Rough Draft: Glacier National Park, Montana
Due to the COVID quarantine, I am creating rough draft, “off the shelf” travel itineraries for when travel resumes normal operations so we do not waste any time getting out and exploring!
One of the biggest request from you guys was itineraries for visiting the National Parks which happened to be one of my 2020 goals. This may have to be a 2021 goal as I think everyone (EVERYONE) will be flocking to National Parks as a post-COVID escape plan. Many of the photographers we traveled with on our storm chasing trip frequent the country’s National Parks capturing unbelievable pictures and they could not speak more highly about visiting these areas. I have not hit many of the iconic National Parks so I will be taking the next couple itineraries to discovery them.
COVID Note: Many National Parks are requiring reservations in order to enter. This is separate from a park entrance fee. Be sure to check the requirements at the National Park official website and if needed, free reservations are made at recreation.gov often for a $1 or $2 service fee. These reservations are limited and are often gone within minutes of release so make sure you plan around this when it is in place.
Off to Glacier National Park!
Glacier has always caught my eye in photographs – the giant lake filled with multicolored pebbles, how cool is that? That lake is Lake McDonald and is the most accessible to the park entrance without much hiking at all. Researching this one was definitely a bit more work so let me summarize what I have found.
When to visit
The window to visit is very small – much smaller than other parks. Glacier is very close to the Canadian border so the season without ice and snow is limited. While the park is “open” from the middle of June until the end of September but most people recommend going from late July until the beginning on September to increase the odds of good weather and trail condition days.
How to get there
Getting there seems to be another small challenge but well worth the struggle. There is an airport less than an hour outside the park entrance Glacier Park Airport (FCA) that offers direct flights from surrounding major airports (Denver, Seattle, Las Vegas). May require a layover or two to get there. Most major airports are a four to eight hour drive away so just do the math to see which option works for you.
In terms of getting around, renting a car seems like a no brainer but there is a shuttle that also does transfers in and around the park. Since there are some longer trails here (over 10 miles one way), there seems like a benefit to a hybrid approach to your trip if you are going to do a through hike. Here is the map with the stops that the shuttles operate showing the hop on, hop off style. This can also be helpful is parking is not available for the closest trail you are trying to hike. Since it is a free service, I am sure it is a very popular option so expect it to be crowded and anticipate waiting.
Where to stay
While I know there are many types of accommodations for National Park trips, one that I am so excited to try is Under Canvas. My cousin (thank you!) introduced me to this kind of glamping style camping that looks just amazing! There are tons of camp grounds with varying amenities at various parts of the park and there are several towns surrounding the park such as West Glacier, St Mary, and Whitefish that can be used as bases. Depending on the time you have, some people may hop from place to place.
How much does it cost
There is a $35 fee per vehicle or a $20 fee per person without a vehicle, both are valid for 7 days. If you make National Park hopping a priority, make sure to check out the American the Beautiful Pass – $80 for the year and included entrance to over 2000 sites!
What are the trails
I will be honest, I had a difficult time following the trails at this park. There seem to be multiple names for trails and multiple ways you can get to a certain destination. I found this website to be helpful in sorting out all the trails as it outlines each of them with full descriptions on what you expect to see along the route.
The National Park website outlines the following trail areas:
I planned this itinerary assuming a 3 day trip but there is way more to do that can easily fill 5 or more days so keep that in mind while doing your own planning.
The main attraction here is the 50 mile “Going to the Sun Road” which is the only road that cuts through Glacier National Park so everything is based off of this road. It connects the town of West Glacier to St Mary with some significant elevation climbing, peaking at Logan’s Pass.
There are so many trails off of Going to the Sun Road that I think it needs two of the three days to explore everything there. One day can be driving the entire length and hitting some of the smaller trails showcasing lakes, waterfalls, and landscapes, while the second day can be dedicated the the Garden Wall and Grinnell Glacier / Lake that is a 13.5 mile through hike (Highline Trail). There are many longer trails, such as Siyah Pass at 9 miles, so I would pick your favorite to use one of your days for and really take the time to enjoy the trail. The third day can be dedicated to the Many Glacier area. There is so much nature here from animals to trees to flowers – there is a non-zero risk of having a bear encounter (Kevin will be thrilled) and I think this would be a great spot to try fishing (to make it up to Kevin for the bears).
Based on the duration of the hikes and the proximity to each other, here is how I would structure a 3 day itinerary. The closest airport is Glacier Park Airport and from there is less than an hour drive. As with most 3 day weekends, I like to fly on Thursday after work to get the most out of the three days at the destination.
|Evening||Drive to campsite
Stop by Lake McDonald for sunset if time permits
|Day 2||Morning||Going into the Sun Road
|Evening||Drive back through Going into the Sun Road and find a lookout for sunset|
|Day 3||Morning||Long Trail Day
|Evening||Relax at campsite|
|Day 4||Morning||Early morning fishing experience|
2 mile trail to Lake Josephine
Boat ride back Lake Josephine and Swiftcurrent Lake
|Evening||Drive to airport
I wouldn’t necessary commit to doing the trails in this order but the groupings are what is important. I would prioritize the best condition day do to the longer hike. I also would not want to commit to the longer trails on the last day of the trip cause I would be stressed out about missing the flight in case it is a bad hiking day and it takes longer to complete. And do not forget to check the National Park website frequently for check road and trail status as it can change.
I did not include a food section in the itinerary because most of the food here is trail snacks and lots of water! There are several grocery stores in town to stock up for hiking.
- Two Sisters Cafe (St Mary)
- Johnson’s Cafe (St Mary)
- Park Cafe – for pies! (St Mary)
- Many Glacier Hotel
- Nell’s (Swiftcurrent)
- Glacier Highland Restaurant (West Glacier)
- Loula’s Cafe (Whitefish)
- Glacier Perks Coffee House (Lakeside)
- Windmill Village Bakery (Ravalli)
Also, if you stay at Under Canvas they have a tent for meals and to-go food.
If you have been to Glacier National Park, let me know what I missed and what your favorites are!
Don’t forget to check out all DESKRIB itineraries here!