Hi friends! The hubs and I recently returned from visiting Glacier National Park up in Montana, and I have to say that it was AMAZING! I’m not going to lie, the weather didn’t want to cooperate with us, being cloudy and rainy more often than not, but even so, that didn’t take away from the stunning vistas that surrounded us.
How We Spent Our Days
We spent three and a half days there, and still we weren’t able to do everything that we wanted, so we are planning to go back again as soon as we can. But if you have a similar amount of time to spend in these beautiful mountains, then I am happy to break down what our visit looked like.
Day 1 (half day in the park)
Lake McDonald, Apgar Village
Our first day in the park was actually a half day, as we flew into Kalispell, MT (FCA airport code FYI), rented a car and checked into our hotel. As soon as we were able, we shucked our luggage, got back in the car and headed for the park. It was a beautiful afternoon, temperatures hanging out in the mid 70s, so we decided to head to Lake Mcdonald and see about renting a kayak. This was our first time kayaking and I have to say I really really enjoyed it. The peace and serenity of quietly cutting my oar through the beautiful clear waters of Lake Mcdonald was so lovely. My husband on the other hand was not as big of a fan, probably mostly because his feet kept falling asleep in the tandem kayak we’d rented and he kept having to shift to wake them up…nearly capsizing us a couple times, eek! And if you’re walking down by the lake, be sure to check out the multi-colored rocks that are so many beautiful shades of red, green, and gray. After that, we headed back to West Glacier Village to grab a bite to eat then head back to the hotel we’d rented to get some shut eye before an early wake time the next morning.
Day 2: Hidden Lake Overlook & St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls, Sunrift Gorge, Driving Going-To-The-Sun Road (western half), Lake McDonald Lodge
A downloadable PDF map of trails and their respective mileage and elevation gain / loss in the Logan Pass and St. Mary areas can be found on the NPS’ website.
Hidden Lake Overlook (2.8 mi out and back round trip, 460′ elevation gain)
The start of our first full day in the park dawned overcast with a bit of drizzle, but we were not to be deterred. After navigating the western portion of the Going-To-The-Sun Road and all its beautiful views, we arrived at Logan Pass a bit before 8:30am to park. It was our intention to do the Highline Trail, which can be found near the entrance to the Logan Pass parking lot, just on the other side of the road. However, once we made our way to the trailhead, we were greeted with a sign that told us the trail was closed for bear activity. So at a loss for what to do instead, we opted to head up toward the Logan Pass Visitor Center to the Hidden Lake Overlook trailhead just behind the building. Of all our hikes, this was the least impressive in my opinion, but much of that can be attributed to the clouds and fog and rain, as by the time we reached the overlook, all we could see was a big cloud; the lake and Bearhat Mountain behind it were completely immersed in the fog. Nevertheless, there were some pretty wildflowers in the fields as well as stunning views of distant peaks, and we were even able to see a couple marmots.
St. Mary Falls (1.6 miles out and back round trip, 260′ elevation loss) and Virginia Falls (1.6 miles from St Mary Falls out and back round trip, 285′ elevation gain)
After we finished the Hidden Lake Overlook trail, we had a “what next?” moment. We had planned to do St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls the next day, but with the Highline trail off the table, we had more time on our hands. So off we went, catching the free park shuttle from Logan Pass going East to the St. Mary Falls shuttle stop. We had been all bundled up after the chilly hike earlier that morning, so when we arrived at the trailhead near the shuttle stop, we had to shed some layers. The area was affected by a wildfire back in 2015, leaving much of this hike out in the open sun, which decided to come out at this point.
This hike was very enjoyable to me, as I absolutely love waterfalls, and these don’t disappoint. Before we got to the falls, however, walking through the charred remains of the trees around us, I found a really cool burn pattern on one of the tree trunks on the trail and had to snap a picture. Then shortly after that, coming through a bend in the trail, right there in front of us was a female elk! Just munching away on her lunch like NBD. I snapped a quick picture and moved along to leave it in peace, not wanting to take any chances.
We came upon a small clearing with a large rock that was the perfect place to stop and rest for lunch. We had a beautiful view too, as St. Mary Falls was just ahead and in full view from our spot. After picking up some orange peels left from some other hiker and adding it to our trash stash, we continued on to the bridge overlooking the St. Mary Falls, and friends… there are no words for how beautiful it was, and no picture can do it justice. We hung out there for a little bit, enjoying the scenery before continuing on up the trail to Virginia Falls, another .8 miles from the bridge at St. Mary Falls. The cool thing about this waterfall is that you can walk right up to it and stick your hand in the water, which, of course, I did. When we were done there, we went back toward St. Mary Falls, stopped and perched on some rocks and watch the falls in pensive contemplation. They really were just so stunning. All that turquoise water fed from the glaciers, pouring over the rocks.
After that, we took a short shuttle ride to Sunrift Gorge (the next stop east of St. Mary Falls Shuttle Stop), which you can find less than 500′ from the north side of the road less. And if you walk down under the overpass, you can walk right down to the water and dip your toes in, which again, I did. I was hot after our previous hike and the cool water felt oh so good!
By this point, we knew that given the time left in the day wouldn’t allow for much else, we used the rest of the afternoon to drive the pullouts on the western half of the Going-To-The-Sun road, as we made our way back to the Lake McDonald Lodge for dinner, where I had an elk burger that was so delicious, I only allowed my hubby one bite. The lobby of the lodge was really neatly decorated, and I’ll remind you again that these lodges are around 100 years old, so they really are a sight to see. This is also where they have the Red Bus Tours, with the original busses that took the first park visitors through the park and can still be found taking visitors up and down the Going-To-The-Sun road and stopping at some popular pullouts. If driving this road makes you nervous, these bus tours are a great option!
Day 3: Piegan Pass
Piegan Pass (9 miles round trip out and back, 1750′ elevation gain)
With our plan to hike Highline thus far thwarted, we decided to do the Piegan Pass instead. Comparable in difficulty, we caught the shuttle from Logan Pass again early that morning and took it to the Siyeh Bend Shuttle Stop. From there we found the Piegan Pass trailhead and started out along a lovely stream of water and an abundance of wildflowers.
The trail wound through meadows of wildflowers and towering pine trees, crossing the water fed from a high waterfall about 3 or 4 times, across the path cut out the side of the mountain and over a couple snow patches (watch your step!) to stand and admire three glaciers, then continue up the trail to the top of the pass between two mountains, looking down on beautiful turquoise lakes and breathtaking views. It was epic. Most of the incline happens as you work your way through the forest to the second fork. There is still some incline after that, but it is intermittent and things really open up a lot too. We were able to do this hike in about 5 hours, 3 out and 2 back.
We spent the rest of our day driving the eastern portion of the Going-To-The-Sun road and the pullouts, particularly Wild Goose Lookout and Jackson Glacier Overlook. Once again though, the weather didn’t want to cooperate and it was pretty rainy and overcast. Thankfully the rain held off until we were done with Piegan Pass trail :).
Continuing on Going-To-The-Sun road, we checked out the exhibits at the St. Mary Visitor Center, then headed north to the Many Glacier Hotel to inquire about tickets for the boat tours available the next day. We had originally intended to book a boat tour and guided hike, but you need to get your tickets well in advance because by the day before, they were full up until the afternoon, which was later than we wanted to start out on the trail to the glacier. Soooo, plan B, hike the whole thing. In the end, it wasn’t that much more really, so it wasn’t a big deal. Plus we got to see some sights we’d have missed otherwise. If you’re interested in taking a boat tour, whether at Many Glacier or one of their other locations, check out the Glacier Park Boat Company‘s website for more information.
Oh! I almost forgot, thanks to the rain that plagued us the last half of this day, we saw a super pretty rainbow over St. Mary Lake on our way back west! Check it out!
Day 4: Grinell Glacier
A PDF map of the Many Glacier trails with mileage and elevation gain / loss can be found at the NPS’ website.
Grinnell Glacier (from trailhead to viewpoint, 10.6 mi, 1600′ elevation gain)
Finally, a hike we had planned that we were actually able to do, even if it didn’t look exactly as I had expected. We had hoped to take a boat tour across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine then a short hike to the Grinnell Glacier trail. We weren’t able to get tickets for a morning boat tour, so we opted to hike it instead.
Side note: since we were planning to hike the whole thing, we made an early start again, but had just enough tie to take advantage of the momentary sunlight and stop at Wild Goose Island Overlook once more…what a difference a day can make!
It wasn’t so bad at first, we had a bit of tree cover, so what rain we got didn’t faze us much. But as we worked our way up the trail things opened up more and when it started raining, we definitely felt it. We hiked up through the rain, pea-sized hail that kept reminding me of Dip N Dots, and pelted us as we crossed a waterfall, then crossed another snow patch.
We were rewarded with stunning views of the glacier and turquoise lakes, more wildflowers, wild huckleberries, a moose sighting and a bunch of long-horn sheep.
We topped the day off with Huckleberry BBQ sandwiches and Wild Huckleberry Lager at the Rising Sun Motor Inn.
I’m not going to lie, this trail was a bit more treacherous than I had originally thought it would be, in part because we had just done Piegan Pass the day before, but also because of the hail, and coming back down across that waterfall was trickier than going up as far as not slipping. But it was so life-affirming and amazing that it is definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip.
What We Missed But Plan To Do Next Time
There are a few things we weren’t able to fit in this trip that we had planned originally, and others we learned about after the fact and have added to the list.
- Highline Trail
- Trail of Cedars & Avalanche Lake
- Sunset at Two Medicine
- Iceberg Lake Trail
- McDonald Falls
- Native America Speaks Programs
- Boat tour
I’m a planner, and even only planning this trip a week and a half beforehand, I didn’t slack off researching. I felt we were pretty well prepared for our trip, but there were still some things we would do differently next time around.
Things We Did Right
- Prepared for bears: We purchased bear bells on Amazon prior to our trip, and rented some bear spray when we arrived in Montana. Glacier Outfitters has a location in the airport and at Lake Mcdonald where you are able to both rent or purchase bear spray. I recommend renting it because a) you need to have this on you in the park for your safety and b) it’s cheaper than buying and you can’t take bear spray back home with you on a plane if you bought it. The bear bells aren’t really as necessary on the more popular trails, the shorter hikes with lots of people like Hidden Lake Overlook or St. Mary Falls / Virginia Falls, because with so many people making lots of noise, the bells would be kind of moot. But if you plan to go on any longer hikes, even if they are more popular like Highline Trail, Piegan Pass, etc, it is good to have them since you may go for a bit without meeting anyone else and it is good for them to make a bit of noise. Or, you could play music on your phone if you prefer, as we saw a few people doing.
- Check average temps across all areas of the park (East, West, and Logan Pass) and pack accordingly: Layers are your best friend. The weather is different depending on where you are in the park, and what time of the year you go, and if you’re hitting up multiple spots in a day, then it pays to have layers you can shed or put on as needed. We went from a chilly hike to Hidden Lake Overlook, with a slight drizzle, wearing water-repellent, hooded wind-breakers over two other layers and winter hats, to St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls where we stripped back down to our base layer t-shirts. And if you plan to do a lot of hiking, you’re definitely going to want wicking activewear that will keep you dry. I also recommend a pair of hiking pants. I lived in mine while we were there. They were water resistant, dried fast if they did get wet, and kept me warm when the wind was biting. I had a pair that could roll up to capris too if I got too hot. We got lucky and Eddie Bauer was having their semi-annual sale right before we left and we got hiking pants, hiking shoes, and our jackets at bargain prices, and it was all a solid investment. Word to the wise though, like most activewear, hiking pants tend to run small, so make sure you try them on, move in them, sit in them, and make sure they are comfortable before you buy a pair.
- Hiking shoes or boots: Your beaten down kicks aren’t going to cut it in the park. Many of the trails we went on had streams to cross over on stepping stones, waterfalls you can walk right up to, and we also got rained on…a lot. Having a good pair of hiking shoes or boots was definitely money well spent. They give you extra stability, the tread is deeper and grips the trails better, plus you’ll stay drier. Again, we bought ours at Eddie Bauer’s semi-annual sale right before our trip (luckily didn’t suffer any blisters for not having been properly broken in).
- Get an early start: We found it easiest, given the things we wanted to see and do, to park at Logan Pass and shuttle to other points nearby. But if you want to do that, you need to get there before 8:30, keeping in mind that it is a solid hour even in the early morning from either the east or west entrance up to Logan Pass. If you get there later, you are at the mercy of Lady Luck, because the parking lot there fills up VERY quickly. We used the NPS’ Glacier Information Display to monitor the times that the lots filled up for about a week before our trip, to get an idea for what we were in for. Side note, they also give status updates of several other lots, the campgrounds, plus the weather at West Entrance, Logan Pass, and East Entrance (St. Mary’s). Generally speaking, at least for the time of year we went (mid-late July), Logan Pass was about 10-15 degrees cooler than the West Entrance at Apgar Village, while the East Entrance was fairly comparable to the West Entrance.
- Check out the NPS website: If you’re thinking about visiting Glacier, start with the NPS’ website. It has the information display as mentioned in point 4, webcams you can view, park fees, rules etc, and getting around, trail closures, etc. plus maps! So much information, all in one place.
- Bring Maps: there is exactly zero cell service inside the park, plan accordingly.
- Vacuum Sealed water bottles: we took two 24 oz bottles with us on our longer hikes. We wanted something that would keep our water cold, but that wouldn’t be too big and carry a lot of extra weight in our back pack. Staying hydrated is super important, especially in the cooler temps when you don’t think you need to drink as much. You’re still getting a workout on the trails, so best to keep hydrated. Also, it may look clear and pretty, but you still don’t want to drink the water you’ll find on the trails.
- Small soft-sided cooler and quart size freezer bags: If you plan to hike all day, you’ll want to be prepared for snacks and lunch on the trails. We stopped at a grocery near our hotel for sandwiches and snacks that we were able to put into our ziplock bags and keep cool in the small cooler. Additionally, we used one of our freezer bags to put ice in from the hotel, a makeshift ice pack for the cooler. Just remember, whatever you take into the park with you must leave with you. Leave no trace. Not even the peel of an orange or banana. You may say they are biodegradable, but the fact is that they take too long to decompose and the scent will draw wildlife closer to the trails, to their hazard and yours. So please pick up after yourself. The ziplock bags also came in handy for trash ;).
- Pack for the outdoors: You’ll be outside, sometimes in the woods, sometimes in the open. You’ll want SPF, bug spray, and chapstick. I also recommend a travel size first aid kit and bacitracin, just in case…we did have to use ours when I slipped on a rock and cut my hand a bit.
- Small flashlights or headlamps: If you are planning long day hikes that might take you into the twilight or evening, or maybe you take a wrong turn and end up out on the trails later than you had planned, a small flashlight or headlamp could come in handy. We didn’t need ours, but better safe than sorry.
Things We’d Do Differently Next Time
- Plan the trip sooner, maybe a year in advance: Truth be told, we didn’t plan to go to Glacier until about a week and a half before we were set to fly out. Because of this, our hotel was farther away from the park, back in Kalispell by the airport, and roughly an hour drive to get to the West Glacier entrance of the park. Not to mention, it was probably more expensive to fly this way.
- Stay at one of the lodges or chalets in the park: As I mentioned in my previous point, we stayed pretty far out from the park. If we had it to do over again, we’d plan our trip far enough in advance (about a year) so we could get a room at one of the historic lodges or chalets. They are historic sites in and of themselves, dating back to the early 1900s and are so beautiful inside and out. But rooms at the lodges and chalets fill up far far in advance. Hence, point 1. Even if you don’t stay at one, the lodges have restaurants and gift shops, and are worth a visit for their beauty. Check availability here.
- Know what kind of hikes to do: If we travel next with kids, we would likely stay closer to the west side and Lake McDonald for more family-friendly activities and hikes. But if we go just us again, and intend for longer more scenic hikes and activities, we would stay toward the east side.
- Pack gloves: Running gloves like these would have been perfect for the time of year we went. I bought them for my husband for Christmas this past year because he always complains about his hands getting cold when he runs outside in the winter, and I wish we’d have brought them (and that I’d bought a pair for myself!)
- Each person gets their own lightweight rucksack: We took our Swiss Gear backpack, which was great, but it was heavy, not water resistant, and we only had one. It got pretty heavy when all was said and done. We compensated for the weight by taking turns wearing it, but in hindsight, separate packs would be a better idea.
If you are interested in planning your own trip, check out the Pinterest Board I created for this trip.
Whether you intend to visit Glacier yourself (I highly recommend it), or if you’re just living vicariously, I hope you enjoyed this post. Be sure to subscribe to the blog for more travel posts in the future!
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