A Guide for Visiting Glacier National Park
If you enjoy majestic mountain views, then Glacier National Park needs to be on your travel bucket list. With over 700 miles of trails and 1,583 square miles of beautiful scenery, this park provides a beautiful view around every curve. Located in Northwest Montana along the Canadian border, Glacier National Park is known as the “Crown of the Continent.” It is home to one of the country’s most scenic drives, Going to the Sun Road.
Last summer we had the pleasure of spending 4 days in Glacier, and we wish it could have been more. There are so many things to do at Glacier National Park that you could spend weeks in the park and not run out of things to do. We are sharing a few of our favorites to help you plan your trip and make the most out of your visit to Glacier.
Going to the Sun Road
Going to the Sun Road is 50 miles of some of the most beautiful scenery you will ever have the pleasure of seeing. As you make the trek across the park, you will see majestic mountains, cascading waterfalls, glaciers, valleys painted with wildflowers, beautiful crystal clear lakes and you may be lucky enough to spot some wildlife. A few of the highlights for us were the Bird Woman Falls Overlook, The Weeping Wall, Logan Pass, Jackson Glacier Overlook and Saint Mary Lake. The Weeping Wall was a favorite of our kids. When driving from the east to west, you will drive through the falling water. So make sure you have your windows up if you don’t want a car full of water! Driving Going the Sun in the evening gives you many opportunities to enjoy the sun setting behind the mountains. We drove from west to east and then made the return trip in the late evening. On our way back, we pulled into the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot to find a herd of big horn sheep walking around. We sat and enjoyed watching their antics for a few minutes and, of course, we took a lot of pictures.
Things to know:
- Parts of Going to the Sun Road usually do not open until the end of June because of snow. We were there the first week of July, and it had just opened the week before.
- Vehicles and vehicle combinations can be no longer than 21 feet and 8 feet wide.
- You can catch a shuttle to Logan Pass at both the Apgar Visitor Center and St. Mary Visitor Center.
- If you are wanting to just ride and focus on the amazing scenery, Red Jammer Bus tours are available. This fleet of 33 vintage 1930’s buses is considered to be the oldest operating fleet of vehicles in the world.
- If you have a vehicle that is too long, but want to drive, Jeep rentals are available at Glacier Jeep Rentals. This was the best money we spent on our trip. Enjoying the view from a Jeep without the top is an amazing experience! The people at Glacier Jeep Rentals are wonderful too!
- There is no fuel available on Going to the Sun Road so fill up before starting the drive!
- It will take 2 hours to make the entire drive without making any stops, but I suggest leaving yourself an entire day to explore Going to the Sun Road going both directions.
Hidden Lake Overlook Trail
The Hidden Lake Nature Trail leaves from the west side of Logan Pass Visitor Center. On this 2.7 mile roundtrip hike, you will gain 540 total feet while walking through alpine meadows and enjoying great mountain views. When people told us about this trail, all of them said we would see a “little” snow. We were expecting to see a few patches of snow along the way. Being from Texas, even that would have been a treat. So, imagine our surprise when we started on the trail and realized we would be walking almost the entire way in thick snow! We quickly understood our tennis shoes were not the best for hiking in the snow, and we all had wet bottoms pretty quickly. We heard several hikers on the way back down the trail talking about seeing a grizzly bear close to the overlook. (The next day we heard the trail was temporarily closed.) Unfortunately, we never made it to the overlook. There was one slightly tricky part to the trail and E put her bottom on the ground and said she was not going any further. She has a slight issue with heights, and we were afraid we may get her over that one tricky spot but would not be able to get her back. We all regret not continuing the hike (even E!) and plan to complete it the next time we visit.
Trail Of Cedars
Trail of Cedars starts and ends on Going to the Sun Road just 5.5 miles east of Lake McDonald Lodge.This trail is very popular and has a small parking area. Parking fills up fast, so go early in the day. This trail is short, at only one mile, but is jammed packed with beautiful views. In this unique part of the park, you will hike through cedar trees and ancient western hemlocks. The cedars in this valley can be up to 100 ft tall and 4-7 feet in diameter. Some of them are over 500 years old. The trail follows Avalanche Creek for a short distance, and one of the highlights of the trail is Avalanche Gorge. Near the halfway point, you will have the option to extend your hike by taking the trail to Avalanche Lake (1.6 miles). For a fabulous view of Avalanche Gorge, go up the Avalanche Creek trail just a little ways. The extra steps are worth it for another look at the Gorge. If visiting during the summer months, you will most likely encounter many people on this popular trail, but despite the number of people it is a very peaceful and enjoyable hike.
Things to Know:
- This trail is handicap accessible.
- This trail is made up of raised boardwalk and dirt path.
- You will pass Avalanche Creek Campground on the trail.
- The trail starts and ends on Going to the Sun Road, but not in the same spot. There is a short walk between the trailheads. Most people start at the eastern entrance.
Many Glacier is often referred to as the “Switzerland of North America” and as you drive through the area, you will be in awe of the bright blue glacier fed lakes, the majesty of towering mountains and, if visiting in the spring, the fields painted by wildflowers. We drove over to Many Glacier after driving across the park on Going to the Sun Road. We only drove through the area, but wish we could have spent an entire day there. Many Glacier is a beautiful section of the park and at the center is Many Glacier Hotel, which sits on the banks of Swiftcurrent Lake. If you are looking to do some hiking, this area of the park has many trails. In fact, you could spend an entire week in this section alone and do a different trail each day. The most popular trails are Grinnell Glacier (7.6 miles/strenuous) and the Iceberg Lake Trail (9.7 miles/strenuous).
Things to Know:
- You must exit Glacier National Park at St. Mary and drive about 25 minutes. You will go north on US-89 for 8.5 miles and then turn left onto Rte 3 and drive 7.5 miles to the Many Glacier Entrance. You must have a park pass to enter the Many Glacier area.
- On US-89 you will pass 2 Sisters Cafe. This little restaurant is an excellent stop for lunch or dinner. The owners are very friendly, the food is good but the desserts are to die for. You must try the huckleberry mountain and huckleberry cheesecake. The huckleberry mountain is a freshly made brownie topped with huckleberry ice cream, homemade hot fudge and whipped cream. We stopped in the early evening and had to wait about 20 minutes for a table, but the owner kept us entertained and it was worth the wait!
Apgar Village is located on the shores of Lake McDonald. In the Village, you will find several shops, Apgar Village Lodge, the nature center and an amazing view of Lake McDonald. If you are interested in shopping, the shops provide an excellent opportunity to stock up on souvenirs. Several of the stores sell ice cream and other treats. We each got a huckleberry ice cream cone and enjoyed it while sitting on park benches next to Lake McDonald. We enjoyed taking in the beautiful views and watching the kayakers out on the lake. If you are interested, they do rent kayaks to go and explore the lake.
After enjoying our ice cream, we took off our shoes and walked a little in the water. If you plan on doing this, I would suggest wearing water shoes. If you have ever walked on Legos, you know what if feels like to walk on the tiny jewel colored pebbles covering the ground in and around the lake. In the center of the Village is a green space, and, on the day we visited, we found 2 park volunteers letting people look at the sun through a telescope. The kids enjoyed learning about the sun and the Northern Lights from these volunteers. Another highlight of Apgar Village is the Nature Center. The building is small, but our kids enjoyed learning about the different animals that call the park home. They also give ranger talks outside the Nature Center. We attended a ranger talk about the history of Apgar and were fascinated with the stories the ranger had to tell. We visited Apgar Village, because the kids heard about the Nature Center and wanted to check it out. We planned on spending a few minutes exploring and ended up spending several hours enjoying this area.
Polebridge Mercantile and Bowman Lake
Polebridge Mercantile was first built in 1914 just 4 years after Glacier National Park became a park. In 1994, a bakery was added and now people drive for miles to sample one of their baked goods. Driving down the dusty North Fork road, you will start to think you are never going to get there, but then you will drive around a bend and see the sign for Polebridge. Even though it seems like you are in the middle of nowhere, this is a popular destination, so do not be surprised if you have to stand in line to select your baked goods. The bakery is open every day of the summer and fresh baked goods are made daily. Be prepared to make a big decision when you are forced to make a selection from gigantic cinnamon rolls, huckleberry bear claws, cookies and much more. Blaine and J got regular cinnamon rolls, E got a cinnamon roll with cherries in the middle and I got a huckleberry bear claw. We would recommend all of those, but I think the bear claw was the best.
Once you make your selection, you can step outside and sit at one of several picnic tables. It’s a great place to sit and enjoy the scenery and your treat from the bakery. When you leave Polebridge, you can drive a little further to Bowman Lake. The 6 mile unpaved drive is very narrow and, once you get to the lake, the parking is limited. This is a popular swimming and kayaking location, so if you want to find parking make sure you arrive early. We arrived around 10:00 A.M., and there was no available parking. Several people were parked along the road, but our Ford F350 was too wide to park on such a narrow road, so we were unable to visit this lake. When we return to Glacier National Park, Bowman Lake is definitely on our to do list.
The best tip we can give anyone visiting Glacier National Park is to take your time and enjoy the beauty around you. There is so much to see, but if you are constantly rushing to the next thing, you will never really appreciate what you are seeing. You will want to take photos to capture just a little of the beauty around you. Once you have taken your fill of pictures, set your camera down and just enjoy the moment. If you have only one day in Glacier National Park, then driving Going to the Sun Road and the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail should be on your to do list. Trail of Cedars, Many Glacier, Apgar Village, Polebridge and Bowman Lake should be on your list if you are lucky enough to spend several days in the park. We hope if you are planning a trip to Glacier we have helped you prepare your to do list. If you are not planning a trip, we hope by reading this you have decided a trip to Glacier should be in your future. Happy planning and exploring!
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