Lake McDonald Lodge Review
This post reviews Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park, featuring photos of the rooms, common areas, and a look at the view and location. Like Many Glacier Hotel that I reviewed previously, the main selling point of this lodge is the location. Not only is it conveniently located inside Glacier National Park, but it’s actually (as the name implies) on Lake McDonald. You’re going to be covering a lot of ground within Glacier since the park is so expansive that cutting down on time from your hotel to the park is key (which is why I think it’s imperative to stay inside the park).
Like Many Glacier Hotel, Lake McDonald Lodge is a National Historic Landmark, and listed as a Historic Hotel of America. The hotel has a rich history, beginning in 1913 when it was constructed as “The Lewis Glacier Hotel” by John Lewis, a land speculator from Montana. This was actually simultaneous to when the Great Northern Railway was constructing Many Glacier Hotel, among other hotels also under construction.
Glacier National Park was experiencing a massive boom in popularity thanks to the “See America First” and “American Alps” campaigns. These campaigns are highlighted in Episode 3 of the Ken Burns documentary America’s Best Idea; if you haven’t seen that documentary, drop whatever you’re doing and start watching (your boss will understand).
During construction, no railroad or road provided access to the construction site, so materials for the hotel were ferried by boat in the summer or skidded across the lake ice in winter.
Although designed by Lewis rather than the railroad company, it shared the Swiss design of Many Glacier Hotel, albeit on a smaller scale. Because no roads were built to the Lake McDonald Lodge during its early years, the front of the hotel (above) faces the lakeshore to greet guests who arrived by boat from Apgar landing.
The main lobby was designed to evoke the feel of a hunting lodge, with taxidermy and pelts throughout the lobby and exposed wood beams throughout. A totem pole was placed outside, despite local tribes not having used them.
Like so many other National Park Lodges, “historic” is an apt descriptor for Lake McDonald Lodge. You get this vibe the moment that you step foot in the main lobby, which is stunning but feels like something out of another era.
I say this in a positive way, as the main lobby is absolutely the star of the show. While I liked the cavernous main lobby of Many Glacier Hotel, I think Lake McDonald Lodge easily has it beat, with abundant taxidermy monitoring guests as they pass by, plenty of common-area seating, and beautiful exposed woods.
It feels like a turn of the century hunting lodge, but in no way is dated or looks “old.” It’s all been meticulously well-maintained, and is without a doubt the most compelling element of the hotel. It’s a great place to just sit, and have a staring contest with an elk…or whatever.
On each of the floors above the main lobby, there are little alcoves with couches, desks, and other seating areas that overlook the main lobby. I thought this was a really nice touch, and gives guests a more secluded place to unwind while still enjoying that awesome ambiance of the main lobby.
There are also several benches outside behind (I guess in front of?) the hotel facing the lake, with tons of flower pots around. It’s really a charming, almost idyllic setup and would be a great place to relax with a cup of coffee before setting out on a day of adventure, wrestling bears, rounding up bighorns, and other typical things people do in Glacier.
As is the case with Many Glacier Hotel, Xanterra operates Lake McDonald Lodge and runs the Red Bus Tours out of Lake McDonald Lodge. Although we didn’t take one of these tours, it was cool to see the buses parked outside the lodge, and they did make for cool photo ops.
In addition to the Red Bus Tours, there also is a ferry service from the dock out back that traverses Lake McDonald (which is a pretty big lake).
Also just like Many Glacier Hotel, there are restaurants in Lake McDonald Lodge, and a breakfast buffet in the morning. The buffet is virtually identical to the one at Many Glacier, with only one difference…that I now can’t recall. I think it was something insignificant like potatoes sourced from a different region or something.
I highly recommend a huge breakfast here before heading out to explore the park for the day. Pile that plate high with bacon and go back for plenty of seconds, and it’s like beating the house in Vegas. Except instead of winning money, you’re winning bacon, which is arguably more valuable than money.
The rooms at Lake McDonald Lodge most definitely are not the main draw. They are simple, and aside from a couple photos and painting on the wall, there’s scarcely anything here serving as giving the room identifiable character as a National Park lodge room.
To be sure, the guest rooms are perfectly serviceable, but there’s absolutely nothing special about them. They get the job done in providing a place to shower and sleep, but you won’t desire to spend any additional time in them–nor should you if you’re in one of America’s most beautiful National Parks!
In fairness, Lake McDonald Lodge doesn’t price itself as a premium National Park Lodge, but I would still like to see a tad bit more character in the guest rooms. The photos and painting are a decent start, but it feels like there should be a little more. I’m not expecting 5 mounted animal heads watching you sleep (although that might make for nice nightmares), but a little more would be nice.
The bathroom, like the room itself, is fine.
During our photography trip, one of the guys stayed out in one of the cabins adjacent to the main building and experienced a foul odor in the room. Of course, this could have been an anomaly, but I mention it because there seem to be a plethora of negative reviews of the cabins online, many of which mention the smell. When I return, I’ll play it safe and stick to the main building.
Overall, Lake McDonald Lodge is a really solid option. The rooms here do leave something to be desired, but they aren’t really the “point.” Realistically, no one is going to Glacier National Park to spend a ton of time in their room (not even honeymooners!), so complaining too much about the simple rooms–a fact of life at virtually every National Park Lodge–would be doing Lake McDonald Lodge a disservice. If you do plan on spending any sort of time in the lodge itself, you’ll want to be spending that time on one of the couches in the main lobby or the upstairs alcoves, as the mood in those spots absolutely cannot be beat. If you are planning a visit to Glacier National Park, I’d highly recommend doing a split stay between Many Glacier Hotel and Lake McDonald Lodge, so you can tackle the east and west sides of the park in a more efficient manner.
You can book Lake McDonald Lodge directly through its website. Rooms here sell out fast, so plan to book about a year or more in advance. To learn more about Many Glacier Hotel and other flagship National Park Lodges, check out the PBS book Great Lodges of the National Parks.
For more of my tips and thoughts about Glacier, please check out my other Glacier National Park posts. If you’re planning a trip to Glacier National Park, I recommend the Glacier National Park Moon Handbook. I checked out a few guides from our library, and this is the best one that I found. You should also plan to purchase bear spray when visiting Glacier, but this should not be purchased in advance–the gift shop in the hotel sells it.
Have you stayed at Lake McDonald Lodge? If so, what did you think of it? If you haven’t stayed there, would you consider it as part of your trip to Glacier National Park? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
In 2008 we did exactly as you suggest; we spent a few nights at Lake Macdonald, in a cabin, then drove the Going To The Sun Road (AGAIN!) for a few nights at Many Glacier. MAGICAL!
I have long followed your photography and blogging through touring plans but never checked out your travel blog. I am obsessed with the idea of going to Glacier NP and will be reading everything you’ve got immediately! Thank you!,
You’re welcome! There’s plenty more to come on Glacier National Park, so stay tuned! 🙂
I’ve enjoyed finally seeing these shots! The photography in this review is spot on – lots of color, great perspectives and very informative. I WISH we had been able to hang around for that last sunrise at the lake. Beautiful!
Does the post take you right back to your lovely cabin? 😉
The Lake McDonald Lodge is lovely – but like you said, it books up over a year in advance which makes it not a viable option for everyone. If you want decent accommodations just outside the park and are booking a few months in advance, try the Evergreen Motel in Coram. I got engaged on Lake McDonald in 2008. It’s a beautiful spot!
Thanks for the recommendation on an alternative spot. It really is crazy how fast the Glacier hotels book up. I guess the location sort of speaks for itself!
The “season” that most of the Glacier hotels are open is pretty short, too, making it harder to get a reservation. I think this one is open longer due to its location.
Stayed here once in a cabin with no problems.
Another option, but also difficult to book, is the historic Izaak Walton Inn, located roughly midway between the east and west Park entrances and thus another option for visiting the Park. To be clear, this Inn is not inside the Park, and in fact you have several other Park lodges to choose from besides the two you reviewed (but these are 2 of the best 3 in-Park options).
Love the look of this lodge!
Is there any particular reason why you recommend purchasing bear spray on site? Is it the best formula for Glacier bears? I’ve wondered every time I read that.
You can’t take bear spray on commercial flights (even in checked bags) and the price is inflated in the nearby border towns outside of the park. Surprisingly, the gift shops *in* Glacier are the cheapest place to get it.
All bear spray I’ve ever seen is made by the same company. I sure hope it’s the best ‘formula’, but I hope I’ll also never have to find out! 🙂
Good to know! I tried researching this after I posted, and also read that if you cross the border Canada also has restrictions on what kind of spray is allowed. I’m sure the gift shops sell an acceptable label.