hotel. The open meadows around Logan Pass Visitor Center are often frequented by grizzly bears, but remember bear safety – carry bear spray, make noise, and hike in groups. Lastly, the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail is a great location for bird watching. No matter where you are in Glacier National Park, the opportunity to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural environment is an experience unlike any other.
Whitewater rafting on the Flathead River
Rafting is a unique and thrilling way to experience Glacier National Park. From the freezing water to the breathtaking views of mountains along the way, a rafting trip is sure to get your adrenaline pumping. There are four commercial rafting guide companies that are permitted to operate in Glacier National Park. Each one works with well qualified and trained rafting guides to keep you safe and having fun during your exciting ride down the Flathead River as it winds around the park.
Cycling the Going to the Sun Road
One of the best ways to see Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road is by bike. Every year before the road is opened for the general public to drive the famous stretch of road, cyclists and hikers are welcomed to trek up as far as the road has been cleared of snow. As mentioned earlier, dates of clearing progress vary year to year depending on that winter’s snow fall. We recommend checking Glacier’s official road status page which is updated regularly.
If you’re unable to cycle to Going to the Sun Road during the small window in the spring, you still have the option to cycle during the peak season. However, the mountain pass section of the road isclosed to cyclists between 11:00am-4:00pm everyday. If you are a fit cyclist you can utilize the long summer days in Glacier and bike the road before they close it to cyclists at 11:00am. For more specific information and maps regarding openings and closures, visit the official Glacier National Park website page about cycling.
Kayak, Canoe, or Paddle board in Glacier
If you don’t own your own kayak, canoe, or paddle board you can rent one through Glacier Park Boat Company at Lake McDonald Lodge, Apgar, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier. Options and availability vary by location so be sure to check out their website. Reservations are accepted and strongly encouraged! Keep in mind that Glacier is one of the top 10 most popular national parks in the USA so whenever you're interested in doing something that accepts reservations, get the reservation!
Cross Country Skiing and Snowshoeing (winter only)
During the winter months, Glacier National Park transforms into a snowy haven ideal for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. These activities offer a serene way to navigate the park's winter wonderland and get up close with nature in a quieter setting. Be aware, though, that only select areas are open during winter, and weather conditions can be quite harsh, so it's crucial to come prepared. The park doesn't maintain groomed ski trails, so skiers should be prepared for a backcountry experience and equipped for self-rescue. Likewise, snowshoers can traverse most areas, given that they respect restricted regions and private properties. Always check for avalanche warnings before heading out and consider attending a ranger-led snowshoe walk to get started. With the right gear and precautions, a winter visit to Glacier National Park can be an unforgettable adventure. If you don’t own your own skis or snowshoes, you can rent a pair in Whitefish.
Are dogs allowed in Glacier National Park?
While we understand that many visitors to national parks love to travel with their furry friends, it’s important to note that Glacier National Park has restrictions on where pets are allowed. Dogs are permitted in developed areas, along front country campgrounds and picnic areas, in boats on lakes where motorized watercraft are allowed, and along roads that are open to vehicle traffic. However, pets are not permitted on trails, along the lakeshores, in the backcountry, or in any building. These rules are in place to protect both the park's wildlife and your pet. When in allowed areas, dogs must be on a leash no longer than six feet at all times.
There's a reason they call Glacier National Park the "Crown of the Continent." This place is full of enough adventure and beauty that it's impossible to see it in one trip. Every time we visit the park we're already planning our next trip back before we've even left the property. If you've visited Glacier before, we'd love to hear your suggestions: favorite hikes, favorite campings spots, like/dislikes and more in the comments below. On the opposite hand, if you have any questions while planning your own trip to Glacier, we'd love to help so leave your question in the comments, too. Happy trails, friends!
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We're Chris and Sara
A creative husband and wife duo from a small-town in Tennessee with passion for all things travel. Checkout the links below to join us on our past, present, and future adventures!