Discover Glacier National Park: What to See and Do

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Sitting on the northernmost edge of Montana, travelers will find more than 700 miles of trails, 25 glaciers and many species of North America’s iconic wildlife roaming at Glacier National Park. Named for the approximately 150 glaciers it once contained, this park’s special history includes its designation as a national park six years before the creation of the National Park Service.

Full of mountains, lakes, waterfalls and wildlife such as wolves, bears and mountain lions, Glacier is more than just a vacation destination; it’s an adventure. Here’s a guide to discovering this remarkable, expansive and pristine park.

Getting to Glacier National Park

In addition to spanning the northwest corner of Montana, Glacier National Park crosses the border into British Columbia, Canada, making it one of only a handful of national parks the two countries share. Though considered remote, Glacier can easily be accessed from two nearby Montana cities with major airports: Missoula and Kalispell. If you’re flying into Kalispell, consider driving south for a 50-minute round-trip detour to Flathead Lake, which was carved out by glaciers and has the largest surface area of any natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi in the contiguous U.S.

Flathead Lake Flathead Lake consists of more than 200 square miles of water and boasts 185 miles of shoreline.

Best Times to Visit

While the park is open year-round, travelers should be mindful of both accessibility and weather when planning. In the wintertime, avid outdoors fans can enjoy snowshoeing and cross-country skiing across the park’s snowy terrain. Though many roads are closed, travelers can still access Lake McDonald Lodge, a historical Swiss chalet-style lodge built more than a century ago. Be mindful that most ski trails are not marked and the park does not maintain them during the winter.

Spring and summer bring a mecca of colors as wildflowers blossom and glacial melting gives rise to the Flathead River, which forms the western and southern borders of Glacier National Park. Additionally, getting around the park is much easier in these warmer seasons because most of the roads around the park are open and easily accessible. Whichever season you prefer, the park provides endless opportunities for activity.

Glacier National Park Glacier National Park has more than 200 waterfalls. Photo by Tim Rains / NPS; Flickr.

What to See and Do

Whether you’re seeking a daytrip for your family or a weeks-long adventure, Glacier National Park provides an enjoyable escape for everyone. Here’s a list of some of what you can see and do in the park.

Take a Hike

There’s a reason Glacier is a favorite park among backpackers: The park boasts 745.6 miles of hiking trails that allow for day hikes, camping treks and backpacking adventures offering spectacular views of tundra, alpine lakes, mountains, forest and waterfalls.

Hike to a Lookout Tower

Since Glacier is known for its fire lookout towers, consider hiking to one of the remaining nine in the park. The Swiftcurrent Lookout is considered the “easiest” lookout tower to reach, at 8 miles one way from the Swiftcurrent Trailhead. And while gaining 2,300 feet in elevation is certainly no easy task, the stunning views of Iceberg Peak, Swiftcurrent Glacier and Windmaker Lake reward hikers with plenty of memories in return for their efforts.

Hike Whether you’re an amateur or a pro, you won’t struggle to find a hike with more than 700 miles of trails to choose from at Glacier National Park. Photo by Tim Rains / NPS; Flickr.

Hike With the Family

Known as Running Eagle Falls, this short, 0.6-mile loop is located just a little more than a mile west of the Two Medicine entrance station. This trail leads to two waterfalls that frequently appear as one, earning this trail its nickname, “Trick Falls” — when the higher elevated falls’ water rushes over, the lower waterfall is often disguised. The mostly flat trail presents hikers of all ages and abilities with an opportunity to enjoy the scenery. Bathrooms are also conveniently located at the trailhead.

Hike to See Glaciers

On your way to see Grinnell Glacier, you’ll begin by passing Swiftcurrent Lake and the north shores of Lake Josephine. Then the approximately 10-mile round-trip hike begins increasing in elevation, affording hikers the opportunity to see Grinnell Lake and the cliffs of Angel Wing. Keep going, and you’ll arrive at Upper Grinnell Lake, with a view of Grinnell Glacier as well as Salamander Glacier gripping onto the Garden Wall.

Go on a Scenic Drive

Access six of the park’s 13 campgrounds via Going-to-the-Sun Road, which was constructed during the 1920s and early 1930s and has since provided a path for visitors to drive through 51 miles of incredible mountain scenery. Along the way, admire views from the road’s highest point — 6,646 feet — at Logan Pass, and pull over at the popular Jackson Glacier Overlook, which provides a perfect photo opportunity with a backdrop of mountains and glacial valleys. Download and listen to these audio files as you tour the sights along Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Logan Pass Early risers can catch the sunrise over Logan Pass. Photo by Jacob W. Frank / NPS; Flickr.

See Wildlife

With hundreds of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species throughout its ecosystems, the park is teeming with wildlife. Go on a guided tour, like Natural Habitat Adventures, which takes groups of seven to remote areas where wildlife has recently been spotted. Species such as lynx, bighorn sheep, elk, pikas, wolverines and beavers call the park home, so a wildlife sighting is almost guaranteed. Going with a guided group is recommended as these sightings can include more intimidating park natives such as grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves.

A grizzly sow walks through Glacier with her cubs A grizzly sow walks through Glacier with her cubs. Photo by Andrew Englehorn / NPS; Flickr.

Whitewater Rafting, Fishing and More

During the summer, the Flathead River offers world-class rafting, including family-friendly daytrips and multiday whitewater excursions with Class II and III rapids.

From ice fishing to fly-fishing, Glacier also presents an abundance of opportunities to make a catch in areas such as the Flathead River or Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park, which lies just west of the Continental Divide. The product of glacial carving, the lake is 10 miles long, 472 feet deep and crystal clear in many places. Here, travelers will also find recreational boating opportunities and countless trails. Remember that Glacier’s ecosystems are delicate, so follow the park rules and acquire proper licenses when fishing in the park.

Flathead River Flathead River flows southwest from the Canadian Rockies and into Flathead Lake, emptying into the Clark Fork. Photo by Tim Rains / NPS; Flickr.

Historic Lodging and Camping

Spend a night at Lake McDonald Lodge and kick back by its fireplace, imagining how it was when the lodge opened in 1913, filled with cowboys and explorers. If camping is on your agenda, nearby Apgar Village has both campsites and boat launches.

Lake McDonald Lodge More than a century old, Lake McDonald Lodge sits 10 miles inside Glacier National Park’s west entrance.

Take a Sneak Peek!

Can’t wait to see Glacier? Preview what your vacation will look like via the National Park Service’s live webcams throughout the park.

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About the Author

Ashley M. Halligan is a copywriter, editor and journalist who specializes in travel and technology. She’s been published by a number of news outlets, including Reuters and Irish Examiner. She recently founded Pilgrim Magazine, a narrative-focused travel publication launching this fall. You can follow her travels on Instagram: @contemporarypilgrim + @pilgrimmagazine.