Glacier National Park defines wild. Grizzly bears prowl its rugged mountains. Wolves howl in its forests. But its wildness goes beyond its untamed animals. Its landscape is wild, too, full of massive earth upthrusts and the results of glacial ice gouging.
This sheer vertical landscape wows first timers. Peaks top 10,000 feet, then plunge into forests, meadows or lakes. At it’s apex, the Continental Divide forms its backbone, splitting waters going to the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. These landscape attributes gave Glacier the nickname “Crown of the Continent.”
From border to border, the national park is packed with diversity. In the alpine tundra, shrinking glaciers cling for survival. Across cliffs, cold-loving mountain goats and wolverines scramble. In forested valleys, giant lakes harbor the last vestiges of wild westslope cutthroat trout. This broad diversity gave Glacier recognition as a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.
The park’s one million acres is mostly wilderness. For traveling on foot in this hiker’s paradise, Glacier has more than 700 miles of trails. Scads of visitors stream up the short trail to Avalanche Lake. To find more breathing room, opt for longer trails to high vistas, such as Red Gap Pass.
To drive through this wilderness, only two roads cross the Continental Divide. The seasonal Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs over Logan Pass. An alternate year-round route hugs the park’s southern boundary crossing via the lower Marias Pass.
This is a 24-hour park. During daylight, sunlight bounces off its clear blue waters and lights up its peaks. But night time is different. Glacier’s dark sky fills with a myriad of stars and sometimes the Northern Lights. Due to little light pollution, Glacier and its sister park Waterton became the world’s first International Dark Skies Park in 2017.
For exploring Glacier National Park, activities and visitor services dot both sides of the Continental Divide. Surrounding the park are additional locales for touring.
On the park’s west side, tall peaks cradle Lake McDonald. It’s the largest lake in the national park and anchors the west portal of Going-to-the-Sun Road. It also houses Lake McDonald Lodge, a National Historic Landmark. Outside the park, neighboring West Glacier acts as the rafting and fishing capital with a cluster of guide companies.
To escape crowds, you can brave a primitive dirt road up the North Fork to the hamlet of Polebridge. From here, more rough dirt roads launch back inside Glacier to Bowman Lake or Kintla Lake. These remote lakes offer solitude for hiking, paddling, camping and fishing.
On the east side, Glacier National Park borders the Blackfeet Reservation. In fact, the federal government purchased east side lands from the Blackfeet to create the national park. That’s why Native American names flavor the region.
Some of the most popular hiking trails converge in Many Glacier where Many Glacier Hotel sits on Swiftcurrent Lake. From the deck of this National Historic Landmark, you can watch bears feeding on surrounding slopes.
In the park’s southeast corner, Two Medicine is rich in hiking trails and scenic campsites. Nearby, East Glacier adds visitor amenities.
Outside the park, Greater Glacier adds more places to explore. Waterton Lakes National Park connects to Glacier via Chief Mountain Highway. Together, the two parks are the world’s first International Peace Park. To the west, Flathead Valley provides year-round amenities and recreation.
Don’t forget to click on the yellow bar above for Glacier National Park details about when to go, what it costs,transportation, informative background reading, other valuable websites and maps, a photo montage, and short introductory travel videos.
Glacier National Park is open year-round, 24/7. But not all locations can be accessed by car year-round due to copious snow. For your season of travel, check what is open or closed, specifically Going-to-the-Sun Road. The park service updates the travel status of all roads in the park daily. Call 406-888-7800 or look on the park’s website for the current road status report.
Seasonal temperatures swing more than 100 degrees between summer highs and winter lows. For that reason, planning the season to visit needs to accommodate your interests, summer activities to snow sports. The bulk of visitors come to Glacier in July and August, and hikers who want to access high-elevation trails need to plan trips mid-July to mid-September.
Glacier’s one million acres contains a lifetime of adventures. Spending a day or two will produce a whirlwind trip that will leave you wanting more. While any amount of time in Glacier is worth it, Northwest Montana requires long distance travel from many locations. For that reason, most visitors opt for longer trips.
Most first-time visitors stay for 5-7 days. Plan to split time between the west and east side of Glacier to soak up the broad spectrum of ecosystems, rain forests to aspen parklands. First time visitors usually depart with plans to return.
Second- or third-time visitors, or those that tour the park for 10 days or more, have the luxury to explore more off-the-beaten path locations. They can target areas missed the first time, and explore alternate seasons.
Summer is high season in Glacier, especially July and August, when Going-to-the-Sun Road and all visitor services are open. Logan Pass parking lot fills before 9 am. Drivers circle like scavengers for parking stalls until 4:30 pm or so. High elevation trails are usually snow-free late July-August.
Shoulder seasons in spring (May-June) and fall (September to mid-October) offer quieter, less crowded times to travel. But inside park lodging and restaurants may be closed. Going-to-the-Sun Road may not open in spring until mid-June or later, and barring early snowfall, it closes for winter starting in mid-October.
Winter is low season when snow and quiet reign supreme in Glacier. Snow buries and closes most of the roads. Minimal visitor services are available inside and adjacent to the park. But Flathead Valley offers the year-round complement of hotels, restaurants and winter activities such as downhill skiing, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.
During shoulder seasons and winter, plan to stay in Whitefish, a year-round tourist destination in Flathead Valley. Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Bigfork also have lodging and dining.
Pacific and arctic weather collide in Glacier. The result is weather extremes. Weather changes fast with big winds, and snow descends all months of the year. Elevations add more diversity: while visitors may swim in sunny Lake McDonald, several thousand feet above at Logan Pass, hikers may bundle up against wintry sleet.
Winter clings to Glacier through spring. Warm days bounce in between rainstorms or frequent May snows. Rains usually claim most of June, but warmer, drier conditions prevail in July and August with highs of 75-90 degrees in the mountains. Fall months bring bug-free warm days and cool nights below freezing. Winter snow appears in late October. It accumulates throughout winter as temperatures yo-yo between sub-zero freezes and above zero melting.
Glacier National Park falls in Mountain Time Zone, same as Calgary, Alberta or Denver, Colorado. But Glacier’s northern latitude on the border with Canada and location on the western edge of the time zone yield long hours of daylight around the summer solstice. Daybreak launches around 4:45 am and dusk lingers until almost 11 pm. In winter, daylight shortens to 8 am-4:30 pm.
Due to erratic mountain weather, dress in moisture-wicking layers that can be adjusted when going up and down in elevation or during the day as temperatures get warmer or cooler. Always bring a rain jacket, hat and gloves, even when the sun bodes a blue sky day. Sun protection such as a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are imperative at altitude. Be ready for snowfall, even in August.
Most people wear hiking attire rather than western cowboy hats and boots around Glacier. Hiking boots and walking shoes are essential on Glacier’s rough trails. Bring a pack to carry gear for hiking and a water bottle to combat dehydration from altitude and a mountain climate.
Wear casual attire for all restaurants around Glacier. Cafes are full of booted hikers straight from the trail, and shorts with tees are common.
Traveling to Glacier National Park can be expensive, due to the seasonal nature of flights to the region. But once here, Glacier can accommodate those who want to stay in pricier lodges as well as budget travelers.
Do not expect to find high-end luxury resorts. No national luxury chains have hotels here. But many of the historic lodges in the park charge higher rates due to the upkeep of the seasonal hotels.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
All inside park lodges have ATMs as well as towns adjacent to Glacier.
Because Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada share a border, travelers often go back and forth between the two. Rather than exchange currency, especially for one-day trips, use credit cards to get the best exchange rate through the banks.
Use the standard 15%.
Bellhops: $3-5 per bag, depending on size.
Maids: $5-10 per day depending on room quality. Tip daily as staff changes.
Tip tour bus drivers for day tours and boat tour captains about 10%. Go higher if they are exceptional.
Tip guides at the end of your trip for day hiking, backpacking, rafting and fishing. For day trips, tip 15%. For overnight trips and fishing trips with big catches, up the tip to 20%. Tip your own boat, hiking or fishing guide, but when trips have multiple guides, you can tip the lead guide who will distribute the tips between the whole crew.
Park Entrance fees are charged year-round in Glacier National Park. Summer rates (May-Oct.) are highest while winter rates (Nov.-April) are discounted. Passes are valid for seven days.
Rates are charged per private vehicle or motorcycle. Individuals traveling on foot or by bicycle can get a reduced rate.
Free admission to Glacier happens annually on several days: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, National Park Week, National Park Service Birthday, Public Lands Day and Veteran’s Day.
For trips longer than seven days, purchase the Glacier National Park Annual Pass instead.
America the Beautiful National Park and Federal Recreation Lands passes provide admission to Glacier. These annual passes are available for anyone to purchase. Military personnel, seniors and visitors with permanent disabilities can purchase America the Beautiful passes at reduced rates or get them for free with appropriate ID and U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status.
For rates and additional details on park admission, check Glacier National Park’s fee page.
Be aware: Even though Waterton Lakes National Park is connected to Glacier National Park, no joint park entrance pass is sold. When visiting both parks, you’ll need to purchase passes for both.
Transportation is a tricky thing in Glacier National Park. Narrow, two-lane roads cram with drivers distracted by scenery, and no comprehensive public bus system covers the entire park. Add midsummer crowds filling up trailhead and Logan Pass parking lots by 9 am, and the result can produce frustration.
Most travelers use private vehicles to get around Glacier. If you plan to drive your own vehicle, be ready to contend with narrow mountain roads along curves and cliffs or bumpy dirt roads in the North Fork. Since RVs are restricted on the central portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road, RV travelers will need to take shuttles or tour buses to access Logan Pass. Shuttles run in summer on Going-to-the-Sun Road and on the east side, but they do not operate in fall, winter, or spring.
Bicyclists must be ready to ride roads with narrow to non-existent shoulders. Despite that, bicycling around Glacier, especially Going-to-the-Sun Road, sits high on lifetime destinations for cyclists. On the west side of Logan Pass, bike travel is prohibited mid-summer 11 am-4 pm along Lake McDonald and uphill traveling between Avalanche and Logan Pass.
Glacier National Park sits north of Interstate 90 by 3-4 hours, depending on the route chosen. From I-90, Interstate 15 heads up the east side of the Rocky Mountains to connect with U.S. Highway 2 in order to reach Glacier. West of Missoula, Montana, U.S. Highway 93 heads north along Flathead Lake and through Flathead Valley to connect with U.S. Highway 2 to reach Glacier.
U.S. Highway 2 borders the south boundary of the park. It also serves as an alternate access from the east or west.
From Calgary, Alberta, a 5-hour drive drops to the international border at Piegan-Carway before reaching Glacier.
Glacier International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell, Montana is the closest airport to Glacier National Park. It sits within 30-45 minutes from many west side destinations in Glacier, close enough to fly in and be in the park on the same day. The airport has car rentals, and Glacier Charters connects with lodges in Glacier by reservation.
Arriving at Great Falls International Airport (GTF) in Great Falls, Montana requires a 2.5-hour drive to reach the east side of Glacier. Rent a vehicle at the airport; no shuttles connect with Glacier.
Despite its location north of the border in Canada, many international travelers to Glacier fly in to Calgary International Airport (YYC) in Calgary, Alberta. From there, rent a car to drive about four hours to reach east side destinations in Glacier.
Some travelers prefer to fly into Spokane International Airport (GEG) in Spokane, Washington because flights are often less expensive than flying into Kalispell. But Spokane is five hours from Glacier’s west side.
Amtrak has several stops along the southern boundary of Glacier. From Chicago, Seattle or Portland, the Empire Builder stops at East Glacier (summer only), Essex, West Glacier and Whitefish. Reservations are highly recommended for summer travel. Make contingency arrival plans for the train running late, which happens about a third of the time.
On Glacier’s east side, Glacier Park, Inc. operates a reservation van service daily. It runs early June through late September to connect East Glacier, Two Medicine, Cut Bank Creek, St. Mary, Many Glacier, Chief Mountain Customs and Waterton. Pay cash when you board. Additional shuttles run July-Labor Day between Many Glacier and St. Mary to accommodate hikers on point-to-point hikes. The St. Mary stop connects with the free shuttle on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Tour boats in Many Glacier and Two Medicine serve as shuttles for hikers, June through early September. The boats chop off foot miles via round-trip rides or one-way (pay cash when you board) return trips.
For those who want to travel through Glacier in RVs, be aware that vehicles on Going-to-the-Sun Road between Avalanche and Sun Point are restricted to 21 feet long, 10 feet high and 8 feet wide. That includes trailers. Most RVers use shuttles or tour buses to go to Logan Pass.
Two companies guide tour buses daily in summer on Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass. Tours launch from several lodges and vary in length from four hours to full days. Historic red buses, operated by Glacier National Park Lodges (Xanterra), carry riders in 18-passenger touring sedans with canvas rollback tops. Native American guides drive big-windowed Sun Tours buses.
Inside Glacier National Park, two locations serve as transportation hubs. Perched on both ends of Going-to-the-Sun Road, Apgar anchors the west and St. Mary the east portal.
On the west side, Apgar Visitor Center has a large parking lot that includes slots for RVs and a shuttle stop to catch the free buses running up Going-to-the-Sun Road in summer to trailheads, Lake McDonald Lodge, Sprague Creek Campground, Avalanche Campground and Logan Pass.
On the east side, St. Mary Visitor Center serves as a transportation hub. You can park the car to catch the free summer shuttles heading up the east side of Going-to-the-Sun Road to trailheads, Rising Sun Campground and Logan Pass. For a fee, the shuttle operated by Glacier Park, Inc. stops at St. Mary on daily summer runs between East Glacier, Two Medicine, Many Glacier, Chief Mountain Customs and Waterton.
1. Get an early start. During midsummer, parking lots at popular trailheads and Logan Pass fill up before 9 am.
2. Pack a lunch for sightseeing, or buy a lunch to-go from restaurants. Restaurants are long distances apart, and Logan Pass sells no food or drinks.
3. Use second gear for descents. Extended downhill braking can burn out brakes.
4. Gas up before you enter the park. Find gas stations in West Glacier, East Glacier, St. Mary and Babb, but not inside the park.
5. Take water bottles. Running water is available at Logan Pass, but not at many trailheads or picnic areas. Lodges have water bottle refill stations.
Glacier National Park is open 24/7, year-round. Going-to-the-Sun Road is also open 24/7 from spring or summer opening to mid-October, weather permitting. With Logan Pass open 24/7, it offers one of the best places for night sky watching.
Glacier has three small visitor centers, located at Apgar, Logan Pass and St. Mary. They are places to get maps, Going-to-the-Sun Road conditions, fishing regulations, Junior Ranger programs and details for ranger-led hikes and programs. They also house small Glacier Conservancy stores, which carry books about the park.
Make reservations for historic park lodges one year in advance. Campers can reserve campsites online at three campgrounds six months in advance: Fish Creek, St. Mary and Many Glacier.
Backpacking in Glacier requires a permit for pre-assigned campsites with a nightly per person fee. Pick up permits 24 hours in advance from the Apgar Backcountry Office, St. Mary Visitor Center, Two Medicine Ranger Station, Polebridge Ranger Station or Park Headquarters (Nov.-April). Online reservations can be made for a portion of the backcountry campsites starting March 15 (fee charged).
Permits are required for boating and paddling. Get these when you reach the park and pass an Aquatic Invasive Species inspection. Inside the park, anglers do not need to have fishing permits, but should pick up fishing regulations from visitor centers.
Scan a map of Glacier National Park, and you’ll get a taste of its history. The names of the mountains, lakes and glaciers reveal a diverse history of Native Americans, early settlers, explorers and even a railroad company.
Many Native American tribes used Glacier for hunting grounds, vision quests and sacred community ceremonies. Glacier provided big game, fish, berries and bulbs for food. Animal hides became clothing. Young braves went on vision quests for a right of passage, sometimes to Chief Mountain or Running Eagle Falls. Even Two Medicine acquired its name from a meeting for two sun ceremonies. Many location names are thanks to the Blackfeet, Kootenai and Stoney tribes, among others.
In Many Glacier, the name of George Bird Grinnell shows up on many features. A glacier, lake and peak bear the name of this early explorer who was instrumental in negotiating the purchase of the eastern portion of the park from the Blackfeet. In addition to documenting much of what he called the Crown of the Continent in his magazine, Grinnell lobbied fervently for the creation of the nation’s 10th national park.
Great Northern Railway also petitioned for the creation of Glacier as a national park. After installing the railroad tracks around the southern boundary of Glacier in 1891, the company sought to increase ridership on their line running from St. Paul to Seattle. A national park provided the perfect attraction. In 1910, Glacier became a national park, but it lacked visitor facilities. To provide for visitors, the railroad company went on a building spree, constructing lodges and chalets throughout the park to accommodate travelers on horseback and later by car. While all but two of the chalets have been raised, visitors can stay today in several of the historic lodges.
When Glacier became a national park, one of the first tasks was to scout out a road through the center. Twenty years of engineering and construction finally resulted in the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road opening to vehicles in 1932. Its summit at Logan Pass celebrates the park’s first superintendent, William Logan.
Because Glacier National Park sits in Montana, many first-time visitors assume that cowboy culture pervades the park. After all, Montana houses huge ranches and many modern day cowboys (cowgirls, too) keep cowpoke traditions alive.
Glacier certainly has horseback riding and sitting around the campfire. A few small ranches even border the park. But Glacier’s small cowboy heritage gets overshadowed by its mountain heritage. Hikers, not horses, make up the bulk of the traffic on trails. Most people wear hiking attire rather than cowboy hats and boots. When sitting around the campfire, campers sip their favorite beverages rather than swilling down cowboy coffee. And what about those traditional cowboy songs? After making noise all day while hiking to alert grizzly bears to your presence, you may not feel like singing around the campfire.
Mountain culture dominates Glacier. It’s all about how to interact with the environment. Hiking through dramatic scenery. Climbing mountains. Watching wildlife. Paddling blue lakes. Diving in icy water. Casting a line for wild trout. Enjoying pink sunsets. Relishing exquisite wildflowers. Checking out the night sky. Focus on those, and you’ll fit right in with Glacier’s culture.
Nothing irritates locals more than tourists who get so agog that they block other people. With captivating scenery and wild animals, it’s hard to avoid. But try to employ a little etiquette. Here’s a few tips to keep you from pissing off the locals or other visitors.
When driving Going-to-the-Sun Road, use the pullouts. Do not stop in the road to take photos or shoot a video of mountain goats. Drive on to the nearest pullover to do those activities.
Avoid creating bear jams. Unfortunately, when cars cluster near a bear, that can lead to habituating the bruin, making him or her grow accustom to people. When ranger come across bear jams, they often will haze the bear out of the area to prevent habituation.
For all wildlife watching, use the pullouts. That’s why they are there. Pull completely off the road, so others can still drive past on the road. Do not pull off the road onto meadows. Fragile wildflowers get destroyed by cars.
Uphill hikers have the right of way. That means downhill hikers should step to the side to let uphill hikers continue. However, some uphill hikers may indicate that they want to stop to breathe while downhill hikers go by.
Trails such as Hidden Lake Overlook, The Highline, Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier crowd with hikers mid-day. Those stopping for photos should step to the side to let other pass. Try to find a rock or durable surface when stepping off rather than squashing plants.
Northwest Montana cuisine mixes mountain fare with local products. Put two things on your must-eat list for your Glacier trip. Bison and huckleberries. While Native Americans would mix them to create pemmican, you can dine on them separately.
Sadly, Glacier has no wild bison left roaming the lower elevations. But menus in restaurants include bison burgers from farm-raised animals. Try one. They are healthier than beef and taste yummy. Some restaurants even get more creative with bison meatloaf and game platters.
If you are hiking in late July through early September, look for huckleberries on low bushes. The purple berries look like small blueberries, but pack a sweeter punch. If you can’t get them in the wild, you’ll find them served in restaurants in pies, ice cream, pancakes and sauces for meats. All gift shops carry huckleberry jams, jellies, syrups and candies. Be sure to buy only those made in Montana, or stop in Coram at the Huckleberry Patch where they make their own. You can also buy fresh or frozen huckleberries at stands.
Trout is also part of the Montana cuisine. Be aware: it will not be wild trout from Glacier, but rather farmed trout. Often, the trout is rainbow, which is not a native of the region.
Go for local beers, which you’ll find on tap almost everywhere. Moose Drool, made in Missoula, Montana, gets distinction for its name, but the dark brew tastes good, too.
Northwest Montana still clings to meat-and-potato menus. While international cuisine is limited, several Flathead Valley restaurants serve up Italian, sushi, Cajun and a few other ethnic flavors. Many restaurants also offer vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and dairy free options.
Lomax, Becky, Moon Glacier National Park: Including Waterton Lakes National Park. Fifth edition, Avalon Travel Publishing, 2015, 352 pages.
Since travelers in Glacier confront minimal cell service and Internet, a printed guidebook can help. This may be the only book you’ll need. For pre-trip planning, it includes lodging and dining inside the park and outside the park in border towns, Whitefish and Flathead Valley. Each park section matches up lodging and dining with nearby activities.
For exploring Glacier, shows how and where to do the best activities. Each chapter contains descriptions of the best hiking trails for that location. Other activities include paddling, wildlife watching, horseback riding, fishing, rafting, bicycling and skiing. Driving tours, bus tours and boat tours are included. To orient yourself about Glacier’s bigger pictures, the background chapter covers history, geology, wildlife, melting glaciers and environmental concerns.
Other resource books related to Glacier National Park can be purchased in Glacier Conservancy bookstores located in visitor centers. The conservancy also sells books online.
Trails Illustrated maps, by National Geographic, come is several versions. Most travelers can get by with the Glacier-Waterton Lakes map. More detailed maps are available for Two Medicine, Many Glacier and North Fork.
Going-to-the-Sun Driving Guide combines a map of the historic road with interpretive information and sightseeing stops.
Day Hikes of Glacier National Park combines a map with details of popular trails.
All of these maps can be purchased in Glacier Conservancy bookstores in the park or ordered online for trip planning.