The rumors aren’t an exaggeration! This park just may be the most beautiful in the Lower 48.
My family and I love national parks. In fact, we have a goal of visiting every single one in the USA. Glacier National Park was our 33rd national park. Yes, it took us a while to get here, but man, was it ever worth it!
Up until our visit to northern Montana, Zion National Park in Utah had been my favorite. And while it’s still near the top of the list, there’s something extraordinary about Glacier, nicknamed the “Crown of the Continent.” It may be the fact that by 2030, scientists predict all the remaining glaciers here will disappear, so you feel an urgency to drink in all it’s beauty. But to discover that beauty, you and your family need to get out of your car and start hiking. Because no matter how spectacular you may think the scenery is along the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, I’m here to tell you that it gets measurable better the deeper that you delve into the park. It’s the kind of place where ever turn in the trail reveals a vista even better than the one that you just spent five minutes photographing.
KidTripster Tip: Glacier National Park is actually part of the world’s first International Peace Park with neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. While administered separately, the parks do cooperate in the management of natural and cultural resources.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure to stop by a visitor center (Apgar, Logan Pass or St. Mary) to pick up your child’s Junior Ranger booklet or download it online before you come. Complete the activities and earn a Junior Ranger badge. Also, watch the park movie at St. Mary Visitor Center so that you’re primed for your visit. While you’re there, don’t miss the exhibit that shows the stunning retreat of glaciers in the park over the last century.
What you’re driving will play a major role in how you get to and explore Glacier. Regrettably for our family, the park is not hospitable to large RVs. In fact, on the Going-to-the-Sun Road - the only road to cross the park (east-west), vehicles (or vehicle combinations like a truck + trailer or RV + towed car) can’t be longer than 21 feet or wider than 8 feet between Avalanche Campground and Rising Sun picnic area parking. Vehicles over 10 feet will have trouble driving west from Logan Pass to the Loop because of rock overhangs. Bottom line, if you have an RV or a camping trailer, do not drive this road. Period. I say this as a veteran RV driver who’s crisscrossed the country twice behind the wheel of a 38-foot-long RV.
KidTripster Tip: There are other roads in the park that also have 21-foot restrictions. However some, notably Highway 49 north of East Glacier Park, are not signed until it’s too late to turn around in a big rig. Don’t ask me how I know this! If you’re in a large RV, do yourself a favor and stick to the major roads. Don’t rely on a mapping app; instead consult an RV-specific road atlas.
Now, even if you’re not driving a behemoth camper, you still may not want to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s a serious nail-biter with blind curves and unforgiving cliffs. It’s safe to say that whoever’s the unlucky soul that’s driving won’t actually be able to enjoy the views. That person will be too busy wiping the sweat from his or her hands. If you were to drive the 50 miles from West Glacier to St. Mary on the Going-to-the-Sun Road during the summer, it would take nearly 3 hours with no stops. (And you most definitely will want to stop!)
Given all of that, how do you see this park? Well, the Glacier Park Express runs between the town of Whitefish to the Apgar Visitor Center (west side) during the summer. Once you get to the park, you can use the free Going-to-the-Sun Road Shuttle that stops at many points of interest. However, because so many people visit during such a short window during the summer, the shuttle is often packed. There’s also the fee-based, seasonal Hiker’s Shuttle that connects West Glacier, Apgar, Lake McDonald Lodge, St. Mary, and Many Glacier; reservations are required.
Finally, you can book either a half-day or full-day tour with one of two companies. Sun Tours is operated by the Blackfeet and introduces visitors to Glacier through the eyes of the tribe. These tours travel in 25-passenger, mini buses. But we chose to travel in one of the historic Red Buses, run by Xanterra-Glacier National Park Lodges. More on that to come.
One more note about traveling in the park. Look at a map. What do you see? It's actually what you don't see - namely roads. There are notably very few roads at all in Glacier National Park. If you’re traveling with a family, you’re probably not going to be doing a lot of backcountry hiking or camping. So how can you access Glacier’s beauty? Keep reading.
When to go?
Besides for the ones in Alaska, Glacier has the shortest visitors’ window of any of the national parks. It’s all dictated by weather, but in general, most visitor facilities are only open from late May through early October. However, that timeline can get pushed. When we visited in early July, the Going-to-the-Sun Road had only fully been open for one week.
I recommend going in mid-July. It’s peak waterfall season with all the falls that cascade from the mountainsides absolutely gushing with snowmelt; later in the season, they’ll be far less impressive, if at all visible. The wildflowers are stunning, though we were told that there are so many kinds of wildflowers at Glacier, that several species are always in bloom.
It's possible to visit Glacier during the fall, winter, and spring, but you’ll likely be doing so on snowshoes or cross-country skis, as most roads aren’t plowed. The road to Apgar Village plus 11 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road on the west side and a 1-1/2 miles on the east side are the only roads maintained during the winter. Check conditions ahead of time. Only a very limited number of facilities are open; winter camping is free. To see some amazing photos of what it takes to plow the Going-to-the-Sun Road, click here.
KidTripster Tip: Free ranger-led snowshoe walks are offered on Saturdays and Sundays during the winter from early January to mid-March. Walks start at the Apgar Visitor Center; rentals are available for small fee. Not recommended for kids under 6 years old.
What to do?
As the "Crown of the Continent," Glacier is the headwaters for streams that flow to the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson's Bay; so water features - whether they be glaciers, waterfalls, or glacial lakes - dominant the landscape along with the snow-capped, jagged peaks that tell the geological history of this region.
The park is divided into sections. The most accessible by road are Lake McDonald (west), Logan Pass (center), Many Glacier (east), and St. Mary Valley (east). Goat Haunt (north), North Fork (northwest), and Two Medicine (southeast) are more remote with rough roads (if any) and fewer visitor facilities (if any), but they do reward with pure peace and serenity. Accept now that you won’t be able to see every corner of Glacier National Park, which is over a million acres in size. And while there’s a healthy competition between park employees on the east side versus the west side as to which area is the most spectacular, the truth is that they both are. Unlike other national parks that have specific must-see features, all of Glacier is eye candy.
Our visit was structured around my 17-year-old son’s one desire: to hike to an actual glacier. It seemed like a worthy goal. In 1850, the park had an estimated 150 glaciers. (Glaciers must be at least 25 acres is size to be defined as such.) Today, fewer than 30 remain. Of the ones that do, Grinnell Glacier on the east side is the most accessible to hikers. So, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to drive through the park with our large RV, we decided to base our activities on the east side of the park.
Stick with me as I explain how to get to Grinnell Glacier. The trailhead begins near the Many Glacier Hotel; the hike is 7.6 miles roundtrip. However, you can shave off 3.4 miles by taking two shuttle boats with Glacier Park Boat Company. You board the first boat at the historic hotel for a short crossing of Swiftcurrent Lake. You disembark and make the easy walk to the shore of a second lake named Lake Josephine. A short 12-minutes later, you’ll find yourself on the opposite shore. Now you have choices. If you have younger children, you can opt for a short guided or self-guided hike in this area. Or, like us, you can jump onto the Grinnell Glacier Trail and start the moderately strenuous climb; to the glacier, it’s an elevation gain of 1840 feet. Here’s where we hit a snag. While we could hike to the point where we saw the stunning, turquoise waters of Grinnell Lake and three glaciers - Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem - in the distance, rangers had closed the last section of the trail that actually would have brought us to Grinnell Glacier because of snow conditions. Some unwise hikers ignored the closure, but especially with kids, I’d always error on the side of caution. Regardless, the hike to the Grinnell Lake overlook was breathtaking; wildflowers exploded with color all along the trail. It was a heart-pounding trek, but no one in our party of seven complained. Even without reaching the glacier, it was more than worth the effort.
When you descend back to Lake Josephine, you, again, have choices. The boat shuttle runs on a schedule that’s given to you when you disembark. We had just missed the afternoon shuttle. Rather than wait 1-1/2 hours for the next boat, we made the less than 2-mile walk back to Many Glacier Hotel. It’s an easy hike around the lakes that took less than an hour.
KidTripster Tip: Grizzly bears are no joke in Glacier. You could very well see a bear off the trail, lunching on huckleberries. Make sure you’re carrying bear spray; it’s a must. Also, it’s a good idea to tie a bell to your backpack to let the bears know that you’re coming, giving them time to exit the area. You can find bear spray at shops in the park for $40 to $50; I’d recommend buying it for less online or at an outdoor store before you arrive.
Cost for boat shuttle: Youth (4 & under) Free; Youth (4-12) $13.75; Adult $27.50; one-way tickets are also available but only for the return trip and only if space is available. Advanced reservations are strongly encouraged. On the morning of our trip, there was a long line of disappointed hikers who couldn’t get tickets for the shuttle. Glacier Park Boat Company also offers other cruises on St. Mary Lake, Lake McDonald, and Two Medicine Lake.
Polar plunge, anyone? Watch our KidTripster Teen jump into glacier-fed Lake Josephine.
KidTripster Tip: If you do have to drive an RV to Many Glacier Hotel, arrive before 8 a.m. to ensure getting an oversized parking spot. And know that the road to the hotel is rough; you'll need to go very slowly.
Of course, you’ll also want to drive all or part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The historic road is an engineering marvel, and as discussed earlier, it can be a white-knuckle experience. We opted to take a half-day tour with Red Bus Tours. Half the fun of this tour is riding in the iconic, open-top red buses. Each bus seats 17 passengers; the driver, called a Jammer (ask him or her about the name) is also your tour guide. Pick-ups at major hotels and campgrounds are included in the cost. I would have liked to take a full-day tour, but I know the attention span of my teenagers; a half-day (really only about 2-1/2 hours) tour fit our needs. Half-day tour cost: Youth starts at $21; Adult $42, depending on itinerary. Bring a jacket as the ride can get breezy.
KidTripster Tip: Riders (12 & under) can participate in the Junior Jammers Program. Ask your driver for a booklet. Answer questions along the way and earn a badge.
If you decide to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road on your own or take the park shuttle, download the free audio tour app from the National Park Service before you arrive at the park.
Where to stay?
Since we decided to spend most of our time on the eastern side of Glacier, we stayed at the St. Mary/East Glacier KOA (106 West Shore). This campground is just a short drive from St. Mary Visitor Center. If you’re parking your oversized RV at the campground, you can book with Red Bus Tour or Sun Tours; the stop is right outside the KOA store.
Recently expanded, the KOA has tent sites, full RV hook-ups, and cabins plus a log lodge that sleeps 11. It features a good-sized pool, splash pad, bocce ball, and WiFi, though you really can only connect when seated outside the store. You also can rent kayaks and paddle boards and explore Lower St. Mary Lake and River. Cost: Tent $40/night; RV $75/night; Cabin starts at $115/night. Open from May through late September.
KidTripster Tip: The winds really pick up in the afternoon around 3 p.m. For this reason, plan any kayaking or paddle boarding earlier in the day. Also the “beach” area is extremely small. Once you launch, head to the right and then make your first right turn. You’ll be on a small stream where the current is more manageable.
KidTripster Tip: This KOA offers something that was vitally important to our family: pet sitting (and day boarding, if needed). Dogs aren’t allowed in the national park, which creates a real conundrum if you can’t drive your RV through the park but still want to enjoy a day of sightseeing and hiking. Who’s going to let out the dog? At St. Mary/East Glacier KOA, a staff member will take Fido on two, short walks for $20/day.
KidTripster Tip: This KOA offers several food options (priced à la carte): daily hot breakfast (7 a.m.-10:30 a.m.), hiker’s packed lunch, nightly BBQ dinner (5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.) or fresh pizza delivered to your campsite. But the best option may be the local Montana ice cream that they sell in the camp store.
Of course, you can opt to stay at a national park campsite. There are 13 campgrounds; some accept RVs (check maximum length) and most are first-come/first-served. You can make reservations at Fish Creek and St. Mary no more than six months in advance and at Many Glacier and Apgar (group sites only) no more than 12 months in advance. Cost: $10-$23 during the summer season; camping is free during the winter.
If you’re not a camper, you’ll find several in-park lodging options: Apgar Village Lodge, Village Inn Motel, Lake McDonald Lodge, Motel Lake McDonald, Many Glacier Hotel, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Rising Sun Motor Inn, plus two backcountry chalets. For more on reservations, click here.
KidTripster Tip: In addition to ranger programs, you have the unique opportunity to listen to Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille tribal members share their Glacier stories at the campgrounds, lodges, and St. Mary Visitor Center. For a schedule, click here.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s 38-foot RV.
This writer received a discounted stay and complimentary excursions for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.
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