Top 13 Things To Do On Your First Visit To Glacier National Park Montana.
Updated: Jun 27
If you've opened this post it's because you've been looking into visiting Glacier National Park or have seen the gorgeous photos and are interested to know what the fuss is about. I'm here to tell you the hype is absolutely real! We were invited by Allegiant Airlines to visit Glacier National Park and it was one of our most memorable National Park visits thus far. The gorgeous pictures you see of Glacier National Park all over social media are real. It's not the magic of a professional photographer or just altered photography, the park is absolutely breathtaking in person. The water is clear, turquoise and absolutely one of the most beautiful I've seen within the US. There's so much to see and do and its absolutely doable to do with kids. The beauty of this park is you don't need to hike long strenuous hikes to see some of the parks most stunning views. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of hikes to choose from and if strenuous and long is what you are looking for there's definitely plenty of those as well.
In this post I'm going to cover everything you need to know before you visit Glacier National Park. I'm going to share Glacier National Park Photos, Glacier National Park best hikes, Glacier National Park reservations, Tips & More. So come along and let me share with you all the tips and tricks we learned during our 4 day visit, as well as all our recommendations.
First Things First
These are the key things you need to know and understand before entering the park. I'll focus on this first and then get to the real good stuff.
A park pass is your paid entrance fee to the park and applies to visitors traveling by vehicle, motorcycle, foot, bicycle, etc. A park pass is required to access any entry point within Glacier National Park. A private vehicle pass is good for 7 days and price is $35 Pass can be bought at the park at your time of entry or here
Now this is where I find there is some confusion, and I'm going to do my best to clarify this for anyone thinking of visiting. The Going-To-The-Sun road is a road that takes you through the park from the West side of the park entrance through the St Marys Entrance. The Going-To-The-Sun road gives you access to many of the parks beautiful hikes and landmarks and I highly recommend you visit while the road is open. The drive itself is absolutely stunning! Important to keep in mind is that the road is open weather permitting which is usually during the summer from July to early September but always check the official website for updates https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/gtsrticketedentry.htm
Ok so you've got your park pass and you see the Going-To-The-Sun road is open...you are not done yet. If you are visiting the park between May 27-September 11th you MUST also have a Going-To-The-Sun road entrance pass if visiting between the hours of 6am-4pm. You're thinking "I'll skip the road if I don't get one" If you are entering through the West or St Marys side during the days I mentioned above, that is not an option. You MUST have both a park pass and Going-To-The Sun road pass to even enter the park. Let me tell you how you can get one and tips to work around not being able to get one that came straight from a ranger and it 100% worked for us. I'll cover all the options down below.
If you have a valid reservation such as a lodging, camping, commercial tour (boat company, red bus tour reservation), Recreational Equipment Reservations (kayaking, bikes, watercrafts) in areas located inside the West Entrance, Camas Entrance, and St. Mary Entrance you DO NOT need a Going-To-The-Sun road entrance pass. Keep in mind if your activity reservation is only for one day (watercraft) you can only access the road for THAT day. You will still need a pass for the rest of the days you will be visiting.
Purchase 3 day access ticket the day before you plan to visit. There is a limited amount of tickets and they go fast. Make sure you open an account and make sure you log in ahead of time. Tickets go on sale at 8am MDT and they go fast! You must be online and ready to purchase right at 8am on the dot. I suggest more than one person attempt to purchase on different devices. Keep in mind ticket is only good for 3 days so if you are staying longer you need ticket for rest of the days. You can start looking into opening an account here. If you get your ticket you are now good to go. If you don't get a ticket, not to panic.
As mentioned above a day activity such as kayaking or even a bike rental will allow you access to the Going-To-The Sun road. You can rent them ahead of time to get your email proof to enter here . There's lots of options. We rented a kayak for our last day since we only had the pass for 3 days and it worked perfectly for our last day.
Don't want to get a rental, don't have a lodging reservations and don't want to take a red bus tour... then you can plan to enter the park after 4pm which is when you will have the ability to drive in your own vehicle yourself without a Going-To-The-Sun road pass.
Red bus tour is another option which also needs to be reserved ahead of time. Keep in mind it is a tour so you won't be on your own time but it's definitely an option many do enjoy. You can learn more about it here
Ok now on to the good stuff! I'm going to start from the West entrance and work towards St. Marys and further out.
1. Going-To-The- Sun Road
I've already discussed in detail but had to add it to the list as we consider it a must.
2. Lake McDonald
This beautiful and massive lake is found in the West side of Glacier National Park. It's filled with spectacular sights, hiking trails, diverse species of plants and animals, historic chalets, and the grand Lake McDonald Lodge. Lake McDonald is absolutely beautiful but it shines the greatest in the morning and during sunset. The way the clear and still water acts as a mirror to the beautiful orange sky during sunset and the mountains is incredible. Across from the lake you will find Glacier Outfitters where you can rent kayaks, boats and many other water sports for a very affordable price. We kayaked and it was so much fun and really affordable. This is a very rocky lake and although the beautiful colored stones are great to admire, I do highly suggest having water shoes or sandals.
3. McDonald Creek
You can find McDonald Creek along Going- To-The-Sun Road. There are several spots along the road that allow you to park and admire the clear and turquoise waters.
4. Trail Of The Cedars
The trail of the Cedars is a short loop trail in the Avalanche Creek area. The trail goes through a cedar/hemlock forest that is more like the forests in the Pacific coast than those in Glacier. The trail is paved and handicap accessible which make it suited for all skill levels. Crossing a bridge you will even get a view of Avalanche Gorge which is such a sight to see. It's a busy trail and parking can be complicated.
5. Avalanche Lake Via The Trail of the Cedars
This hike is one of the first and most popular hikes found on the Going-To-The-Sun road. The trail is beautiful with lots of trees and waterfalls that lead to a beautiful lake with stunning mountain backdrops. Perfect to stop for a picture and to sit and admire the views while enjoying a snack. It's a moderate level hike, mostly shaded with some incline but nothing too drastic. Great for the kiddos. Parking is limited and gets full quickly so I suggest arriving early. You'll encounter tons of people on the trail which isn't a bad thing when it's an area heavily visited by bears...safety in numbers. We didn't spot any bears during our visit but we did see some deer which in itself was exciting.
6. West Side Tunnel
This tunnel has windows in it for unobstructed views of lake McDonald Valley and a sideway along the side for pedestrians accessibility.
7. Weeping Wall
The Weeping Wall’s on the Going To The Sun Road combines some of the most adored natural scenery. It's 100 feet long, gushing torrents of water during run-off, this cliff is a popular scenic stopping point. Not entirely a natural formation, this feature was partially created during construction of the Going To The Sun Road, when workers blasted away at rock outcroppings, revealing several spring-fed water veins. In early summer, these trickling veins build to a torrent thanks to snowmelt. If driving by roll up your windows because your car is bound to get wet. It's such a great sight to see.
8. Logan Pass Visitor Center
Logan Pass is the highest elevation reachable by car in the park. It is extremely popular with visitors and the parking lot is generally full between 8:30 am and 4:00 pm. Consider visiting early or late in the day if possible. This area also has restroom, a gift shop and rangers available to answer questions.
9. Hidden Lake Nature Trail
This trail starts right at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and some absolutely stunning views at the end. Probably one of the shorter hikes in the park at 3 miles back and forth with such a rewarding view of the lake and Bearhat Mountain. During our visit the mountain was full of snow which made the hike a bit more challenging but so fun and unique. We saw mountain goats, marmot's and the pretties hidden blue lake at the end. The view looks straight out of a painting. Definitely took our breath away. Unfortunately we were unable to walk down to the lake due to the rest of the hike being closed due to high bear activity.
10. St.Mary to Virginia Falls Trail
This was another easily and popular trail we highly recommend. We got to admire tons of waterfalls and beautiful sights on our way to the top with each one getting better and better. At the very top we got right next to the waterfall and got sprayed by the powerful mist and even finished off by dipping our feet in the crystal clear water. It was cold but a great way to cool off after the hike. Expect to get wet! Parking can also be extremely limited so expect to park at least 1/2-1 mile away from the starting point. Trust me though, it's absolutely worth it.
11. Goose Island
This is a tiny Island of just 4,496 feet and rising a mere 14 ft from the surface of lake water. This is another awesome sight to see from the side of the road as your passing through St Mary Lake. Parking is available to get off and take a quick picture of this tiny isolated natural island in the middle of the turquoise blue waters.
12. Many Glacier
Many Glaciers has a separate entrance. This entrance is 45 min away from St.Mary entrance (east side). If you originally entered through the West Entrance like we did, you have to drive on Going-To-The-Sun Road to St. Mary entrance and drive 45 min north. Important to know Many Glaciers entrance DOES NOT require a reservations however once it's at capacity they will ask you to turn around and wont let you back in until capacity is back down. This is generally after 4pm. This side of the park is noted for numerous lakes, breathtaking hikes and a very dense forest area. TIP: This side of the park has a very dense forest and is flatter which is why you are more likely to spot Grizzly Bears in this area. Definitely worth the drive if time permits it. Once you reach St.Mary area ask a ranger to see if Many Glacier entrance is at capacity before making the extra 45-1 hour drive.
13. Lake Josephine
To see this lake you must hike about a mile on Grinnell Lake Trail. This short and easy hike is on the Many Glacier side of the park and is very dense in forest. The view from Lake Josephine are beautiful and worth the short hike. Keep your eyes peeled because tons of Bear Sighting are reported daily in this area. Grinnell Lake Trail continues to other stunning sites however we were loosing daylight and sadly had to turn around for safety reasons. If you have the time head to Grinnell Lake Trail early, I hear the views are like no other further down the trail.
Food options inside the park are very limited but here are 2 we visited and loved.
Found on the west side at Apgar Village this restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and is walking distance from Lake McDonald. Right next door they even have and ice cream place. Great place to enjoy a delicious meal and a drink after a long fun day. Parking is limited so expect some wait time for parking availability. See menu and more here
This restaurant is found at the East side entrance inside of St Mary Lodge & Resort. We enjoyed a lunch when closer to that side of the park. Good food, good drinks, and beautiful cabin like restaurant. See menu and more here
We stayed at the Best Western Plus Kalispell/Glacier Park West Hotel & Suites. The hotel was clean, included breakfast and was only 45 minutes from Glacier National Park West entrance and 15 minutes from the airport. If possible I would recommend staying inside the park but if you are not planning 6 months ahead or more, the chances of finding something inside the park at an affordable price might be a bit of a challenge. If this is the case then this Hotel is a fantastic option and highly recommended. See official site and book here
Bear Spray is highly recommended anywhere inside the park. They don't call it bear country for nothing. We rented one at Glacier Outfitters inside of Glacier Airport but there's a Glacier Outfitters on the West side entrance by Apgar Village where you can rent and return as well.
Bring plenty of water and snacks
Closest airport to fly into is Glacier Park International Airport (GPIA) in Kalispell, Montana. This airport can be access directly from LAX through Allegiant Airlines like we did. See flights here
Car rentals are also available right at Glacier Park International Airport if planning to drive into the park. Park is 1,583 square miles...its huge. We highly recommend renting a car if planning to fly into Montana
We are absolutely in LOVE with this park and plan to visit again in the near future. There's everything inside this park. Forest, mountains, snow, tons of lakes and waterfalls and so many different species of wildlife, trees and plants. It is an absolute must visit.
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Talk to you soon!