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  • Writer's pictureJalin Coblentz

The Complete Guide to Visiting Glacier National Park

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

I always tell people that if you can only visit one national park, you should visit Glacier National Park. It's by far the most beautiful, active, and awe-inspiring national park I've ever been to, and I can't wait to return.


While Glacier National Park is easily one of the best national parks in the country, it's important to arrive with a plan of attack. It's easy to get overwhelmed by all the things to do, places to go, and views to see. Additionally, because of how secluded Glacier National Park is, it's important to arrive equipped with everything you need and your lodging arrangements in order.


If you're thinking about visiting Glacier National Park but have no idea how to plan your trip or what to expect, you've come to the right place. This article will give you all the information you need to make the most of your trip. The information I'll share is based on my own personal experiences, as well as the advice from travel experts.


A Brief History


Glacier National Park is located in the northwestern corner of Montana, bordered by the towns of Kalispell on the west and St. Mary and Babb on the East. Glacier butts up directly against the Canadian border, and the area to the south is mostly open and uninhabited.


Glacier was officially designated as a national park by President William Taft in 1910. The park area consists of more than 1 million acres of mountains, rivers, lakes, and glaciers and offers views that you won't be able to see anywhere else in the US. Despite being very secluded and primitive, Glacier is one of the most popular national parks in the country.


Park Entrances


St. Mary Entrance


The St. Mary Entrance is the most popular entry point on the east side of the park because it connects to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It's also close to a number of scenic hikes and beautiful waterfalls.


Two Medicine Entrance


The Two Medicine Entrance is also located on the east side of the park. Two Medicine isn't one of the more popular entrances because of how rough the road conditions are. However, you can enter the park via this entrance 24 hours a day, and you'll have access to several beautiful waterfalls and lakes.


West Glacier Entrance


Shockingly enough, given its cryptic name, this entrance is the premier entry point on the west side of the park. It's extremely popular because it provides easy access to the Lake MacDonald area and connects to the Going-to-the-Sun Road.


Camas Creek Entrance


The Camas Creek Entrance is another entrance on the west side of the park. However, while you can gain access to the Going-to-the-Sun road from this entrance, it's rougher and less popular than the West Glacier Entrance.


Polebridge Entrance


The Polebridge Entrance is the third, final, and least popular entrance point to Glacier on the west side of the park. It's very reclusive and remote and consists mostly of gravel and dirt roads. However, if you're in the mood for adventure and getting off the beaten path, the Polebridge Entrance has access to some of the most beautiful hidden gems of the park.


Many Glacier Entrance


We didn't discover the Many Glacier Entrance to the park until the last day of our visit. However, it's easily one of the nicest and most scenic entrances. While it doesn't have access to the Going-to-the-Sun road, Many Glaciers will grant access to some of the best hikes in the park, including the Grinnell Glacier Trail.


Cut Bank Entrance


If you're looking for seclusion and privacy, the Cut Bank Entrance is for you. This entrance, which is more of a service road than anything else, is remote and the least-used entrance to the park.


In general, the West Glacier, St. Mary's, Many Glacier, and Two Medicine entrances are the most popular ways to get into the park. West Glacier and St. Mary's have immediate access to the Going to the Sun road, and the Camas Creek Entrance also provides access if you navigate it properly. No matter which entrance or entrances you choose to explore, you're sure to see and experience things that are unique from the rest of the park.


Places to Stay


One of the reasons that Glacier is so popular is that there are a surprising amount of lodging options. However, if you don't want to have a 40-minute drive to the park entrance every morning, it's important to plan your trip in advance and choose your lodging accommodations wisely. Let's take a look at some of the best places to stay when you're visiting Glacier National Park. To do this, we'll divide your lodging options into three sections.


West Side of the Park


The most popular option for lodging is to stay on the west side of Glacier National Park, near the West Entrance. The advantage of staying on the west side of the park is that you have more lodging options. You can stay at a resort, lodge, or motel in nearby Kalispell if you prefer luxury, or you can stay at a campground just outside the West Entrance. Here are some of the best campgrounds, motels, and resorts on the west side of Glacier National Park.


  • West Glacier KOA

  • Mountain Meadow Campground

  • West Glacier Campground

  • Great Northern Resort

  • Great Bear Inn

  • Five Lake Resort

East Side of the Park


While the east side of the park doesn't have as many inns and resorts as the west, there are a number of campgrounds and lodging options. You can stay in the town of St. Mary, Browning, or Babb. Here are some of the best campgrounds, resorts, and motels on the east side of Glacier National Park.



During our weeklong trip to Glacier National Park, we stayed at the St. Mary/East Glacier KOA in our A-Liner Scout popup camper. We absolutely loved it! This KOA included a ton of commodities, including a pizza joint, a small convenience and grocery store, and laundry facilities. The campground is located just two minutes from the St. Mary's entrance and offers sprawling views of the surrounding lakes and mountains.


Inside the Park


If you prefer to be in the thick of things and stay inside Glacier National Park, you have a number of options to choose from. Here are some of the most popular.


  • Apgar Village Lodge

  • Motel Lake MacDonald

  • Village Inn Motel

  • McDonald Lodge

  • Swiftcurrent Motor Inn

  • Rising Sun Motor Inn

  • Many Glacier Hotel

  • Sperry Chalet

  • Granite Park Chalet


There are also a number of primitive and semi-primitive campgrounds inside the park.



Wilderness camping is only available during the summer from May through October. This option consists mainly of hike-in campsites that are available via reservation. If you want to live on the wild side while visiting Glacier, wilderness camping is the way to go.



These campgrounds are primitive and are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. While some campgrounds can accommodate RVs and travel trailers, many of them are tent-only. It's important to check the location, rules, fees, and commodities offered by each campground to ensure they have everything you need.



If you want to plan your trip in advance and reserve a spot at a campground within Glacier National Park, you have five campground options. Once again, each of these campgrounds has different fees, accommodations, rules, and requirements, so make sure the campground of your choice has everything you need.


Things to Do


Guided Tours


The staff and park rangers at Glacier National Park offer a wide variety of guided tours. From boat tours to guided hikes to bus tours, Glacier is a great place to go if you like organized, professionally-guided tours and activities.


Fishing

If you're a novice or experienced angler, there's plenty of fishing to do in Glacier National Park. While you don't need a fishing license for fishing in Glacier, each lake and river within the park has its own rules and catch limits.


Photography


Glacier National Park is one of the most photographed national parks in the United States. Its mountains, rivers, and lakes are second to none and offer views that you won't be able to see anywhere else in the world. Glacier is a great place for both professional and amateur photographers to practice their trade.


Biking


Glacier National Park is one of the few national parks that is a destination for cyclists. While the hiking trails are off-limits, the Going-to-the-Sun road is one of the most-biked roads in any national park. Beware, however, that biking at Glacier isn't for the faint of heart. There are thousands of feet in elevation changes, steep drops off the side of the road, and tons of traffic to deal with.


Boating


Whether you have a canoe, kayak, or small fishing boat, there are plenty of boating options in Glacier National Park. There are also guided boat tours on Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake, and many of the other major lakes within the park. You'll need a permit and a boat inspection before launching your vessel. Additionally, each lake has different hours of operation, rules, and regulations you'll have to follow.


Cross Country Skiing


If you go to Glacier National Park in the winter months, you can partake in cross-country skiing.


Going to the Sun Road


Even if you don't plan to be at Glacier National Park for an extended stay, it's worth your time to drive the Going to the Sun Road. This road is 50 miles long and is the only road that connects the east end of the park to the west end. It's the best way to catch all the major views, sights, and sounds of the park, and you can usually complete the drive in less than two hours if you have minimal stops.


However, because of heavy traffic and road corrosion, the National Park Service limits the number of people that can drive the Going to the Sun Road each day. You'll need to request a vehicle reservation on the National Park Service website, and it's best to request a reservation several days in advance. You'll also need a vehicle reservation to access the North Fork, Many Glacier, and Two Medicine areas.


Hiking


Glacier National Park has more than 700 miles of hiking trails and is one of the top parks in the country when it comes to hiking trails. There are dozens of awesome hiking trails to choose from, including the Grinnell Glacier Trail, the St. Mary and Virginia Falls Trail, Avalanche Lake, and more. For additional guides and information about hiking at Glacier National Park, check out our comprehensive hiking guide.


What to Bring


One of the most important things to know before going to Glacier National Park is that you'll have limited eating, shopping, and grocery options. Depending on where you stay, the park is very primitive, and although there are grocery stores and gas stations on all sides of the park, they're extremely expensive. Unless you want to pay double or triple for your groceries, food, and gas, you should bring everything with you that you'll need for the duration of your stay.


The only exception to this rule is if you stay on the west side of the park. The west side of Glacier offers easy access to Kalispell, which has a Wal-Mart, pharmacies, chain restaurants, and more.


Best Sites to See


The only downside of Glacier National Park is that you could be there every day for a month and not see everything. So, if you have a limited amount of time you can spend at the park and want to catch all the major sights, here's a quick rundown of places to go and things to do.


  • Going to the Sun Road

  • Apgar Village

  • Lake McDonald

  • Goat Haunt

  • Grinnell Glacier

  • Explore Logan Pass

  • Wild Goose Island

  • Explore the Many Glacier and Two Medicine Areas

  • Venture north to Waterton Lake National Park


No matter where you go in Glacier National Park, you're bound to see something incredible. Our personal favorites were Grinnell Glacier, Lake McDonald, and St. Mary Lake. We were also lucky enough to run into lots of wildlife during our stay, the highlight of which was an adult brown bear that happened across the Grinnell Glacier Trail just 20 feet in front of us. It was a little too close for comfort, but unforgettable nonetheless.


Permits and Fees to Expect


On a real note, there is one tiny downside to going to Glacier National Park - the cost. Compared to other activities and events, visiting Glacier is pretty cheap. Compared to other national parks, however, Glacier is one of the costlier places to visit. Here are some of the fees to expect.


  • Motorcycle entrance fee - $30

  • Single vehicle entrance fee - $35

  • Individual entrance fee when you enter by foot or on a bicycle - $20

  • Going-to-the-Sun Road permit - $2-5

  • Commercial Sedan (1-6 seats): $25, plus $20 per person, 16 years of age or older

  • Commercial Van (7-15 seats, regardless of occupancy): $75

  • Commercial Mini Bus (16-25 seats, regardless of occupancy): $100

  • Commercial Motor Coach (26 or more seats, regardless of occupancy): $200

  • There are also fees for campsites, ranger-guided activities, and boat and bus tours that vary depending on which services you use.

  • All boats require a permit

Additional Tips and Tricks for Visiting Glacier National Park


Based on our personal experience, here are a few additional tips and tricks to make the most of your visit to Glacier National Park.


  • Get in as early as possible to avoid entrance fees.

  • If you're planning to hike any trails, get on them before 7:30 AM, as most people start to hit the trails between 9 and 10. You might run into people on the way back if you're doing an out-and-back hike, but you'll have a mostly empty trail to the turnaround point.

  • ALWAYS take bear spray! Don't make the mistake of thinking that it's a tourist gimmick that park rangers use to scare people. Glacier National Park has more bear activity than any other national park in the continental US.

  • Don't wear headphones while you're hiking. There are lots of twists and turns on the trails, and it's easy to run into other hikers or even animals if you can't hear them coming.

  • If you want to avoid crowds and traffic, go to Glacier National Park in early spring, late fall, or winter. Glacier is always fairly busy, but it's far more packed from May to September than at other times of the year.

  • If you don't stay in the park, stay as close as possible. The closer you are to one of the entrances, the more time you'll be able to spend in the park rather than stuck in traffic trying to enter.

  • Stock up on food, water, and other necessities before you get close to the park. Whether you buy things inside the park or in one of the surrounding towns, plan on paying double or triple unless you bring it with you.

  • Invest in an annual pass or the America the Beautiful pass. An annual pass to Glacier National Park costs $70. Personally, I recommend opting for the America the Beautiful park pass. It costs $80 for an annual pass, and it grants you free access to all federal lands, including every national park.

  • Stay for a minimum of five to seven days. Anything less than this amount of time will simply leave you wanting more.

  • For the best hiking and the fewest crowds, enter the park at the Many Glaciers Entrance. The St. Mary and West Glacier Entrances are the most popular entry points, but they're also the most crowded. Therefore, if you've driven the Going-to-the-Sun Road once or twice and want to visit the backcountry, Many Glaciers and Two Medicine are the best entrances.

Final Thoughts About Glacier National Park


As you can see, there's plenty to do and see at Glacier National Park. Of the dozen or so national parks we visited in 2022, Glacier was easily our favorite. Although we spent more time there than anywhere else, we've already decided that it's the one park we want to return to when we have the chance.


We loved it because Glacier truly has something for everyone. There are hiking trails of every length and degree of difficulty, fishing, boating, winter sports, camping, and much more. If you don't feel like being active, there are also lots of boat and bus tours, lodges, restaurants, sightseeing tours, and more. No matter what you're looking to do, Glacier is the national park for you.


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