Two National Parks, Two Countries, One Vacation: Glacier and Banff

Studded with icy peaks, waterfalls and lush forests teeming with wildlife, Glacier National Park has been making visitors’ jaws drop for more than 100 years. And once you’ve experienced the grandeur of its alpine slopes, the breathtaking views from its hiking trails and the twists and turns of its mountain roads, it’s easy to want to keep checking national parks off your bucket list.

So why not grab your passport and head north to Glacier’s Rocky Mountain sister, Banff National Park, in Canada? Its hidden jewel-toned lakes, towering mountains and relaxing hot springs aren’t to be missed. And with this guide, you won’t have to. Here’s how to see these two beautiful parks in a single trip.

Getting to Glacier National Park

Drive about 25 miles northeast from Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell or about 130 miles north from Missoula International Airport, both in Montana.

What to See and Do in Glacier 

Jagged, rocky peaks tower above you in nearly every direction at Glacier National Park, where hiking, camping and backpacking rank among the most popular activities. With more than 1,000 campsites in 13 campgrounds and more than 700 miles of trails, travelers have a lot of options. Beginners may enjoy breaking in their hiking boots or pitching a tent near Two Medicine Lake, surrounded by scenic forests, meadows and open terrain sprinkled with bright wildflowers in the spring.

Established in 1910, Glacier’s 1,583 beautiful square miles are also accessible thanks to its famous mountain roads. Hop in the car and navigate to Going-to-the-Sun Road, a must-do scenic drive. This famous road connects the visitor centers at the park’s east and west entrances. Though the distance may seem brief at just 51 miles, it can easily take two to four hours to drive the winding road — or the whole day if you stop and admire the views, like turquoise alpine St. Mary Lake, the dramatic mountain slopes of Logan Pass and the misty spray of the Weeping Wall waterfall.

Don’t miss driving through a waterfall at the Weeping Wall, about 3 miles west of Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

To ensure you’re properly fueled for the adventure, stop at West Glacier Restaurant at the west end of Going-to-the-Sun Road for comfort food, or admire the view while noshing on a burger at Two Dog Flats Grill near the eastern end of the route.

Getting to Banff National Park

It’s about a 245-mile drive from Glacier National Park to Banff National Park, by way of U.S. Highway 89, Alberta Highway 2 and the Trans-Canada Highway. The U.S.-Canadian border is near the town of Carway and has limited hours for crossing (typically 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.). While this is one of the lesser-trafficked border crossings, there can be delays, especially during the summer. To check wait times before you head north, download the Canadian Border Patrol’s Border Wait Times app from Google Play or iTunes.

What to See and Do in Banff

Hiking is one of the most common activities in Banff, with countless trails throughout the 2,500-square-mile park. Two of the most popular points of interest in Banff are Plain of Six Glaciers Trail, which features a teahouse where you can rest before the hike back, and Banff Legacy Trail, which offers several covered picnic spots and is ideal for cyclists and people who don’t love high elevation gains.

The mountains in Banff are dotted with alpine lakes, including Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, which are great for canoeing or kayaking and offer hourly rentals. Near the north end of Banff, escape the crowds and drive parallel to the Continental Divide on Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 North) past towering mountains and opaline lakes.

Paddle atop Moraine Lake, whose incredible turquoise hue comes from suspended fine grains of rock flour brought into the lake by glacier melt.

If you’d rather relax than work up a sweat, find hot springs near the town of Banff, close to the center of the park. Curb your appetite nearby at Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar, which boasts stunning mountain views, or opt for campfire-inspired cooking and spirits distilled on-site at Park Distillery Restaurant and Bar.

Where to Stay in Glacier and Banff National Parks

Campsites in Glacier National Park are first come, first served, except for Fish Creek, St. Mary, part of Many Glacier and about half of the group sites at Apgar, which is the park’s largest campground and offers many amenities like showers, bike paths and firepits. In Banff, you can book campgrounds like the Lake Louise Campground, which is open year-round, online through the Parks Canada website. For the popular summer months, reserve your campsite at least three months in advance.

If sleeping in the great outdoors isn’t your style, opt for one of the famous historic hotels in these parks. The Lake McDonald Lodge opened in 1913, making it nearly as old as Glacier National Park itself. In Banff National Park, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits on the shore of picturesque Lake Louise. It has undergone a modern refurbishment but still retains touches of early 20th-century grandeur. Lodges inside the parks sell out quickly, so be sure to make your reservations as early as possible.

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Valerie Stimac is a California-based travel writer who grew up in Alaska and has lived all along the West Coast. She spent a summer working in Denali National Park and has driven the AlCan Highway twice from end to end. You can find her writing on her travel blog, Valerie & Valise, or on other sites including Lonely Planet and Nat Geo Travel.