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If Glacier National Park is on your list to hit this summer, we’ve got you covered with our top tips for an amazing Glacier National Park adventure. If Glacier is not on your list, it should be! Many people overlook this gem, often referred to as “the crown jewel of the Rockies”, but this lush paradise is full of surprises and delight around every bend and rocky mountain peak. If you are on a lean budget or just love roughing it a little , Glacier’s campgrounds are an excellent way to stay onsite and maximize your time. The first few tips we have are practical, good-to-know-type things we learned from our experience. The last few are more on the lines of fun activities and maximizing your time.
Tip #1: Timing
Timing is everything when planning your trip to Glacier National Park. While the early summer season may offer less crowds, there is a greater chance you will miss one of the biggest “attractions” at Glacier National Park: Going to the Sun Road. This 55 mile road takes you over and across the mountains (through many hairpin turns) for breathtaking views, sweeping vistas, and more often that not – snow! If you are southerners like us, you might be very excited to see snowed piled up higher than your head and to have the opportunity to hike across a snowfield in the middle of summer.
Snow can also be a hindrance, however because if enough hasn’t melted, Going to the Sun Road will be closed. Plan your trip for mid July or August. It’s not a guarantee, but your chances are better the later you go in the summer. We timed our trip to be there a week before July 4th and the road opened our very last day there (whew!) The rangers told us sometimes it can be well into July when it opens (and sometimes not at all), so if you can plan your trip to give you the best opportunity. Just don’t wait too long, the road typically closes for the winter season in October. The short tourist season is the reason for the large crowds in the summer.
Lastly, reserve your campsite as early as possible, but don’t give up hope if everything is booked online. We waited a little too long to book online, but my husband called the park and a spot had opened up that hadn’t shown up on the website. So if you don’t see anything online, calling can be a good way to snag a primo spot in the park if you are trying to plan last minute.
Tip #2: Keep a Tidy Campsite (or Picnic Spot, etc.)
(We use an Instant Tent like this one to make setting up and taking down camp a breeze.)
By this we mean you’re going to have to pack every scrap of food and food-related items away each night to avoid attracting wildlife (ahem, bears). You will also be required to wash your dishes in a wash tub (you can buy one for cheap at the dollar store or sometimes the rangers will have one you can borrow). The water has to be dumped at a dumping station which was conveniently located at the bathroom. You can’t leave trash laying around or fling food out into the woods because the smell will attract critters.
Tip #3: Buy Bear Spray
Speaking of wildlife, we saw two bears on our visit to Glacier – during the day – so they are definitely there. They kept to themselves, but wild animals are unpredictable, so carry bear spray. You can order it online at Amazon or buy it or rent at the Ranger Station. It’s one of those things you hope you don’t have to use, but would be sorry if you didn’t have it if you needed it.
Tip #4: Bathrooms
So obviously, if you’ve been camping before you know that campground bathrooms are rustic at best. The campgrounds we stayed in at Lake MacDonald weren’t bad – fairly clean and showers were on site and free. While I believe the bathroom provided hand soap it’s good practice when National Park camping to pack your own, as well as a hand towel as some bathrooms don’t offer anything but a hand dryer.
Now that we’ve got the practical tips out of the way, it’s on to the fun!
Tip #4: Take a Boat Trip
If you can afford it, a boat trip on one of the glacial lakes is an amazing way to enjoy the park. You get a guided tour from a ranger and they are a delightful, low-key way to really get into Glacier (great if you have little ones in tow or aren’t up for hiking). Our trip on Lake St. Mary took us to a hiking trail where a ranger led our group across wildflower-filled slopes to a gushing glacial waterfall. But those who did not want to hike took the boat straight back to the dock. It was well worth it. There are several boating options and these do sell out so book as soon as possible. Kayaks can also be rented in several locations in the park.
Tip #5: Pack a Picnic
There are restaurants in Glacier, but camping is about spending time in the great outdoors, so make the most of the many lovely picnic areas in Glacier. Just as you get to the boat launch at Lake St. Mary there is a lovely camping spot with picnic tables and bathrooms that is right next to the lake. It has a grassy space for little ones to stretch their legs and/or you can take them down to tip their toes in the glacial waters.
Another neat spot is the Avalanche Creek picnic area where Avalanche Creek meets McDonald Creek just north of Lake McDonald. There are fire pits with grates so you can grill out a delicious dinner overlooking the creek and maybe even spot a bear or two like we did (from a safe distance of course! ;-))
Tip #6: Get Out and Hike
Make sure to get off the road and stretch your legs on one of the many trails in this vast park. One of our favorite hikes was the Lake Avalanche Trail. This trail begins at the end of the Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail which is itself is a majestic stroll through towering cedar trees of all sorts of interesting shapes (one even appearing to have a huge nose). As you approach the Avalanche Trail, you’re immediately greeted with the shooting rapids of Avalanche Creek. Careful hear as you’ll want to keep a close eye on your little ones if your near the banks.
As you wind your way through the 2.25 mile trail you’ll pass through woods with numerous fallen trees (victims of the trail’s namesake) and various waterfalls as you parallel the rapids. Then, almost out of nowhere, the woods open up to an amazing site – Avalanche Lake. This is the end of the line. You will be in awe over the natural beauty of this crystal clear lake with it’s surrounding craggy mountains with dozens of waterfalls tumbling down the sides.
This trail is 4.5 miles round trip so make sure you bring plenty of water and bear spray…
Tip #7: Go on a Wildlife Hunt
If you go to Glacier, you have to come home with at least one wildlife story. Luckily, there is no shortage of wild beasts in this untamed country but below are the areas where we had the best luck sighting animals.
We stopped here on our first day at the park and were delighted to find our first and only moose of the vacation. We took the Aster Falls Trail (2.8 miles round trip) where we spotted a moose leisurely drinking in one of several ponds.
Many Glacier Lodge, on the north side of the park
There are several families of mountain goats that have made their home at this beautiful lodge.
We can’t blame them – the view over the Swiftcurrent Lake is spectacular.
Additionally, the hillside behind the Swiftcurrent Lodge is known to be prime bear spotting area as they forage for wild berries.
You can also take a boat ride to Many Glacier or rent a kayak for a dreamy glide over this crystal clear glacial lake.
Speaking of bears, as mentioned above, we had our bear encounter on the banks of the McDonald Creek at the Avalanche Creek picnic area. It may have been the steaks we were grilling, but we saw two bears (a grizzly and a black bear) roaming the creek – luckily on the other side from us! We would highly advise making a trip here in the evening – the fishing here isn’t bad either…
Tip #8: Leave Something to Come Back For
As you explore a place for the first time, it is inevitable that you will go away with at least one thing you overlooked. But that just give you a reason to go back (not that you need one here). That one thing we overlooked was the Many Glacier Valley – we just didn’t allow enough time here. We were able to visit the Many Glacier Lodge (a remarkable piece of architecture) and take a short walk along Swiftcurrent Lake but there is soooo much more to do and see here.
The main thing we missed was visiting Many Glacier – one of your only chances to actually get out on a glacier in the park. To do this you need to take a boat across two lakes and hike some 11 miles. As you can imagine this is an all day affair, but from everything we have heard and seen it is well worth the trip.
PRO TIP: of all the activities at Glacier, the Many Glacier Boat trip needs to be booked the furthest in advance as it fills up fast.
Kayaking Swifcurrent Lake looked like a lot of fun. Something else we’d like to go back and do.
We can assure you, we’ll be back again to Many Glacier and take in much more of this beautiful piece of creation again. If you liked these tips or have any questions about Glacier National Park, leave us a note below and we’ll try and answer as best as we can. Now, go plan that trip! 😉