Glacier National Park: Guide for First Time Visitors
Planning a trip to Glacier National Park? Here's your complete guide of what to know before you go including where to stay, what to do, wildlife information, and more!
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!
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State: Montana Size: 1 million acres / 1,583 square miles Numbers of visitors annually: 3.3 millions visitors per year Nearby cities: Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Kalispell Peak season: July and August
When to visit Montana
Due to Glacier National Park’s location right along the Continental Divide, weather can be unpredictable all year long. It’s important to keep in mind that even though you might be visiting in July or August (the hottest months of the year) you may still encounter some chilly weather.
On top of unpredictable weather there is also the chance of forest fires in Glacier as conditions in and around Glacier get hotter and dryer later in the summer. While this rarely results in total park closure, it is important to keep in mind that there is the threat of wildfires causing hazy views and poor breathing conditions.
Peak tourist season in Glacier is July and August. The Going to the Sun Road is the only road that cuts west to east in the park across the Continental Divide. Once the road is cleared of snow for the year, the park is fully up and running for the season. Typically the road is cleared around the middle of June, but occasionally (like in June 2019) avalanches or other unexpected challenges may arise delaying the road’s opening.
Because of the unpredictable nature of the park, we recommend booking reservations for July or August. If you would like to try and avoid crowds and are hoping to catch some of the fall colors, consider visiting in early or mid September.
If you’re flexible regarding where you’re staying and what you see, visiting in the early summer/spring is a wonderful time to catch some of the most popular places in the park all to yourself. It’s also a great time to catch wildlife out and about before too many people flock to their home. Oh, and the wildflowers. The wildflowers in Glacier are incredible!
Life I said before, the weather in Glacier National Park is incredibly unpredictable and each year is different. For the most up to date information regarding openings and closures, visit the official park website HERE.
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. Sunscreen – I never leave home without my favorite sunscreen. 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
Getting to 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.
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.
Missoula, MT to Glacier = 2 hours, 34 minutes / 138 miles Calgary, Alberta to Glacier = 3 hours, 7 minutes / 180 miles *contains border crossing Spokane, WAto Glacier = 4 hours, 44 minutes / 272 miles Seattle, WAto Glacier = 9 hours, 10 minutes / 550 miles Salt Lake City, UTto Glacier = 10 hours, 6 minutes / 646 miles
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 fees & passes page HERE.
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.
Where to stay in or near Glacier National Park
Campgrounds inside the park
Most camp spots in Glacier 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!
For the most up to date status of each campground you can visit the official status page HERE. This page run by the National Park Service even tells you what time the day before each campground filled up, giving you the best idea of what time you should be in line if you’re hoping to snag a first come first serve spot.
Lodges inside the park
Hotel type accommodations are also available inside 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 National Park right in your backyard, the extra price might be worth it to you!
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.
Whitefish Lake State Park
Distance from park: 29 miles or 30 minutes // Open May 1-September 30 The 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. :)
Wayfarers State Park Campground
Distance from park: 40 miles or 47 minutes // Open May 1-September 30 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.
If you are planning on staying in a tent or RV and are fully self contained, consider camping on some of the free national forest land surrounding the park. It’s hard to beat free and these open spaces are absolutely gorgeous and more remote than the developed campgrounds.
What to See & Do in Glacier National Park
First off let’s start by saying there are two ways you can experience Glacier: with a professional on a guided experience or on your own. If you’re like us, you might be limited by a budget and choose the cheaper (er, free) options to save money and still experience the magnitude of the park.
If your main motivation for taking a guided expedition is due to lack of confidence in the event of a wildlife encounter, stop by the visitor center to speak with a ranger about proper behavior if you do encounter a bear, wolf, etc. Rangers also lead free guided hikes throughout the peak months as well as give talks about wildlife safety. I highly encourage first time guests at Glacier National Park take advantage of the ranger talks and demonstration. Most ranger led activities are free to the public and always entertaining and informative.
Drive the Going to the Sun Road
The Going to the Sun Road is a must for anyone visiting the park. 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) 2) take the shuttle (this is a point to point transit bus, not a guided tour), 3)take a guided tour 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 you really want to check out the Logan Pass area, try taking the shuttle or a guided tour to the top.
The road takes ~2 hours to drive each way so plan accordingly. Take your time, be gracious to slow drivers, and watch for hikers and cyclists on the road.
Hiking is probably the most popular activity in the 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!
I’m not even going to try to cover the best hikes in the park because that would be near impossible. I also believe that part of the fun of hiking is being surprised by what is down a random trail. 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 typically 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.
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 HERE.
If you do enjoy fishing, you won’t be disappointed by Glacier!
Rafting is a unique and thrilling way to experience the 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. More information about each can be found HERE.
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. 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 is closed 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 HERE.
Kayak, Canoe, or Paddle board
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!
Cross Country Skiing and Snowshoeing (winter only)
Glacier is open all year and few people venture all the way north to the park in the dead of winter, offering a unique (and quiet) experience in one of the most beautiful places in America. If you don’t own your own skis or snowshoes, you can rent a pair in Whitefish.
NOTE: Be aware of avalanche danger in Glacier! It’s a very real risk that can be deadly.
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 visit 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!