This post is the first in a five part series about our trip through Glacier and Waterton National Parks in July 2019. Although Glacier will begin partially reopening in June 2020 in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — with lodging reopening between June and July — the information in our posts may not be accurate given the current conditions. We strongly encourage folks to check the park and lodging web pages for the latest park information. In particular, interpretive activities, dining, buses, and boating may be affected. Be sure to follow the principles of #RecreateResponsibly if you choose to visit this year.
Glacier National Park is called “the crown of the continent” for good reason. The intricately carved mountains, verdant meadows, and alpine lakes are some of the most beautiful we’ve seen – every trip over the continental divide (we went back and forth about 8 times) was a jaw-droppingly beautiful experience. We spent four days between the two parks, just enough time to devote one day to explore each of four main areas (the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Waterton).
Glacier is also a living testament to climate change: most of the glaciers for which the park is named have totally disappeared, and there have been major closures in the park for two of the past three years owing to large forest fires. In this post, we’ll cover some basic information about the logistics of getting to the park, where to stay, and some options for dining. In our post about Waterton Lakes, we’ll cover some more specific logistics about visiting that park.
Where to Stay
Note: as per the recent Blackfeet Tribe Resolution # 264-2020, the eastern entrances to Glacier National Park will likely remain closed through the remainder of the 2020 season, so no vehicle access will be possible to Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and St Mary. Staying on the park’s eastern boundary, as we did, may not be feasible this year.
The biggest hub for Glacier National Park is in West Glacier, but if you plan to visit many parts of the park, we’d instead recommend staying in St Mary Village, on the park’s east side. St Mary wound up being amazing for us for several reasons:
- The village is centrally located for the eastern attractions in the park: Two Medicine (1 hour), Many Glacier (40 minutes), and Waterton National Park (1 hour 20 minutes). This was the perfect base for us to unload our stuff once and have access to many days worth of activities.
- The village is literally at the entrance of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and the eastern entrance tends to be much less busy than the western entrance. Especially early and late, you tend not to have to wait to get into the park, which is a huge bonus for places like the Wild Goose Island Lookout (15 minute drive), as well as the hikes that start at Logan’s Pass (40 minute drive).
- The village is well serviced with access to a grocery store, gas station, and coffee shop that serves espresso early.
We stayed in the Great Bear Lodge at Many Glacier, and it was truly spectacular. The rooms all face towards the park, offering great views at sunrise and sunset from the balcony. The rooms were very large and comfortable with air conditioning and a wet bar and mini fridge for preparing lunches in the morning. We booked our lodging several months in advance, but it is always worth calling or checking online for cancellations, as we did see some come up as our trip got closer.
How to Get There
We flew into Calgary, Alberta (YYC) to visit Glacier. There are direct flights from many US and international airports to Calgary (including San Francisco), so it was really convenient to fly there instead of Glacier Park Airport in Kalispell. Calgary is also a great option if you want to add a trip to Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada before or after your trip, and the change from the flat prairies to the jagged mountains makes for a very dramatic drive. If you have even more time, you can also combine a trip to Glacier with a trip to the Canadian Rockies, as we did on our two-week vacation last year.
Because we were visiting during the period between the July 4th Long Weekend and the Calgary Stampede, we booked our rental car well in advance and picked it up off-airport to save several hundred dollars. Bring your passport if you plan to travel from Calgary to Glacier (or between Glacier and Waterton), and plan for about 10-15 minutes to clear customs at the border. If you’re coming in from the US, you can fly into Kalispell, drive, or take Amtrak to the park (there are stations on the East and West sides).
How to Avoid the Crowds
To avoid the crowds on the park’s most popular trails and in the parking lots, we visited many areas of the park early or late. The parking lots at Logan Pass and Many Glacier, for example, were usually full pretty early in the morning, but tend to open up again after dinner. With so many hours of daylight, it was pretty easy to build an itinerary that avoid almost all traffic and much of the crowds the trials.
- We tackled long hikes, like Grinell Glacier and the Highline Trail, by leaving from our hotel at or before sunrise.
- We saved park destinations with more/easier parking, like Lake McDonald and Two Medicine, for the late morning and afternoon.
- We visited the popular stops along to the Going-to-the-Sun road very early or in the evening, and to avoid traffic driving the road midday, we drove along highway 2 for at least one leg of a park crossing.
One handy tool we used is Glacier’s parking lot dashboard: you can check the Glacier Real Time Road/Parking Status a day or two before your trip to get a sense of when the areas you want to visit are full or empty.
What to Expect in the Early Season
Glacier’s peak season starts quite late owing to the immense snowpack it receives: the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is the main artery through the park, doesn’t typically fully open until June, and many trails are still snowbound in July. When traveling in the early season, we strongly recommend bringing trekking poles and hiking spikes for navigating snow and ice patches; ours came in handy at least twice during our visit.
We experienced a lot of benefits during our early season trip to Glacier: less hazy skies, beautiful wildflowers, and plenty of wildlife (marmots, goats, deer, and moose, to name a few). Glacier is also grizzly bear country, so carry bear spray and know how to use it (we saw a couple of grizzlies on our trip just off the road, but they were just playing around). If you plan to travel to and from Canada, make sure the spray is USEPA approved.
The weather can be variable in the park in July – it hailed a few days before we got there! In general, the weather gets stormier in the afternoon, which is another good reason to hike early and late. You can get the forecasts here for Two Medicine, Many Glacier and West Glacier.
Where to Eat
It was really helpful for us to have bread, peanut butter, cereal, almond milk, and some trail snacks on hand so we could eat breakfast in our hotel room and hit the trails early. We couldn’t bring fresh fruits and veggies across the border, so we picked up a few apples at a grocery store in Babb to supplement our supplies. We were also super happy to find great restaurants around the park (the local specialty is huckleberry everything)! Our three favorites were:
- The Wandering Gringo – a stationary taco truck close to the west entrance to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which was a welcome treat after a hike at Avalanche Lake.
- The Great Northern Dining Room – we snagged a window seat with a view of the mountains in this casual “fine dining” room at the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier after a visit to Two Medicine. The roasted Brussels sprouts and huckleberry crumble were very tasty!
- Johnson’s Cafe – the cozy diner near our hotel had a good veggie burger and an extraordinary huckleberry trifle – we snuck in right before they closed after a hike at Hidden Lake and got great views of the St Mary sunset on our way back to the car.
Stay tuned for our next post about a less visited area of the park, Two Medicine!