Top 10 Things To Do In Glacier National Park
Here are my tips for visiting Glacier National Park, and top 10 things to do–from hiking to eating. This guide covers my favorite things I’ve done on trips to Montana, and isn’t be viewed as comprehensive. You’d need a month or more to even approach doing everything in GNP, and even then you’d miss plenty. (Updated May 10, 2021.)
First, a quick update on current operations. Glacier National Park is instituting an online reservation system for the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor between the park’s West and St. Mary Entrances from May 28, 2021 through September 6, 2021. This means that entering will require two things: park admission (vehicle permit or Annual Pass) plus a $2 Entry Reservation Ticket, or a reservation for a service (camping, hotel, horse riding, etc.) along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Day-use visitors who arrive by private vehicle or motorcycle and enter Glacier National Park via the aforementioned entrances between 6 am and 5 pm MDT must have a $2 Entry Reservation Ticket. Entry Reservation Tickets are valid for seven consecutive days per vehicle. They may be used anytime within that seven day period. Visitors arriving on foot or bicycle do not require an Entry Reservation Ticket. Day-use reservations are included with any overnight lodging and service reservations along the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor.
Entry Reservation Tickets are limited. Approximately 3/4 of the Entry Reservation Tickets will be available up to 60 days in advance with the remaining 1/4 of Entry Reservation Tickets being released two days in advance. Prior to the full opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road there will be fewer tickets available each day. Entry Reservation Tickets can be secured at www.recreation.gov.
Glacier National Park officials have stated that reservations for June 2021 sold out within minutes after they were released. At one point, more than 10,000 people were on the park’s online portal–more than three times the number of available tickets. Officials also stated that more tickets are being held back until Going-to-the-Sun Road reopens. Once that happens, it’ll be announced on the status updates section of the Glacier National Park website.
Otherwise, Glacier National Park is essentially operating as normal. Face masks are required on National Park Service lands where physical distancing cannot be maintained and in all NPS buildings and facilities. This means the Visitor Centers, Many Glacier Hotel, Lake McDonald Lodge, and other areas around Going-to-the-Sun Road when physical distancing is not possible during times that are crowded with tourists.
Keep in mind that there’s a ton to see and do in Glacier National Park, so unless you have an abundance of time, you’ll probably have to confine your visit to a couple areas of the park. During my visit, we focused on the Many Glacier and Lake McDonald areas, with diversions to Two Medicine and St. Mary. We managed to see quite a bit, and I’d highly recommend replicating this type of itinerary…
So what are my top picks for Glacier National Park? It might surprise and infuriate you to learn that the list doesn’t contain many glaciers. Let’s dig into the list of the top things to do in Glacier National Park!
10. Watch Wildlife
Now, you might be thinking that this isn’t really a reasonable suggestion, as you don’t know where animals will be, when. That’s true…to an extent. You can make some informed predictions, though. Do some research, and go to places they normally go.
For example, it’s pretty common to see moose and deer at Fishercap Lake feeding just after sunrise. Likewise, Hidden Lake Trail and Highline Trail are common bear haunts (although it’s probably a better idea to avoid trails with “Bear Frequenting” statuses).
Beyond doing research and informing yourself of where wildlife is likely to be during your visit, you can always ask a ranger. Again, keep in mind that bears are godless killing machines, so keep your distance.
9. Eat Huckleberry Ice Cream!
With all of the amazing sights of Glacier National Park, it might disappoint you to learn that ice cream makes the list. It might further surprise you to see it’s huckleberry ice cream, which you might be convinced is not a real thing. Well, it’s real, and it’s spectacular.
Actually, you can find all things huckleberry in and around Glacier National Park. From jam to steak sauce, it’s all about the huckleberries in Montana. Variety is the spice of life, so I think it makes sense to include trying some delicious huckleberry foods–the specialty of the area–amidst those amazing hikes and wildlife watching.
7. Avalanche Lake Trail
If you are lazy and want great reward for minimal investment, Avalanche Lake Trail is for you! This trail winds along a boardwalk through a gorgeous path of cedars before arriving at Avalanche Gorge a half mile after the beginning of the trailhead. It’s a super easy “hike” and the journey is almost as beautiful as the destination. It’s fairly popular (for good reason) and the perfect hike to not make you feel guilty if you’re normally the type to see National Parks via outlooks viewed from your car window.
Oh, and I’ll readily admit that my photo doesn’t do it justice. For some reason, I never busted out the tripod here and just shot handheld with my fisheye, trying for something unique. I thought I got that ‘something unique’ with this shot, but when I got home, I realized I did not. Check out this shot or these shots for a better idea of the beauty of Avalanche Gorge.
8. Hidden Lake Goat Watching
Everyone knows that goats are basically the antithesis of bears: kindhearted, conscientious, and sagely creatures. They are a national treasure, and seeing a mountain goat will surely be the highlight of any visit to Glacier National Park.
Mountain goats abound in various locations around Glacier, but I’ve heard of them most often being spotted on the trail from Logan Pass to Hidden Lake. We saw numerous here, and it seemed they were basically taking the trail down to the lake for feeding right around sunset.
Of course, the view of Hidden Lake itself is nothing to scoff at, either. 😉
6. St. Mary Lake at Sunset
Horror film or Stanley Kubrick fans may recognize St. Mary Lake, as the opening shot from The Shining was filmed here. It’s the second largest lake in Glacier National Park, with mountains flanking it and the iconic Wild Goose Island sitting in the center.
St. Mary Lake is a popular sunset spot because of the way the sun sets behind the distant mountains. My group took two cracks at photographing Saint Mary Lake at sunset, and the first time we were rewarded with stunning crepuscular rays at the last minute (it looked like it was going to be a total bust with storm clouds filling the sky–the clouds literally parted for us, it seemed!).
While you’re likely to find a decent number of people here, it won’t feel too crowded as there is plenty of room. If you’re a photographer, you should go directly to the shore, anyway, where you’ll find relative solitude.
5. Visit Logan Pass
Logan Pass is probably the most popular spot in Glacier National Park, with Reynolds Mountain and Clements Mountain towering over the visitor’s center here. When we were here, parking was in short supply during the day, and while the spot was beautiful–like all in Glacier–I wouldn’t say it wasn’t any more gorgeous than a lot of spots in the park; it’s just the highest elevation guests can reach by car, making it special, I guess?
This is not to say it isn’t beautiful–it is. It’s also how you start out on Highline Trail or Hidden Lake Trail, which are two of the best trails in Glacier National Park. It’s a location that gets better the more you explore it, so you definitely will get more out of Logan Pass if you wander past the visitor’s center.
Oh, and finally, if you have the chance, visit Triple Falls up by Logan Pass. Access to it might be restricted (and even if not, it’s tough to find), but if you are able, you’ll be rewarded with this beautiful sight. We visited it in late afternoon, and it definitely would have been better photographed around sunrise.
4. Stay in an Iconic Lodge
During our visit to Glacier National Park, we did a split stay at Many Glacier Hotel (read and see more photos in my review) and Lake McDonald Lodge (read and see more photos in my review). One thing I really appreciate in the US National Parks is the merging of the natural and human-made, and the historical significance of some additions. From this perspective, both lodges were spectacular.
I highly recommend a stay in one (or both) of these lodges, or another lodge within the park, for another reason: proximity. The closest off-site lodging is a loooong way from the main draws in Glacier, so you’re going to waste a lot of time each day just in the commute.
If you’re going to spend 4 or more days in the park, I’d highly recommend staying at both of these lodges, so you can stay in Many Glacier Hotel while exploring that side of the park, and Lake McDonald Lodge while exploring the other side. Our group felt this worked perfectly for us, and really made for an efficient experience.
They can be a bit more expensive than off-site lodging, but they are absolutely worth it both in terms of getting the “full” National Park experience, and more importantly, for the sake of convenience.
3. Swiftcurrent Lake Sunrise
One of the things that staying in Many Glacier Hotel (it’s that small speck in the lower left corner at the edge of the lake) enabled us to do was go on an early morning hike to a vantage high above Swiftcurrent Lake and photograph the sunrise catching the clouds and mountains behind it.
Swiftcurrent Lake also can be gorgeous at sunset, in late morning, or really, any time of day. Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to take a bad photo of that lake with the mountains behind it. Mount Wilbur is particularly iconic, and this whole segment of the Lewis Range that appears behind Swiftcurrent Lake reminds me as much of the Swiss Alps as anything in the United States. (And just think, if you stay at Many Glacier Hotel, you can sit on the back porch and gaze at it all from the comfort of a rocking chair.)
2. Grinnell Glacier Trail
So the big caveat here is that this is a 12-mile roundtrip hike that is rated moderate to strenuous by the sources I consulted. I thought the hike itself was fairly easy, with a well-maintained trail…it was just long. So by virtue of length alone, it’s at least moderate for most people. I realize for many people, this hike won’t be do-able.
However, if you think you might be able to do it, then do it. The hike traverses around lakes, up mountainsides, and high above lakes, all the while encountering various wildlife (from deer to bighorn sheep to bears) with the trail ending with a beautiful view of Grinnell Lake filled with glaciers (yes!). We started out the hike right around noon, and didn’t make it back until pretty late at night, so you might start out earlier in the day.
This is a really rewarding hike, and well worth the time commitment.
1. Drive Going-to-the-Sun Road
I’ll admit it: this one is sort of like a list of the Grand Canyon Things to Do saying, “hey, make sure to look over the edge of that big pit.” If you are going to Glacier National Park, there’s at least a 95% chance that you’re driving Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s one of the best drives in America, and there’s a ton to see.
Rather than pointing out the obvious, I thought I’d share a couple of my favorite stopping points along GTTS Road that aren’t already listed elsewhere on this list. You’ll probably be stopping just about everywhere, but if not, I recommend: Apgar Village (that’s where you get the ice cream!), The Loop, Haystack Falls (stopping beyond it to get a view back of the falls going under the bridge is great), Triple Arches Bridge, Oberlin Bend, and Jackson Glacier. Here’s a great guide to Going-to-the-Sun Road, but most of these turnouts are pretty clearly marked.
Although it hits some of what I think are the high points, this list still just scratches the surface of things to do in Glacier National Park, and really just hits on two areas of the park. We didn’t manage to get to (what I assume is) Glacier’s equivalent of the holy land, a transcendent place named “Goat Haunt.” Next time, we are making a pilgrimage there, for sure!
No matter what you do, you’re sure to have an excellent time in Glacier National Park. The park is absolutely breathtaking, with amazing vista after amazing vista. It really isn’t fair that one location gets so much beauty while all of the Midwest gets…thousands of miles of cornfields. Glacier is one of my favorite US National Parks–if not my favorite–that I have visited thus far, with Yosemite National Park being its only other serious competition.
For more of my tips and thoughts about Glacier, please check out my other National Park posts. To see more of my Glacier National Park photos or to purchase prints, check out my Glacier National Park Photo Gallery. For more comprehensive travel advice, I recommend The Best of Glacier National Park or Moon’s Glacier National Park (in that order). Along with online resources, I used those books while planning, and found them useful.
Where are your favorite places and things to do in Glacier National Park? Which of these would you most like to photograph? Sunrise or Sunset picks? Do you aspire to visit the majestic Goat Haunt? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting GNP interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
Was just wondering what dates you went? Have reservations for September 27-30 and nervous I wrong be able to hike Grinell or highline! Thanks
Glacier vrs Yosemite. I went to Yosemite in my early 20s and spent a week hiking. I knew there would never be a place as beautiful. 61 now and visited Glacier three years ago. I’ve tried to back the last two years but twarted by wild fires. I have reservations on 8 sept 19 at the granite park chalet two of my sons are accompanying me. I am super excited. No one mentioned iceberg lake trail, pretty easy hike and awesome, but ptarmigan tunnel is my favorite so far. Yosemite still reigns in my book but there is no real 2nd place. The mountains rock!!!!
Tom, a splendid list from an obviously well spent first visit. But here are some suggestions for your next trip: (1) Huckleberry ice cream is always a sound choice; however, bliss is a huckleberry daiquiri at sunset on the deck at McDonald Lodge. (2) I’m shocked, shocked that a connoisseur of boulangeries like yourself did not get a chance to savor the pastries at the Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery (http://polebridgemerc.com/portfolio/bakery). (3) Goat Haunt is indeed a transcendent destination, particularly since it would include seeing Glacier’s beautiful Canadian sister park Waterton Lakes and an opportunity to take the 7.5-mile U.S. and Canadian Ranger-guided Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park Hike from Waterton Village to Goat Haunt. (4) And although it is technically outside the park, Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier is a must for fans of historic National Park Lodges (as is the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton).
Tom, I couldn’t agree more! Having worked in the Park for several years, and visited and hiked the Park for decades before that, there is nothing like a Huckleberry Margarita at Lake McDonald Lodge! I think it is also worth mentioning here that one of the best times to enjoy the Road is before it opens to vehicle traffic in the Spring. There is nothing like riding your bike the 17 miles up from Avalanche to Logan Pass–I’ve also ridden it up from the East, which is less arduous. You truly feel like you are on top of the world–thus the “Crown of the Continent.” You feel a kinship with other cyclist who have made it to the top, and your reward is the flight down!
This is on my wish list for 2019 Tom. My plan is to drive North to Yellowstone, then on to GNP and still even further up crossing into Canada to hit Maligne Lake. I’m hoping to take two weeks to traverse it all by car. I’m so excited. Thank you for the stunning images and tips and tricks.
Thank you for the good laugh. “Everyone knows that goats are basically the anthesis of bears: kindhearted, conscientious, and sagely creatures. ” OH if I can only be 5 years old again and believe that : )
To anthropomorphize these two animals is uninformed to say the least. Animals, behave very predictably, they behave as animals. BTW, anthesis is the flowering point of a plant, the word to want for ‘opposite’ is antithesis . . . another chuckle, thanks. ~ Should you have any proof of goats actually being kindhearted, conscientious, or sagely – the scientific community would love to hear from you.
“Thank you for the good laugh.”
Beautiful images! I am heading to Glacier in a couple of weeks, and I was wondering if you would be willing to disclose the location you took the very first image from?
Great article, wonderful fall images! Where all those images taken on the same trip? You did great, very lovely! The last image, it’s triple/colliding falls, on Reynolds correct? It’s very nice. . .
Great images! Would love to see what you’d come up with at Yellowstone (hint hint)
Yellowstone is high on my list. Still debating whether what time of year. The images of it in winter are stunning, but I’m thinking that’s a second or third trip kind of thing.
If you haven’t gone yet, we’ve been there 8 times, I believe, though never in winter. Here’s my opinion on the other seasons:
– Spring- fewer people so more chances to get away from crowds and experience some solitude. Not everything is open, and some trails and roads are still closed by snow.
– Summer- would be the ideal time to visit if it wasn’t so crowded. Plan to spend time in traffic jams on the roads, and parking lots are often full.
– Fall- once again, fewer people and some places are closed. Might not be able to get into the Park if there’s an early snow storm so realize your visit is tentative.
Whatever the time, you MUST spend some time in Old Faithful Inn whether you’re staying there or not. The lobby atrium will blow you away. My spouse and I loved staying in the “Old House” rooms and imagining what it was like to be there a century earlier. Most Old House rooms have communal bathrooms, an issue for some.
Great work as always Tom! You are a master of travel and of travel photography. You are a force to be reckoned with! Seriously Tom, you are doing great work. Don’t stop!!! I enjoy reading your articles and viewing your stunning photographs.
Haha, thanks, Bob! I noticed one of (what looked like) your photos on the Disney Parks Blog the other day. Not sure you read it, so thought I’d mention it.
Good list Tom. I had mentioned on your Disney blog that you needed to go there; seems you anticipated me.
Some random comments:
More than any other National Park that I’ve been to (most of them), the best parts of Glacier require that you put on a backpack and hike to the back country.
You can cut the mileage for Grinnell Glacier trail in half by taking the boat from Many Glacier hotel to Josephine Lake. Also, the lake on that trail that has ice is Upper Grinnell Lake.
Just outside the east entrance is Glacier Trailhead cabins which offers good lodging that is roughly equidistant from Many Glacier, Logan Pass and Two Medicine.
Given your love of snacks, how could you not include having pie at the Park Cafe? Only communists disavow the Power of Pie! Seriously, best pie I’ve ever had anywhere.
If you can catch it soon after a rain, Triple Falls at Logan Pass actually becomes Quadruple Falls.
I know you’re a beef lover; did you get to eat at the Cattle Baron?
For something off the beaten track, Polebridge is a cool place that can be reached by car.
Have fun in Banff, know you’ll love it. If you get a chance, check out Yoho right next door. It’s even better.
Oh wow, these are some great tips! I knew the thing about taking the boat to cut the Grinnell Hike down, but didn’t know any of the other tips. Now I feel like I need to go back just to have the Park Cafe pie and beef at Cattle Baron.
Any tips for Banff? I’d rather hear them now, before we go. 😉 Thanks!
Hope this is in time to be helpful. All subjective of course and a lot of it you probably already know. Just to give you an idea of the wealth of options, I absolutely love Banff and it’s still only my 5th favorite park in the area after Mt. Robson, Mt. Assiniboine, Yoho and Jasper.
Even more than Glacier, the weather is an absolute roll of the dice. In previous Septembers I’ve had skies like a Max Parrish painting and I’ve been snowed on 9 out of 16 days. It’s beautiful when it snows but it does mess up ones hiking plans.
Banff Springs Hotel is well worth seeing. On the other hand, and YMMV, Chateau Lake Louise has never done much for me. And while Lake Louise itself is pretty Moraine Lake is awesome squared and has the best hike in Banff, Sentinel Pass. If you can set a shuttle or don’t mind hitching go in by Larch Valley and come out from Paradise Valley. If you can only do and in and back, go the Larch Valley way. Doing Paradise Valley as far as Lake Annette would be a great separate hike. The best hike in the whole area is just over the border in Yoho, the Alpine Circuit at Lake O’Hara. But that’s a quota area and is a moderately hard reservation to get. Another awesome hike just over the border in Jasper is Wilcox Pass. Back in Banff itself, Nigel Pass, Helen Lake and Egypt Lake are all great and Johnson Canyon is short, easy and interesting.
Pretty much anywhere on Icefields Parkway is great. It’s in the same league with Going to the Sun road although very different.
As far as dining Banff has got all kinds of places but my 2 favorites are in Yoho/Field. For fine dining Cathedral Mt. Lodge. (fine as in gourmet; it’s not a dress up place.) For a nice local flavor kind of place try Truffle Pigs Bistro.
I’m jealous man, wish I could make it there this year. Good shooting!
We were stationed in Spokane, WA for 2011-2014 and just before we moved, we made it a point to spend a few days in Glacier, and I am SO glad we did – and all your pictures took me right back! We saw tons of mountain goats on Logan Pass too, except when we hiked it (July 5th!) we hiked it through 4 feet of snow!
And huckleberry ice cream. Ahhhhh huckleberry ice cream. Seriously- that is one of the main things I miss the most about living in the pacific northwest!
Four feet of snow on that hike? That’s crazy! I’m not surprised by the snow in July–I’ve heard it can take a while to melt up there–I’m just surprised you had THAT much. I’m sure that is one of those things that is cool in retrospect, but wasn’t so fun at the time.
Looks amazing. I am a construction estimator an I just recently did an estimate for a 14 million dollar renovation to the Many Glacier Hotel inside the park. I flew out for a site visit and it was breathtaking. Only wish I had time to explore it more. It was like a cruel tease flying out from NJ, seeing just a small bit of such a huge amazing Park, and then having to get back on a plane back to Jersey the next day. It’s definitely on my radar for future trips now though.
While it stinks that you couldn’t spend more time there, I am glad to see the improvements at Many Glacier Hotel remain ongoing. It’s a gem of a hotel, and I hope that they keep working to maintain it so future generations can enjoy it.
I’ve lived in Montana for 3.5 years now and still have not been to Glacier. Nothing makes me want to pile on the light layers and Go-to-the-Sun more than your photos. At least I’ve had huckleberry ice cream? I’m about 10% Montanan at this point.
WHAT?! There’s stuff to do in Montana besides Glacier?! 😉
Seriously, get up there! It is such a beautiful place. Even if you aren’t into hiking or that sort of thing, there’s really something for everyone.
Glacier looks beautiful! Now that I know they have Huckleberry ice cream, it definitely has shot up my list as a place to visit. 🙂 We love National Parks, unfortunately I feel like the biggest barrier for most people visiting is how remote they can be. Not easy to make it to a place like Glacier from the East Coast, not really a locale you just happen to drive by.
On an unrelated Huckleberry note – Burgerville, a Portland, OR area based fast food restaurant that sources all their ingredients locally, has seasonal shakes that rotate out through the year. In late summer every year they have had a Huckleberry Milkshake that is pretty much heaven on earth. So if you like Huckleberries and you are ever in Portland when it is in season, don’t miss it. Trying that shake got me addicted to most anything with Huckleberries, which are surprisingly hard to find! I guess they don’t grow commercially for some reason, so supply is limited.
Unless you’re coming from Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, or Seattle, I think pretty much everyone has a long commute to Glacier. I traveled here from Indianapolis, and I know the travel time of those coming from LAX was just about as bad. It’s so remote that you’re pretty much guaranteed a long flight with a connection. Sadly, many of the National Parks are like this, making for long and expensive flights.
Thanks for the tip on the huckleberry milkshake. Now that’s something I can get behind!
Thanks for this post, Tom! Glacier is hands down my favorite national park…right behind Yosemite. My husband and I got engaged sitting by Hidden Lake in 2008 – and we celebrated by getting ice cream in the apgar village afterwards! I thought your list was spot on, and it took me back to my own trip. I’m so glad you finally checked glacier off your national park list. Just FYI, we stayed “offsite” in west glacier and it was a quick and easy trip to the park each day. It can be really tough to get into the lodges during late summer unless you really plan ahead – I’m talking a year out. We also stumbled upon an amazing eatery that we knew was awesome, and we were affirmed in our review by the numerous GNP “cast members” (for lack of a better word) that we’re hanging out there. Great article!!
I hope you had some goats joining you during the proposal. That would be pretty epic! 🙂
That’s good to know about the off-site hotels in West Glacier. It seemed like whenever we left the park, we had a terrible commute back to anywhere we wanted to go. Maybe we were just doing things wrong.
Checked off Glacier last year and Banff is on the agenda for this year! I love this area of the world. It is so, so beautiful. Maybe (just maybe) more beautiful than Yosemite.
Okay, I checked – the motel we stayed at was technically in Coram, and i don’t think it took us more than 15 minutes to get to the Apgar/Lake McDonald area. The awesome place to eat was called the Glacier Grill. Just in case you ever make it back! Good luck with your checklist…Banff is amazing as well.
That’s still not bad, time-wise. I’d hazard a guess that you couldn’t do the same if you were focusing on Many Glacier, but for Lake McDonald, at least, it sounds like an off-site stay is just as convenient. Thanks for the info! 🙂