Visiting Glacier National Park: Everything you need to know to plan your first trip
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest information.
With over 1 million acres, 762 lakes, 563 streams, 175 mountains and 26 (shrinking) glaciers, Glacier National Park has been on TPG’s list of top places to travel even before the pandemic elevated domestic, outdoor locations higher on the must-visit list.
In 2019, more than 3 million visitors crossed the threshold into this park, which is a whole bunch considering that it takes some travel and effort for most to access this national treasure.
But there’s good reason for so many to make the trip into northern Montana to witness the magic of Glacier National Park.
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Glacier is one of the only places in the 48 continental states to see our planet’s endangered glaciers, but there’s a lot more to this parkland than, well, the glaciers. You can also see breathtaking scenery, millions of stars and stargaze at the world’s first International Dark Sky Park to span an international border.
According to the National Park Service, around 1850, there were approximately 80 glaciers in the area that eventually become Glacier National Park. But as of 2015, there were 26 named glaciers that met the size criteria. Now, that number may actually be even smaller. In fact, you may be shocked at how much your visit doesn’t end up being about glaciers at all.
Glacier is also famous for its incredible wildlife, ranging from lynx and elk to grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines. And if you can time your visit during the couple of months each year when the road is fully open, there are few drives in the U.S. as scenic as Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Whether you’re looking for challenging treks, backcountry camping, a scenic drive or family-friendly hikes, Glacier can easily check all of those boxes and more. But Glacier is also wild, spread-out, sometimes unpredictable and usually without cell phone service or internet so you need to be prepared.
Here’s your guide to planning and maximizing your first trip to Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park basics
Glacier was established in 1910 as the eighth national park in the U.S., and it covers more than 1,500 square miles. To put it in other words: It’s a big national park with multiple entrances several hours apart and you’re unlikely to see it all unless you plan an extended trip.
While there are certainly glaciers in Glacier National Park, the average visitor is unlikely to spend the majority of their visit focused on the glaciers themselves.
Travelers can visit the Lake McDonald Valley, Logan Pass and the St. Mary Valley. There’s the park’s famous highway, Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is usually only fully open from late June or early July until usually the third Monday in October, but that’s dependent on the weather and its season can be shorter.
There are also the North Fork, Goat Haunt, Many Glacier and Two Medicine areas to explore. And these areas are separated by several hours of driving, so you’ll have to be strategic to make the most of your time.
To address capacity limitations, those entering Glacier National Park via private vehicle or motorcycle will need a $2 advance entry reservation ticket valid for seven days at least through Sept. 6.
Those rules are in effect from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the West, St. Mary and Camas Road entrances and don’t apply if you arrive on foot or bicycle or have a reservation for camping, lodging or another activity within the park (such as guided hikes, horseback rides and boat tours).
In addition to the reservation, you’ll also need to pay the entrance fee to access the national park. The cost for a seven-day car permit is $35. If you’re going to visit multiple national parks in a year, however, you might be better off looking into an annual national parks pass.
Related: How to save on national park visits
How to get to Glacier
The area around Glacier has really benefited from additional flights in the last couple of years.
American Airlines, United, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue are among the major domestic carriers adding flights to several cities in Montana, especially Bozeman (BZN) near Yellowstone National Park, and Kalispell’s Glacier Park International Airport (FCA), the main gateway to the park.
Cash prices can be high in peak season, so if you want to use airline miles to get to these airports, consider booking through a partner airline.
For example, LifeMiles can be a great way to book United-operated flights from just 7,500 LifeMiles each way.
If you want to fly on American Airlines, booking via British Airways Avios can sometimes be the best deal, starting at 11,000 Avios each way for American Airlines-operated flights from airports such as Dallas-Fort Worth International (DFW).
Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Sun Country and United all fly to Kalispell.
Several airlines also fly into Missoula, Montana (MSO), 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’s a four-hour drive to the park. Another option when the U.S.-Canada border eventually reopens is Calgary International Airport (YYC), which is about a three-hour drive to the park.
What to see and do in Glacier
Adventure awaits within Glacier — as long as you plan ahead. You can camp, backcountry hike, boat, fish, cycle and, in the winter, you can even do some cross-country skiing.
The National Park Service says that more than half of the visitors to Glacier National Park hike during their visit, and we’d honestly be surprised if the number isn’t even higher. There are trails ranging from flat and wheelchair-accessible paths to tough, multiday treks. Here are some of the easy to moderate hikes we experienced.
While some hikes are short and relatively simple, be sure you are always prepared on even the easy hikes with bear spray and basic supplies as this isn’t Disneyland — this is real Montana.
You can access this hike from the West entrance, but plan ahead as this is a popular hike and the parking lot will fill up at times. This is categorized as a moderate hike, which means it isn’t always easy. In fact, it can surprise you at times with slippery mud and a pretty steady incline.
You’ll want real hiking shoes for this one and plenty of water and snacks, as it can take several hours, especially for travelers who don’t routinely hike.
But the payoff is absolutely worth it as you get to see some pretty great waterfalls at the beginning and then a gorgeous, clear lake at the top of the climb.
Trail of the Cedars
A flat, wheelchair-accessible trail in Glacier is Trail of the Cedars, which is located at the base of the trail to Avalanche Lake. This is a 1-mile loop that’s perfect whether you want to push a stroller, need wheelchair access or are simply looking for an easy stroll with ample shade and seating.
Three Falls Trail
Parking at popular spots along the St. Mary’s Entrance side of the park can be tough to come by. But this can be a short hike (just over a half-mile to the first waterfall) and is right by a big parking lot with picnic tables. The trail parallels a lake and brings you to Baring Falls, making it a very doable hike for people who aren’t up for a multihour adventure.
If you have the time and stamina, however, you can keep going. Just a little over 2 miles in, you’ll reach St. Mary Falls.
John’s Lake Loop
From the West Glacier entrance, John’s Lake Loop is a fun and not-too-challenging 2-mile-long circuit that includes time in the forest as well as a bridge crossing and great views of McDonald Falls.
There are guided boat tours available at Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Rising Sun and Lake McDonald. If you want to mix a boat ride with an optional guided hike, you can do that on certain boat rides at Many Glacier, Two Medicine and Rising Sun.
Depending on the tour you choose, prices range from around $16.75 to $33.25 for adults and $8.25 to $16.75 for kids ages 4 to 12. Visitors under 4 years of age can ride with adults for free.
There are also small boat rentals available at Apgar, Lake McDonald, Two Medicine and Many Glacier. Prices for boats are generally about $22 per hour for a double kayak or rowboat and $28 per hour for an 8-horsepower motorboat.
You’ll want to book these all online and in advance.
From about $55 to $125 per day, you can rent a bike to explore Glacier National Park. If you’re willing to spend closer to $125 per day, you can get an e-bike so you have a little extra push when heading uphill.
While bikes are allowed on the roads of Glacier, the best time to go if you want to ride Going-to-the-Sun Road without cars is likely in the second half of May and the first half of June, when it’s often open to cyclists but not vehicles.
Otherwise, just know that you’ll be sharing the road with vehicles and there usually aren’t any dedicated bike lanes or large shoulders.
Wildlife and ranger tours
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.
There are multiple companies that have U.S. Forest Service permits to operate guided floats out of the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River. Some include Glacier Guides and Montana Raft Company, Glacier Raft Company, Great Northern Resort and Wild River Adventures.
We tried out a half-day scenic float trip with the Glacier Raft Company located immediately outside the West Entrance in the village of West Glacier and all of us, regardless of age (our group ranged from 5 to 72 years old) had a great time. However, we were surprised we had to change into wet suits even for the scenic float, so plan in advance for that wardrobe swap.
Also, know that there is some paddling involved, so it’s not purely a spectator sport.
Peak-season rates for half-day floats (which are really about 2.5 hours) are $71 per adult and $61 per child.
The scenic float had just enough thrill and small to midsized splashes for us, but travelers craving more adrenaline can choose the whitewater tour. There are also full-day itineraries that include a riverside lunch and even multiday trips with camping and fishing if you’re looking for an all-in experience.
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 unlike what you’ll find near Zion National Park, points properties are scarce if you want to stay right next to Glacier.
Within the park, accommodations will be pricey and pretty spartan, though there are some fancier (and still pricey) properties just outside the park. If you want a balance of value and somewhat newer (and points-friendly) accommodations, prepare for a little bit of a drive to the park each day.
Lodging within Glacier
Within the park, travelers will discover several classic rustic lodges with an early 20th-century look and feel.
Xanterra Travel Collection 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.
Remember, hotels sell out quickly during the high season. There are only a handful of days still available this summer, with prices for most rooms ranging from $200 to $400 per night.
Betsy O’Rourke, chief marketing officer at Xanterra, told TPG that inventory opens 13 months out, “and (sells) 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 the 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 onto 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-style property built in 1956. It goes for upwards of $179 a night if you can get a room. Just don’t expect to find a phone, television or air conditioning.
The Sperry Chalet was originally built in 1913, but it was destroyed by fire in the summer of 2017. There’s good news, though: It has reopened 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 7 miles to reach the chalet, and the property sells out quickly. But optimistic travelers can still submit a request. Like O’Rourke said, cancellations in Glacier National Park are not uncommon.
Lodging near Glacier
Glacier Park Lodge
If you want a tree-sized dose of Glacier history, you can stay right outside the East entrance to the park at the Glacier Park Lodge, which was built by the Great Northern Railway and originally opened in 1913. Its iconic lobby is framed by massive Douglas firs and is a fun stop during your trip even if you don’t actually stay there.
Rooms here start at about $180 per night and sell out well in advance.
Vacation home rentals
A vacation home rental near Glacier could be a great solution, especially if you’re traveling with a family or multiple friends. Not only can it be a more economical way to book lodging than multiple hotel rooms, but you’ll also have the gift of a full kitchen, which can easily save a family of four or five around $100 per night, given food prices in the area.
On a recent stay, we booked a rental home known as Glacier Lookout Lodge — which was stunning with four bedrooms that sleep up to 15, a hot tub and an epic deck — located in Colombia Falls, which is just a 20- to 25-minute drive to West Glacier.
Prices vary dramatically based on date, but we paid about $800 per night for our June travel dates and found it to be a great value, assuming you can make use of several of the bedrooms.
Related: How to use points for home rentals
If you want a taste of camping without having to do real camping work, there are glamping options just outside West Glacier.
Under Canvas Glacier is located just 10 minutes from the West Glacier entrance, and we gave it a try for the night and found it to be a fun — albeit pricey — way to experience glamping.
It’s only open during the summer season and prices for most tents are in the $300 to $500 range per night and they do sell out.
And a new option near Glacier is the Clear Sky Resorts domes, which also go for about $400 to $500 per night and operate until early October.
Hotels in nearby towns
You can find places to stay in nearby Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispell, but we’re still not talking Hyatts and high-end Hiltons here.
Think: Hampton Inns, TownePlace Suites and Red Lions.
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 with rates from $300 to $500 on many summer nights. This is currently a steal on points as a Category 4 property ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 points per night. There’s also a SpringHill Suites in Kalispell that goes for about the same price. While they are only Category 4 properties, these hotels can be a great use of a Marriott 35,000-point certificate during peak summer nights.
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 50,000 points. The Hampton Inn had rooms from 50,000 points. The Homewood Suites property often starts around 60,000 points in the summer, and the Hampton Inn & Suites in Whitefish is also around 60,000 points.
Sadly, there are no Accor or Hyatt properties in Montana.
There are several IHG hotels in Montana, and there’s a Holiday Inn Express in Kalispell.
But travelers searching for a deal will likely have better luck with a vacation rental. Airbnb, for example, has plenty of properties, even for travelers who want something unconventional such as a traditional log cabin, glamping-style tent or a treehouse.
Travelers on a tight budget can also look for accommodations in the surrounding areas of 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, we recommend doing grocery store runs and always keeping a picnic ready to go for those mountain meadows and picnic tables you stumble upon. It’s just easier to eat at least one or two meals that way than relying on the limited number of concessions in and around the park — especially because the closest one can be quite a long way away.
Additionally, some restaurants are only open in the high season and often have limited hours.
However, in the Apgar and West Glacier areas, you do have a few restaurants to choose from. Within the park in Apgar Village, you’ll find Eddie’s, which has both indoor and outdoor dining. On the menu, you’ll find dishes such as a bison burger ($17.50), a spinach and cranberry salad ($13) and a plate of mountain fish and chips ($15.50).
Right next door is the can’t-miss Eddie’s Ice Cream with flavors ranging from classic vanilla to so-called Huckleberry Heaven.
Several of the main lodges inside the park also 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 expensive (think: $28 to $31 for an entrée). That’s expensive for Montana.
There’s also the Ptarmigan Dining Room at Many Glacier Hotel, 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 including burgers and sandwiches. If you’re really brave, you might even find some Rocky Mountain oysters.
Right outside the popular West Glacier entrance, you’ll find a number of cafes and restaurants including Freda’s Bar, West Glacier Cafe and Huckleberry Hut. Within a couple of miles of that entrance, there are even more places to eat. (And be sure and try some huckleberry pie while you’re in the area.)
Related: The best starter travel credit cards
Getting around Glacier National Park
Getting to and around Glacier National 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.
As mentioned, Going-to-the-Sun Road is usually only fully open starting 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).
So while many months of the year you won’t be able to drive all the way through the park from one side to the other, we strongly recommend renting a car for your trip. However, Glacier (and really Montana, in general) is one of the destinations where rental cars are currently in very short supply, so you’ll need to confirm a vehicle before assuming one will just be available on your dates.
Glacier National Park tours and transportation
If you’d rather not drive yourself, many seasoned park veterans take visitors on the famous Glacier Red Bus tours.
Red Bus tours
The collection of 33 vintage buses from the 1930s is an iconic part of the park’s history and heritage. The bright red buses with rollback tops are perfect for gazing at the mountains without having to personally worry about the notorious curves on the park’s roads.
The fleet is believed to be the oldest touring fleet of vehicles in the world, and 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 fast so, again, you’ll want to be pretty aggressive with planning ahead of time. Tours range from half-day ($68 for adults, $34 for kids) to all day ($104 for adults, $52 for kids).
O’Rourke 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 also offers a free shuttle that runs along Going-to-the-Sun Road from the Apgar Visitor Center to the St. Mary Visitor Center, usually from July to Labor Day.
There are also hiker’s shuttles that connect to the free shuttle that cost $14 for adults and $7 for children and depart from Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Many Glacier Hotel and St. Mary Visitor Center.
Additional bus tours
Sun Tours offers bus tours of the park from several spots including the Blackfeet Reservation, which borders the park on its eastern side. The Blackfeet called Glacier “The Backbone of the World,” and the company is owned and operated by Blackfeet and Assiniboine Sioux tribe members who share their perspectives 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.
Montana Adventure Tours offers shuttle trips from Missoula in winter and summer as daytrips, 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.
Ride the train from one side of the park to the other
Believe it or not, there’s even a train that runs through the park.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder offers a 2.5-hour train ride that departs from Whitefish every morning at 7:41 a.m. and makes stops in West Glacier, Essex and East Glacier Park before returning in the evening, departing East Glacier at 6:45 p.m. Prices start around $13 each way. Or, you could splurge and pay hundreds of dollars each direction for a sleeper cabin.
Still, renting a car is probably your best bet — and that’s coming from public transportation fanatics.
More Glacier National Park tips
While there will be some room for spontaneity, there are things you must plan well in advance for a successful trip to Glacier.
Book all tours and experiences well in advance
Whether you want to rent a bike, go on a boat ride, join a whitewater rafting trip or try horseback riding, you need to book at least several weeks in advance — more, if possible. There just isn’t enough supply to meet the current demand for Glacier, so don’t wait until you arrive to plan activities or you may be met with limited to no availability. On a recent June trip, even bikes were booked up for the next several weeks, so plan your key bookings early.
Even with the reservations-required entrance rules to the park, the limited available parking around Going-to-the-Sun Road and popular trailheads, such as those around Avalanche Lake, fill early, so if you want to ensure you have a spot to park you either need to go early or wait for an afternoon lull when some visitors have left, but before the 5 p.m. surge when reservations are no longer required to enter the park.
Rent bear spray
Research shows there are approximately 300 grizzly bears and 600 black bears in the Glacier National Park area. This is their home and we are just visitors, so you need to be bear aware when exploring Glacier.
While you aren’t very likely to encounter a bear on a well-traveled trail, there are no guarantees. And as you get off the beaten path, the odds increase. It’s important to not only brush up on the advice surrounding bears (ranger stations are a good stop for information), but you need to pick up some bear spray and know how to use it. Since you can’t fly with bear spray, renting it can be a good option.
Time your visit carefully
There are important considerations to take into account when deciding when to visit Glacier.
Normally, we love suggesting shoulder season visits to national parks, but there’s a real trade-off to coming to Glacier anytime other than peak season since Going-to-the-Sun Road may not be open to cars outside of the prime July, August and early September time frames.
When it’s even partially closed you not only lose access to some parts of the park, but you’ll also find that getting from one end of the park to the other will take much longer. If you’re OK with that, coming in early June before many families are out of school can translate to slightly lower prices and crowds and relatively mild weather.
The same thing is true starting after Labor Day. In fact, that can be even better than early in June as there’s a good chance Going-to-the-Sun Road is still open, at least for a few weeks.
Don’t expect cell service
While getting off the grid may be a goal of yours, know that cell service and even internet connectivity in and around Glacier is very limited. You need to be prepared to be pretty self-sufficient within the park as your phone isn’t going to be good for much beyond taking pictures and videos.
Glacier National Park is one of our favorite places on the planet. The endless array of outdoor activities, the stargazing, the hiking and the wildlife make it a great place to unplug and relax. It’s an incredible (yet somehow, still not terribly overrun) piece of the American wilderness.
If you’re traveling all the way to Montana, don’t limit yourself to Glacier National Park if you have extra time. Across the state, there’s Yellowstone and countless other sites that tell the incredibly important history of this nation’s history.
Big Sky, not far from Yellowstone, is also surging in popularity. And a few hours farther south, you’ll find Jackson, Wyoming, and the Grand Tetons.
You may find there’s simply not enough time to see everything, but no matter how you decide to experience Glacier, you’ll certainly be glad you did.
Featured photo by HaizhanZheng/Getty Images.
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