The perfect destination for your next vacation in America- it’s so hard to choose! Maybe you’re not looking for the often-popular California or Florida ocean beach settings. Maybe you’re searching for something…a little less basic. A little more… off the beaten path. You’ve weighed your options, perused the top ten epic vacation lists online, and maybe even narrowed it down to a list of top National Parks. What next? Let me help you with everything GLACIER, of course!
A Unique National Park Experience
In the summer of 2022, my family and I set out to explore the majestic Glacier National Park, located in the northwestern quadrant of Montana. You’ll first want to decide if the west or the east side of the park resonates with your group’s vacation goals before booking a flight. I decided that the west side of the park, which includes fun little towns like Whitefish, Kalispell, Bigfork and Lakeside, would be perfect for our group. We flew into Missoula, (the Missoula Montana Airport is small and very easy to navigate), piled in our giant Suburban, (there were 5 adults plus luggage!), and headed due north so we could pick up US Route 93. Our group knew that we needed a full week to fit in all that the Glacier National Park area has to offer. Our choice was to enter Glacier National Park via the West Glacier and the west entrance of the park. Much more on that a little later!
How to Do Glacier Like A Pro!
What to Bring:
While sandals and sneakers work well for casual meals and sightseeing in town, you’ll want to bring a sturdy pair of hiking boots or shoes and tall merino wool socks for the trails within the park. For reference, I used these shoes and my husband used these socks.
A lightweight jacket that can be rolled and kept in your day pack is a good idea. Also, comfortable shorts, tee shirts and tank tops, and hiking pants are your best bet. Cotton sundresses and men’s wrinkle free shorts, (my husband takes these on every trip!) or khakis are perfect for casual dinners.
We used these cooling hydration backpacks, and they were lifesavers! Each night before an adventure day we would fill them and place them in the freezer. By the time we strapped them on and began our hike, they were the perfect chilled temperature. Throw some SPF lip balm, your phone, and your keys in the handy pockets. The waist pocket is unique because you can access it without removing your entire pack!
This area of the country is PRIME bear country. There are more black and grizzly bears here than in the 48 other states. Please note that there are often bear sightings, and while attacks are rare, they do occur. Bring bear spray, make noise, and stay on the trails. Don’t be surprised when you hear fellow hikers yelling out, “Hey, bear!” to announce their presence in an effort to not startle any unsuspecting furry friends.
Sun protection is very important! Sunglasses, sunscreen, and hats are all crucial. You definitely don’t want to wake up on your second day of vacation with a pounding headache, blistered skin, and cracked lips! Pro Tip: I have to be very aware of my sun exposure since I’ve won multiple battles against Melanoma, and because I apply so often I use mineral sunscreen.
Where to Stay:
Our beautiful and spacious cabin in Lakeside, which could easily sleep 6, was in a fantastic location for this trip! You can book your stay here. The first morning we stayed we enjoyed our coffee on the deck while sharing our space with a cute little deer family. We stocked up on groceries at Blacktail Family Foods and enjoyed singing karaoke at the Spinnaker Casino Bar and Grill – both are easily within walking distance.
What to Eat:
If you do decide to stay anywhere along Flathead Lake, there are some restaurants that you should not skip! We loved the Tamarack Brewery in Lakeside so much that we ate there THREE times. The portions were so big that we ended up with lots of take-out boxes. Find a nacho splitting buddy! My daughters and I really enjoyed the seasonal seltzer they offered.
Also in Lakeside, be absolutely sure to enjoy a waterfront happy hour at the Harbor Grille – they feature a fun tiki style bar alongside the iconic Flathead Lake – and live music inside during the summer.
A DO NOT MISS is Sykes Diner and Market! They have the most delicious omelets and huge breakfast burritos… and to die for, homemade, decadent PIE. While you wait for a table, browse their little attached market for local treats such as huckleberry jam, honey and syrup and unique souvenirs. My husband ordered an entire half of a mile high peanut butter pie to take back to the cabin! (Advice for my friends with an undeniable sweet tooth: don’t forget your spending money!)
Now that we’ve covered where to stay and fill your bellies, let’s move on to the sights!
Navigating the Park
Going to the Sun Road
I would suggest saving two days for the park if you can. The once in a lifetime Going to The Sun Road route is so special it should receive its own day! This road that boasts breathtaking views of the Park runs west to east (and back again). It is true that the drive is not for the faint of heart, with narrow switchbacks and steep drop offs to the side of the roads, but millions of vehicles have navigated this amazing journey with no issues. The most important planning tip is coming up, so pay close attention.
Purchase Your Passes:
Your group will need TWO different passes. The Going to The Sun Road is carefully monitored by the park rangers so they can reduce congestion, and you must obtain a special vehicle reservation to enter via the West entrance drive on it between May 26th and September 10th from 6:00 am to 3:00 PM. This vehicle reservation is inexpensive, $2.00, and valid for three days, so plan wisely! You can obtain this vehicle reservation two different ways.
What does the National Park Service’s website say?
- There is a limited number of Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Vehicle Reservations available for each day and demand will exceed supply. Vehicle reservations will be released on Recreation.gov (Vehicle Reservations), beginning February 1, 2023 at 8 am Mountain Time.
- New for the 2023 season, vehicle reservations will be available through two types of booking windows. A portion of reservations will be available approximately 120-days in advance, using a block-release system. The first block of advanced reservations will go on sale through Recreation.gov at 8 am Mountain Time on February 1, 2023. This round of reservations will be available to enter the Going-to-the-Sun Road for May 26 through June 30. The next release will occur on March 1, 2023 for July 1 through July 31 followed by a release on April 1, 2023 for August 1 through August 31. On May 1, 2023, reservations will be available for all areas for September 1 through September 10.
- The remaining vehicle reservations will be released on a rolling basis at 8 am 24-hours in advance (e.g., remaining vehicle reservations for July 1 are available on June 30).
Because I didn’t have the benefit of, well, an article like this one, I had to set a precise alarm for 7:55 AM on the day we wanted to explore the Road and try my lottery luck. I was able to obtain a pass, but I would strongly recommend getting one ahead of time if you can.
You must also obtain a park site pass – the current cost for this pass is $35.00. You can find more information here . You’ll need to grab this pass to enter the park regardless of whether you’re braving the Going to the Sun Road. It’s valid for 7 days.
The extra effort will absolutely pay off!
Alternative Ways to view the sights on Going to the Sun Road
Fare Free Shuttle Service:
Do you prefer to let a professional do the driving so you can watch the scenery? Take the free shuttle! We jumped on the shuttle on our second hiking day. We really liked not having to worry about parking at the trailheads and the shuttle stopped at popular trailheads. The cons to this method of navigation are no control over pick up and drop off times, no nearby car to store items that you don’t want to carry, and the shuttles can get crowded. Learn more about this convenient service here.
Glacier Park Red Bus Tours:
These cool Red Jammers will allow your group to do the Road in style! The drivers are knowledgeable characters, and the tops come down in these convertible style, 16 seat buses. Mixed reviews can be found online, and I don’t have any personal input since we drove the road ourselves. They are a bit pricy at $72 per person, and some of the seats have a nice viewpoint, while others do not. I would recommend smaller groups of 4 or less for this service. Do your homework and book really early – the reservations fill up very fast!
Make the Most Of Your Site Pass
Since you can use your park site pass for an entire week, make sure to leave a day or two open for exploring the trails that this beautiful park has to offer. There are dozens of popular trails to hike, but I’ll share our favorites with you below.
Popular Hiking Trails within Glacier National Park
West Entrance Destinations:
Trail of the Cedars
This 1-mile, shady, flat hike is perfect for a slow down and breathe kind of journey! This trail felt magical, with 100 foot tall red cedars, aged western hemlocks, and a bridged walking path that was wheelchair accessible. This trail is the gateway to the longer and more difficult Avalanche Lake Trail.
Avalanche Lake Trail
This 4.5-mile trail was my personal favorite. The trail is a moderately difficult hike, which requires a pretty steep climb early on, and then winds along the gurgling, clear Avalanche Creek. The hike provides eye candy of every kind: turquoise lagoons, shaded woods, waterfalls, large, mossy boulders…and a hidden lake, complete with a sandy beach! Avalanche Lake is at the base of Bearhat Mountain, and when the glaciers melt in early spring there are several small waterfalls that can be seen cascading down the sides. The lake is crystal clear and it’s the icing on top of an already spectacular hike.
Lake McDonald is well known for its clear waters and multicolored stones! The water is crystal clear, and the lake has an easy hike and multiple lookout areas.
East Entrance Destinations: Waterfall Country!
Two Medicine Area:
Running Eagle Falls Nature Trail
This trail is excellent for all ages and family members. It’s an accessible, flat, .3 mile hike that ends at a rare double waterfall. I particularly loved the story of Running Eagle, a brave, young Pikuni woman. Her story was posted at the trailhead, and I captured it for you all to read. (Of course, you can see it for yourself when you visit!) Piikani ( Peigan, Pikuni, and Piikuni) are one of the three nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy. You can read more about them here.
Apikuni Falls Trail
This hike was a lovely one. It did have some moderate elevation increases of about 500 feet in less than half a mile, but it was a short hike, (1.7 miles roundtrip), and the waterfall at the end of the trail was incredibly beautiful. Most of the hike was shaded, which we found to be a blessing in the heat. Time this one carefully – there are only about 12 parking spots at the trailhead. Once again, this area is heavily populated by bears, and this trail led us through heavily wooded areas. Have your bear spray readily accessible and make noise!
Done hiking? Looking for another way to view the incredible scenery? Book a rafting trip! We went with Glacier Raft Co. and had an amazing time. They will provide life jackets, head protection, and water shoes to wear. We chose the half day scenic float down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, so there was no need for head protection on our trip. Wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat! You should take a bottle of water as well. We purchased underwater cameras like this one and the picture below was taken with it – pretty great quality for a disposable camera. Our guide was so much fun, and she stopped the raft in the middle of the cold, clear, turqoise water so we could jump in and cool off! Stash some towels and a change of clothes in your car so you can ride back to your home base in comfort.
Book Your Trip!
Now that you’ve learned all about how to do Glacier like a pro, you should be ready to book your trip and create your own unique adventures. Don’t forget to breathe in the crisp mountain air, dip your toes in the lakes and creeks, and take in all that Montana has to generously offer. Oh, and smile. Our world really is an incredibly beautiful place!