Known as the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park encompasses stunning vistas, crystal clear waters, beautiful glacier-capped mountains and pristine meadows. Located in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, the trip to this magnificent national park was surely magical for us. It is definitely one of the most beautiful places in the United States.
Truly a hiker’s paradise, it offers some of the most breathtaking hikes you can imagine! Whether you’re visiting for 4 days or 4 weeks, the park’s splendor will not stop to mesmerize.
How to Get There?
To get to the park, it is best to fly into the Glacier National Park International Airport located in Kalispell, Montana. From there, it is only about a 30-minute drive to the park. Car rental companies are located right at the airport entrance. It’s a fairly small airport, so they are pretty easy to locate.
Though flight tickets for this airport might be a little expensive at times but, if you search wisely, you can surely find a deal!
Best Time to Visit
We visited the park in early August and I can safely say it was the best time to visit. Since, the Going To The Sun Road is the only road that runs through the park connecting the west and the east side, it is important to wait until it opens up. Being a very narrow (yet extremely magnificent) road going through the mountain sides, it is open only for 3 months in a year, from mid-July to mid-October. So, checking its opening dates before making any bookings would be a good idea.
Sure, you can go to this magical park outside of the 3-month window too! You just wouldn’t be able to travel from the west side to the east or vice versa, but there are certainly a lot of spots worth seeing on either end. So, go ahead and make your travel plans without any reserve! (Read here for an awesome winter travel guide to the park.)
Where to Stay?
Deciding on a place to stay depends on which side of the park you want to spend the most time at. While both areas are equally beautiful, with endless must-see spots and incredible hikes, we stayed near the west entrance of the park simply because of its proximity to the airport.
Read on for my recommendations for staying around either sides.
1. Staying Near the West Side of the Park
We stayed at the Glacier General Store & Cabins in Coram, about a 10-minute drive from the park’s west entrance.
Now, don’t be mistaken by their looks, these are really simple looking cabins but are very cozy and intimate from the inside; a perfect place to relax after a laborious day full of hikes. The cabins have all the vital amenities you’d need, from bottled water to plush comforters and soft beds to kitchen essentials. They also have a convenience store in their main office where you can fill up on granola bars, trail mixes and energy drinks that you’ll need for your hikes.
2. Staying Near the East Side of the Park
Even though we didn’t stay overnight at the east end of the park, but we did spend an entire day there. The Many Glacier Hotel is an exquisite place to stay. Right on the banks of the Swiftcurrent Lake, this lodge definitely has more of a grand appeal. For people who like getting close to nature and need a place with a more rustic appeal, staying in a cabin might be a better option. But people who like relaxing in an elegant place, then this place is for you! Also, tickets for the Swiftcurrent Lake Boat Ride are sold here, which you may need for the Grinnell Glacier hike. The sale begins at 8 am daily and they’re are sold out for the day within 10 minutes (more on this here). So this might actually be a good place to stay at least for one night.
How Many Days To Stay?
As I mentioned earlier, whether you’re here for 4 days or 4 weeks, it will never be enough, and the majestic park will keep on hypnotizing you. But, plan to spend at least 5 days in the park. I would suggest splitting your time between the west side and the east side rather equally, say 3 days in the west end and 2 days in the east.
All right, now that you’re all set with the information you need to plan your trip, let’s dive into the details!
Oh wait, I almost forgot the most important thing. The tips for your stay at the park. And here goes.
Important Tips For Your Stay At Glacier National Park
- Have a sturdy pair of hiking shoes, with good tread. The trails can be slippery and have loose rocks around, so good hiking shoes is a must.
- Glacier National Park is home to a sizable population of bears, so you must keep bear bells and bear spray with you at all times. Throughout your hike, keep ringing your bear bells and talk aloud. Be ready to use the spray in case you have an encounter with a bear.
- Keep plenty of energy bars, trail mixes and energy drinks with you for your hikes. The hikes will drain you and you’ll need fuel to recuperate.
- Arrive early for the hikes, not only are the hikes are quite long but also finding a parking spot can be difficult during later part of the day.
- Keep yourself updated on daily trail closures due to bear sightings and other weather related concerns (more information here).
- Lastly, if you stay around the west end, then there aren’t many good food options available. We recommend picking up some bread and meats from Super 1 Foods on your way to the cabins.
Now finally, let’s get to it, into the magical wonderland called the Glacier National Park.
1. Hidden Lake Overlook Nature Trail
The Hidden Lake Trailhead is located right behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center. One thing I’d like to point out though before diving into the details of this beautiful trail is that if you’re planning to drive then do arrive early, around 6 – 6:30 am. Since, parking for both, this trail and the Highline trail, is only available at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, it tends to get full as early as 7 am. So, remember to reach before then! Another option is taking the park’s free shuttle (more details on this here) which will also drop you at Logan Pass.
Coming back to the Hidden Lake trail. It is definitely one of the most picturesque trails of the park and is relatively a simple one. About quarter of the trail is rather flat with pretty grasslands and wildflowers around. Even when the incline starts it’s not that steep and the path is comfortably wide. So, enjoy the views as you go!
There are multiple vista points where you’d want to stop and take photos and yes you must! But, the view from the top is amazing, so don’t worry if you can’t stop during the trail much because of the crowds, you’ll have enough to absorb on the top anyway! Try to keep at least 3 hours for the roundtrip of this trail; you’ll be stopping a lot, trust me!
A lot of people also hike down till the Hidden Lake, which is another 2.5 miles from the Overlook. But, unfortunately it was closed due to bear sitings that day. We would definitely want to do this next time though.
2. Going to the Sun Road
Now, this is the charm of the park and it gladly boasts it! The only road that connects the west side of the park to the east and is only open for 3 months in a year. But, when it is open, it is the greatest spectacle you can imagine.
With so many gorgeous points on the road, you’d want to stop every 5 minutes. But, keep in mind that the road is really narrow, so be watchful of the fellow drivers on the road and stop only at designated parking spots.
Now, let me recommend the instagrammable points on the road beginning from the west side. The first photo spot on the road is the Heaven’s Peak overlook. It is this majestic mountain that stands out from the rest and is quite easy to identify. For this, you can park your car at The Loop and take as many photos as you like. It is also a shuttle stop, if you’re traveling by the shuttle. (Read more about this impressive peak and how you can hike to the summit in this beautiful article here – The Place Where God Lives).
The next point on the road will be the Weeping Wall. Honestly, it’s nothing compared to the vast beauty the rest of this park possesses. It’s mainly just a section of mountain side on the road with water trickling down, hence “weeping”. But, I know you’d still want to get a picture of it, so make sure you’re careful with parking here as there is no designated parking around. So, try to keep a lookout for parking spots before you’re about to reach.
If you’re using the shuttle, then it will only slow down at this spot giving you time to click your pictures.
Following ahead on the road, you will also come across the Bird Woman Falls and the Jackson Glacier overlook, where you may stop briefly and get a picture or two. Next up, on the road is the St. Mary Falls trail (more on that below). Going further down east you will hit upon the iconic Wild Goose Island’s lookout that got most of its fame from the opening scene in the movie – The Shining; it’s simply breathtaking!
3. St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
We decided to do this hike right after the Hidden Lake trail, so we were pretty tired already, but otherwise this one is a fairly simple trek. It does have gradual inclines but they’re manageable and the path is comfortably wide as well. The trail itself doesn’t have that many views but the falls are magnificent to see.
To get to the trailhead, we used the free shuttle from Logan Pass and got down at the St. Mary Falls shuttle stop, but if you’re coming by car then you’d have to park at the Sun Point parking. From there it’s a 15-minute walk to the trailhead. At the trailhead, you’ll see directions for trails on either side. While one side will lead you to the St. Mary Falls & Virginia Falls, the other side will lead you to Baring Falls and the Sunrift Gorge.
After doing the Virginia Falls trail, we decided to go ahead on the Sunrift Gorge trail as well. The views of the St. Mary’s Lake with the spellbinding landscapes in the background made it look so heavenly. We were completely taken aback by the beauty that nature could hold since we had never seen anything so perfect before!
Remember to get your cameras ready, it makes a great photo spot.
Hiking up to the Virginia Falls takes around 2 hours roundtrip, and if you plan to go ahead up to the Sunrift Gorge, then it’s another 40 minutes. There’s a shuttle stop right at Sunrift Gorge, so don’t worry you would not have to walk back up to the St. Mary Falls trailhead to get on a shuttle.
4. Grinnell Glacier Trail
There are a couple of things to keep in mind before we get into the details of this hike. One, this was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve done in my life. Two, it is both mentally and physically exhausting (more on this shortly). Three, it is quite dangerous with really narrow paths and a lot of loose rocks in places. Okay, now with the details.
This hike is located on the east side of the park and to get there you will have to drive as the shuttle goes only till the St. Mary Visitor Center. You can park your car at the Many Glacier Hotel. There you will have two options on how you can start your hike. You can either use the roundtrip shuttle boat service to cross the Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, thereby saving 3.4 miles from your hike. Otherwise you can just walk the distance making the roundtrip length of the hike around 11 miles.
If you do choose the boat option, then keep in mind, the tickets are sold on a daily basis at the boat dock behind the hotel and they sell out as early as 8:10 am (even though they start selling only at 8 am), so you will have to reach really early to be among the first few in line.
Now, you understand why the hike is physically exhausting, right? Because most of the people don’t get those boat tickets and have to walk all the way on this long and steep trail. But, why is it mentally exhausting, you ask? Well, the east side of the park is heavily visited by bears especially the Grinnell Glacier trail, so you have to make sure you walk with large groups of people, keep talking to each other and keep ringing your bear bells through the trail (read about such grizzly bear encounters in this wonderful article). More than the physical strain, the mental strain drained me completely! Oh, one more thing, make sure to read the NPS Updates before going for this hike, and if there are bear sightings in the area then avoid doing it that day.
As I mentioned earlier, the trail itself is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve done. Through the trail you will see magnificent views of Grinnell Lake and stupefying landscapes. Towards the end of the trail, you will also come across some wildlife including wild goats, marmot and more.
But, as you reach the top, you will be completely amazed to see the majestic Glacier standing right in front of you! What a great view it was!
5. Lake McDonald
The largest lake in the park, Lake McDonald, formed by the erosion of massive glaciers, now peacefully sits amidst a valley filled with stunning sights, multiple hiking trails and a diverse variety of plants and wildlife.
We spent some tranquil time at the lake watching the beautiful sunrise as we prepared ourselves for the strenuous hikes that were ahead of us.
If you plan to come here in the morning too, then Eddies Cafe is a homely restaurant that serves some delicious breakfast items, along with Montana’s famous huckleberry treats! Remember, you’ve got to fuel yourself before the hikes.
6. Trail of the Cedars
Probably the easiest trail of the park, one which is not really a hike and more like a stroll, Trail of the Cedars is a 1 mile loop which will impress you with its rich cover of mosses and ferns, and a wide variety of mighty cedars.
The entire trail is a boardwalk and has easy accessibility. To make this trail into a hike really, it can be extended and combined with the Avalanche Trail, which starts at about the half-way point of the Trail of the Cedars making the total length of the trail to be 5.5 miles.
Finding a parking spot near this trail can be an issue and you might have to drive up and down the road a couple of times. Just bear with the crowd, everybody is here for the same reason as you are!
7. Avalanche Trail
Avalanche Trail, an extension to the Trail of the Cedars, is a 4.5 miles roundtrip hike covered with lush greenery and tall pines. For most part of the trail, you’d be going through the thick forest without much views, but hiking up to the Avalanche Lake is completely worth it.
Once at the lake, find your way to the beautiful beach to just relax and take in the beauty of the glacier-carved vistas. I’m sure you’ll find many people doing the same!
8. Highline Trail
Finally coming to this infamous trail of the Glacier National Park. The Highline Trail is a 12 mile roundtrip hike which is extremely popular and yet is one of the most grueling hikes of the park. The challenging nature of the trail starts from the very beginning. Just 10 minutes into the hike, you will arrive at the famous ledge, which is only six to eight feet in width, and has drop-offs of roughly one hundred feet down to the Going-to-the-Sun Road below. It is known for terrifying people with the fear of heights. Even though this part is only three-tenth of a mile long, it seems to last forever. Both of us were almost cemented to the Garden Wall on the side as we took each step very precariously. It does have ropes to give you support as you walk, but you still need to be careful.
Once this part is over, you will begin to see some stunning views of the park along with many amazing opportunities of spotting wildlife.
Going forward, the trail does have gradual inclines and sharp turns at places, but it’s manageable. After about 7 miles, the trail splits into two parts. On one side you will find the Garden Wall trail, which is a steep incline of over 900 feet in less than a mile and provides birds-eye view of the spectacular Grinnell Glacier from the top. The other side leads to multiple trails actually, but the one we did was hike up to the Granite Park Chalet to get some gorgeous landscape views of the park.
Now, in order to return you will have two options. Either hike back the entire trail to the starting point, or continue towards the Loop on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is about a 4.5 miles hike. Let me tell you that the latter doesn’t have any views and you’d mostly be passing through thick wild woods to reach the bottom. Also, contrary to what people say, we did not think this part had any extreme drop. We feel the decline was manageable, the only part unmanageable was the lack of any view during this part of the trail, which made it quite boring towards the end.
Our advice, in the end, is to not let the initial harrowing part of the trail discourage you, keep going ahead slowly and steadily because once you see the scenic vistas, you wouldn’t want to turn back. We had kept the entire day for this strenuous hike and were dead at the end, so plan accordingly!
9. Iceberg Lake Trail
OK, let me paint the picture for you. Charismatic icebergs afloat/floating in a crystal blue lake surrounded by mountains rising more than 2000 feet above water. Sounds surreal, right? And it looks even more heavenly! Definitely one of the strenuous hikes, it is 9.7 miles in length roundtrip with a steep incline in the initial part of the trail that gradually flattens out. The trail has some incredible views of alpine meadows and waterfalls.
The trail is often visited by wildlife too, including bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Also, this area is a prime bear habitat and there is a high possibility of spotting one, so remember to carry a bear spray and talk aloud to keep the wildlife away.
Once you reach the lake, be prepared to be completely hypnotized by its charm! The area also makes for a great picnic spot, so bring some lunch along!
The trailhead is located behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and I’d recommend starting the hike early because it is a pretty long one.
10. Two Medicine Lake
Two Medicine is another remarkably scenic area that has multiple hiking opportunities (read here to know about all the hikes in the area). The hikes here aren’t very crowded and you’ll have a more serene experience. Throughout the hikes, you’ll be enjoying beautiful views of peaks, woods, meadows, lakes and wildflowers.
A lot of people opt in just for the boat ride across the lake to soak in the amazing scenery. But, my recommendation would be to hike up to the Scenic Point to get the best views.
The park definitely has a lot more to show you. But, these were the top 10 spots that completely stole our heart away. We can’t stress enough how much we loved every part of the park and that you will too! Now, go on and plan your 2019 adventure at the heavenly Glacier National Park.