Ready and Roam / Glacier National Park
Best time to go: mid-May -September. However, Going-to-the-Sun Rd., joining the east and west park entrances is often closed until late June/ early July due to snow.
As lovers of the great outdoors, we have long wanted to visit Glacier National Park. We’d never been to Montana and have been awestruck by photos from our friends who have a cabin there. The wildlife, waterfalls and rivers, lush green meadows painted with wildflowers, and something about the way the sun hits those jagged mountains…it’s no wonder Glacier has been dubbed “Crown of the Continent”. It’s one of those places you almost want to keep to yourself! And I hesitate to shout out our vacation highlights because much of what makes Glacier so painfully beautiful is its serene and seemingly untouched landscape. But when the mountains are calling, you must go. And for us, that was mid-July, height of the tourist season. Although busy, July provides lovely weather, warm days and cool nights. It’s late enough in the summer for the roads to typically be free of snow and still early enough to avoid the ‘fire season’. We chose to make the 1200-mile trek from the Twin Cities in our trusty minivan and that’s what I’d do again, hands down, and not just because of the insane amount of clothing and gear we decided to pack (be prepared for all weather!). It’s true that the destination is breathtaking, but the journey there takes you through Americana at its best and is such a gorgeous drive. My tip is to find a good Podcast and just go. We left bright and early on our day of departure and made it 15 hours to Shelby, MT. The Best Western Inn made for a comfortable, friendly, and reasonably priced stop-off (bonus that it also has a pool). And from Shelby, we were less than 2 hrs from the park’s east entrance…easy peasy after our long drive and in a good position for a day of exploration!
Rtip: If you’re not up for the long drive you can fly into Kalispell and rent a car to explore the area. But a car is a must, unless you plan on biking throughout the park (which people do!).
In my heart of hearts, I hope that my kids were humbled on this trip and learned to truly appreciate our Earth in all her magnificent glory. I know that my husband and I were given a pretty eye-opening reminder. Not to get heavy on you, but global warming is a very real reality at Glacier…higher temperatures, melting glaciers, increasingly destructive forest fires, animals nearing extinction. These topics have become the fabric of everyday conversation here and have made Glacier a living laboratory for studying climate change. When the park was established in 1910, almost 150 glaciers were present. In 2015, only 26 active, named glaciers remained, and it is now predicted that there could be zero glaciers left in Glacier National Park by the year 2030. No more glaciers in less than 12 years?! That’s sobering.
So, what actually is a glacier, you may ask? And aside from giving the park its name, why is this a big deal? A glacier is a body of snow and ice of sufficient size and mass (approx 25 acres) to move under its own weight. In addition to being part of the landscape for thousands of years, glaciers play integral roles in the ecology of the region. Glaciers are essentially water (ice) reservoirs and provide cold water to streams and lakes during the summer melt each year. Increases in water temperature and decreases in water supply can affect and diminish native species and vegetation, wildlife, agriculture, and fire management. Larger fires, although important to the forest ecosystem in moderation, can be catastrophic and affect air quality of those living in the area. So, it’s all one big circle.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” - John Muir
Now, take a sip of your coffee (or wine) and a deep breath. We’re getting back to the fun part!
Because Glacier is vast and we wanted to immerse ourselves in each area, we split our week-long trip into 3 parts: West Glacier, St. Mary & Many Glacier, and East Glacier & Two Medicine. Spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road runs from the east side of the park to the west and is scenic, to say the least. Travel between these areas provides stunning photo opps at every turn and plenty of places to explore. Do not rush this 2-3 hr drive!
The Pine Lodge on Whitefish River / Reservations
Located about 45 minutes southwest of West Glacier, this quaint and artistic town on the Great Northern Railway was recommended by our friends, and after a couple full days of travel and camping ahead, we knew that our kids would, again, be craving a place with a pool. Pine Lodge on Whitefish River was perfect. We lucked out with a pool-side room overlooking the river. They serve a nice continental breakfast, and for those traveling with dogs, you are welcome here!
St. Mary Lodge / Reservations
St. Mary’s itself is not large, nor is it a place in which to take a leisurely stroll in the town center. But it’s practical, has great amenities, and is right down the road from the park’s east entrance. St. Mary’s Lodge offers rooms in the main lodge, in one of their brand-new tiny houses, or in one of the original but updated creekside Glacier Cabins. We loved coming back to our Glacier Cabin after long days of hiking. Our son had fun skipping rocks in the creek and we enjoyed eating dinner on our porch, watching the sun set. With a kitchenette, bedroom and living room futon, it worked very nicely for our family of four. In fact, had we not chosen to camp, we would make this lodge (or Many Glacier Lodge) our home base for the eastern part of the park.
St. Mary Campground / Reservations
If camping is your jam, St. Mary’s is one of 2 campgrounds within the national park that takes reservations in advance. The other is Fish Creek, near West Glacier. Little known fact: I’m somewhat ‘Type A’ and the thought of ‘camping out’ in the early morning to try and obtain a spot to camp didn’t appeal to me, especially with kids. If it does, I’d recommend heading to nearby Rising Sun Campground which is wooded and beautifully nestled in the cliff. Don’t get me wrong, St. Mary’s was great. It’s your typical car camping with neighbors nearby = less fear of bear activity (huge plus for me!). The facilities are clean and showers are available. It’s also close to town, which means you can be lulled to sleep by disco music from the local bars. #earplugsmaybe
Glacier Park Lodge (East Glacier) / Reservations
A stay at historic Glacier Park Lodge is like stepping back in time. The lobby is grand and the rooms are simple. Douglas Firs frame and support both the exterior and interior…and don’t let a fellow traveler tell you that they’re just a facade. Brought in by train and a crew of 75 men, they are the real deal! We stayed in a mountain-view room with a balcony, 2 queen beds and a modest but clean bathroom. And you know how my kids love a pool. They have one! If you’re tired out from your travels, relax your feet and take a comfortable seat next to a game or puzzle in the lobby or light-filled breezeway. And to get you jump-started for your day, they also offer a plentiful breakfast buffet. Just get there early for freshness sake.
Additional Notable Lodging:
In West Glacier, we stayed in our friend’s cabin for a few days, but our alternate was to stay in Fish Creek Campground (highly recommended, on the shores of pristine Lake McDonald, and available to reserve in advance). If you’d rather have a roof over your head, Apgar Village Lodge & Cabins offers rustic cabins on the lake. They’re convenient to activities inside and outside of the park and another great choice for a home base on this side of the GNP. Sadly, the Howe Ridge Fire has caused closures and destruction in this area, burning more than 14,000 acres. Before booking, you may want to inquire about damages.
In Many Glacier, Majestic and situated on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, the historic Many Glacier Hotel has a Swiss feel and recently renovated rooms. It is a site to see. But in keeping with all of the major lodges within the park, its comfortable accommodations do not include A/C or television. If you are able to book a room here, this would also be a wonderful home base for the area.
R:tip. Don’t hesitate! Lodging fills up quickly. Try to reserve a year in advance.
Montana is a mecca for nature enthusiasts of all types, and Glacier is at its pinnacle. It would take hours to tell you where to go and what to do, from water activities to scenic drives, horseback riding to history lessons, hiking, spotting wildlife, fishing… honestly, I could live a lifetime there and never be bored a single day! But frankly, you don’t need me to be your guidebook. What I will say is that, while our trip was heavy on the hiking and we stayed very active, some of our favorite moments came when we weren’t moving at all. Silly at it seems, we loved watching a nest of caterpillars spontaneously dance whenever we made a slight noise - or a ground squirrel gather gobs of blueberries from someone’s picnic lunch. So I urge you to stop and listen, pause and be quiet…take in all the sights, smells, and sensations that don’t surround you every day. This isn’t a trip to check things off the list, as counterintuitive as that is for me. Take a moment…and be still. With that said, let’s get to the good part.
Apgar Village, near West Glacier, is the quintessential national park community. Grab lunch there, sun yourself, and jump off the pier at Lake McDonald. Get that perfect photo! But first, look down. Reflect on the fact that you can see the multi-colored rocks all the way on the bottom. You can thank the glaciers for that crystal-clear water. It will take your breath away, in more ways than one.
Raft / website
I almost became a white-water rafting guide after college (Mom and Dad loved that) so a major highlight of the trip for me was floating the Flathead River. There’s just something about experiencing beautiful views from the water, along with a healthy dose of fun and adventure. We were fortunate that our friends own a raft and are very comfortable with the river. This perfect day included a picnic lunch and and a few stops to hike the prairie, make tadpole habitats, and ride the rapids. With a clear conscience, I can’t recommend rafting by yourself. Safety first, friends! But an excellent alternative is hiring a rafting guide for a 1/2, full or multi-day tour. Glacier Raft Company, out of West Glacier, seems to be the best!
We could drive this stretch of Montana over and over again. The scenery is indescribable, and just imagining how the road was built has my head spinning. The views headed east look vastly different than when driving west and I recommend doing both. There are overlooks and stop-offs galore so take your time. Parking lots for the more popular destinations and trailheads fill up by 8am. Plan to leave early for things at the top of your wish list…or just have patience and try for a spot further down the road. Either way, you’ll being enjoying Mother Earth at her finest.
Look for Wildlife
It won’t take you long to discover that you’re not alone, and I’m not talking humans this time. In one single day we saw grizzlies, black bear, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mule deer, ground squirrels, and a shrew. Keep your eyes open and give them space, for their sake and yours! We had some extra luck spotting near the meadow right before the Rising Sun Campground in the Many Glacier area.
Take a Hike
But, first and foremost, head to a Ranger station if your kids are at the age to become a Jr. Ranger (mine are 10 and 12 and loved it). Even if not, it’s a wonderful place to begin. These people are passionate about passing it on…their knowledge, intent for preservation, and commitment to keeping the parks safe for visitors and animals/ nature alike. And with more than 700 miles of trails in Glacier’s remote wilderness, they can provide some great tips on what’s open and suitable for your group. Below are some of our favorites:
Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake (6 miles, 3 hrs)
An easy boardwalk takes you through striking cedar groves before meeting up with the trailhead to Avalanche Lake, on to gorgeous Avalanche Gorge (be careful of your footing here!) and finishing at glacial-blue Avalanche Lake. You’ll feel like you stepped into a postcard.
Iceberg Lake (10.4 miles, 5 hrs)
This isn’t for the weary, but it’s well worth the effort and offers some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen. After a strenuous climb up, it’s fairly flat and stopping for a snack at Ptarmigan Falls restored some energy. At 10 miles round trip, it nearly broke our tired children. They were troopers, though, and seeing their Dad do a polar plunge in a lake filled with icebergs more than made up for it!
Grinnell Lake and Glacier (2-7 miles, 1-4 hrs)
Here’s an opportunity to see a real-life glacier up close and personal. Departing from Many Glacier Hotel, reserve a spot with Many Glacier Boat Company for a beautiful ride over Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine and to help shed miles off your trek. Grinnell Lake is an amazing turquoise blue, and crossing the swinging bridge to get there was so fun! I wish we’d had the energy to hike the full way to Grinnell Glacier, but it wasn’t in the cards for us this time around.
Logan Pass- Hidden lake Overlook (2.6 miles to overlook, 2-3 hrs)
Located on the Continental Divide, you’ll clearly have some elevation here, meaning colder temps too. Your legs may burn in the first half of this hike but will soon take you through snow fields and flower-filled meadows. ‘The Hills are Alive’ kept playing in my head, and watching hardcore skiers hike and ski down Mount Clements was a real treat! You will see adorable mountain goats along the way. Note that they are not afraid of you so keep your distance. This trail can be busy. Do it anyway. It’s a must.
Sunrift Gorge and Baring Falls
Grab your hammock and a beverage and take it easy here. The trailhead is right off the road and it’s a beautiful place to relax. On the way back, a mule deer crossed our trail and was sweet to grace us with her presence for a bit. You’ll also see evidence of the 2015 Reynolds Creek fire here.
Take in the golden glow of Sun Point after a full day. It’s an easy 5-minute stroll to the top of the point overlooking St. Mary Lake and Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Running Eagle Falls
This is a leisurely, but lovely jaunt from the parking lot in Two Medicine to a creek for skipping stones and seeing a waterfall that seems to come right out of the rock.
Two Medicine South Shore Trail to Paradise Point
The last hike of our trip was bittersweet. Two Medicine is worth the visit if you have the time. Aside from its sheer beauty, it is typically far less crowded than the rest of the park. Through meadows and between lakes, berry patches, and over a bridge, this hike sweetened our soul.
Rtip: Take snacks, pack lunches and loads of water, and carry bear spray on your hikes (make noise, too!). Try to travel in groups when you can, talk to people and make friends. Equally as lovely as the landscape are those walking with you on the trails or lounging with you by the lake. Maybe it was partly the crisp mountain air, but I felt a natural high and a sense of humanity restored during this trip.
Montana Coffee Traders / website
If you’re in the Whitefish area, start the day by fueling up here. They have great grab and go foods, a variety of house-roasted coffees, and gifts. Plus, there’s a fantastic clothing store attached, I’m still thinking about the hand-crafted ring I should’ve purchased there.
Meriwether / website
In addition to rings, I’m a sucker for sarcasm and a good receptacle to keep my beverage the right temp. You’ll find the hilarious marriage of the two at Meriwether, a boutique devoted to the creation of one-of-a-kind gifts and lifestyle goods (pins, patches, apparel, mugs, and glasses) I added the hyperlink above, but if you think you may visit, no peeking! If you can’t get there, click away. These make great gifts.
Trail Creek Outfitters / website
Maybe not as kitschy, but this place, located in St. Mary Village, has got it going on as far as Glacier goods go. Sure, they’ve got your souveniers, postcards, and t-shirts, but they also sell camping gear and a full line of clothing and outerwear. This is where you want to be if you didn’t come quite prepared for your adventure - or if you want some cool new stuff. I found an awesome hat in no time!
Polebridge Mercantile & Bakery / website
Polebridge is tiny, off-the-grid and out of the way. If you’re already in the area and in the mood for some amazing baked goods, head to ‘The Merc’. The Saloon next door has outdoor picnic-table dining and delicious food, as well as an interesting history. But if you’re worried about keeping a clean car, this isn’t your place. This is a place where ‘dust’ is a 4-letter word and Main Street is nothing but a dirt road. With that comes some lovely, quirky charm.
(World Famous) Johnson’s of St. Mary/ website
This place is legit homestyle cooking, served family style. You’ll find comforts like thick-cut pork chops, chicken-fried steak, rainbow trout, and some scrumptious sides. And like the Johnson’s says, ’Remember, vacation calories don’t count’.
Two Sisters Cafe / website
We didn’t have a meal here, we came for their delectable desserts. The menu is diverse and nicely priced, though, and the warm Huckleberry Pie is off the charts. In fact, any time you see huckleberry in or around GNP…ice cream, lemonade, jam, syrup…get it in your mouth before the bears do. Yum! Hint: head to the deck to take a peek at their license-plate version of the US map.
You’ll read it on every website about Glacier, the weather can change in an instant. We saw this first-hand and it was pretty cool (literally)! We began in St. Mary in 40-degree fog. We were happy to have been wearing our trusty fleeces and hiking pants. Halfway through Going-to-the-Sun Road, the sky opened up and clouds cleared. The sun shone down and we were warm again. I’ll be honest…it felt pretty glorious. The take home? Layer, layer, layer. Also, bring comfortable hiking shoes and socks…don’t be the people on the trail with flip flops.
You must know that my husband was hell-bent on camping and I do truly love it. However, I would have probably chosen to stay put a bit more, maybe chose 2 or 3 places to stay. If you are camping, invest in an air mattress and a warm sleeping bag. Nighttime temps (even in July) can be in the 30s.
On the upside, we’d like to work horse back riding into the mix on our return visit and hop the chairlift at Whitefish Mountain Resort. And one of these days, before the glaciers are gone, I’d really like to make it all the way to Grinnell Glacier. I hope that day is soon.
Click to see everywhere Jen explored in My Maps