Reconnect With Nature At Glacier National Park, Montana
Reconnect With Nature At Glacier National Park, Montana
Published September 16, 2021
Welcome to my blog’s very first post featuring an American National Park! If you’re looking for a truly invigorating outdoors adventure, Glacier needs to be your next destination. This national park boasts jaw-dropping views of soaring, sharp mountain peaks above and expansive evergreen valleys below. In terms of outdoor activities, hiking is the main one, but it’s not required to see many of the park’s most beautiful spots!
How did I pick Glacier over all the other beautiful national parks? Well, three friends from high school and I have wanted to do an outdoorsy trip in Montana for a number of years. Glacier was recommended to us by other people who’ve been to Western Montana, and I’m so glad they put it on our radar! We also camped a couple days on nearby Flathead Lake before heading to the park.
Glacier NP is known for its dramatic mountains, steep cliffs, and clear glacial lakes. The park’s focal point is Going-to-the-Sun Road, which connects its eastern and western boundaries. There is a sprawling network of hiking trails throughout Glacier, and the park itself is truly massive at roughly one million acres.
Given how big the park is, you’ll probably only have time to scratch the surface of what Glacier has to offer. We spent four days there, and this post will give you an idea of what we were able to do in that time.
Attractions Along Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR)
The one thing you simply can’t miss on your visit to Glacier NP is driving along Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR) from start to finish. The scenery is stunning, and each little section offers its own unique views. Since we stayed in West Glacier, I’ll mention the points of interest going west to east.
From end to end, GTSR is about 50 miles long, and takes about two hours to drive along. If you’re planning on doing a two-way drive in a single day, you’ll want to give yourself from morning until sunset to stop for pictures and admire the views. With a very early start, you might be able to fit in a short hike too, but it would be a pretty packed schedule.
West Entrance Sign
West Glacier Village is a small collection of restaurants and souvenir shops that anyone can visit without actually entering the park. In front of the ticket checkpoint is the entrance sign, which as of fall 2021, is still the older style. (The East Entrance Sign has a more modern design.)
This long, narrow lake is the first major attraction you’ll drive by as you start your journey on Going-to-the-Sun Road. As such, you might be tempted to stop a bunch of times along its shore, but don’t spend all day here! Lake McDonald is only a preview of even more stunning views further along!
GTSR’s sharpest hairpin turn is called The Loop, located roughly at its halfway point. As you make your way from Lake McDonald to this point, you’ll slowly climb in elevation and begin to see some unique mountaintops, particularly Heavens Peak.
In my opinion, this is the most stunning part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Past The Loop, GTSR is no longer a straight path surrounded by forests, but a windy road hugging steep mountainsides. The views go from stunning to spectacular as you continue to increase in elevation.
As you approach Logan Pass, you’ll start to be able to see Mt. Oberlin, which is probably my favorite mountain in the park. Its flat face has these incredible horizontal geological layers criss-crossed with vertical layers carved out by glaciers. The lower half of Mt. Oberlin is also covered with vegetation, forming a beautiful gradient of light to dark green.
A few trailheads are located at the Logan Pass Visitor Center: the famous Highline Trail and the Hidden Lake Trail. As you continue to drive eastward from this point, you’ll see Going-to-the-Sun Mountain on your left.
Saint Mary Lake
This glacial lake is the last major landmark before reaching the end of GTSR. I personally think it’s a lot prettier than Lake McDonald.
Don’t miss Wild Goose Island Lookout, which can be found about halfway along the lake’s northern shore. Goose Island may just be a tiny piece of land in St. Mary Lake with a couple of pine trees on it, but the view of it in the foreground and the mountains in the background is one of the most impressive stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
East Entrance Sign
Past St. Mary Lake is the final stretch of GTSR, which has a visitor center, a ticket checkpoint, and another park sign. We took pictures here since the lighting was better, and as you can see, the design is different from the West Entrance sign (as of September 2021).
Directly outside of the Park boundary at the east end of GTSR is the tiny town Saint Mary. Since we arrived here in the early afternoon, we figured that this little village would have a number of lunch options, but that didn’t really seem to be the case. We finally ate at one hotel restaurant, but the food was overpriced and sort of mediocre.
After our underwhelming lunch, we started heading back towards West Glacier the way we came. Although the drive was familiar to us by now, it was worth seeing all those beautiful mountains and lakes from the opposite direction. If you wanted to do a real loop, you could instead head back on US-89 South and US-2 West, which are not within the NP boundaries.
During our four days in Glacier, we only managed to do two hikes, for reasons I’ll explain below.
This relatively straightforward hiking trail was the first one we did. You park in or around this parking lot before entering the forest. For most of the climb up, it’s honestly not too interesting. But when you reach Avalanche Lake, you’ll understand why this hike is worth it!
Located in a little clearing surrounded by waterfalls trickling down walls of rock, Avalanche Lake feels like its the center of a massive outdoor stadium. The water is so calm, and it’s a great place to take pictures. Note that there aren’t any vendors along the trail, so it’s a good idea to pack whatever snacks or beverages you may need.
This trail might be Glacier NP’s most famous, and there’s a good reason for that: the views are some of the most impressive that we encountered. Since the Highline begins with an ascent up above Going-to-the-Sun Road, it allows hikers to see an even more stunning panorama of the valley below.
But I’ll be honest with you: you need to be prepared and take this trail seriously. It’s not an incredibly difficult hike, but there are lots of sections that have steep drop-offs and no railings or barriers. We were still able to enjoy it, but there were portions where almost all of my attention was focused on not getting anywhere near the edge. The trail itself is not extremely narrow, but it’s also not exactly wide.
I would recommend that anyone with a fear of heights keep that in mind before going on this trail. It might not be appropriate for young kids, either. Good shoes with traction are a must, and I would personally never do this hike alone. Unfortunately, tragic accidents have occurred in the area. My purpose in telling you all of this isn’t to scare you into avoiding the Highline, but to just be honest about what to expect.
To end this section on a lighter note, Highline is where we saw the most wildlife. Some beautiful mountain goats and adorable ground squirrels were roaming near the trail, so keep your eyes and cameras out for critters!
Hidden Lake Trail - A Hike We Wanted to Do but Couldn't
This short trail also originates at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, and it’s my understanding (comment below and correct me if I’m wrong) that it’s a bit more family-friendly than the Highline. However, we never got an opportunity to check it out, since the trail was closed two days in a row due to bear sightings.
Bears are something to be aware of while visiting Glacier, and since sightings could cause any trail to close, consider backup hikes just in case. In addition, inquire at your hotel or campground about bear spray.
In between driving along GTSR and hiking, we found some pretty good places to eat in and around West Glacier. In general, most restaurants in the area offer American classics.
Josephine's Speakeasy (and Glacier Distilling Company)
Next to Josephine’s Speakeasy is Glacier Distilling Company (location | website), which sells both bottles of almost any kind of liquor you can think of as well as very affordable flights so that you can taste a bunch of options before deciding on what to take home. The alcohol they distill is all locally inspired, and a lot of what they have tastes great without a chaser or mixer.
Flitter Bee Buzz Thru Espresso and Micro Bakery
This little coffee and pastry stand was our go to for breakfast basically every day! It’s located in the parking lot of the Glacier Outdoor Center right outside of West Glacier, and they had a ton of interesting flavored lattes to get you going in the morning. They also have bagels and other baked goods.
There aren’t a ton of breakfast places in the area (I wouldn’t recommend sitting down for a massive meal before hiking anyways). That’s why breakfast to go from Flitter Bee Buzz Thru was perfect before heading into the park.
Glacier Grill & Pizza
They also offer broasted chicken, a dish that none of us had tried before, so we had to go for it! If you want to try it, get there early; once they run out for the day, you’re out of luck!
Kalispell, MT (Hops Downtown Grill)
Their Caesar salad with anchovies was delicious, and for the main course, I couldn’t resist their “Hunter’s Trio,” a combination of three sliders using yak, elk, and bison patties. Those little burgers were really good too, although to be honest, I couldn’t tell which one was which!
Where to Stay
We booked a room at the Evergreen Motel, an affordable and clean lodging about a ten-minute drive south of West Glacier. We were originally looking to stay inside the park itself, but availability was almost nonexistent even months in advance. Since we only needed a place to sleep at night, this was a great find with friendly staff. I’d definitely stay there again.
We saw a couple buses and trolley tour vehicles in the park, but I highly recommend driving out to Glacier or renting a car when you get there. You’re going to want to be able to explore on your own terms, pull off to the side of the road when you want to, and so on. Trying to get around without a car would be way more trouble than it’s worth.
In order to enter the park, you need both a park entrance pass and a GTSR pass. The latter is a new system as of 2021 designed to limit traffic on the road, and it is, for all intents and purposes, not optional. Plan early and research to stay up to date on requirements.
While Glacier NP is technically open all year, GTSR closes in the winter. This guide is intended for a summer or early fall visit, but if you’ve been to Glacier in the winter, leave a comment below and let me know what you did!
Go Rediscover Nature!
Since we’ve been wanting to visit Montana for so long, our expectations for Glacier National Park were high. Nonetheless, the park blew us away! As I mentioned earlier, we only scratched the surface: there are so many other lakes I want to see and hikes I want to do.
Have you been to Glacier before, or are you planning an upcoming trip? Leave a comment below and let me know! Thanks for checking out this blog post!
This post was published on Sept 16, 2021