A Hiker’s Guide to Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park
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Nicknamed the “Crown of the Continent,” Glacier National Park in the state of Montana is filled with awe-inspiring scenery that attracts millions of people to its borders every year. The park’s rugged mountains, glacial features, alpine meadows, and untouched forests make it a top destination for outdoor enthusiasts. With nearly 750 miles (1,207 km) of hiking trails, the park is especially popular among hikers and backpackers.

This Glacier National Park guide covers the essential things you should know when planning and preparing for your trip. We’ll go over a bit of history and key facts about the park, weather and climate information, the best time to visit, what to do while you’re there, and the best hikes. We’ll also cover some practical details, including recommended gear, where to stay, and how to get there.

Sunset in Glacier National Park

History

Archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans have been using the land that is now Glacier National Park for at least 10,000 years. The lands in the park hold spiritual significance for local tribes and are the ancestral home of Blackfeet, Salish (Flathead), and Kootenai Tribes.

The Blackfeet Indians historically controlled prairies on the east side of the mountains, while the Salish and Kootenai Indians mainly resided in the western valleys. Today, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation shares a border with the eastern side of Glacier National Park, and the Flathead Indian Reservation is located to the southwest of the park.

Europeans didn’t reach Glacier National Park until the early 1800s. Throughout the 19th century, fur trappers, miners, loggers, and early settlers came to the area in search of beaver pelts, resources, and land. Together with early explorers, they quickly realized the region’s potential for tourism.

George Bird Grinnell, a magazine editor and naturalist who explored many parts of the American West, traveled to the Glacier area on several expeditions in the late 1800s. He was impressed and inspired by the stunning natural beauty and became a crucial figure in creating the national park.

Around the same time, the Great Northern Railway chose to construct a route across the Continental Divide along the park’s present-day southern border. Railway promotional materials and Grinnell’s writings highlighted the park’s natural splendors and alpine scenery and attracted tourists to the area. Hotels, chalets, and horse trails began popping up to support the increasing number of rail passengers and tourists in the region.

The efforts of Grinnell and the railway company caught the attention of the United States Congress. The government designated Glacier as a forest preserve in 1897. Continued lobbying and conservation efforts by the Great Northern Railway, Grinnell, and the Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife and habitat conservation organization founded by Theodore Roosevelt, ultimately led to the national park’s creation.

In 1910, Glacier became America’s tenth national park. President William Howard Taft signed a bill into law on 11 May, thereby creating Glacier National Park. Since then, the park has grown in popularity to become one of the most visited national parks in the US, with annual visitation numbers increasing from 4,000 people in 1911 to around 3 million today.

Key Facts about Glacier National Park

Size: 1,583 square miles (4,100 km2)

Number of visitors: 3 million a year

Established on: 11 May 1910

Length of hiking trails: 745 miles (1,199 km)

Number of hiking trails: 158

Highest point: Mt. Cleveland at 10,466 feet (3,190 m)

Lowest point: Middle Fork River near West Glacier at 3,215 feet (980 m)

Other interesting facts about Glacier:

  • Glacier National Park has over 100 summits above 8,000 feet (2,438 m) in elevation. Six of them are over 10,000 feet (3,048 m), and 43 are over 9,000 feet (2,743 m).
  • The park contains 762 lakes, but only 131 of them are named. The largest is Lake McDonald, which is nearly 500 feet (152 m) deep, 10 miles (16 km) long, and 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide.
  • Glacier National Park contains 110 miles of the Continental Divide Trail, one of three major thru-hiking trails in the US.
  • Glacier National Park has diverse wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, and lynx. The park provides a habitat for 71 mammal species, 276 bird species, 24 fish species, five amphibian species, and three reptile species.
  • Glacier is 50 miles (80 km) long north to south and 40 miles (64 km) wide from east to west.
  • In 1932, Glacier National Park was combined with Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, to form the world’s first international peace park. The parks share a border, with both countries collaborating to protect the parks’ natural resources, manage wildfires, and conduct research.
  • More than 100 million people have visited Glacier since it became a national park in 1910.
  • There are 26 glaciers in the park, all of which are shrinking in size. The largest glaciers are Harrison Glacier at 0.64 square miles (1.66 km​2) and Blackfoot Glacier at about 0.7 square miles (1.78 km​2). The total number of glaciers in the park is also shrinking due to climate change. In 1850, there were 150 glaciers in the park.
  • Thanks to early conservation efforts, the ecosystems and wildlife in Glacier National Park have changed very little since Europeans first explored the park. The plants and animals visitors see today are largely the same as what Europeans saw when they first arrived.
  • The park’s official symbol is the mountain goat. These animals are often spotted on Glacier’s steep mountain cliffs.
  • Glacier received protection as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1974 and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
  • There are 2,865 miles (4,610 km) of streams in the park. Of these, 1,307 miles (2,103 km) are intermittent and 1,514 miles (2,436 km) are perennial. The longest stream is Upper McDonald Creek at 25.8 miles (41.5 km).
  • The park has 1,489.3 square miles (3,857 km​2) of wilderness.

Lake in Glacier National Park

Climate and Weather

Split by the Continental Divide, Glacier National Park has two distinct climatic regions: Pacific Maritime (also called Inland Maritime) in the west and Arctic Continental in the east. The park’s east side is higher in elevation and tends to be cooler, drier, and windier than the west side, with more extreme weather. The western valleys see more rainfall and moderate temperatures.

The mountainous climate is known for sudden weather changes and high winds, especially in the east. Precipitation in the park is highly variable from one area to the next, with larger amounts of precipitation in high elevations. For example, Park Headquarters near West Glacier receives 29 inches (74 cm) of annual precipitation and 157 inches (398 cm) of snowfall, on average. The crest of the Continental Divide, which is much higher in elevation, gets about 70 inches of average annual precipitation.

Temperatures and weather conditions also vary with elevation. It is typically 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler (5.5 to 8 degrees Celsius) at higher elevations, such as Logan Pass. Even during the summer, snow can fall anytime, and temperatures can drop to freezing overnight.

Below are more details about what to expect in each season.

Summer (July to August)

Glacier National Park’s summers are filled with long, warm days and cool nights. On average, daytime temperatures warm up to the upper 70s or low 80s Fahrenheit (25 to 28°C) in low elevations and the 60s Fahrenheit (15 to 20°C) in high elevations. On the warmer west side of the park, daytime highs often reach 90°F (32°C) or higher during the summer. Nighttime lows usually dip into the upper 40s Fahrenheit (8 to 9°C) but can go much lower than that in higher elevations. Afternoon showers and thunderstorms are common in the summer months, so make sure to bring your rain gear.

Fall (September to October)

Fall is a transition period in Glacier, with varying weather conditions. September often sees warm, sunny days, but rainfall is more likely than in the summer months. Cold snaps and early snow flurries are also possible. Average high temperatures typically reach the 60s (16 to 20°C) in lower elevations and 50s (10 to 15°C) in higher elevations, with average lows dipping to the 30s (-1 to 4°C).

In October, snow becomes more common in both high and low elevations, and temperatures continue to drop. By mid-month, many park facilities and roads are closed for the season. The weather in October is highly variable and can range from mild, sunny days to snowy conditions, with temperatures falling well below freezing.

Winter (November to April)

Winters in Glacier National Park are long, cold, snowy, and dark. Blizzards are common, and the average snowpack is about 16 feet (4.9 m). Avalanches are a significant danger when the snowpack exceeds this amount. Snowstorms often shroud the mountaintops in clouds for days on end, and strong Chinook winds blow in the eastern side of the park.

December, January, and February are the coldest months, with average lows in the teens (-10 to -7°C) and average highs in the upper 20s to low 30s (-3 to 0°C). Arctic cold snaps can send temperatures plunging well below freezing. Although temperatures begin to warm up by April, most facilities remain closed, with many areas of the park inaccessible due to significant snowpack.

Spring (May to June)

After the long winter, things begin to open back up in Glacier in May. The snow begins to melt in lower elevations, and temperatures warm up. In May, you can expect daytime highs in the 60s in lower elevations (16 to 20°C) and the 40s (5 to 9°C) in higher elevations. Overnight lows are usually in the 20s and 30s (-6 to 4°C), depending on the area. May is one of the rainiest months of the year, and snow is possible even in lower elevations.

June is the wettest month of the year, with rain falling on about 12 to 14 days of the month. High temperatures can occasionally reach the 80s (27°C) in lower elevations but are more likely to warm up to about 70°F (21°C). Nighttime lows are typically in the 40s (5 to 9°C) in low elevations and 30s (-1 to 4°C) in high elevations. Although higher elevations remain snowed in through June or even July, most of the park is accessible by mid-June.

When to Visit

Glacier National Park is open 365 days a year, but certain times are much more pleasant to visit than others. July and August are the best times to visit Glacier National Park for most people. These are the warmest and driest months and see the widest availability of open trails, roads, lodging, facilities, and other services. These months are the best time of year for hiking and backpacking but also have the highest risk of wildfires.

September is also an excellent choice for hikers and backpackers and sees fewer visitors after Labor Day weekend. October is a great month to escape the crowds, but the weather is more variable. Depending on the year and weather conditions, many facilities, roads, trails, and services are closed by mid-October and do not open until May or June.

Unless you enjoy winter sports like cross-country skiing and don’t mind freezing temperatures, you should avoid visiting Glacier National Park in the winter. Winter visitors face significant limitations regarding what they can see and do in Glacier National Park because of seasonal closures.

Visiting in May or June is a nice way to enjoy the park in solitude, but you’ll have a more limited selection of hiking trails and activities. Snow doesn’t melt until June or July in higher elevations. As a result, many top hiking and backpacking trails are not accessible until later in the season.

The famed Going-to-the-Sun Road doesn’t open until mid to late June, so plan your visit between June and September if this scenic drive crossing the Continental Divide is on your bucket list. If you enjoy biking, June is an excellent time to cycle in Glacier. You can even take your bike on Going-to-the-Sun Road before it opens to vehicles.

Snow on Mountains in Glacier NP

Recommended Gear

Your Glacier National Park packing list will depend on what time of year you’re visiting and what activities you plan on doing. We’ve already covered what to pack on an outdoor adventure in our backpacking checklist. You can read that post for more detailed information and advice, which you can adjust based on the season and your specific itinerary.

Here is some general advice and items to bring with you on your visit to Glacier National Park.

  • Bear safety gear: Glacier National Park has one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in the continental US. Bring bear spray and a bear-resistant food storage container such as a bear canister, and make sure you know how to use them. Check out our wildlife safety article for more tips on staying safe during wildlife encounters.
  • Rain gear: Even in the driest months in Glacier, afternoon showers are to be expected. You should bring rain gear with you to Glacier no matter what time of the year you’re visiting. This includes a rain shell, rain pants, a wide-brimmed hat, waterproof gaiters, and high-quality socks. For more information about preparing for wet weather on the trails, see our post about hiking in the rain.
  • Ice axe and crampons: If you’re visiting in the spring and plan to do some hiking in higher elevations, the terrain is likely to be covered with snow and ice. You may need special gear like an ice axe and crampons to cross steep slopes. Make sure to check the conditions and trail closures, bring appropriate equipment, and only set out on trails you have the skills and knowledge to navigate safely. You can read our winter hiking article for more tips and advice.
  • Plenty of layers for changing weather: The convergence of two climate zones along the Continental Divide means conditions in Glacier can change quickly. Temperatures and weather can also vary substantially between high and low elevations. Even in the summer, you should pack for all four seasons and have plenty of layers. That way, you can adjust your attire quickly as the conditions change. Fall, winter, and spring visitors should be prepared with warm, sturdy layers to protect themselves from strong winds, possible snow, and freezing temperatures.
  • Insect repellant: Bugs like blackflies, mosquitos, horseflies, and ticks can be a problem in Glacier in the spring and summer. Familiarize yourself with insect protection measures and make sure to pack plenty of bug spray.

waterfalls and lake in Glacier National Park

What to Do in Glacier National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking is one of the most popular and spectacular ways to explore Glacier National Park. According to the National Park Service, half of the park’s visitors report going for a hike on their trip. With about 745 miles (1,199 km) of hiking trails, it’s easy to see why so many people choose to hit the trails in Glacier National Park.

Although hiking is possible year-round with the right skill set and equipment, the prime hiking season is from late June to September. Lower elevation trails are usually free of snow sometime in June, while higher elevation trails don’t become snow-free until mid or late July. You can check the current conditions and closures on the National Park Service’s Trail Status and Trail and Area Closure pages.

The park is also a world-class backpacking destination between late July and September. There are 65 backcountry campgrounds with 208 sites and many incredible backpacking trails, including 110 miles of the Continental Divide Trail. You’ll need a permit if you plan on backpacking. You can make your reservations in advance or try to get a walk-in permit at one of the park’s permitting locations.

Cell service is limited in Glacier National Park. Make sure you have a reliable offline navigation system, such as a map and compass or a hiking app with built-in GPS to help you navigate on the trail.

Best Hikes in Glacier National Park

From easy day hikes to epic multi-day treks, Glacier National Park has diverse trails to suit a wide range of preferences and abilities. Here are some of the park’s best hikes.

  • Highline Trail – Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet: This challenging 15-mile (24-km) trail is one of the best hikes in the world and one of Glacier’s most popular hikes. The exposed trail has little vegetation blocking the scenery, meaning you’ll have access to incredible vistas the whole way. Hikers can enjoy stunning views of glaciers, alpine wildflowers, and wildlife. You’ll need to use steel cables to make it safely through one particularly exposed section, with 100+ foot (30 m) drop-offs. Depending on conditions, the trail is typically accessible from June through October.
  • Grinnell Glacier Trail: This 11-mile (18-km) trail will take you past turquoise lakes, rocky cliffs, meadows, and glaciers. The hike is located in the Many Glacier area of the park and is considered difficult. If you want to shorten the hike to 7 miles, you can take a boat ride across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine.
  • St. Mary and Virginia Falls Trail: If you’re looking for an easy hike with amazing scenery, this 3-mile (4.8-km) trail is an excellent choice. Hikers can take in views of beautiful pine forests, soaring mountaintops, and rushing waterfalls.
  • Hidden Lake Overlook: Starting at Logan Pass, this moderate 3-mile (4.8-km) trail is a fantastic option for hikers who want to enjoy the park’s beautiful scenery and see mountain goats without spending a long day on the trail. The trail is very popular, so expect crowds.
  • Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass Loop: Experienced hikers looking for a challenge should consider this strenuous 17-mile (27-km) loop trail. You’ll be rewarded for your effort with unforgettable views of the park’s U-shaped valleys, clear lakes, and rocky peaks. The trail is very exposed in places and only recommended for those who are comfortable with heights.
  • Upper Two Medicine Lake: This moderate trail in the Two Medicine area is a great way to experience a lesser-visited part of the park. The trail is 11 miles (18 km) long but can be shortened to only 5 miles (8 km) if you take a boat shuttle. Shortening the hike doesn’t sacrifice scenery – you’ll see lush forests and fern groves, serene lakes, and towering peaks. Although the trail itself is popular, you’re likely to experience fewer crowds in this part of the park.
  • Apgar Lookout: For a gorgeous hike near the West Entrance, try the 7.1-mile (11.4-km) Apgar Lookout Trail. Located within the Lake McDonald area, the trail is challenging and will definitely give you a workout. There are several steep sections, but the view at the top is worth the effort. When you reach the lookout station at the top, you can enjoy stunning views of jagged peaks stretching across the horizon.

Glacier National Park, Highline Trail

Camping

Camping is an amazing way to enjoy Glacier National Park. There are 13 drive-in campgrounds in the park, but only nine of these will be open in 2021. For the summer season, fees range from US$10 to US$23 per night.

Some of the sites require reservations, while others operate on a first-come, first-served basis. More details about camping in the park are available here from the National Park Service.

Scenic Driving

Going-to-the-Sun Road is a must-see when visiting Glacier National Park during the warmer months. The 53-mile (85-km) road winds through the mountains and offers breathtaking views of the park’s rugged peaks, pristine forests, and sweeping valleys. Although sections of the road are open year-round, you’ll need to visit between late June and mid-October if you want to do the entire route and cross the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.

You can check the park’s road status here to see which roads are open for various activities, including driving, hiking, and biking.

Going-To-The-Sun Road in Glacier National Park

Biking

Riding your bike on Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road is an unforgettable experience that you’ll want to add to your bucket list. The road is ideal for cycling in spring before it opens to vehicles and in the fall when there is less traffic.

Bikes are allowed on all roads in Glacier National Park, although there are some seasonal restrictions. There are also three trails open to cyclists: the old Flathead Ranger Station trail, Fish Creek Bike Path between Apgar Village and Fish Creek Campground, and the paved path between Park Headquarters and Apgar Village.

Water Sports

With 762 lakes and 2,865 miles (4,610 km) of streams within the park, Glacier National Park is a fantastic destination for fishing, boating, and other water sports. From whitewater rafting the Middle and North Forks of the Flathead River to paddling on calm glacial lakes, there are plenty of aquatic adventures to enjoy on your visit to Glacier.

If you don’t have your own boat, you can rent kayaks, canoes, stand up paddle boards, rowboats, and motorboats inside the park. You can learn more about the park’s water launch regulations and permit requirements here.

Winter Sports

The harsh Montana winters turn Glacier National Park into a playground for winter sports enthusiasts. Within the park, there are opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice climbing. McDonald and Avalanche Creeks are some of the best and most popular places to cross-country ski and snowshoe. You can also enjoy downhill skiing and snowboarding at Whitefish Mountain Resort nearby.

Wildlife Viewing

Glacier National Park is renowned for its impressive array of wildlife. Mountain goats, black bears, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, bobcats, Canadian lynx, cougars, wolves, coyotes, moose, elk, bison, and deer all call the park home.

Spring, summer, and fall are excellent times to see wildlife in the park. You’ll have the best chance of spotting animals in the early morning or at dusk when there are fewer people around. Less heavily trafficked trails are also great places to see wildlife. White-tailed deer are the most frequently spotted large mammals in the winter, but you can also see animals like moose, elk, bighorn sheep, and lynx.

Glacier is also famous for its stunning wildflowers. If you want to see the park’s numerous wildflowers blooming across alpine meadows, plan your trip between late June and July.

Mountain Goat

Where to Stay

The most convenient place to stay when visiting Glacier is inside the borders of the national park. There are several lodges, hotels, inns, and cabins to choose from, but reservations must be made well in advance. These options are only available from May to October. Camping is also a fun and budget-friendly way to stay in the park, with up to 13 different drive-in campgrounds to choose from.

Camping is the only way to stay inside the park in the winter. Apgar Campground has some availability for winter camping. Backcountry camping is also possible, provided you have a permit.

Outside the park, you can choose from various towns and cities along the west side of the park and a few locations on the east side. The west side has more activities and lodging options and is the best year-round destination.

The towns of Columbia Falls (20 minutes away), Whitefish (40 minutes away), and Kalispell (50 minutes away) are excellent places to stay near the West Entrance. Each town has a variety of lodging options and is suitable for couples, families, solo travelers, and active travelers. Bigfork and Somers on Flathead Lake, Montana, are 50 minutes away from West Glacier and are ideal for travelers seeking to get off the beaten path. The small towns tend to be quiet and have many opportunities for hiking, skiing, mountain biking, and other outdoor adventures nearby.

On the east side, St. Mary and East Glacier Park Village are the best options. Accommodation choices are somewhat limited compared to the west side, with the east side recommended only for summer visitors.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Visiting Glacier National Park is easiest if you have a vehicle, but it’s not required. You can reach the park by car from Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls by taking Highway 2 north to West Glacier. From the east, take Highway 89 to reach all three east entrances.

The closest airports to the west side of the park are the Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana (30 miles/48 km west of the West Entrance) and Missoula International Airport in Missoula, Montana (150 miles/241 km south of the West Entrance). You can rent a car at the airport or take a shuttle from Kalispell to Whitefish. From there, you can book a shuttle to Glacier National Park. Some hotels in Whitefish, such as the Grouse Mountain Lodge, offer a courtesy shuttle service to the park for their guests.

On the east side, you can fly into Great Falls International Airport in Great Falls, Montana. The city is located between 130 miles and 165 miles (209 to 265 km) east of the following entrances: St Mary, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier.

The park is also possible to reach by train. Amtrak’s historic Empire Builder route stops in West Glacier, Essex, East Glacier, Whitefish, and Browning.

There is a shuttle service within the park that operates from 7 am to 8 pm daily. In 2021, the shuttle service begins operating on 1 July. Between 1 July and 6 September, you’ll need a ticket to take one of the shuttles. The ticket is free, but there is a US$1.00 reservation fee per ticket that is non-refundable. All details are available here from the National Park Service.

You can also get around the park with your own vehicle if you prefer. To reduce congestion, you’ll need to reserve a ticket to drive on Going-to-the-Sun Road through September 2021.

Geese Flying over Lake in Glacier NP

Conclusion

Glacier National Park’s awe-inspiring scenery, diverse wildlife, soaring mountains, and turquoise glacial lakes make for an unforgettable experience in nature. Whether you’re taking in spectacular views along the Highline Trail or paddling the serene waters of one of the park’s numerous lakes, your trip to Glacier is sure to be an incredible outdoor adventure.

There are a variety of new regulations in place due to COVID-19. For the best experience, make sure to plan ahead and check with the National Park Service about any reservations, tickets, and permits required for your chosen activities.

Did you enjoy this guide to Glacier National Park? Check out our other national park guides to plan your next adventure in some of the world’s most beautiful wild spaces.

 


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