A trip to Glacier National Park is an adventure that you will treasure the rest of your life. Located along the Canadian border in western Montana, Glacier NP was established in 1910 and became the 8th National Park. Given the nickname, Crown of the Continent, it was a popular destination on The Great Northern Railway which was developed, in part, to expose the ‘Eastern Folk ‘ to the Great American West and Glacier National Park was one of the highlights along the cross-country journey. The marketing campaign “See America First” was created, in part, to get railroad travelers to head west and visit Glacier.
Glacier Park Lodge was built by the railroad for easy access to the area and was the main place to stay when it first opened. Since those early days the Park’s offerings have grown and now include over 700 miles of hiking trails, historic lodges, abundant wildlife, and pristine waterways, and several fantastic National Park Lodges.
You’ll need time to really explore this National Park so plan on carving some out in your schedule to make this a multi-day trip.. Here are 5 Areas to Discover to Enhance Your Glacier National Park Experience…
The St Mary Area
Glacier National Park is remote and you will not find a vast selection of places to stay or dine, with that said, there are fantastic gems to be found here. St. Mary lies on the eastern side of the park and is the terminus of one side of the Going-to-the-Sun road, a drive that cuts through to the western side of the park. Just a stones throw away from the beautiful St. Mary Lake and the Going-to-the-Sun Road which will take you up to the Logan Pass.
In order to get to know Glacier, you’ll need to get up and get out. A great way to do this is to select one of the many hiking trails in the area. Our favorite is the Hidden Lake trail. Hidden Lake is in a beautiful alpine setting that will transport you to another world. The colors are magnificent, the air is clean and fresh, and the terrain is rugged yet peaceful.
The trailhead for this short 1.5 mile hike (about 450 feet in elevation gain) is located at Logan Pass, the highest point in Glacier NP reachable by automobile. Stop in the Visitor Center here to learn about the area, there are a number of fantastic hikes that begin at or near here – all worth consideration. If you only have time for one though, the Hidden Lake trail is the one for you.
You have the opportunity to really get a feel for Glacier here. A good stretch of the hike is on a wooden boardwalk which makes it great for people of all ages. You will literally not know where to look next as this area is a cornucopia of sights.
If you hit it right during the summer months the wildflowers are spectacular. The bright purples, yellow, & pinks of the flowers against the vivid greens of the grasses, the deep blues of the lake & sky and the browns & reds in the soil & mountains makes this a rainbow riot of color.
You’ll see patches of snow as you walk along as well, a reminder that you are indeed in a Park named Glacier. Speaking of glaciers, you will also get the chance to get a peek of a section of Sperry Glacier. Due to our changing climate conditions the glaciers in the area are melting at a higher rate over the past decade and many will be mere memories in the not so distant future.
If you are lucky a pack of mountain goats may join you on your trek. We saw many but a couple of them joined us as we hiked. Not sure why, but we affectionately started calling them Steve. And to this day, any and all four-legged friends in the wild are called Steve. Just thought I’d give you a heads up on that so you will know how to introduce yourself should you run into any. Beside goats, you may also encounter marmots and big horn sheep. Grizzly bears are indigenous to Glacier, so you should always be bear aware.
The lake itself is stunning. You can stop at the overlook and take in the sights or you can continue down and dip your feet into the freezing water. There is a pretty good grade to this portion of the hike and the path becomes pretty narrow, but you will lose a majority of the crowd if you take this extra leg and it is great to get right down into the valley and next to the lake.
If you have more time and are looking for something a bit more strenuous head to the opposite side of the road across from the Logan Pass Visitor Center where you’ll find the Highline trail which follows the Continental Divide along a 12 mile route where you’ll experience unbelievable views along the edge of the Garden Wall and beyond. There are several trails that branch off from this path that lead deeper into the park where you’ll pass one of Glacier’s backcountry chalets. Our time was short this day so we hiked a mile or so from the trailhead and then turned around and headed back. It is definitely on the list for our next visit!
The St. Mary Lodge is modest but very nice and offers up several different accommodation types, including a set of stand-alone buildings across the highway from the main lodge that are larger and perfect for groups that want a larger space and all of the comforts of home, including a full kitchen, dining room, and outdoor entertainment areas.
The true gem in this area is the Park Cafe and Grocery. This is a road trippers dreams and is reminiscent of road trips from the past. A fantastic store, gift shop and gas station coupled with one of the best roadside cafes that you’ll find. Good food and dessert in a warm and energetic atmosphere. We loved this place and were repeat visitors during our stay at the Park.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road
The 50 mile long Going-to-the-Sun road was dedicated in 1933 and shares its name with the nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. It was an incredible feat of engineering when built and remains a testament to the human spirit to this day. The road was literally built in and around the landscape and offers up spectacular views of the park from Lake McDonald up through Logan Pass and down into the St. Mary area. It is the only east-west crossing and it’s important to point out that it does close in the winter due to snow. It will typically open in late June or early July and closes sometime in October most years – unless the weather turns snowy earlier. Plowing the road gets a lot of attention in Glacier as it is indeed a challenge. If you are planning a trip during the fringes of the dates above, please check the park website for the latest road conditions,
Enough of the closure, let’s talk about the incredible experience ahead of you when you are taking that drive. Being the only east-west connection, and if you are lucky enough to enjoy Glacier for multiple days, you will more than likely spend quite a bit of time wandering this roadway. It is certainly a beautiful drive, no doubt about that, however, the road does lead to quite a few great places that you can get out of your car to enjoy the wonders of the area.
We’ve already talked about Logan Pass and some of the great things that await you but there are many roadside pull-outs and vista points that you don’t want to miss. Plan on no less than 2-3 hours to traverse the road, but allow more time if you plan on getting out of your car for a bit. Here is a portion of the map which was created by the National Park Service and can be found on their website. It gives you a great lay of the land and points out many of the sights along the road:
The Waterton Area
Waterton National Park is the sister park of Glacier National Park in Montana. In 1932 these two Parks were officially acknowledged as the world’s first International Peace Park. Today, they not only share a common border but also work together toward shared management of protecting the land and animals in the region.
The stately Prince of Wales Hotel stands tall on a hill above Waterton Lake and is the perfect place to stay in the area. They boast a variety of guest rooms, many with spectacular views of the lake and surrounding mountains. It is also the perfect setting for afternoon tea looking out the grand windows to the world beyond.
The little town of Waterton is quite quaint and is also the place to catch boats that travel the lake. Here you board boats that takes you to the Crypt Lake hike (see below) as well and to Goat Haunt which lies at the other end of the Lake in Glacier National Park, USA. This is a less traveled area of the Parks and the boat ride alone is half the fun.
If you’re looking for an unforgettable hiking experience then the trek up to Crypt Lake is for you. This hike is not one for those who have an aversion to heights or tight spaces because you will encounter extremely narrow paths, rock scrambles, sheer drop-offs, ladders & cables to maneuver. These obstacles sound daunting but they make this one of the most popular hikes on the continent. The beautiful Crypt Lake is a great payoff at the end, then you make your way back down the course. Definitely a hike where most of the thrill is simply getting there.
Nestled back into the mountains off of Route 89 on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake you’ll find the Many Glacier Hotel. This unique alpine lodge celebrated it’s 100th anniversary in 2015 and is located in the middle of some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. This Swiss Chalet style hotel offers up over 240 rooms of varying types and is comfortable, although not lavish. The views here are the draw and there are a number of hikes in the area that get you up and out into the glaciers. Across Swiftcurrent Lake stands the pyramid shaped Grinnel Point which dominates the area. If you are lucky enough to be here when the waters are calm you will have the opportunity to take the most incredible photographs of the Point and it’s reflection.
As mentioned, this is a great hiking area and there are many to chose from. The two most popular are the Iceberg Lake trail and the Grinnel Glacier trail. Both were on the list of to-dos on our visit, however, the Iceberg Lake trail was closed due to heavy grizzly bear activity in the area. Hey, I’m all for adventure but not one to ignore that one! So we set off on the hike to Grinnel Glacier. We left early that morning to get the most of our day. The trail head for this hike is close to the hotel. You have a couple choices to start off with; you can stay on land and hike the shores of both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine or you can jump into 2 shuttle boats that take you over to the trail head which will save you a little over 3 miles round trip. The trail itself comes in at about 7.5 miles round trip and with an an elevation gain of nearly 1850 feet you can put this one into the moderate to strenuous category. We were lucky enough to have stumbled upon a Ranger guided tour that morning when we got on the boat. This had always been intriguing to us, however, we had never jumped on the opportunity (typically because these guided tours take longer than we could hoof-it alone). We had time and decided that we give it a try. BEST DECISION EVER! Not only did Jenny (our extremely knowledgable Ranger) give us a great history of the land, the flora, and the fauna – she also acted as one hell of a pace car. We made good time, but because we stopped often to listen to her describe the area, there was never a point during the entire 7.5 miles that we ever felt tired. NOT ONCE.
Grinnel Glacier was named after George Bird Grinnell, an early American conservationist, explorer, and writer. He fell in love with the area and made it his life work to gain National Park Status to Glacier. Grinnel, along with T. Gilbert Pearson and John Muir, founded the the Audubon Society.
The hike takes you up through this dramatic landscape and at some points hugs the mountain side offering up an incredible experience and even more incredible vistas. A beacon, even from Lake Josephine is Salamander Glacier. It sits above Grinnel and draws you up the mountain. Grinnel glacier itself is every bit worth the trek. It is amazing to be so close and realize the power that glaciers have as they reshape the landscape that they travel through. Glaciers have a limited lifespan and have been melting at an increased speed for many years. Scientist now believe that most of the glaciers in the park will be gone within the next couple decades. Even when Grinnel first spent his time in the park in the 20’s he noted the slow melting process. There is still time, however, it is running out, so if seeing these up close and personal if on your bucket list then I’d suggest that you make your travel plans today!
Beyond incredible hikes you can also rent kayaks and canoes and take a peaceful trip around Swiftcurrent Lake – on the lake. We ended our stay here with an early morning kayaking expedition. It was great for the soul.
Lake McDonald Area
If you are entering Glacier NP from the west side, Lake MacDonald will be one of your first stopping places. This is the largest and deepest of the lakes in Glacier – over 10 miles long, a mile across at its widest point and nearly 475 feet deep.
The Lake MacDonald Lodge was built in 1913 and is another great National Park Lodge to enjoy during your stay at Glacier. The lodge has a number of small cabins located not far from the shoreline that are small but comfortable. The unique chandeliers that hang in the lobby have a distinctive Native American feel and the room is surrounded with hunting trophies. A large fireplace and plenty of seating is also available if you want to curl up with a good book for a bit.
You can book a ride on one of the fabled Red Buses of the Park for a chauffeur driven experience of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. By the mid-thirties the park attendance was up 70% over prior years so a solution to get the guests around was in need, The Red Bus, built by the White Motor Company came to the rescue and have become an iconic symbol ever since. The buses are unique with doors on both sides of each of the 4 rows, the vehicle’s frame is made from oak not steel, and they were built with a retractable roof to maximize sightseeing! There are several tours to select from and you can begin your journeys from both the western and eastern side of the Park.
As with every area of the Park, the Lake MacDonald region offers up all sorts of activities from hiking and exploring to boating and other water sports. This is also the western terminus of the Going-to-the-Sun Road and along the road you will find a variety of places to stop to get the feel for the Park as well as many trailheads that will lead you out into the back-country where the real beauty happens!
We recommend that you make a stop at the Trail of the Cedars which is about 5 1/2 miles east of Lake MacDonald. This is a popular 1 mile loop that takes you through a terrain that is more suited to the Pacific Coast. The Cedars and lush vegetation could certainly just as easily be found in Redwoods National Park. The highlight of the trail is Avalanche Creek and Avalanche Gorge where you can literally feel the coldness of the glacial waters running near you. This trail is handicap accessible and can get very busy during the summer months so get there early and enjoy it when it is a bit less crowded.
Your trip to Glacier National Park will be an incredible experience. It is a grand and spectacular place, home to many once in a lifetime adventures that will be forged into your memory for the rest of your life.
Be forever Wandering, and get out there and Find Your Park!