Glacier National Park is tucked away in Montana’s Rocky Mountains and filled with glacier-carved peaks and forest filled valleys. They used to call it the Switzerland of America, and we can see why.
Many Glacier especially reminded us of our time in Switzerland! The views were awe inspiring, and we were also reminded of how wild it is out here.
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Last Updated: August 22, 2022
After spending a week there, we realized that you could spend a lifetime exploring this park, but since most of us don’t have a lifetime to spend in Glacier, here’s a list of things we think you shouldn’t miss on your first visit.
Where is Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is in the northwest corner of Montana and borders Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. The two parks together is a UNESCO world heritage site called Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
How to Get to Glacier National Park
9 Best Things to Do in Glacier National Park
1. Drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road
This is the most iconic thing to do and why so many people visit this park. It’s only open during the summer, and the season changes year to year based on snowfall, so be sure to double check before visiting.
To help control the traffic, you now need a ticket/permit to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR). The tickets are free of charge, but to obtain a ticket on Recreation.gov, there is a $2 nonrefundable service fee. In addition to the ticket, you will also need an entrance pass to the park.
If you have reservations with lodging, camping, transportation, or commercial activity in the park within the GTSR corridor, the reservations are good in lieu of the ticket. For more details, visit the official site.
They suggest allowing yourself 2 hours to drive the full 50 miles and depending on the time of year, it can take even longer due to traffic jams. Also, keep in mind that the road gets very narrow at certain sections, so they have regulations on the types of vehicles you can take. When we were driving the Ford F-150, we had to pull in the mirrors to make it through.
A ride on the famous Red Buses is a great way to get an intro to the park. We’re usually not a huge fan of tours and prefer to explore on our own, but these Red Buses are a long-time tradition and are the longest continuous running tour in the world! They were originally driven by Blackfoot Indians, and just being in them makes you feel like you’re part of history.
Their knowledgeable drivers will guide you and give you more insight into the park and perhaps share a few stories of American Indian folklore. There are a handful of tours to pick from, and on clear days, the top will be rolled back so you get plenty of vantage points. We did the Westside Crown of the Continent tour.
Glacier National Park offers hikes at all levels. We have a separate post on best hikes, but here are a few of our top suggestions.
- Stroll: Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail
- Short But Moderate Hike: Avalanche Lake (4.5 miles round trip, 730 ft elevation gain)
- Strenuous Hike: Cracker Lake Hike (12.6 miles round trip, 1400 ft elevation gain). We also heard Iceberg Lake was a great 10-mile hike from fellow RVers, and the elevation gain was nice and gradual.
- There are also endless trails in the backcountry.
Note: Keep in mind that many hikes close due to snow or bear activity so check with the Visitor Center for the most up-to-date info. If you’re driving, pick up some bear spray before you head there since it’s cheaper to get elsewhere. You also have the option to rent bear spray, but it’s much cheaper if you buy your own. You should also make a lot of noise and clap, but if that gets tedious, you can carry these bear bells.
4. Camp in the Backcountry
There’s no better way to appreciate the beauty of the park then to camp in it! There are numerous campsites throughout the park and the rangers will be the best resource to find out which ones are available. When we arrived at Cracker Lake, we met several people who had camped there the night before and we were so envious. They got to camp right next to a beautiful lake under a million stars. Next time, we will extend our hike and spend some time out there!
5. Kayak or Stand up Paddleboard at One of the Lakes
Lake McDonald is the largest lake and probably the best lake for water activities. It’s especially beautiful during sunset! We spent an afternoon kayaking and SUP around the lake and even spotted a couple of bald eagles. We got our kayaks and stand-up paddleboards from the folks over at Glacier Outfitters who were super friendly and helpful with recommendations on where in the lake to go.
6. See Goose Island
Made famous by The Shining, Wild Goose Island is one of the most photographed spots in Glacier National Park. There are multiple overlooks along Going-to-the-Sun road where you can pull out and check it out for yourself. Also, right down the road from there, you can also see the mountains in the Glacier scene in Forrest Gump!
7. Sunrise at Two Medicine Lake
We stayed at West Glacier but made the 3 AM trek out to Two Medicine Lake for sunrise, and it was well worth it! This was our favorite photo spot in the park, and it was just so peaceful with no one else around. Just look at the colors on the mountain and the stillness of the clear water. I was, however, constantly looking over my shoulder since this is a bear frequenting area.
8. View and Photograph Wildlife
During our time at Glacier, we spotted deer, marmots, mountain goats, big horned sheep, and a couple glimpses of bears. Although it’s very rare and hasn’t happened in over a decade, a US forestry officer got mauled right near our campsite during our stay.
Afterwards, I proceeded to look up every bear mauling in history (worst idea ever). Did you know that bears can rip off your car and home doors? Needless to say, I did not get a wink of sleep while camping out in our Airstream.
I also learned that if those cute, innocent looking bighorn sheep were to charge at you, those horns could shatter your bones. Something to think about. Always remember that these are WILD animals and you should keep your distance and respect their space.
9. Fly Fishing
This is something we didn’t get a chance to do because we didn’t know about it beforehand, but it’s something Jacob would have loved to try! The rivers are popular spots for fly fishing. You can go with a guide or get your own permit. If you’re on the East side of the park in the Indian Reservation area, you need special permits. Check with the Visitor Center for all the rules and regulations.
Best Time to Visit Glacier National Park
- Best Weather and Sightseeing: July and August are the best times to visit if you want to ensure the roads and many hiking trails are open. The main road won’t be fully open until late June, but that varies year-to-year based on snowfall and the status of road repairs. This is also the most crowded and when you need to book rooms far in advance.
- Shoulder Season: A great alternative is to visit during shoulder season in late May through June or fall..
- Best Time for Fall Foliage: In late September through mid October, the larches turn golden yellow.
- Best Time for Winter Activities: November through April are popular times to visit for ice climbers and cross country skiers. Camping is free and nearby lodging rates are low. Temperatures can go below freezing, and you need to beware of avalanches.
Essential Tips for Visiting Glacier
- Pack a raincoat, and if you plan on checking out any of the trails, always bring bear spray (this one is the highest rated one).
- Photography: If you want to photograph wildlife, you’ll need a long telephoto lens (this is the one we use).
- Need more tips? Here’s everything you need to know before visiting Glacier National Park.
Best Places to Stay
If you’re looking to book accommodations in the park, book them way ahead of time. Many of them will sell out more than 6 months ahead of time. We looked up some possible dates in January, and it looks like no rooms are available for the summer at any of the properties within the park.
- Lodge at Whitefish Lake (Luxury) 27.3 mi away. See current prices and reviews here.
- Lake McDonald Lodge, West Glacier (mid-range) – in the park. See current prices and reviews here.
- Evergreen Motel, Coram (budget) – 6.7 mi away. See Current prices here.
- RVing – We stayed at a KOA 5 minutes from the West Entrance.
Any other favorite things to do in Glacier National Park? Other than the Shining and Forrest Gump, can you think of another movie that was shot here?
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“Discovery consists not of seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” – M. Proust
Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in NYC.
This Post Has 9 Comments
Beautiful pictures and helpful info!
Thank you, Peter!
What trail did you take to get to the sunrise spot at Two Medicine lake?
You can actually get this shot pretty much from the parking lot! We just walked right up to the lake.
We are planning a trip to Glacier National park we will be driving from Southern California what are some must see places you recommend
You mean on the way?
So we are trying to figure out if we want to visit Glacier National Park or the Grand Tetons in the beginning of summer. I’m not sure which route to go, any tips?
The tetons are amazing and with Yellowstone right there you get 2 national parks. The tetons have less visitors than glacier, so if you are looking for more of a serene experience, I’d recommend. Flathead lake, (30 miles south of glacier) is way more amazing than you can even begin to imagine. Yes the lakes are clear in Wyoming but nothing like the water in montana. Personally I think the mission mountains, which are south of flathead are bigger and better than the tetons. I would personally pick glacier just for the crystal clear lakes, the going to the sun road, and the trail of the cedars. Also they say all the glaciers will be gone soon so why not go there now. Hopefully this helps
I would agree with Emily. The order that I like the parks is Glacier > Tetons > Yellowstone, but it really does depend on whether you want to connect with nature or see a lot of the famous sights.