It’s called the “crown jewel of the continent” for a reason. Glacier National Park in Montana is one the most beautiful wild places in America. Filled with snowy peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, and wildlife, it is a destination that should be on your bucket list.
Since it is so far from major population centers, many visitor may only make the long trek once in their life. If that is the case, you’ll want to learn from those who have gone before.
10 tips for visiting Glacier National Park.
1. If you plan on hiking, and you should, prepare for encountering a bear.
Bears are common in Glacier, and if you are not familiar with the precautions you should take, do a little research on what to do when encountering a bear. The chances are you won’t have any issues, but it’s worth a few minutes effort to be prepared. Many bear attacks on humans have been the result of people accidentally surprising a bear. The general consensus is to make frequent noise so this doesn’t happen. Shouting “hey bear” every so often is a common practice. Many hikers attach little bells (like you might find on Christmas decorations) or bear bells to their back pack or walking stick so that they are constantly making noise.
Carrying bear spray is highly recommended when visiting Glacier National Park. Bear spray is a powerful pepper spray that can shoot as much as 30 feet. You can order it online ahead of time, buy it in a local store, or even rent it from some stores. We happened to discover that our hotel had several canisters that they loaned out. Previous guests had purchased the spray and either didn’t want to take it home or couldn’t (because of air travel restrictions) and left it for others to use.
Keep your eyes open while hiking. Look around for signs of bears, especially their scat (poop). How do you tell if it’s bear scat? It’s easy. It will have little bells in it and smell like pepper. 🙂
2. Get your passport if you want to visit Canada.
Glacier National Park is unusual in that it is a US national park that is conjoined with a Canadian national park (Waterton Lakes National Park) to form what is called an International Peace Park. There is plenty to explore on the US side, but if you want to enter the Canadian side you’ll need the proper credentials. Do a little research to find out exactly what documents you’ll need to cross into Canada and return to the USA.
3. Plan your trip for middle to late summer.
You can certainly visit Glacier other times of the year, but the main road that connects the east side of the park to the west side, called Going-to-the-Sun Road, often doesn’t open until mid-summer depending on snow levels and needed repairs. This year (2017) it didn’t open until June 28th. There is a road that goes around the southern end of the park allowing you to get from east to west (or vice versa) but it makes the trip about twice as long. And what every family loves is more time in the car, right?
4. Plan to spend 3 days or more.
If you can, plan for 3 full days or more to explore the park. There are so many beautiful places to explore! Spend at least one day exploring Lake MacDonald and Going-to-the-Sun Road, another day in the Two Medicine area, and another day in the Many Glacier area. If you have more time, plan on getting up to the Canadian side and exploring there as well.
5. Take in some local shops, not just the visitor’s centers.
Glacier has several Visitor’s Centers with gift shops, but you’ll find that the nearby areas (Hungry Horse, West Glacier, East Glacier, Columbia Falls, etc.) have many mom-and-pop restaurants and shops where you can by anything from Huckleberry ice cream to T-shirts to candy to animal furs. Stop at a few of these place, look around, and you’ll find all sorts of surprises.
6. Walk through the lobbies of the lodges…they are amazing!
Even if you don’t stay at one of the lodges in the park, it is worth walking through the lobbies to see some amazing timber-frame architecture! Lake MacDonald Lodge, Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, and Many Glacier Hotel are all breathtaking. I was especially impressed by the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier. It is three stories supported by huge timbers with the bark still on them. See for yourself.
7. Start your days early.
In general, starting early is a good tip [link to hiking in rockies article] for most outdoor adventures. The roads and parking areas fill up later in the day in Glacier so it is wise to get to where you want to go sooner rather than later. By late morning the parking areas at trailheads and picnic areas are often full. If you snooze, you lose.
8. Plan room in your budget if you want to do “extra” things.
There are a lot of “extra” things you can do in and around Glacier, but be prepared for the costs. You can take a ride on a Red bus, rent a kayak or paddle board in Apgar Village, go rafting, play on a high-ropes course, or even go zip lining. It’s up to you, but research the costs ahead of time.
9. You can save cash by staying at a regular hotel in Kalispell.
Most of the accommodations closest to the park or inside the park are lodges or cabin rentals. The lodges in the park are magnificent pieces of architecture, but they come with a price. If you don’t want to break the bank, Kalispell, about 30 minutes from the west entrance to the park, has many familiar chain hotels to choose from at prices lower than the lodges and cabins. Be sure to research your options when making reservations.
10. Be prepared for no cell service.
More than likely you won’t have cell service in the park and in some of the areas near the park. It’s always a crap shoot on cell reception when you are in a mountainous area. For the most part this isn’t a problem, except if you rely on your phone for GPS directions. Be sure to grab one of the printed maps that are available at the Visitor’s Centers.
If you rely on your phone for GPS, you’ll want to load your route while you still have a cell signal. Technically your GPS works without a data connection, but GPS apps typically only download the map data that they need when they need it. Some apps, however, allow you to specify an area for offline use. The Google Maps app, for example, let’s you do this. This will allow your GPS feature to work even without a data connection. If you have a dedicated GPS, like a TomTom or Garmin, this won’t be an issue.
How about you? Have you been to Glacier? What tips do you have to share?