Wow! We were very impressed with Glacier National Park and will return again. We only spent a few days and soon realized that we could have easily spent a few weeks. The scenery is fantastic in this landscape of mountain peaks, clear blue lakes, rushing streams, meadows and waterfalls.
In 1932, Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana and the adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada were designated as the first International Peace Park, commemorating the bands of peace and friendship between the two nations.
Even though the two parks have separate administration and entrance fees, the cooperation is reflected in wildlife and vegetation management, search and rescue programs and joint interpretive programs.
There ia lot to do and see in the two parks, and in the surrounding area. If you are passing through the northwest corner of Montana, make time for this stop.
We will touch on a few things to do in Glacier National Park. based on what we were able to learn and experience during our visit.
Drive the famous Going to the Sun Road, which crosses the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot high Logan Pass.
Plan to drive it in your tow vehicle, not your RV. Vehicle restrictions between Avalanche Campground and Sun Point prohibit vehicles larger than 21 feet in length or 8-feet wide including mirrors. Especially near Logan Pass the road is narrow and winds along the cliffside.
You can drive this famous Glacier National Park road in either direction. The road is about 50 miles long from West Glacier to St. Mary. One suggestion we heard for those with a fear of heights is to drive the road from east to west. This way the vehicle hugs the mountain instead of being on the cliffside edge.
We did the drive in this westward direction and then the next day we drove back to Logan Pass headed eastward. I am sometimes bothered by heights myself and found it was comforting to do the east to west drive first… this way I knew what to expect when we headed in the other direction. I will also say that I have been on more harrowing roads elsewhere in our travels, so don’t be put off from taking this magnificent drive and stopping at the many scenic overlooks. It is a key part of the Glacier National Park experience.
If you prefer not to drive, then you can take one of the vintage red sedans, called “jammer buses”. There is a long-standing history associated with the “red bus” in Glacier National Park. Your fee will get you an informative narrated tour as well as leaving the driving to someone else.
There are also less expensive shuttles throughout the park without the narration and designed primarily as transportation for hikers.
When driving the Going to the Sun Road, Sun Point is a good place to stop for a quick walk to a beautiful lookout point over St. Mary’s Lake. You can also continue further on the 1.2 mile Sun Point Nature Trail to Bering Falls.
Logan’s Pass sits atop the Continental Divide. It is 32 miles from West Glacier (18 miles from St. Mary), with a Visitor Center and a number of trailheads.
Before you make the drive pick up a flyer entitled “Points of Interest Along the Going to the Sun Road”. In fact, we think a stop at one of the Visitor Centers is always a good first step to get oriented within a park. We picked up the schedule of Glacier National Park programs and hikes, trail maps, brochures and tips from the park staff.
You can enter Glacier National Park in several places. West Glacier and St. Mary are located on the western and eastern park boundaries on either end of the Going to the Sun Road.
In West Glacier, you will find Glacier National Park Headquarters along with a post office, convenience store, gift shops, restaurant and other services. There is also an interpretive Visitor Center in Apgar, two mile inside the park’s west entrance. On the west side, you can also enter the park at Camas Creek or Polebridge – both north of West Glacier.
On the eastern side, St. Mary has a Visitor’s Center, small grocery/general store, gift shops and other services. You can also enter the park from the east at Many Glacier, East Glacier, Two Medicine or Cut Bank.
There is one entrance to Waterton on the northeastern edge of the park.
See the historic lodges in Glacier National Park. The Lake McDonald Lodge sports animal trophies and huge support logs inside, and a nice walkway to the lake out back. In East Glacier, “The Big Tree Lodge” , as it was once known, has gigantic Douglas fir trees in its lobby, and a very interesting collection of historic photos to browse.
Do take the time to take the drive up to Many Glacier. The drive and the Many Glacier Hotel in its majestic setting are worth the short detour north of St. Mary. The hotel is a National Historic Landmark and the largest lodge in the park. It is located on Swiftcurrent Lake amidst rugged mountain peaks, with several trailheads. If you drive a bit beyond the entrance road for the lodge, there is a nice picnic area.
There are plenty of hiking trails. Stop by a Visitor Center for brochures and trail maps. Here is a sampling of hikes within Glacier National Park:
Trail of the Cedars is a pleasant half mile loop through the old-growth cedar-hemlock forest along Avalanche Creek.
Hidden Lake Nature Trail is a 1.5 mile (one-way) boardwalk from Logan Pass to the overlook; 3 miles to the Lake. It crosses through the Hanging Gardens of Logan Pass, which is filled with wildflowers in spring to mid-summer.
Robert Fire walk with a ranger. Take a hike with a ranger in the Apgar/Fish Creek area to learn about wildfire in the park, and especially the big Robert Fire in 2003. Check park programs for this walk or other ranger-led hikes that might be available.
Swiftcurrent Lake Trail has its trailhead at the Many Glacier Picnic Area or south end of the hotel. It is a 2.6 mile level trail around the lake with views of Grinnell and Salamander Glaciers, Mount Gould and Grinnell Point.
Highline Trail can be accessed from Logan Pass. It is 7.6 miles from Logan Pass to Granite Park with a 500 foot climb, and another 24.4 miles from Granite Pass to Goat Haunt. And the very hardy can continue the 39.5 mile trip to Waterton Townsite in Waterton National Park. Check with park staff for hints on overnight options and border-crossing requirements.
Here is a hike we did that we did not find specifically detailed in any of the park brochures. We learned of it from a park ranger, when we asked about trails that could get us close to a glacier. The trail begins at the Piegen Pass trailhead, but then veers eastward through Siyeh Pass and ends back on the Going to the Sun Road, about a mile west of the Sun Point parking lot. We parked in the Sun Pass parking lot, took a shuttle to the Piegen Pass trailhead, so we would be within walking distance of our car when we were done. We also opted to hike it west to east, because this meant about a 2400 foot rise and a 3400 foot descent. It was a phenomenal hike, with great views and changing scenery at every turn. It was about 12 miles long, with some strenuous stretches, but we highly recommend it.
Boating: Guided boat tours are offered on most of the parks’ larger lakes. Cruise Waterton Lake to get a glimpse of both Waterton and Glacier National Park. Rental boats are also available in a number of the lakes.
Horseback riding is available in Glacier National Park through Mule Shoe Outfitters. Alpine Stables provides guided horse tours in Waterton National Park. There are also outfitters in East Glacier.
Bicycling is a popular way to tour the parks, but be aware of the winding and narrow roads, with limited shoulder space. At Glacier National Park, during busy summer months and congested hours (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), bicycles may not be permitted along Lake McDonald between Apgar and Sprague Creek and eastbound between Logan Creek and Logan Pass. We admired some very determined cyclists along the Going to the Sun Road. The cyclists we saw on some wider and less traveled roads seemed to be having a more relaxing ride.
A fishing license is not needed to fish within Glacier, but anglers should be familiar with regulations and limits.
Rafting is available on the Middle and North Forks of the Flathead River. A number of rafting companies offer trips of varying length.
Wildlife includes squirrels, marmot, deer, gray jays, ravens and songbirds. Look for the white mountain goat near Logan Pass and at the Goat Lick turnout on route 2 south of the park. Big horn sheep may be found in Waterton and Many Glacier Valley. The International Peace Park is one of the few places in North America where all the native carnivores survive. Elk, wolves, mountain lions, black bear and grizzly bears are all part of the natural wildlife.
The park is open year round, and we suspect it must be beautiful in winter for the adventurous traveler. Park brochures indicate that the Going to the Sun Road through Logan Pass is open only mid June to mid-October, but that lower level elevations remain open year round. The area of the “sun road” along Lake McDonald is plowed year round, but other park roads may only be accessible by snow shoe or ski. No snow mobiles allowed in the park. The road to the year-round community of Waterton Park is plowed.
There appeared to be plenty of campgrounds surrounding Glacier National Park. We were there in late August as the summer season was ramping down, and found availability at most RV parks on the western side of Glacier without an advance reservation. This is probably not the case at the height of the season.
We stayed in two places, to experience both the private and public campgrounds as we travel. San-Suz-Ed Campground was a friendly, very well-maintained campground with level, shaded sites. The couple running the place have owned it for 40 years. The wife, Catherine, makes delicious pies for sale as well as Belgian waffles for breakfast. If you want a particular kind of pie, ask – she may make one for you. We had apricot pie and pineapple sour cream pie, and both were delicious. Camping fees ran about $30/night for full hook-ups (Wifi available for $3/night). They do a campfire every night for guests to meet and socialize. The park is located a couple miles from West Glacier.
We also stayed at Apgar Campground in Glacier National Park itself. This is one of several campgrounds in the park, but since it was the only one that accommodated 40′ rigs, we didn’t look any further. It is a large campground with a nice outdoor amphitheater for park programs, large sites with picnic tables and fire rings. It was $15/night no hook-ups, no showers.
Our bottom line – do visit Glacier National Park and stay awhile to appreciate it fully. Hopefully we will get back again when we can venture further north into the Canadian part of this International Peace Park, further explore the surrounding areas, and hike more of the many trails.