Glacier National Park is not just a park. They aren’t just mountains and lakes, wildflowers and waterfalls. Visiting Glacier National Park, situated quietly in upstate Montana and drifting northward into Canada, is more of an experience.
Glacier’s outdoor variety is what impressed me the most about the park. In a day, visitors can feast their eyes upon beautiful flower-studded meadows, sweeping vistas, thunderous waterfalls and quiet lakes. The only thing that Glacier is missing are desert cactus!
Courtney and I visited this beautiful park over the course of 5 days, which happened to coincide with my birthday. It was definitely a birthday to remember.
Take the Going To The Sun road
Driving along the Going To The Sun (GTTS) road is the best way to experience Glacier National Park – at least on your first day.
The GTTS road twists visitors through the entire park in an East/West fashion. We stayed in West Glacier and drove eastward on our first day. Our goal was to see the entire area first to help us decide what piece of this stunning park to explore further over the course of our trip. In the end, we wanted to see everything.
If you prefer not to drive, free shuttles are available to take visitors from point to point within the park. Be aware, though, that these shuttles fill up very quickly, and waiting for extended periods of time for an available shuttle is not uncommon. The map above illustrates the GTTS road along with each shuttle stop – courtesy of the National Parks Service.
My wife and I never took the shuttle. We drove our rental car, a Nissan Sentra, throughout the park. We prefer to come and go as we please without conforming to shuttle schedules, but of course, your preferences may vary. 🙂
Word to the wise: Get up and start your trek across the park early. Glacier National Park in July gets busy, both hiking trails and the GTTS road alike. In fact, get to the Logan Pass visitor’s center after 9 or 10am and you might be waiting in your car for a while before a spot opens up. We saw plenty of people park a good half mile down the road and hoofing it back up to the trail heads. We arrived in the park between 7 and 7:30am each morning and easily found parking everywhere we went.
When you do make the 50 mile drive, be sure to use the pullouts and smaller parking areas along the GTTS road for some spectacular views. Though the park offers some fairly strenuous hiking trails for the more spirited adventurers, stunning views from just off the road are accessible to anyone willing to get out of their car and take a couple of steps.
For example, all of the snapshots below show views that are available to visitors without any hike.
Our favorite spot
It is incredibly tough to pick our favorite spot in the park because they were all so beautiful, but if we had to choose, it would probably be Two Medicine. The meadows were in full bloom, the lakes and waterfalls were stunning and the weather was perfect for our trek out in the wilderness. That, and the Aster Falls waterfall offered more adventurous climbers a chance to scramble up the side of the waterfall to get some pretty killer views. Like this one:
But seriously, there is no shortage of breathtaking scenery anywhere within the park. You literally can’t go wrong where ever you happen to go. This park is a wealth of amazing landscapes and wildlife.
Like at Lake McDonald:
Or this, at Hidden Lake:
If you are on the lookout for wildlife, try the Hidden Lake trail in Logan Pass. Within the first 30 minutes we were literally walking alongside a mother goat and her baby. To our surprise, the mother was not at all aggressive or protective of her young. We hikers were sure not to make any sudden movements, too. 🙂
We also saw some big horned sheep along this trail, along with several marmots who seemed curious and unafraid of our presence. Just before returning to the visitor’s center after our hike, we noticed a coyote calmly trotting beside the path as well. Animals coexisting with humans.
We did see a grizzly bear! In fact, we almost hit the thing because we were in our car and the bear was running across the road. No other bear sightings that week, fortunately.
Staying in West Glacier, MT
I won’t lie, there is not much in West Glacier. A few campgrounds scattered on either side of US Route 2 more or less make up the bulk of the population in the area. We stayed at the Vista Motel in a King Cabin. It was cosy, but offered all that we truly needed during our stay in the area – a king sized bed and bathroom facilities. Nothing else – literally. No chairs inside the cabin, but there were a couple of outdoor chairs on the cabin’s small wooden porch out front.
If you’re looking for food but don’t want to make the trek out to one of the surrounding cities (like Whitefish), there are a couple options in West Glacier. We dined at the West Glacier Restaurant (TripAdvisor) one evening. The food was okay, but I found the carpet to be exceptionally dirty for a restaurant. See, this is why restaurants rarely have carpeting.
Try the Belton Chalet for a much nicer affair, but also much more pricy. We ate here on the night of my birthday where I enjoyed some bison meatloaf. This was a very nice place and one that we would definitely dine at again.
Don’t forget to explore Whitefish
Whitefish is a small town about 25 minutes from Glacier National Park. If you like breweries and cosy wine bars, this is definitely your city. We ended up going into Whitefish three nights, trying a new brewery and restaurant each time.
I enjoyed a flight of six beers from the Great Northern Brewing Company on our second trip out to Whitefish after mistaking the Great Northern Restaurant for the brewery on our first night (they are different places, so be sure to pick the brewery if that is what you’re after – the restaurant did have pretty good burgers, though). Try the brewery’s Wild Huckleberry if you’re in the mood for something sweet and lighter. If you are a darker beer drinker, try the Dark & Ominous.
We also hit Bonsai Brewing, a very small microbrewery without a web site but with a Kickstarter campaign. Wonderful selection of brews here as well, and my preference was the Wicked Good Wit It. It’s as refreshing as the name is strange! This micro brewery is run out of what looks to be an old home and offers both indoor and outdoor seating.
If you aren’t a beer drinker, or just in the mood for some delicious grub, plant yourself down at the Buffalo Cafe and enjoy a plate of perfectly seasoned chips and homemade salsa before ordering your main meal. If you’re a chips and salsa eater, it’s worth it, trust me! This restaurant can fill up quickly, so plan accordingly.
Tips for making your Glacier trip great
Glacier is a wonderful place to visit, but keep a few tips in mind to help ensure that your visit is as enjoyable as possible.
- Start early in the day – I really cannot stress this one enough. Especially in the summer months, the park gets busy as the day rolls on, so if you’re looking for a little seclusion on your drive or hike in the park, start as early in the day as you can.
- Bring all-weather gear – You literally never know what the weather is going to be like in the park. It might be warm and sunny surrounding Glacier National Park, but that does not mean it won’t be cold and rainy inside. Bring jackets.
- Bring water-tight bags for valuables – Bring some water tight bags to put your electronics and other valuables in if it suddenly starts to rain in the park, which is quite common. It is better to not need one than to wish you had one! Get the kind that fold up nice and small when not in use to save space in your hiking pack.
- Check road and trail conditions before you go – Check online at nps.gov/glac/index.htm or with rangers about road and hike closures. Some roads in the park are closed in the winter due to snowfall, and the summertime brings chances of wildfires.
Enjoy some more pictures of our amazing trip to beautiful Glacier National Park.