Morning mountain reflection on the still waters of Swiftcurrent Lake in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park.
The vastness of Glacier National Park is incredible! Its beauty is impossible to capture in mere words, and photographs only partially convey the wonders we discovered in this amazing corner of God’s great creation. It really needs to be experienced in person to be fully comprehended!
Traveling to Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is located in northwestern Montana and borders Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada) in the southwestern corner of the province of Alberta. If you plan to visit Canada bring your passport and do some research so you know what items you are allowed to bring with you going into Canada, as well as returning to the US.
The closest airport is the aptly named Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana, about 30 miles from the western entrance of the park. Also, Kalispell is a large enough city to find any gear and supplies you might need for your adventure at reasonable prices. The tables and chart below will help orient you with the area, and also provide drive times and distances between major areas around the park, as well as to other airports in the region.
When to Visit
While you can visit Glacier any time of year, keep in mind much of the park is inaccessible in the winter, and the season when all the roads are open is relatively short. Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only road that fully spans the interior of the park from east to west, typically opens in early July and closes in late October; but, I highly recommend checking the Alerts and Current Conditions page on the official NPS website regardless of when you plan to visit as heavy snows and construction often affect the opening and closing dates. Also, peak visitor times and the best season for road construction typically coincide in many national parks; for example a major project in 2020 and 2021 will significantly increase travel times to and from the Many Glacier area during both of those summers. By planning ahead, arriving early, and taking park shuttles when and where available you can hopefully minimize the impact during your visit.
Where to Stay
Whether you plan to stay in one of the grand old lodges, a rustic cabin, a front country campground, or do some backcountry camping, there are plenty of options available. The one common element, regardless of your choice, is the need to plan well in advance of your trip. The lodges book early; and, while there is a mix of reserved, as well as first-come-first-serve campsites, you want to know what to expect. Rather than going into great detail here I suggest starting your research at the following pages on the NPS website:
Lodging: There is a variety of lodging options in and around the park, though the prime months of July and August book up quickly, so make reservations as early as possible. We booked in January for a mid-August trip and could only find openings in the East Motel of the St. Mary Lodge & Resort. The room was clean and adequate, but very small with no frills, and quite expensive! Remember you are paying for the location, and hopefully you haven’t traveled all this way just to sit around in your hotel room! The food and service were good and the stores appeared to have everything you might need at fairly reasonable prices, though we had stocked up in Kalispell before heading to the park, just in case.
Camping: There are 13 campgrounds with over 1000 sites.
Backcountry Camping: As with any national park, if you plan to go backpacking and backcountry camping many regulations apply and permits are required, so you really need to do your homework.
Glacier National Park is a vast wilderness and, depending on which trails you hike, the number of people you encounter can vary significantly. Even on the busiest trails we sometimes went a while without encountering other hikers. Also, do not expect to be able to use your cell phone to call for help as service fades quickly once you enter the park.
As with any mountain wilderness outing, you need to be equipped with proper clothing, gear, and supplies, including extra warm layers, raingear, a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, some form of makeshift shelter, sufficient water and/or a way to purify water, food, first aid kit, flashlight or headlamp, whistle, emergency fire starting materials, and, finally, a good map and compass.
Grizzly bear eating berries along the Iceberg Lake Trail.
This is also bear country, home to both grizzly and black bears. We saw several of both during our visit, most from the safety of our vehicle, though we did encounter one grizzly, about 30 yards away, while hiking the Iceberg Lake Trail. Read up on bear safety, heed the recommendations to not hike alone, and have every adult carry bear spray. Also, be aware if you are traveling by air, you cannot transport bear spray in either your carry-on or checked luggage so you will need to purchase it upon arrival. All the stores in and around the park had bear spray for sale, though I did some research when we took our trip and found a used sporting goods store in Kalispell where we were able to purchase bear spray for $25 a canister and return it for a $10 refund (2012 rates), assuming the canister was not discharged. The store we used is now closed, but considering a canister of bear spray currently costs around $50, taking time to do some some online research and calling around could save you a bit of money.
There are five major areas of the park including, Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, North Fork & Goat Haunt, St. Mary (includes Logan Pass), and Two Medicine. We did not do any hiking in the Lake McDonald Valley, though we did drive through on Going-to-the-Sun Road, but never even came close to remote North Fork/Goat Haunt area.
There is a great shuttle system with numerous stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road that is available at no extra cost. This is a convenient way to do some point-to-point hikes along Going-to-the-Sun Road. It is also a great way to get to Logan Pass without the concern of finding a parking spot; plus, you get to watch the scenery along the way rather than the road and other vehicles. Pay close attention to the shuttle times, though, especially later in the day, as you do not want to get stranded at the end of a long hike without a way back to your vehicle, except a long walk in the dark.
In all, we hiked about 45 miles over seven days and barely scratched the surface of the 740 miles of trails Glacier has to offer. As I said earlier mere words cannot do justice to this magnificent place, so I will provide only brief technical information about each hike and let the my photographs do the rest. All the trails we hiked were well marked so navigation was not difficult, though having good topographic maps will provide an added measure of confidence.
Highline Trail to Haystack Butte from the Logan Pass Visitor Center; 7.2 miles out-and-back; some ups and downs along the way with a significant climb at Haystack Butte.
Bighorn sheep ram charging down the narrow Highline Trail and frightening hikers near Logan Pass.
Indian paintbrushes with Haystack Butte in the background.
St. Mary Falls & Virginia Falls from the St. Mary Falls trailhead (St. Mary Valley); 2.9 miles out-and-back; some minor ups and downs along the way with a moderate climb to get up to Virginia Falls.
St. Mary Falls.
Posing in front of Virginia Falls.
Siyeh Bend to St. Mary Falls from the Siyeh Bend/Piegan Pass trailhead on Going-to-the-Sun Road just east of Logan Pass; 5.0 miles one-way with a return trip via the park shuttle. There is about a mile of uphill hiking at the beginning of this route, but then it is all downhill except a brief, easy climb to the St. Mary Falls trailhead and shuttle stop at the end.
Todd the Hiker at the Siyeh Bend trailhead. (Photo credit: Leah Nystrom)
Deadwood Falls on Reynolds Creek in the St. Mary Valley.
Upper Two Medicine Lake from the Boat Landing on the west end of Two Medicine Lake; 4.6 miles out-and-back; this is a moderate uphill hike on the way to Upper Two Medicine Lake and downhill on the return. We chose to ride the boat out to the trailhead (for a fee); this is not required, though it is almost triple the distance if you choose to hike the whole route starting near the Two Medicine Visitor Center.
The windblown waters of Upper Two Medicine Lake.
I recommend a stop to see Running Eagle Falls on the way up to Two Medicine.
Iceberg Lake from the Many Glacier Visitor Center; 10 miles out-and-back; there is about a two thousand foot elevation gain on this hike, all uphill on the way out and all downhill on the way back. This is a tough hike so give yourself plenty of time, with margin built in to rest and take in the scenery at the top.
Beargrass and the incredible mountain views along the Iceberg Lake Trail.
Mountain meadow wildflowers with Iceberg Lake in the distance.
Grinnell Glacier from the Swiftcurrent trailhead (Many Glacier); 9.6 miles out-and-back; this is pretty much the same configuration as the Iceberg Lake hike, with about a two thousand foot elevation gain, all uphill on the way out and all downhill on the way back. This is another tough hike so, again, give yourself plenty of time to rest and take in the scenery at the top.
Fireweed accents the view overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Grinnell Lake.
Spectacular view from above Grinnell Glacier.
Hidden Lake Overlook from the Logan Pass Visitor Center; 2.6 miles out-and-back; this is a short and fairly easy hike, though it is all uphill on the way out and downhill on the way back.
Enjoying the view from the Hidden Lake Overlook.
Mountain goats in the snow above the Logan Pass Visitor Center.
Our time in Glacier National Park was an amazing experience! The most difficult task I faced in writing this post was deciding which of the over 1000 photographs to include. I hope the ones I chose provide you with the inspiration to take a trip there yourself, you won’t regret it!
No visit to Glacier National Park would be complete without a stop to snap a shot of the iconic St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island from the scenic overlook along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015-2020.