Perfect 4 Day Itinerary for Glacier National Park
After creating a rough draft itinerary for Glacier National Park during quarantine, we were fortunate to put it to the test in September 2021. This national park was number one on my list to explore but due to the short window to visit, I was unsure we could squeeze it into 2021 with everything in the pandemic still ongoing. Luckily, we were able to sneak this trip into Labor Day weekend and we were very excited to put our American the Beautiful Pass to use once more.
There is a bit of planning that is required when visiting this National Park so let’s review some details.
When to Visit
The window of opportunity for visiting is extremely small – much smaller than other parks. Glacier is very close to the Canadian border so the season without ice and snow is limited. 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 of September to increase the odds of good weather and trail condition days. This is due to the road through the park – Going to the Sun Road – requires quite a production for snow removal. Because of this, expect to pay more to experience these optimal conditions – from flights, to car rentals, to accommodations. Additionally, expect it to be crowded. Accommodations and car rentals book up very quickly even at a year out. Those that live close enough to drive had a significant advantage! While you can visit outside of the June to September period, know that the Going to the Sun Road will not be available.
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.
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, peaking at Logan’s Pass. Along this road is where a majority of the trailheads are accessed as well as many overlooks and waterfalls. Due to the nature of this road, vehicles cannot be longer than 21 feet to drive the Going to the Sun Road. There is also a free shuttle that covers the entire distance of the road that visitors can take advantage of for their trip.
For the 2021 season, reservations are required for access to the Going to the Sun Road in order to limit the number of people due to COVID. Additionally, there are reservations required for the shuttle as well. 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. While the park reservation was easy enough to print out and display when entering the park, the shuttle reservation was a bit more involved. Once you reserve a time at which you can start using the shuttle, you have to first validate the ticket and get a wrist band at Apgar Visitor Center in order to ride the shuttle. 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.
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 America the Beautiful Pass – $80 for the year and included entrance to over 2000 sites!
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) as well as an inaugural flight for 2021 out of JFK. 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 if 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. Remember, the vehicle cannot be longer than 21 feet in order to drive on the Going to the Sun Road.
Where to stay
There are four towns to consider staying – Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia falls are in west glacier and St Mary is in east glacier. There are plenty of Aribnbs, lodges, and resorts in these areas but during the high season from July to August it can be very challenging and expensive as people book over a year in advance. There are also lots of camping opportunities both in and outside of the park. We stayed in Kalispell which was pretty much all that was left when we booked this trip less than a month ahead of time and it worked out very well.
When exploring which trails to do, this website along with the NPS site was great. Also consider downloading the NPS app – it is free and provides a ton of information about every national park – including the ability to download park maps – to your phone for offline use. It was a big help while out on trail all day. Do not forget to take photos of the trail map before you start along your way – it is always good to have a double check to make sure you are heading in the direction you intend. Lastly, always check trail closures – they are not uncommon due to bear activity!
- Trail of the Cedars to Avalanche Lake – 5 mile easy there and back trail that is popular due to the difficulty level that should take about two hours to complete. This relaxing trail ends with a beautiful lake as the reward.
- Hidden Lake Trail – 5.3 mile moderately rated there and back trail. While the mileage is not particularly challenging, the 1300 foot elevation gain is what tips this trail to the moderate category. While hikers reach the overlook around 1.5 miles in, everyone recommends to complete the trail to the lake itself. This hike was closed our entire trip due to bear activity.
- Sun Point Nature Trail to Barring Falls, St Mary Falls, and Virginia Falls – 6 mile or 3 mile easy there and back trail featuring several waterfalls! This trail is extremely popular due to the easy difficulty and the waterfalls. If you are short on time or sick of hiking, you can shorten this by simply taking the St Mary’s Falls Trail which cuts the distance in half. Parking at St Mary’s Trailhead can be crowded so opting for the Sun Point Nature Trail lot could be a good hack.
- Highline Trail – this 11 – 15 mile difficult hike is the crown jewel of Glacier National Park. Elevation gain is an epic 2600 ft to the end of the trail. Ok, here is the deal with this trail. It can be done as a one way hike (11 miles) or a there and back (15 miles) and can be cut at various spots. While the final destination is the Granite Park Chalet, some prefer to stop at the Grinnell Glacier Overlook but from what I have read, this seems to be reserved for those doing this trail as a there and back.
- One Way (+) shorter distance, full trail, new scenery on return (-) need to arrange for transport via shuttle
- There and Back (+) can complete without needing shuttle (-) may miss seeing entire trail, same scenery on return, longer
- People who visited in 2020 had no choice but to do the there and back because the shuttle was not operating and reviews were still positive. Whichever you choose, you will not be disappointed.
- Grinnell Glacier Trail – this is an 11 mile difficult there and back trail that gives amazing views of Grinnell Glacier with 2200 foot elevation gain. While you get a glimpse of this glacier on the Highline Trail, this is a completely different angle that is worth the extra journey. If you still want to see the glacier without all the hiking, you can pay $35 a ticket to ride a boat across Josephine Lake that will cut 3.5 miles of the hiking but they are the easiest 3.5 miles of the trail so it is not recommended if you plan on completing the hike. For those that do not wish to hike, the boat is a great way to see this part of the park.
- Siyeh Pass – this 9 mile difficult trail with 2000 foot elevation gain. Similar to the Highline Trail, it can be completed as an out and back or a one way but unlike the Highline Trail, it is much less crowded.
View Points – these are all must stops in my opinion! You get fantastic views for no effort so you can spend as little or as much time at these locations as you want. They make for great picnic spots as well.
- Lake McDonald
- Logan Pass
- The Loop
- Jackson Glacier Overlook
- Wild Goose Island Lookout
- Big Bend Overlook
After visiting, I have to stress how crazy the parking situation can be in the park. Parking is very intense here, even at the early hours of the morning at the popular trails. Even though reservations were required to entire, if we were not in a parking spot before 7AM, it was a battle. There is plenty of parking throughout the park and due to the nature of the Going to the Sun Road, you have to drive to the next location and find a new parking spot with each overlook and hiking trail. The shuttle is a good option if you are able to secure a reservation to ride but it often has long waits. Remember, unlike other parks Glacier is only open for a fraction of the year so everyone who wants to visit in a year in crammed into a few months. For popular trails, it is important to get to the parking lots very early (6AM arrival). Otherwise, pack your patience and incorporate lots of time to find parking, even if you enter the park later in the day.
Other things to do
There is a surprising amount of things to do outside of hiking trails in and around Glacier National Park. Make sure to leave time to include some of these in your Glacier trip.
- Explore the towns – there is a lot going on at the three towns at the west gate of the park. Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls all have great downtown spaces to enjoy. From gourmet sandwich shops to breweries to hipster coffee shops – they got it all. There are lots of dining options but for this trip we focused on take out and outdoor options due to the pandemic.
|Wich Haus |
Swift Creek Cafe
|Backslope Brewing |
|The Knead Cafe |
Mountain Berry Bowl
- Additional snacks:
- Coffee: Mountain Traders Coffee, Folklore Coffee, Wild Coffee, Cowgirl Coffee
- Ice Cream: Sweet Peaks Ice Cream
- If you have time: Polebridge Mercantile & Bakery for famous bear claws (include a stop at Bowman Lake to enjoy your baked goods)
- Huckleberry Patch is a great stop when leaving the park to reward your long hike with a piece of huckleberry pie and ice cream
- Beer Christmas – we had no idea there was such a craft beer culture here!
- White water rafting – there are tons of white water rafting opportunities in half day, full day, and multi day options. All the companies I found are very well rated. If you are not up for white water rafting, they also offer kayaking and gentle floating rafting experiences. These typically do not require access to the Going to the Sun Road so if you are unable to acquire a reservation, this is a great alternative.
- Fly fishing – Most of the companies that offer rafting also offer half and full day fly fishing excursions.
- Kayaking on Lake Mcdonald – something iconic about being on the water at this iconic lake. There is a rental company at the lodge that offers not just kayaking but paddle boarding, canoes, and motorboats as well.
- Horseback riding – there is horseback riding offered inside and outside the national park with many different options available.
Your itinerary should mix and match these areas. If you are a big hiker and want to climb all the things, do one of the big hikes each day. Then lace in a few of the viewpoints and walks either before or after the hikes. You can even sneak in as many viewpoints as you want – even more than once to optimize all those shots depending on the weather and the sun at different points of the day, especially if you are a photographer. If the big hikes are not for you, swap them out with the easier trails that still offer some wonderful nature to enjoy. This was how we built our itinerary and we thought it was pretty perfect.
|Drive the Going to the Sun Road|
|Stops: Lake McDonald, Trail of Cedars Nature Trail / Avalanche Lake, The Loop, Triple Arches, Logan Pass, Hidden Lake Trail, Jackson Glacier Overlook, Sun Point Nature Trail, Wild Goose Island Lookout|
|Long Hike – Highline Trail|
|Alternative: Explore Lake McDonald|
|Excursion: Explore towns, white water rafting|
|Long Hike Option: Grinnell Glacier Trail|
|Long Hike Option: Grinnell Glacier Trail|
|Alternative – explore Lake Josephine or Lake McDonald|