A Guide to Visiting Glacier National Park: Dreamy Mountains, Lakes, and Landscapes Galore

Glacier National Park is one of the most stunning protected regions in the U.S. Home to 26 glaciers, more than 200 waterfalls, 700 lakes, and over 700 miles of hiking trails, it’s a vast and special place to explore.

In high school, I saw a photo of Waterton Lakes on Instagram and knew I had to see it in person. But it wasn’t until college that I finally drove to Canada to see the Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, Waterton, Banff, Yoho, and Jasper. I had such a great time that I returned in the summer of 2019. And in the summer of 2021 and 2022.

Glacier National Park is one of the most magnificent parks in the nation. Located in northern Montana, this park is known for one of the most scenic drives in the world. The Going-to-the-Sun Road connects the east and west parts of the park as it winds up through towering mountains and clear blue lakes.

This park is also the first International Peace Park in the world. In 1932, it became the Waterton-Glacier National Park, which combines Waterton National Park in Canada with Glacier National Park in Montana.

These parks offer plenty of hiking, camping, backpacking, boating, and sightseeing opportunities. But with such a huge park, a trip to Glacier requires planning. This guide provides a solid overview so that when you visit, you know exactly where you’re going and what you want to do and see.

Visiting Glacier National Park: A Guide

Wild Goose Island viewpoint within Saint Mary Lake
Wild Goose Island viewpoint within Saint Mary Lake; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

How to Get There

Glacier has three visitor centers: St. Mary on the east side of the park, Logan Pass along Going-to-the-Sun road, and Apgar on the west side.

The Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana is about 40 minutes from the Apgar Visitor Center. Great Falls International Airport is about 2.5 hours away from St. Mary Visitor Center.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

Waterfall along the Going-to-the-Sun Road
Waterfall along the Going-to-the-Sun Road; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

The mountainous section of Going-to-the-Sun Road usually closes on the third Sunday of October and reopens in late June or even as late as July. Always check the road status and weather conditions before planning to go.

The vehicle size limits for the road are as follows, 21 feet (6.4 m) long, 8 feet (2.4 m) wide, and 10 feet (3 m) tall. You can also book a classic red bus tour, which will leave from either side of the park.

Reservation system: In 2022, there was a reservation system for the Going-to-the-Sun Road implemented, but it is unclear whether or not the park will continue it for the 2023 season. Check the website to stay up to date.

Hiking

Hiking the Highline Trail
Hiking the Highline Trail; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

There are five different areas to hike in Glacier National Park. Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, North Fork & Goat Haunt, St. Mary, and Two Medicine. Lake McDonald and St. Mary are the most popular as the Going-to-the-Sun road connects those two areas.

Hiking varies between short nature walks, day hikes to waterfalls or along lakeshores, longer day hikes across mountains, and backpacking trips of various lengths. There are over 820 miles of hiking within Glacier-Waterton International Park, so you’re sure to find a hike that’s perfect for your trip.

One of the most popular hikes is the Highline Trail. There are a few ways to hike this trail. One option is to leave your car at The Loop shuttle stop, hop on the shuttle to Logan Pass, hike along the cliffs, view the Grinnell Glacier overlook, visit Granite Peak Chalet, and then head down to the car.

The other way is to park at Logan Pass, hike the trail to The Loop shuttle stop, and get the shuttle back to Logan Pass.

Another option would be to hike from Logan Pass to Granite Chalet and back, which cuts out the shuttle system. But that is a 15-mile hike. The other routes are 11 miles, and the Grinnell Glacier overlook adds 1.6 miles roundtrip.

The part near Logan Pass is steep and rocky with a chain to hold onto as you follow along. So if you’re wary about heights, that part should be avoided.

Camping

Camping at the Apgar Campground
Camping at the Apgar Campground; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

There are 13 front-country campgrounds in Glacier and 65 backcountry campgrounds. Reservations for the front country become available on January 28, 2023, on recreation.gov.

A standard nonelectric site during the peak season (May 26 to September 4) is $23.00 for the Apgar Campground, the most popular campground with 194 sites. I’ve stayed here, at Sprague Creek, and Many Glacier before. They’re all great sites.

Waterton Lakes has two front-country campgrounds and 10 backcountry campgrounds. Reservations can be made on the Parks Canada Reservation System website.

Backpacking

Granite Park Chalet
Granite Park Chalet; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

Getting a backpacking permit for Glacier can be difficult, as it’s a lottery system. The website will become live on March 1, 2023, at 12:00 a.m. EST. In 2022, they had almost 4,000 entries.

The more flexible your dates and itinerary, the better your chance of getting a permit. The application is $40, but if you don’t receive a permit, you get $30 back.

As mentioned earlier, within the Highline Trail description, Glacier has two of the nine original chalets, Sperry and Granite Peak, built in the early 1900s. In 2022, staying at Granite Peak was $124 for the first person and $85 for each additional person in the same room, plus Montana tax.

Staying at the Sperry Chalet was $253 for the first person and $167 for each additional person in the same room, plus Montana Tax. The reservation system opens on January 9, 2023.

Boating

Lake McDonald from the Apgar Village dock
Lake McDonald from the Apgar Village dock; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

With over 700 lakes and 131 named, this park is perfect for kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, and more. If you bring your own, you will need to have it inspected for invasive aquatic species. You can also rent boats on Lake McDonald.

Another option is to book a tour with the Glacier Park Boat Company to enjoy a cruise on one of the many lakes with a tour guide.

If you’re wondering about accessibility in this park, The Disabled Traveler’s Companion covers all the different access options and all the park shuttles are ADA-accessible.

What About the Glaciers?

missing virginia hiker found dead in glacier national park
Glacier National Park; (photo/Nature Valley)

Unfortunately, due to the effects of climate change, many of Glacier National Park’s glaciers are shrinking at a rapid pace.

In 1850 there were about 80 glaciers. But as of 2015, only 26 remain — and they are shadows of their former selves. This is an important reminder that we should come together and do more to help the planet we love so much so we can continue enjoying the great outdoors forever.

Bonus: Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada

Waterton Lakes National Park is located in southwestern Alberta, Canada just across the border from Glacier National Park in Montana. It was the 4th National Park in Canada, and with Glacier National Park, it was the first Peace Park.

You’ll need a passport to cross into Canada from the United States and vice versa. There are three different border crossings. Piegan/Carway Port of Entry is open year-round from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., and it’s located on U.S. Hwy 89. The Roosville Port of Entry is open 24/7, and it’s located on U.S. Hwy 93. The Chief Mountain Port of Entry is only open in the summer.

If you visit Goat Haunt, located on the lake that connects with Canada, then, check the newest information about what you’ll need to visit. You may need additional verification, and with limited Wi-Fi and cell service, you’ll need to be prepared ahead of time.

The Peace Park

Peace Parks, like Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park, are “transboundary protected areas.” Essentially, they’re parks that stretch across national borders.

Out of about 130 International Peace Parks in the world, Glacier and Waterton Lakes was the first. It showed the world what is possible and that we ought to preserve the land regardless of borders. The mountains, lakes, and valleys connect all of us, regardless of nationality.

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