Glacier National Park is one of the most beautiful protected areas in the United States. With 26 glaciers, more than 200 waterfalls, 700 lakes, and over 700 miles of hiking trails, it’s a vast and special place to explore.
In high school, I saw a photo of Waterton Lakes on Instagram and knew I had to see it in person. But it wasn’t until college that I finally went to Canada to see the Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, Waterton, Banff, Yoho, and Jasper. I had such a great time that I returned in the summer of 2019. And in the summer of 2021 and 2022.
Glacier National Park is one of the nation’s most magnificent parks. This park in northern Montana is known for one of the most scenic drives in the world. The Going-to-the-Sun Road connects the eastern and western portions of the park as it winds through towering mountains and clear blue lakes.
This park is also the first international peace park in the world. In 1932 it became Waterton-Glacier National Park, connecting Waterton National Park in Canada with Glacier National Park in Montana.
These parks offer many hiking, camping, backpacking, boating, and sightseeing opportunities. But with a park this massive, a trip to the glacier requires planning. This guide provides a solid overview so you know exactly where to go and what to do and see when you visit.
Visiting Glacier National Park: A Guide
how to get there
Glacier has three visitor centers: St. Mary on the east side of the park, Logan Pass along the Going-to-the-Sun road, and Apgar on the west side.
That Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana is about 40 minutes from the Apgar Visitor Center. Great Falls International Airport is approximately 2.5 hours from the St. Mary Visitor Center.
The mountainous section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road usually closes on the third Sunday in October and reopens in late June or even as late as July. Always check road and weather conditions before planning a trip.
The vehicle size restrictions for the road are as follows: 21 feet (6.4 m) long, 8 feet (2.4 m) wide and 10 feet (3 m) high. You can also book a classic red bus tour that departs from both sides of the park.
Reservation system: A reservation system for the Going-to-the-Sun Road was implemented in 2022, but it’s unclear whether or not the park will continue it for the 2023 season. Check the site to stay up to date.
There are five different areas for hiking in Glacier National Park. Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, North Fork & Goat Haunt, St Mary and Two Medicine. Lake McDonald and St. Mary are the most popular as the Going-to-the-Sun road connects these two areas.
Hiking varies from short nature walks, day hikes to waterfalls or along lake shores, longer day hikes over the mountains, and backpacking trips of varying lengths. There are over 820 miles of hiking trails in Glacier-Waterton International Park, so you’re sure to find a hike that’s perfect for your trip.
One of the most popular hikes is the Highline Trail. There are a few ways to hike this trail. One option is to park your car at The Loop shuttle stop, hop on the shuttle to Logan Pass, hike along the cliffs, see the Grinnell Glacier lookout, visit Granite Peak Chalet, and then to the car to go down
The other option is to park at Logan Pass, hike the trail to The Loop shuttle stop, and take the shuttle back to Logan Pass.
Another option would be to hike from Logan Pass to Granite Chalet and back, which turns off the shuttle system. But that’s a 15-mile hike. The other routes are 11 miles long, and the Grinnell Glacier lookout adds 1.6 miles round trip.
The part near Logan Pass is steep and rocky with a chain to hold on to as you continue. So if you have a head for heights, you should avoid this part.
There are 13 front country campgrounds in Glacier and 65 back country campgrounds. Frontland reservations will be available from January 28, 2023 recovery.gov.
A standard unpowered site during peak season (May 26-September 4) is $23.00 at Apgar Campground, the most popular 194 site campground. I’ve been here before, at Sprague Creek and Many Glacier. These are all great sites.
Waterton Lakes has two campgrounds in the front country and 10 campgrounds in the back country. Reservations can be made through Parks Canada’s reservation system website.
It can be difficult to get a hiking permit for the glacier as it is a lottery system. That website will go live on March 1, 2023 at 12:00 p.m. EST. 2022 they almost had 4,000 entries.
The more flexible your dates and itinerary, the better your chances of getting a permit. It costs $40 to apply, but if you don’t get approved, you get $30 back.
As previously mentioned, Glacier features two of the nine original chalets, Sperry and Granite Peak, which were built in the early 1900’s in the Highline Trail description. In 2022, staying at Granite Peak cost $124 for the first person and $85 for each additional person in the same room, plus Montana tax.
stay in Sperry Chalet was $253 for the first person and $167 for each additional person in the same room, plus Montana Tax. The reservation system opens on January 9, 2023.
With over 700 lakes and 131 named, this park is perfect for kayaking, canoeing, paddling and more. If you bring your own, you must have it screened for invasive aquatic species. You can also rent boats at Lake McDonald.
Another option is to book a tour with the Glacier Park Boat Company enjoy a boat trip on one of the many lakes with a guide.
If you are wondering about the accessibility in this park, The Companion of the disabled traveler covers all different access options and all park shuttles are ADA accessible.
What about the glaciers?
Unfortunately, due to the effects of climate change, many of Glacier National Park’s glaciers are shrinking at a rapid pace.
In 1850 there were about 80 glaciers. But as of 2015, only 26 remain — and they’re shadows of their former selves. This is an important reminder that we should come together and do more to help the planet we love so much so we can enjoy the great outdoors forever.
Bonus: Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada
Waterton Lakes National Park is located in southwest Alberta, Canada, just across the border from Glacier National Park in Montana. It was the 4th national park in Canada and with the Glacier National Park the first Peace Park.
You need a passport to enter Canada from the United States and vice versa. There are three different border crossings. Piegan/Carway Port of Entry is open year-round from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. and is located off US Highway 89. Roosville Port of Entry is open 24 hours a day and is located off US Highway 93. The Chief Mountain Port of Entry is only open in summer.
If you are visiting Goat Haunt which is located on the lake that connects to Canada then Check the latest information about what to visit. You may need additional verification, and with limited WiFi and cellular service, you need to be prepared in advance.
The Peace Park
Peace parks, such as Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park, are “transboundary protected areas.” Basically, they are parks that stretch across national borders.
Of some 130 international peace parks around the world, Glacier and Waterton Lakes were the first. It showed the world what is possible and that we should keep the country independent of borders. The mountains, lakes and valleys connect us all, regardless of nationality.