A beginner’s guide to visiting Glacier National Park: Everything you need to see and do
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect there is an IHG hotel near Glacier.
Glacier National Park is one of only a few domestic destinations that cracked our list of where to travel 2020 — and for good reason.
It’s one of the only places in the 48 continental states to see our planet’s endangered glaciers, and you can also see millions of stars and stargaze at the world’s first Dark Sky Park to span an international border. There are 35 named glaciers in the park. It is also famous for its incredible wildlife, ranging from lynx and elk to grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines. There are few trips in the United States as beautiful as driving over the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier.
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I’ve done it a few times in my life (and tried unsuccessfully once, too), and I can honestly tell you it feels like you are on top of the world.
Glacier was established in 1910 as the eighth National Park in the U.S., and it covers more than 1,500 square miles. It’s not only famous for its glaciers, but also the Lake McDonald Valley, Logan Pass and the Saint Mary Valley. There’s the most famous scenic highway in the park — the Going-to-the-Sun Road — as well as The North Fork, Goat Haunt, Many Glacier and Two Medicine areas to explore.
What to see and do in Glacier
Travelers will discover a ton of adventure in this park. You can camp, backcountry hike, boat, fish, cycle and, in the winter, you can do some cross-country skiing.
Both biking and hiking are a great way to experience the natural wonder of this incredible park, and there are plenty of mountain biking and off-roading opportunities. Hiker and biker camping sites are available from just $5 a night. Approximately 700 miles of hiking trails can be explored in the park — just be hyper aware of your surroundings, as you’re sharing territory with some fearsome predators.
Still, wildlife is perhaps the biggest draw of Glacier National Park. The park is home to some of North America’s most important and revered animals.
There are three main visitor centers to help plan your trip, plus ranger-led activities that could be a great introduction to one of America’s most important natural places. The best part? They’re largely free.
Travel tip: Don’t forget to grab an $80 annual national park pass. Glacier National Park normally charges a $35 entrance fee per vehicle in the summer ($25 in the winter), so you’re sure to get lots of value from it.
Related: How to visit National Parks for less
Where to stay in Glacier
When it comes to lodging, there are plenty of places to stay in the vicinity of Glacier National Park, but points properties are scarce. And get ready to spend an exorbitant amount in cash, especially during the peak summer season, though most hotels and motels in and around the park are pretty spartan.
You can find places in to stay in nearby Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispell, but we’re still not talking Hyatts and high-end Hiltons here. Think: Hampton Inns and Red Lions.
Within the park, travelers will discover several rustic lodges. Xanterra is the concessioner for all accommodations inside Glacier National Park, and they also run the famous Red Buses. Many of the large lodges have existed for more than a century, so keep that in mind and manage your expectations. Glaciernationalparklodges.com is a fantastic resource with details about all the properties inside the park, from grand hotels to budget motels.
Keep in mind, hotels sell out quickly during the high season. Even a cursory glance in February didn’t yield much availability.
Betsy O’Rourke, chief marketing officer at Xanterra, said, “We open the inventory 13 months out and we sell out in a few hours. However, about 30% of that inventory cancels and gets rebooked.”
Her advice? Check back frequently. “Our cancellation policy is 48 hours out, so we do get cancellations even close in.”
In West Glacier there’s Lake McDonald Lodge with spectacular views and easy access to the Red Bus Tours. Be advised: There are 82 guest rooms, a dorm-style hall and cabins with no air conditioning, elevators or televisions. How’s that for rustic?
The largest hotel in the park is Many Glacier Hotel, on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake — an area some people call the “Switzerland of North America.” It provides access to Red Bus tours, boat cruises and other activities, but you still won’t find air conditioning or televisions. It was “partly renovated” in 2016, but the rooms remain very basic.
“Even if you don’t stay at Many Glacier Hotel, it’s worth the drive to see that beautiful part of the park, and take a moment and walk into the hotel and see the fully restored elliptical staircase,” O’Rourke said. “Walk out on to the balcony overlooking the lake and breathe in one of the most spectacular sights in one of the most beautiful places on earth. If you have more time, take a kayak out on the lake.
There’s also the Village Inn at Apgar in West Glacier that’s really a motel-type property built in 1956. It goes for about $179 a night if you can get a room. Don’t expect to find a phone, television or air conditioning.
The Sperry Chalet was originally built in 1913, but was destroyed by fire in the summer of 2017. There’s good news, though: It just reopened for bookings in January after being totally rebuilt. The chalet comes with chefs who serve three meals a day. Now, for the bad news: It’s really hard to access. You’ll have to hike nearly seven miles to reach the chalet, and the property may already be sold out for the summer of 2020. But optimistic travelers can still submit a request. Like O’Rourke said, cancellations in Glacier National Park are not uncommon.
Outside the park, there are a few luxury hotels including the Firebrand Hotel in Whitefish. Rooms start around $320 in the high season.
Under the Marriott flag, there’s a TownePlace Suites Whitefish in Kalispell for rates starting at $350 a night, or 30,000 points, on peak dates in July. There’s also a SpringHill Suites in Kalispell that goes for $290, or 30,000 points per night, in July.
Hilton has three properties in Kalispell and one in Whitefish, all just outside the western boundary of Glacier. The Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell had rooms starting around $200 a night or 50,000 points. The Hampton Inn had rooms from $240, or 50,000 points. The Homewood Suites property was about $285 per night or 60,000 points, and the Hampton Inn & Suites in Whitefish was about $290 a night or 60,000 points.
Sadly there are no Accor or Hyatt properties in Montana.
There are several IHG hotels in Montana, and there is a Holiday Inn Express in Kalispell. Rates for July are about $255/night.
You can find better deals if you’re willing to stay at a vacation rental instead. Airbnb has plenty of properties, especially for travelers who want something unconventional like a traditional log cabin, glamping-style tent or a treehouse. Travelers on a tight budget can also look for accommodations in Bigfork, Columbia Falls, The Flathead Lake area, Somers and St. Mary.
Where to eat in Glacier
Let’s be honest: Montana isn’t really known for its food. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants, but haute cuisine isn’t much of a thing in the Treasure State.
Personally, I recommend doing grocery runs and always keeping a picnic ready to go for those mountain meadows you stumble upon. Be sure to pack lots of snacks, as restaurants are only open in the high season and often have limited hours. They are also few and far between, especially inside the borders of the park.
Several of the main lodges inside the park have dining venues including Russell’s Fireside Dining Room at the Lake McDonald Lodge. Russell’s gets a lot of praise but it’s also pricey (think: $28 to $31 for an entree). That’s expensive for Montana. There’s also the Ptarmigan Dining Room at Many Glacier Lodge, but it’s similarly priced. If you have a chance, you should sample elk and venison while you’re in Montana. Both are featured in popular dishes like burgers and sandwiches. If you’re really brave you might even find some Rocky Mountain oysters.
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How to get to Glacier
A slew of new flights to the increasingly popular leisure (and business) destination are making it easier than ever to plan a trip to Glacier National Park. American Airlines, Delta and JetBlue are among the major domestic carriers adding flights to several cities in Montana, especially Bozeman (BZN) near Yellowstone National Park, and Kalispell (FCA), the main gateway to Glacier.
Delta and its SkyWest Airlines affiliate, United, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Allegiant all fly to Kalispell.
American Airlines recently added seasonal service to the Treasure State from Philadelphia (PHL) New York-LGA and Los Angeles (LAX). It already had flights from Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and Chicago (ORD). These routes can be booked from 10,000 to 12,500 American miles each way. Alternatively, a route such as Dallas to Kalispell costs 11,000 British Airways Avios on American at the saver level. The airline will even fly bigger aircraft on two of its existing seasonal routes to Kalispell.
JetBlue Airways just added service to Bozeman from Boston (BOS), and increased its frequencies to Montana from New York-JFK. Even Sun Country Airlines is getting into the game with flights to Bozeman from its Minneapolis hub (MSP).
Several airlines also fly into Missoula (MSO), Montana, which is about a three hour-drive to Glacier. Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier and United all have flights to Missoula.
You could also fly into Spokane International Airport (GEG) in Washington, though it is a four hour drive to the park. Another option is Calgary International Airport (YYC). It’s about three hours to the park.
Glacier is often less crowded than Yellowstone, but it’s also harder to get to — and to get through — especially if you encounter one of Montana’s famous early spring or late summer blizzards.
So, you have to time your trip very carefully. Typically, the Going-to-the-Sun Road has only been fully open in late June or early July, and it’s usually at least partially closed by October at the latest (it’s closed as early as Sept. 15). Many Glacier Road is also receiving much-needed repairs and improvements in the coming years and will be closed for much of 2020.
Still, I strongly recommend renting a car for your trip.
Glacier National Park tours
If you’d rather not drive, many seasoned park veterans take visitors on the famous Glacier Red Bus Tours. The vintage 1930s buses are an iconic part of the park’s history and heritage. The long, red buses with rollback tops are perfect for gazing at the mountains without worrying about the notorious curves in the park’s roads. The fleet is believed to be the oldest touring fleet of vehicles in the world. The buses run on the eastern and the western sides of Glacier so you could book two tours on one visit. Keep in mind, these are vintage vehicles, and they don’t conform to today’s standards of comfort and space.
They also book up quickly, so you’ll want to be aggressive with planning.
O’Rourke, from Xanterra, said the buses are a must-do on any trip to Glacier, “Take a red bus tour: You’ll learn so much and see the highlights of the park while riding in a fully restored open air bus. It’s fun and informative.”
Glacier National Park has previously offered a free shuttle that runs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the Apgar Visitor Center to the St. Mary Visitor Center, but it was open only from July to Labor Day. They also don’t take reservations, operating instead on a first come, first served basis. It’s also unclear if it’s returning for the 2020 season.
Sun Tours offers bus tours of the park from several spots including Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which borders the park on its eastern side. The Blackfeet Indians called Glacier “The Backbone of the World,” and the company is owned and operated by Native Americans who share their own perspective on the park’s history. Daily service is offered from the Apgar Visitor Center in West Glacier, the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, the Glacier Peaks Hotel in Browning and the St. Mary Visitor Center in St. Mary.
Montana Adventure Tours offers shuttle trips from Missoula in winter and summer as day trips, but your exposure to the park will be fairly limited and it’s not cheap (around $220 per person).
To see Glacier National Park from a different angle, North Fork Recreation Rentals has kayaks and other nonmotorized river rafts for rent just outside the park in Polebridge, Montana, in the Flathead Lake watershed area.
There’s even a train that runs through the park. Amtrak’s Empire Builder is a 46-hour train ride that departs from Whitefish, Montana every morning at 7:41 a.m. and makes stops in West Glacier, Essex and East Glacier Park before returning in the evening. I found a weekend trip for $70 round-trip in coach, on a weekend in July. Or, you could splurge and pay nearly $1,000 for a sleeper cabin.
Still, renting a car is probably your best bet — and that’s coming from a public transportation fanatic!
Glacier National Park is one of my favorite places on Earth. The endless array of outdoor activities, the stargazing and the wildlife make it a great place to unplug and relax. It’s an incredible — and, somehow, still not overrun — piece of American wilderness.
If you’re traveling to Montana, don’t limit yourself to Glacier National Park. Across the state, there’s Yellowstone, and countless sites that tell the incredibly important history of American Indians. Big Sky, not far from Yellowstone, is also surging in popularity. It’s even an unsung destination for skiing in the winter, and the Wilson Hotel, a Residence Inn by Marriott, opened in Big Sky this spring — one of the first from a major brand in the area. Big Sky could also have the first five-star, ultraluxury hotel in the entire state when a Montage debuts in 2021.
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