Visiting Glacier National Park
Planning on celebrating the Glacier National Park centennial? Here's your trail guide for more than just hiking.
Photo by James Dannenberg
One visit to Glacier National Park and you’ll see why it’s the centerpiece of the “Crown of the Continent.” Two mountain ranges, more than 130 named lakes, nearly two thousand plant species, and abundant wildlife. Five historic hotels and chalets listed as National Historic Landmarks, and a total of 350 locations on the National Register of Historic Places.
A World Heritage Site, Biosphere Reserve, and part of the world’s first international peace park. It adds up to jaw-dropping geography, rich flora and fauna, and fascinating history. Located in northwest Montana, between Kalispell and Whitefish to the west, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to the east, and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park to the north, Glacier is open all year, but realistically its season is limited to the summer months, with the Going-to-the-Sun Road sometimes not completely plowed until July. Most trails are accessible only in July, August, and September, and it can snow any month of the year.
Jump to a section:
Fly: The Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) at Kalispell is served by United, Delta, Horizon, and Allegiant and is close to the park. www.iflyglacier.com.
Rail: Once the only way to Glacier, Amtrak’s Empire Builder, running from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, still has three stops near the park: East Glacier Park Station (a short walk from the lodge), West Glacier Station, and, on request, the Izaak Walton Inn. www.amtrak.com.
Drive: Driving to Glacier from any direction is scenic. My favorite road trip is the loop from Jackson, Wyoming, and Grand Teton National Park, north to Glacier and back. Jackson’s airport (JAC) is served by many major airlines. The drive from the Spokane airport (GEG) takes about four hours.
Photo by James Dannenberg
Many Glacier Hotel
My favorite is Many Glacier Hotel, but Glacier Park Inc., the main park concessionaire, operates six other hotels and lodges in and near the park, including Glacier Park Lodge, Lake McDonald Lodge, and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, with most rooms and cabins under $200. Because of the short season and high demand, you should book six months to a year in advance (406.892.2525, www.glacierparkinc.com).
The Izaak Walton Inn near the southwest corner of the park has cabins, lodge rooms, and their new caboose rentals, and is open year-around (406.888.5700, www.izaakwaltoninn.com).
The Belton Chalet, the first Great Northern Railway hotel, is across from the rail station in West Glacier (406.888.5000, www.beltonchalet.com).
For Sperry Chalet reservations, visit www.sperrychalet.com; for Granite Park Chalet, visit www.graniteparkchalet.com. Both facilities are operated by Belton Chalets Inc. and can be reached at 888.345.2649.
For information on camping and campgrounds, visit the National Park Service's trip planning page.
Many Glacier: The hotel’s Ptarmigan Dining Room offers all meals, including a generous breakfast buffet. The Swiss Room offers a full-service bar plus limited lunch and dinner menus. To contact the Many Glacier Hotel and restaurants, call 406.732.4411. The Italian Gardens Restaurant a mile down the road at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn serves pizza, burgers, and pastas (406.732.5531). None accepts reservations.
East Glacier: The Great Northern Dining Room (all meals) and Empire Bar and Grill (lunch and dinner) in the Glacier Park Lodge offer standard park fare (406.226.5600). For a change of pace try the Whistlestop Café, a tiny place that serves great breakfasts and the best huckleberry pie in the area (406.226.9292, 1024 U.S. Highway 49).
Lake McDonald Lodge: Russell’s Fireside Dining Room serves, for my money, the best food in the park, though the menu is similar to the other hotels’ (no reservations; 406.888.5431).
St. Mary: The St. Mary Lodge & Resort has two restaurants, the more upscale Snowgoose Grill and the Curly Bear Café. U.S. Highway 89 at Going-to-the-Sun Road (888.778.6279, www.stmarylodgeandresort.com).
Apgar/West Glacier: Heaven’s Peak Dining and Spirits emphasizes fresh ingredients in a log-cabin setting (no reservations; 406.387.4754, 12130 U.S. Highway 2).
Glaciers: You can see the Jackson Glacier from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, just east of Logan Pass. To see the Grinnell Glacier, you’ll have to take a hike, either from the Many Glacier Hotel or else up from the Skyline Trail near Granite Park Chalet. Better hurry — they’re melting faster than previously thought.
Sunrises: It’s worth it to get up early. The best viewing spots are the Many Glacier Hotel back porch and the boat dock at Two Medicine Lake.
Going-To-The-Sun Road: Named for nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, this famous 52-mile stretch of pavement is a civil-engineering marvel; driving it is a standout experience that serves up dramatic vistas and, at Logan Pass, a crossing of the Continental Divide.
The name comes from an Indian legend that says the deity Sour Spirit came down from his Lodge of the Sun to teach the Blackfeet how to hunt, tan hides, and build tepees; on his way back to the sun (hence the name), he left his image on the mountain as an inspiration to the people. An alternative story suggests the name and legend were concocted by an 1880s white explorer. Whatever the origin of the name, Sour Spirit's gigantic “face” can be seen on Going-to-the-Sun Mountain from the plains east of the peak. If you don’t want to drive the road yourself, take the historic red “Jammer” buses, refitted 1930s White Motor Company coaches with canvas tops that are rolled back on sunny days to offer expansive views of the road and park. The buses stop at all of the major hotels in and near the park and offer several tours of the area. For more information, visit www.glacierparkinc.com/Transportation/Reds/ and www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/goingtothesunroad.htm.
Photo by James Dannenberg
Animals: There are no guarantees, and there have been visits when I haven’t seen any charismatic megafauna. The most accessible viewing spot I’ve found is Fishercap Lake, just a half-mile from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, with pretty high odds of seeing moose, deer, and bear. Park rangers set out a spotting scope in the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot each evening for bears, sheep, and goats on the side of Mount Altyn. Mountain goats also like the heights near Logan Pass and they are fairly common around Sperry Chalet. Bears are everywhere, especially on the backcountry trails, so be certain to study the rules for bear encounters. If you see a mountain lion or wolverine, let me know; they are out there, but I’ve never seen one.
Photo by James Dannenberg
Best Hiking: With more than 700 miles of trails, it’s hard to choose. The Skyline Trail, accessible at Logan Pass, is mostly level as it clings spectacularly to the steep slopes above the Going-to-the-Sun Road; you can hike 7.6 miles to Granite Park Chalet, where you can stay or camp (but be sure to make reservations), or you can hike halfway to the “Haystack” and return. The Grinnell Glacier Trail starts at Many Glacier and climbs through wooded and alpine settings, with excellent chances of sighting bear and bighorn sheep. The difficult 14-mile Gunsight Pass Trail starts at the Going-to-the-Sun Road then winds through pine forests before winding around Gunsight Lake up to the pass and over to Sperry Chalet. The Iceberg Lake Trail from Swiftcurrent is often snow-covered into late summer and is often a good place for bear sightings.
Best Horseback Riding: Swan Mountain Outfitters operates park stables at Many Glacier Hotel, Lake McDonald Lodge, and Apgar, and offers rides from an hour to a full day. Customized overnight drop-camp trips can also be arranged. Visit www.swanmountainoutfitters.com.
Best Boat Tours: Glacier Park Boat Company provides lake tours and individual boat rentals at four locations: Many Glacier, Lake McDonald, Two Medicine Lake, and St. Mary Lake. Visit www.glacierparkboats.com, or call 406.257.2426.
Best Centennial Art: Two art exhibits are among the park’s centennial festivities. Timeless Light, a 100-image photographic exhibit by transplanted Czech photographer Bret Bouda graces the walls of Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell through the end of 2010. The multimedia Glacier Centennial Art Exhibit, a collection of 14 works, will travel the state of Montana until May 2010, when the pieces will be auctioned off; click here for tour dates and venues.