Glacier National Park
All of the non-travel of 2020 creating rough draft itineraries for a time in the unknown and distant future where travel would be safe again – it is now very rewarding to be on the other side. Being able to browse the rough draft itineraries and select one to execute – makes it feel like that down time, despite not traveling, served a purpose.
I wanted to take full advantage of our America the Beautiful Pass that we purchased in Hawaii – while I predicted that 2020 would be the year of National Parks, I think 2021 is going to be no different. After a successful visit to Yosemite National Park in the springtime, I wanted to try and capture another National Park before our pass expired. Glacier National Park had been top of my list after making all the rough draft itineraries and while it has an extremely short season, I was hoping we may be able to take advantage of a faux-shoulder season.
I took a look at the rough draft itinerary and was quite happy with how the itinerary was structured. I was able to find direct flights from JFK thanks to a tip from my brother that one even existed and this flight route gave us five days to enjoy which was ideal. While peak season is July and August, we were visiting over Labor Day weekend so I think attempting to go in the September should season may be confounded by the holiday. Either way, we were excited to visit another National Park!
Our flight with Jetblue leaving out of JFK with direct service to Kalispell left on a Thursday evening. We learned that this was actually an inaugural route for Jetblue and our flight back home was the last flight of the season. Hopefully Jetblue finds this route to be profitable as it is a very convenient direct flight to Glacier National Park for those in the NY area which was a ton of travel time. Our flight was completely booked so my guess is that the service is popular.
Upon arrival very late at night, we noted that the Kalispell airport is teeny tiny (thought still larger than our favorite Trenton airport). Since renting a car is essential for visiting Glacier National Park, the rental service counters are conveniently located next to the exit and baggage claim. We were able to quickly confirm and receive our vehicle before quickly exiting and meeting our Subaru Outback which was a surprising upgrade from the economy vehicle we booked.
Since our Airbnb was not available for the first night of our trip, I found the best / affordable budget accommodations I could find which ended up being a Super 8 in downtown Kalispell. When it comes to picking out motel styled places, the biggest thing I look for is cleanliness in the reviews and the Super 8 was quite clean. We arrived so late in the night and while we were curious what downtown Kalispell looked like, our priority was unpacking as little as possible and going right to sleep.
The Super 8 served its purpose. Our stay was merely to sleep – we did not take part in the free breakfast buffet full of unmasked individuals and instead checked out early and headed out on our adventure. Starving, our first stop was one of many coffee roasters in the Glacier area – Montana Coffee Traders. With locations in each of the main towns outside of West Glacier – Kalispell, Columbia Falls, and Whitefish – this coffee shop is a local staple.
We arrived to the Columbia Falls location excited for a real breakfast. Kevin ordered a large coffee and the Traders Taters – grilled potatoes topped with black beans, fresh avocado, two scrambled eggs, bacon, Monterey Jack cheese, salsa and multi grain toast. I ordered the Breakfast Wrap – two scrambled eggs, grilled potatoes, cheddar cheese, a choice of meat (I chose bacon) all wrapped in a flour tortilla. We were so happy to be eating a hot big meal and these were both so delicious and Kevin really enjoyed his coffee. And thus solidified our multi-day love affair with Montana Coffee Roasters.
From here we decided to take our first journey into Glacier National Park. Going to the Sun Road is the bloodline of Glacier National Park, is 50 miles long and runs from the West Glacier entrance to the St Mary entrance with some significant elevation climbing for many scenic overlooks.
For the 2021 season, there were a number of planning points required for visiting:
- Park pass is required – There is a $35 fee per vehicle or $20 fee per person with a vehicle, both are valid for 7 days. The America the Beautiful Pass is also accepted.
- Reservations are required for access to the Going to the Sun Road – This is in order to limit the number of people due to COVID. The tickets can be booked at reservation.gov and are free with a $1 surcharge on the website to process the ticket. The pass is good for 7 days from the day at which the reservation starts. If you access the Going to the Sun Road before 6AM during the period at which a reservation is required, you do not need a reservation. Reservations for 2021 were required from park open in May until Labor Day.
- Additionally, there are reservations required for the shuttle as well. The shuttle did not operate in 2020 sot his was a benefit to postponing a trip to 2021. That being said, reservations had to be made in order to ride the shuttle. The tickets can be booked at reservation.gov and are free with a $1 surcharge on the website to process the ticket. You have the choice of selecting a time (in hour increments) in which you can start using the shuttle for that day. Reservations are needed per day and per person to ride.
It is not determined if the 2022 season will require this system but be prepared for this in case it continues – my guess is that it will. I mention all of this because I do not think once COVID is “over” the reservation system will go away so please make sure to read the national park website for any park you are looking to visit to make sure you understand how to visit.
Our first time driving into Glacier National Park was so exciting! We passed through West Glacier and made our way to the official entrance. Park rangers are stationed to check reservations for Going to the Sun Road and identification that matches the name on the reservation – be sure to have this paper printed out as it makes the validation process much smoother.
For those that enter and do not have a reservation, they are either turned away or sent to a ticket center outside the park for any left over availability. After passing the first check point (and being complemented on my ability to read and follow directions, thank you very much), the road leads to the ticket booths for a final check of reservations as well as park passes.
While I had longer trails tagged for the rest of the trip, I figured we would get to know the Going to the Sun Road and make a few early stops on the 50 mile road before our big hiking days later on in the trip. Our plan was to walk the easy trail of the Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake and then make some stops on the way out of the park. The drive begins right a Lake McDonald, one of the park’s icons, and we were excited to see it later in the day.
We arrived at the parking lot the Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake just before 9AM and it was bopping – cars took up every spots we passed, the lot by the trailhead already had a full sign outside, and there were far too make people circling for spots than there we people leaving. At this point in time, it certainly did not feel like the reservation system capped capacity and it was still early in the day! After a full pass of reasonable parking, we turned around and decided to try parking in the lot identified as full and while the traditional spots were indeed all full, there seemed to be some turnout spots that could take on a few cars. Even though it was not obvious, we parked in one area and gave it a few minutes to make sure it was permitted. Before we knew it, all the spots were taken by other cars – so the odds of us all getting towed were much lower. So interesting observation here just minutes into the park – the full parking signs seem to be always posted which means 1) parking at Glacier National Park must be intense and 2) the signs may not always reflect the actual status. With parking secured, it was time to start our first trail in Glacier National Park!
Read about the Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake here!
After our first trail of Glacier National Park, we turned back to the West Glacier entrance. We made a pit stop at a pull off area to get a better look at Lake McDonald. When we got out of the car we were just amazed at the view! The rocks really are as colorful as I read about, which consist of Dolomitic limestone, red argillite, and green argillite. We decided to eat some snacks here and enjoy the view before heading to Apgar Visitor Center.
Our mission at the visitor center was simple. We had reservations for the shuttle tomorrow but in order to use it, the reservation needed to be validated (get a colored wristband), starting at 7AM that day. Since we would be tackling an incredibly long hike, we would be starting the hike by 6AM so we would miss the validation in the morning and therefore not be able to ride the shuttle. I read that you can validate your reservation up to 72 hours ahead for this reason so I asked the park ranger who said it was not possible. When I told her the situation again, and emphasized that this is the most popular trail in the park and taking the shuttle is a part of this one way trail that requires a 6AM start time which is before the 7AM open, she shrugged and said that “maybe” the guy would let us but probably not. There was a gentleman sitting by the bus stop clearly with the validation/wristband power. I explained the situation – that we would not be at this bust stop at 7AM but instead an hour into the Highline Trail, he nodded and hooked us up with red wristbands for tomorrow. Was that so hard? Thank you sir! Of note, the visitor centers are really nice – they have clean bathroom facilities, water bottle filling stations with delicious water, and great reference materials beyond the basic map.
We continued from the Visitor Center to Apgar Village. In addition to multiple visitor centers in the park, there are also multiple villages full of extracurricular activities, places to relax, and spots for food. The Apgar village was bopping, which should have been clear based on the parking situation at the trail earlier. We were able to get a parking spot with only one time circling around. We quickly walked down to the lake to get a glimpse of the iconic view – Lake McDonald and all the peaks of Glacier National Park.
It really is gorgeous! We enjoyed admiring the multicolored stones and trying to identify the different peaks. Fortunately, there is an awesome sign that points to each of the mountains and names them which is a great touch.
We came here to not only admire the view but also to get out on the water. I thought it would be fun to take an hour and paddle on the lake. There are a few different places to rent a boat – there is one directly on the water and also one we noted further from the lake. We opted for convenience and went with an hour rental with the company at the lake. Unfortunately, they were out of kayaks at the moment so we picked a canoe instead and I channeled my inner Pocahontas.
Being out of the lake was so peaceful! We paddled out a bit then just sat on the water, admiring the view of the mountains. Tomorrow, we would be exploring those mountains up close so it was hard to imagine what it is like up there. The paddle back to the shore was a bit more exhausting as we battled the wind – at times felt like our strongest paddling barely moved us so I am glad we left plenty of time to get back. Overall, very happy with the decision and would recommend if you have some downtime, want a break from hiking, or just prefer to be on the water.
We exited the park and made our way back out to the highway. Both hungry, I had many options in mind for how to fix the problem. The first stop was just outside the park – The Huckleberry Patch. Huckleberry reigns supreme in these parts and the Patch was where you can get your huckleberry fix. We got a pie of huckleberry pit and topped it with a scoop of huckleberry ice cream – we went all in. The pie was warmed up before the ice cream was piled on so it made for a lovely container of huckleberry love.
And I have to say, we instantly loved huckleberry! The pie was so delicious – the pie was warmed up before the ice cream was piled on so it made for a lovely container of huckleberry love. Could have stopped here every day for this post hike treat.
Our next stop was obtaining lunch for tomorrow’s through hike and Laurie’s Deli located right in the middle of Columbia Falls fit the bill. Kevin and I each ordered a sandwich and grabbed a bag of chips. We even mentioned to them the sandwiches were for tomorrow and they arranged them so it would not get soggy and gave us condiments in single use packets – so thoughtful! I was disappointed this was the only day the deli would be open while we were here – due to the holiday weekend, I knew this would be a risk.
We thought if we checked into the Airbnb we would not have the energy to go back out so we decided to go straight to dinner. A fifteen minute drive from Columbia Falls is the town of Whitefish. When we approached, the difference was evident – this was more of a resort town, full with a big downtown mall area and a ski mountain in the distance. We were eager to check things out but for now, we were here for Wich Haus.
It feels silly to get excited about a sandwich place but this was more than just a sandwich spot – these were gourmet, artisan sandwiches with a rotating menu depending on what is available and in season. We arrived shortly 4PM and seemed to be a good time – after the lunch rush (which we heard the staff commenting on) and before the dinner crowd. Sandwiches are made to order so I can understand how it takes time to craft each individually and can create a bit of a bottleneck. After ordering, we grabbed a seat in their lovely outdoor terrace area which offered plenty of seating options and great music to relax to. After 15 minutes, our buzzer rang and we retrieved our meals.
Look at these sandwiches! Wow we were so impressed – these sandwiches were enormous and looked excellent.
- ZLT: Crispy smoked zucchini with heirloom tomatoes, local baby lettuce, whipped zucchini ricotta, fresh basil, and garlic mayonnaise on our haus purple barley loaf bread
- Fried Chicken Thigh: Fried buttermilk-brined Montana Hutterite chicken thigh with spicy pickled Paradise peaches, grilled peach marmalade, charred jalapeno mayonnaise, mint, and basil on our haus wheat bun
Both were so so amazing. The portion sizes were huge and they were so flavorful and creative. Another spot were I was disappointed we would not have the opportunity to dine here again due to the holiday closure. We highly recommend added Wich Haus to your stops when visiting Glacier National Park.
It was finally time to go see our Airbnb. Options were certainly limited when we booked just a month out. I expected slim pickings since it is not uncommon to book a Glacier National Park trip a year ahead of time. But we were lucky that this one was available as it had everything we were looking for – parking, clean, comfortable, and the ability to the laundry. Packing in a personal item is great but it requires washing clothes, especially with all of our outdoor activities.
What a great full first day exploring this area! There is way more to do in the towns near the park so it was exciting to have that to look forward to but tomorrow, we tackle the long through hike.
The alarm went off at 3:45AM and we were out the door before 4:30AM. Remember when I said parking is intense at Glacier National Park? Well, parking at the Logan Pass Visitor Center – about half way on the Going to the Sun Road – fills up well before 7AM, sometimes even 6:30AM depending on the day. Parking here and early is essential if you want to experience the popular Highline Trail. Clearly, this trail requires a bit of advanced planning.
We drove the Going to the Sun Road in complete darkness, occasionally spotting lights of a car far in front of in the distance. We could tell we were gaining elevation but without a reference point, it was difficult to tell how high we really were. Driving in the dark certainly eliminated the fear factor that I read about since it is apparently a narrow road between rock and the edge. At one point we were able to count the line of cars we could see by their headlights. I had no idea how many parking spots we were all fighting for but I was certainly getting nervous leaving around 4:20AM was not early enough.
And after all that driving, we finally spilled into the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot along with all the other cars. I would say by our arrival at 5:50AM, the parking lot was about 25% full and only getting fuller every minute that passed – I think for sure it was going to be full by 6:30AM today. I can understand why people nap now before starting the hike – it was so dark and cold we were bundled and I purchased headlamps right before we left so we were good to go and got started on the trail just after 6AM. Since we were doing this as a through hike, the end at The Loop was 11.6 miles away. Let’s go!
Read about our experience hiking the Highline Trail here!
I knew if we headed back to the Airbnb our odds of leaving again was slim. On our way through Columbia Falls, we pulled into Backslope Brewing to unwind from the day. This spot is very popular but since we arrived on the early side of dinner time, we only had to wait fifteen minutes to be seated for our order. This spot offers lots of burger and sandwich options.
- BBQ Pork Sandwich: slow roasted dry brined pulled pork, aioli, house slaw
- Power Greens Salad; kale, spinach, mixed greens, red and green cabbage, brussel sprouts, walnuts, dried cranberries, goat cheese, orange pistachio dressing
Both items were very delicious and Kevin found the beer to be solid expressions. Before we turned in for the day, we stopped by the newly opened Sweet Retreat Creamery for ice cream. The consistency of the ice creams were creamy, I wish my chocolate was more chocolate flavored as it was a bit weak but Kevin really loved his maple bourdon butter pecan.
And with that, we returned to the Airbnb, took long hot showers, popped ibuprofen for our poor legs, and passed out. This day was certainly a new record on the pedometer!
Today was our day driving the Going to the Sun Road! While we drove it half way yesterday, we wanted to drive to the end and take our time exploring the many stops along the way. We stopped by Montana Coffee Roasters for fresh pastries and lunch for later in the day. We arrived to the park before 8AM, presented our paperwork, and started our journey on the Going to the Sun Road.
Read all about how to plan your road trip on the Going to the Sun Road and our day exploring it here!
Since I deprived Kevin of coffee all day yesterday, I made sure we got his caffeine fix in. We stopped at Cowgirl Coffee Company – one of the many coffee huts situated along the road. These were the same ones we saw in Alaska so it must have come about from the cold but these spots serve up great beverages. This one even had smoothies and acai bowls! Kevin really enjoyed his coffee from here so two thumbs up.
On our way to downtown Kalispell, out luck changed and the largest bang hit the windshield – a giant rock kicked up and cracked the windshield instantly. It happened so fast it was almost unbelievable but the crack made it evident it was not. When we parked in downtown Kalispell, we called the car rental with no luck – it was a Sunday so offices were closed and tomorrow was Labor Day so our ability to report the windshield was not going to be possible until we were leaving on Tuesday. So we made the decision to go to the airport to report the crack. We filled out a report form and continued on. Although we were really bummed as we never had anything happen to a rental vehicle before (the rental slip even had the comment “Perfect Renter” written under my name), we did not want it to ruin the trip. Stuff happens out of our control, it could have been worse, and we will just have to deal with it.
So back on track, we returned to downtown Kalispell. Our first stop was Sweet Peaks Ice Cream which offers both traditional and creative ice cream flavors. We both ordered scoops of Bear Food – “Forage your way through our traditional chocolate ice cream to reveal crushed peanut butter cups, salty pretzels and chocolate chips. A bear’s dream snack”. While it was solid ice cream, we both wanted more of the toppings – I do not think I tasted any peanut butter cups and barely any pretzels and chocolate chips.
We then traveled a few streets down to SunRift Brewing Company. With plenty of outdoor seating, we relaxed here for a snack and unwind with a beer. Kevin really enjoyed the beer here, better than at Backslope the day before. But the food was not as good as Backslope yesterday – I order a caesar salad and it was almost inedible due to how much dressing was used. Kevin ordered the bratwurst and felt similar – it was ok, wouldn’t order again. We also ordered a chicken caesar wrap to go as our lunch for tomorrow’s long hike (which ended up being a disappointing choice). But absolutely come here for the beer.
It was here that we realized just how many breweries are in this area – it really is a great Beer Christmas location! In Kalispell alone there are three breweries downtown and we tagged another one to visit tomorrow – something to look forward to as the windshield crack continued to grow. We had another early morning for a long hike planned so we completed the short drive to the Airbnb before turning in for an early bed time.
Another early morning and this time, we had a three hour drive ahead of us through the entire Going to the Sun Road and out the other side to access a new part of Glacier National Park – Lake Josephine and the Many Glaciers area. The Grinnell Glacier Trail is just under 12 miles long as a there and back trail and the parking lot is said to fill up before 7AM and with a three hour drive, that set us back to another 4AM departure. At least this would be our last early morning of this trip!
The Going to the Sun Road drive was easy and there were barely any cars – the ones we did see turned off at Logan Pass Visitor Center for the Highline Trail so we were feeling pretty good about our parking odds. As we exited the Going to the Sun Road and began towards Lake Josephine, the road became a construction zone that significantly reduced our speed. Still not a lot of cars around though. We made a wrong turn towards the Many Glacier hotel and got stuck in a rather lengthy horse procession (completely random!) so that set us back a few minutes. Back on the road, we finally found the parking loot at the trailhead and grabbed the last marked parking spot at our 6:40AM arrival – just unbelievable.
We took some time to have a breakfast, use the bathroom, and allow other hikers that brought bear spray to start the trail ahead of us – this part of the park is a bit less crowded so animals sightings are definitely more likely.
Read about our experience hiking the Grinnell Glacier Trail – here!
The difference between how we felt finishing the Grinnel Glacier Trail and the Highline Trail was night and day. Our drive back was relaxing and I actually took a stab at driving the Going to the Sun Road and I have to say, it really was not that bad. I drove the entire distance from St Mary Entrance to West Glacier entrance and I can say, it does help that we saw everything on this road already so I could be 100% focused on the road and not distracted by the amazing scenery.
We had a bit of FOMO from missing Kalispell Brewing the day before so we headed directly there from this hike. The brewery has a permanent food truck co-op (Handle Brews)that sits in the parking lot which made for a perfect meal. They also have rotating food tucks on the weekends.
Kevin ordered beer and we both ordered sandwiches from Handle Brews. They have this fantastic outdoor space and while it was a holiday, I could not understand why it was not more crowded – not that we were complaining – but this really was the perfect spot.
The beer was fantastic and the sandwiches were delicious – Huck Chut Handle – turkey, cream cheese, house made huckleberry chutney, spinach and red onion. Italian Pesto Handle – shredded chicken, goat cheese, pesto aioli, avocado, sun dried tomatoes, and spinach.
The only brewery we missed that we would have liked to have checked out was Bias Brewing – we were still so surprised what a happening craft beer culture resides here. Our last stop for the evening was across the street at Sweet peaks where we decided that huckleberry really does reign supreme – the huckleberry ice cream is just amazing.
Our final day of our Glacier National Park trip and our flight was not until very late so we really did have a full day. Since we would be checking out of the Airbnb, I left this day hike-less since we would not have access to a shower before flying. Instead, we took this day to explore the towns a but more in depth.
Side note: Today (Tuesday after Labor Day) was the first day that reservations were not required to drive the Going to the Sun Road and it appears that people took advantage – Glacier National Park was closed due to reaching max capacity – we could not believe it and glad we did not bank on heading int o the park today.
After we got ready and packed up, we checked out of the Airbnb with a solid 12 hours of the day to spend before showing up at the airport. Our first stop was Montana Coffee Traders in Columbia Falls. Kevin really loved a chai tea muffin he got one morning but they did not have it this time. He got his coffee and some beans to take home. We pivoted to Whitefish since we had not spent any time there on this trip. Wild Coffee Company offered biscuits as the template for their breakfast and we were all in.
Kevin ordered coffee and we split a biscuit with huckleberry jam (obviously) and a maple bacon and egg biscuit – both were delicious and it was a great way to start the day without feeling to heavy. We had lots of eating to do!
We walked around the entire downtown going up and down the streets. It was a mix of preserving this western cowboy look but with all modern stores inside them.
There were signs that there was a farmer’s market that would take place this evening – while it felt random to have a farmer’s market on a Tuesday evening, we were certainly happy to have that to look forward to! It was close enough to 11AM that we waited for the Sweet Peaks in this town to open so we could once again enjoy the huckleberry ice cream one last time.
I had read (Adventures of A plus K) about a spot north of here called Polebridge Mercantile that offered famous huckleberry stuffed bear claws. Our huckleberry obsession was pretty far down the rabbit hole now so even though it was an hour plus drive away from Whitefish, we were in no rush and up for an adventure.
Read about our journey to find Polebridge Mercantile and that bear claw here!
We returned back to wifi, cell service, and civilization! We had a little more time before the farmer’s market so we stopped into Folklore Coffee which stayed open until 5PM and hung out here until close. Kevin really enjoyed his coffee here – fun presentation as well.
Farmer’s market time! From May to September, Whitefish hold’s a farmer’s market each Tuesday from 5PM – 730PM that includes farmers, bakers, butchers, all sorts of other food vendors, food trucks, crafts, and more. The entire square we had seen earlier completely transformed into a giant farmer’s market.
We did several laps and were so impressed by the wide range of offerings here. We had such a hard time picking something to eat – from burgers, to acai owls, to thai – it really showcased a variety of options.
We ended up at a poke bowl spot and this bowl was so delicious! The pad thai we got was so spicy (despite requested zero spice) that it barely got eaten. Thankfully the poke bowl was filling.
The farmer’s market backed up into the Whitefish train station – there is actually an Amtrak stop right in downtown Whitefish!
And with that, we made our way back to the car and drove to the airport. Luckily, this airport is so tiny that everything here is easier – returning the car, security, everything. We hung out for our last hours in Montana before hoping on the last Jetblue flight to JFK for the season.
What an incredible trip to Glacier National Park! When I was looking at the flights and decided on this Jetblue route, it meant we had five days here which I thought was a day too long but now that the trip is over, I loved having five full days here. There is so much to see and explore and I know we missed lots of things. I hope Jet blue not only continues this route but expands the route options to make this destination easily accessible from the NY area. I would say that this was another rough draft itinerary turned success!