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!