A Glacier National Park Vacation! Glacier National Park in Montana seizes the imagination of Americans, thanks to its stunning alpine scenery, its outstanding hiking, and its (sadly) disappearing glaciers.
Glacier National Park is popular, with approximately three million visitors each year. Yet despite this, the vast majority of Americans and travelers from overseas will never visit this stunning gem of our park system. In part, that is likely because it is difficult for many people to plan for a Glacier National Park vacation. And this is especially true since the pandemic. We are thus here to help with this Glacier National Park Vacation Planning Guide.
Montana in general and Glacier National Park in particular have become very popular during the pandemic. This has resulted in a number of new realities:
- Guided hikes in the park, including our tours, often now sell out well in advance.
- The park service has imposed a requirement for advanced reservations to travel on the main Going-to-the-Sun Road, for entry from 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. The tickets only cost $2 but plan to reserve it advance.
- Accommodations in the park sell out well in advance for peak summer months.
When to Travel
The vast majority of Glacier visitors arrive during the summer months.
Glacier National Park receives few visitors in the months October through April, with over half of visitors in just two months: July and August. It is tempting to visit when the crowds are lower. However, the Glacier region gets a lot of snow and the main road through the park — Going-to-the-Sun Road — is not even open until late June or early July and closes again around the third Monday in October.
Our Recommendation: We understand many travelers are restricted to summer because of school schedules. If you are not, we suggest the absolute best time to visit is in September after Labor Day, when crowds start to diminish but most of the park is snow free and temperatures are still nice.
Lodging inside the park is somewhat limited. Out of approximately three million visitors per year, the park counts only 400,000 annual overnight stays. Most people stay outside the park and enter on day trips. Of those 400,000, in 2019 roughly 120,000 were in park lodges, 245,000 were in campgrounds, and 35,000 were from backcountry camping permits.
- National Park Lodges: The park has seven accommodations, ranging from motels to grand western-style hotels. These seven facilities are managed by two different park concessionaires, so you will need to check two websites for details and availability.
- National Park Campgrounds: There are 13 campgrounds in Glacier National Park with over 1,000 sites, three of which are reservable in advance at recreation.gov while others are first-come, first-served. The National Park Service updates information on availability, which is useful to see when campgrounds are filling up.
- Backcountry Chalets: The Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet are backcountry hike-in-only lodging facilities. Sperry Chalet was built in 1913 but destroyed by wildfire in 2017, which means the new building is brand new. Sperry is significantly more expensive than Granite Park and includes meals. Both lodgings are basic. You will need to check out both sites for details.
- Out-of-Park Lodging: One of the best gateway towns for Glacier National Park is Whitefish, Montana, a fantastic small town with plenty of lodging and restaurant options. Kalispell is right next to Whitefish and a bit bigger but not as cute as Whitefish, in our opinion. Even closer to the park are the small towns of West Glacier, Hungry Horse, Columbia Falls and Big Fork on the west side of the park. St. Mary and East Glacier Park Village are convenient places to stay when visiting the east side of Glaicer.
Our Recommendation: If you are coming to Glacier National Park for the hiking, we strongly suggest trying to stay at least one night at one of the two backcountry chalets. It is a fantastic experience to sleep in a place that is accessible only via foot. We also love camping in the national park campgrounds, some of which have evening ranger programs and all of which have the opportunity for seeing wildlife. If you need a roof over your head and a car out front, Whitefish is a great town but staying in the park, while possibly more expensive, will save you driving.
Getting There and Getting Around
The nearest airport is Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, which is only 35 minutes from the park. In terms of convenience, this is the clear winner. However, although it is the fourth busiest airport in the state, it is not a large airport and you might find limited flights or expensive fares. If you do, you can also check flights in Missoula (2:30 drive) or Bozeman (5:15 drive). You will need a car for your Glacier National Park vacation.
Our Recommendation: If you are planning a longer Montana vacation, definitely looking into open-jaw flights so you can arrive in Missoula or Bozeman and depart from Kalispell, as an example. However, if time is limited, we suggest flying into and out of Glacier Park International Airport and renting a car there.
What To See
Unlike Yellowstone, which has geothermal features all over the park, Glacier Park is more focused in its offerings. Many visitors come to the park to enjoy photography, wildlife viewing, fishing, bicycling, or simply gazing at the natural wonders, including glaciers. However, for our mind, Glacier National Park is best known for and best seen via hiking trails.
In fact, Glacier has over 700 miles of trails and over half of its visitors report taking at least one hike during their stay. The national park service divides the park into five different hiking regions. For each region, the park website provides an overview map and a list of hikes including distance and elevation change, which should allow you to select hikes suitable to your ability and interests.
Our Recommendation: Spend the time in advance to select hikes you wish to do, based on your planned lodging and your ability level. Most people will visit the Lake MacDonald, Logan Pass / St. Mary, and Many Glacier areas and contain the most famous hikes in the park, including Iceberg Lake, Grinnell Glacier, the Highline Trail, Swiftcurrent Falls, and Avalanche Lake. However, one of the less-visited and more interesting areas of the park to hike is the North Fork area, which has a load of hikes, many of them quite moderate in difficulty. If you plan to drive to popular trailheads (such as Avalanche Lake or Logan Pass), be sure to start early to make sure you get a parking spot, as they become full very quickly each day!
Seeing the Glaciers
The glaciers in Glacier National Park are receding and will disappear within our lifetimes. Seeing a glacier is a must when visiting the park.
It is possible to see the glaciers in Glacier National Park from the road. However, as the National Park Service says in its document How to See a Glacier, the park is not actually an easy place to see a glacier.
Our Recommendation: This is where being a hiker comes in handy. More glaciers are visible to hikers, via easy hikes as short as 1.3 miles one way to longer day hikes suitable for experienced hikers.
How Long to Stay in Glacier National Park
Far, far too many visitors spend one day in Glacier National Park and check it off their list. This is the best national park for hiking the country, so one day just simply is not going to cut it.
Our Recommendation: You should spend three to five days in Glacier National Park to adequately see multiple areas of the park and experience several hikes. If you are really into hiking or are backpacking, a week in the park is definitely not too much.
Avoiding the Glacier National Park Crowds
The ugly secret of Glacier National Park is not really a secret: the park service has a webpage on how to avoid the crowds. The truth is during peak summer months, you will encounter crowds and even capacity limits at parking lots, at visitor centers, on the free shuttles, and even on the hiking trails, with the most popular hikes containing thousands of hikers on peak days.
Our Recommendation: If you want to see the most famous sights on the most famous trails, either go during the off season or expect to share the trail. If you do go in the summer, go to bed early and get up really early to beat the parking lot crowds and get out on the trails before others. Finally, head to less-visited areas of the park such as the North Fork.
Glacier National Park Vacations With Travel Montana
You can certainly visit Glacier National Park on your own. So why should you consider traveling to the park with us? We know the park and know where and when to go. We take you off the beaten path and away from the crowds at some times, while still visiting major sites on the best trails. We also add in other Glacier region activities, packing everything into one five-day Glacier National Park Hiking Vacation.
Main Image Credit: Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development