More than 90 percent of the people who visit Glacier National Park never spend more than a few minutes away from Going-to-the-Sun Road. A ranger shared that startling fact during a program at Logan Pass.
While the road is an engineering marvel and packed with amazing scenery, there is much more to see and do in the park that encompasses 1,583 square miles. After all, this is park with almost 750 miles of trails.
Whether you prefer hiking boots or flip flops, we have 10 tips on how to make the most of your visit to the park:
1. Visit the famed hotels: Located in and just outside of the park, each has a distinct feel. You can start with grandeur of Glacier Park Lodge, a short walk from the train station in East Glacier, with it’s massive Douglas fir timbers soaring over the lobby.
There is a sense of intimacy in the European hunting lodge feel of the Lake McDonald Lodge. It’s hard to beat the stunning views of Grinnell Point from Swiss chalet-style Many Glacier Hotel. Each is a good place to sit and relax.
2. Travel the west side: There are far fewer people on this side of the park, where the roads are unpaved and can be rugged in spots. You can almost always get a campsite at Bowman Lake, but the road there is a “challenge” for cars and minivans, warned one ranger. The views uplake from the campground make the journey worthwhile. There also is a nice beach for swimming and fishing.
On a day when the westside weather might be too wet for hiking, the drive to Polebridge is a good option. Fewer than 3 percent of the park’s 2 million annual visitors stop here, but the Polebridge Mercantile (known for its cinnammon rolls) and Northern Lights Saloon are popular destinations. I recommend making a loop trip, traveling up the Camas Road and then the Outside North Fork Road to Polebridge, then taking the Inside North Fork Road, if it is open, back to the Apgar area.
3. Many Glacier: Located in the northeast corner of the park, the meadows and mountainsides here are some of the best places to consistently see wildlife. How close are they? A ranger at the entrance station talked about the grizzly bear that often walks by the booth, never fazed by human presence. You also can see moose and mountain goats. Park volunteers often have spotting scopes set up to help visitors better view wildlife.
We found the boat launch into Swiftcurrent Lake a great spot to let the kids explore, throw rocks and quickly dab a toe into the cold water.
There are several overnight options, from the Many Glacier Hotel to Swiftcurrent Motor Inn to the campground.
4. Cheap eats: Dining in a national park can often mean prices as expansive as the views. Don’t worry, there are plenty of places to run up a big bill inside and just outside of Glacier. But there are places to find cheaper alternatives.
One of the best deals was at the Swiftcurrent Gift Shop & Campstore. For $2.50, you could fill a 12-ounce cup with soft-serve ice cream. Since it was Montana, I opted for the huckleberry. It was much bigger, and far better, than the huckleberry frozen yogurt cone I had at Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone National Park.
5. Let someone else drive: Since 2007, the park offers a free shuttle bus system along Going-to-the-Sun Road. While it causes you to do a bit more planning before you leave for the day – you will need to take everything you need for the day. It’s a good option if you don’t want to drive along the twisting mountain highway. You can learn more at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/usingshuttle.htm.
You also can take a tour on one of the park’s iconic red buses.
6. Time your visit: During the busy summer season, plan to visit Logan Pass – at 6,646 feet it’s 246 feet higher than Sunrise at Mount Rainier National Park – early or late in the day. By late morning, the parking lot is so jammed rangers are forced to close it.
This also applies to popular hikes such as the trail to the Hidden Lake Overlook at Logan Pass or Avalanche Creek on near Lake McDonald.
7. Make the drive into the Two Medicine Area: Located in the park’s southeast corner. The views of Rising Wolf Mountain rising above Upper Two Medicine Lake are amazing. You’ll also find plenty of solitude here. Fewer than 10 percent of all park visitors come to this part of the park. The 3.1-mile hike to Scenic Point on the Mount Henry Trail offers some of the best views in the park. Be sure to take the short (0.3 miles) trek to Running Eagle Falls.
8. Let your child become a Junior Ranger: The park’s Junior Ranger booklet allows your child to choose what areas to learn more about, through ranger talks, hikes, stopping at a visitor center or through personal observations as you travel through the park. It’s a great way to get your child to disengage from the portable electronics and can involve the whole family.
9. Be prepared for snow: I once visited in August, and it was snowing halfway up to Logan Pass. During our trip in mid-July, the Garden Wall Trail still was closed because of snow and people hiking to the Hidden Lake Overlook at Logan Pass (at 6,646 feet) had to follow wands crossing the snow that still covered the trail.
10. Take a boat trip: Since 1938, Glacier Boat Co. has offered tours and hiker transport on some of the park’s biggest lakes. If you take a boat cruise on Two Medicine Lake, you can learn about Indian folklore, park history and more. A trip on Swiftcurrent Lake from the Many Glacier Hotel includes views of some of the park’s largest glaciers. Learn more at glacierparkboats.com.