A first-time guide to Glacier National Park

Lesser known than Yellowstone and Yosemite but no less spectacular, Montana’s Glacier National Park is a high-country nirvana of untamed forests and huckleberry-scattered slopes bisected by hulking granite peaks, glassy lakes and rushing waterfalls. 

Glacial forces molded this epic landscape that covers one million acres along the border of the United States and Canada. Its immense valleys are some two million years old and act as biodiversity time capsules. Even novice adventurers can appreciate these stunning scenes thanks to a hugely accessible infrastructure (there’s even a train service running through the park). 

Glacier has hundreds of miles of trails, ranging from short afternoon family hikes and multiday backpacking adventures to nature boardwalks for those less mobile or in wheelchairs. If that wasn’t enough, you can also go biking, lake swimming, star gazing or rafting, plus extreme nature spotting – black and grizzly bears roam free here.

When should I go to Glacier?

All times of year are beautiful in Glacier for different reasons. In winter some roads will be closed due to snowfalls, but the park is quiet, and those looking for solitude will find dreamy snowy hikes (bring snow shoes) and great hotel deals, although many lodgings and most campgrounds are closed for the season. Nature is most active in spring when flowers are in full bloom, while summer invites rafters in search of white-knuckle thrills and lakes warm enough for a swim.

The busiest time to visit is the peak of summer, and a reservation system has been implemented for cars from May 26 to September 10 between 6am and 3pm. This is due to the popular and mesmerizing 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Rd drive, which bisects the park from west to east. Expect congestion during peak times and queues at parking lots.

People walk on a trail in Glacier National Park, with mountain peaks topped with clouds in the background
Glacier National Park’s trails offer incredible views of the area’s unique geology © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

How much time should I spend in Glacier National Park?

Whether you only have one day or a whole month, the park has plenty to keep active travelers occupied, with more than 700 miles of trails plus numerous outdoor pursuits, from fishing and kayaking to rafting and stargazing.

Jump into the best of Montana with these spectacular road trips.

Is it easy to get in and out of Glacier National Park?

Glacier is one of few national parks you can easily visit without a car. Instead, hop on the train route used by the Great Northern Railway built in the early 20th century before automobiles took off. The super-scenic Amtrak Empire Builder travels from Seattle to Chicago, stopping at two Glacier National Park entrances in the summer months, plus the feeder towns of Whitefish in the west and Browning in the east. 

Affordable shuttles run from the nearby communities of Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell (home to Glacier Park International Airport). Free park shuttles (in summer only – check updated schedules) run around the park to the most popular trailheads and from stations to the park entrances (for a small fee). Apgar Village also offers bike rentals.

Those with vehicle reservations can drive the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Rd, crossing the Continental Divide along a windy, vertiginous, mountain-hugging 50-mile stretch of asphalt with killer views.

Vintage red car on a mountainous road in the Glacier National Park, with green-covered mountains in the background
Hop into a vintage Red Jammer bus and take in the stunning views of Going-to-the-Sun Road © EdwinM / Shutterstock

Top things to do in Glacier National Park

Get your bearings and take in the staggering Rocky Mountain views, lakes and waterfalls with a century-old sightseeing tour on a vintage Red Jammer Bus or book a trip with Sun Tours, which has local Blackfeet guides offering an Indigenous perspective on the park. Wander through Douglas fir and lodgepole pines to the stunning western shore of Lake McDonald on the short Rocky Point Nature Trail. 

Book ahead to drive the epic Going-to-the-Sun Rd, which winds past soaring Rocky Mountain vistas and waterfalls. Stop to stretch your legs at various hikes, including the wonderful Avalanche Lake Trail, which ends at a shimmering turquoise pool.

Drive to the highest point in the park, Logan Pass, for vertigo-inducing views before catching a star party at St Mary Visitor Center, where the night sky is illuminated with a carpet of twinkling jewels. Sleep in the historic Many Glacier Hotel, then hit the Grinnell Glacier Trail the next morning to see one of the park’s remaining glaciers up close.

My favorite thing to do in Glacier National Park

Escape the crowds with a visit to Polebridge on the northwestern edge of the park and the border of Flathead National Forest. This is the place to fully unplug (there’s no cell signal). Those who drive the bumpy, dusty road to get here can truly slow down, breathe in fresh mountain air and wander with the wild things among grassy meadows and regenerated forests, plus hike some of the park’s best backcountry trails.

The local mercantile sells delicious, freshly baked goods perfect for on-the-trail snacks, while a historic saloon serves post-hike pints under propane lights. Meanwhile, two dreamy lakes — Bowman and Kintla, plus the Flathead River — are ripe for water-based adventures, from boating and paddleboarding to rafting.

It’s 27 miles from West Glacier to Polebridge, mostly on a dirt road known as North Fork Rd or Outside North Fork Rd. Tip: camping is free just beyond Glacier’s North Fork entrance along the Flathead River.

Learn more about the best things to do in Montana.

Mountains reflected in a very still, clear Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park
Unplug near Polebridge for serene views, like this one at Bowman Lake © photosbyjim / Getty Images

How much money do I need to visit Glacier National Park?

  • A burger $15-20
  • A coffee $3-6
  • A three-course meal with wine $80-120
  • A guided minibus tour $100
  • Snowshoe rental $10 per day
  • Cross-country ski rental $20 per day
  • Fat bike rental from $60 per day
  • Snow chain rental around $8 per day
  • A historic lodge $200-400
  • A motel $100-$200
  • A campground $10-25

Need to know

This is bear country

Researchers estimate that roughly 1,000 bears live in Glacier National Park, including black bears and grizzly bears. There are many ways to be bear safe on a trail.

Hike in a group to reduce the chance of an encounter. Make noise along a trail and call out or clap if you are approaching a blind bend – this will alert the bear to your presence and help to reduce the chance of it being startled. 

Carry bear spray and learn how to use it in advance; it can be rented and bought from all outdoor stores and some grocery stores in the area. If camping at a designated campground, do not leave food or anything with an odor in your tent; if camping in the backcountry, use a bear canister and hang your food away from your tent. 

If you see a bear on a trail, stay calm, pick up any children and move out of the way to let it pass. If it is unsettled, stop moving and speak to it in a calm voice. Do not drop your pack. Do not run. As the situation allows, leave the area or take a detour.

Close-up of a grizzly bear looking for berries behind bushes in Glacier National Park.
Bear safety should be top of mind for anyone who visits Glacier National Park © Saptashaw Chakraborty / Shutterstock

Choose practicality over style

No restaurant in Glacier is going to comment on your attire. Here, practical outdoor essentials are king.

On the trail, wear dependable footwear, like broken-in hiking boots or your favorite running shoes, and opt for flip-flops for the summer evenings. Take rain gear (including rain pants) if you’re heading for the backcountry. Bring warm layers; even in summer, you’ll need wool or fleece base layers, a down or synthetic jacket, a hat and gloves.

Bring sunwear for summer days, including shorts or convertible trousers, a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and swimwear for lake swims.

Bear spray is a must, as is bug spray. 

Wifi blackzone

Download offline maps before you enter the park, as wi-fi and cell signal are virtually non-existent in many areas besides access points at visitor centers and hotels.

Driving in winter

Many park roads are closed in winter months due to snowfall and ice. Plan ahead for road closures. It’s advisable to carry snow chains in winter.

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