Glacier National Park

Jason Heltzer
Jan 3, 2019 · 21 min read

Preamble

In 2018, I went on a trip to Glacier National Park. It was an incredible trip, and as we traveled through the park in our car and on foot, every direction could have been a postcard. This post is designed to make planning and visiting Glacier a less overwhelming experience with the hope it will lower the barriers to travelling there and inspire more people to visit this amazing wilderness.

Orientation

Location

Glacier National Park is in northwest Montana and hugs the Canadian border. The park is dominated by mountains and various rock formations carved by glaciers that remain active to this day. However, due to global warming, the glaciers in the park are predicted to melt entirely by 2030, so hurry and go visit! The park continues over the Canadian border and is called Waterton Lakes National Park.

Map of Glacier National Park (from official National Park Service map)

Glacier basically has one main road — Going-to-the-Sun road — that connects the east and west of the park. An essential part of the experience of the park is driving the winding, two-lane road with periodic stops to take in the breathtaking scenery. The road climbs from the valley floor all the way up to Logan Pass at 6,647 feet. It takes about 2–2.5 hours to drive the length of the road. Check out the park maps to get a better sense.

The park is a hiker’s heaven with over 700 miles of hiking trails. The park gets its fair share of wildlife, but the wildlife is not as prolific as Yellowstone. That said, Glacier does have both grizzly bears and other dangerous wildlife, which may be a consideration from some deciding to visit. Because of the focus on hiking and fewer animals, it’s less appealing to take young kids to Glacier versus other parks unless you are mostly driving through plus a few short hikes. We saw teenagers on many of our hikes, but few kids younger than ten.

When to Go

Glacier gets 3.3M visitors a year, a vast majority in the summer. Glacier’s weather is colder than Yellowstone and Yosemite, and so the bulk of visitors to Glacier are compressed in even fewer weeks. Because the park is at altitude, there are many trails in the park that are not cleared of snow and debris until August. That is not a typo. An extensive trail status page can keep you up to date. Also keep in mind that Going-to-the-Sun road is not completely open until (usually) July 4th weekend, so check the road status page to see the location of the plows as they work from both sides of the park to meet at Logan Pass. I think the ideal time to visit is late July to mid/late August so that snow doesn’t hamper your plans. In early July, the issue is that some trails are mostly clear but then you encounter snow bridges at higher altitudes that are melting. Yes, the last person who crossed it made it across without incident. But the next person could fall. More on this below.

Where to Stay

Glacier is home to the Many Glacier Hotel. Built in 1915, it is a Swiss-themed inn on Swiftcurrent Lake, peering at several mountain ranges. The setting of this hotel defies words, and I think staying here is an essential part of visiting the park. Many Glacier is on the east edge of the park, and it’s the launching point for several of the park’s best hikes, including Grinnell Glacier and Iceberg Lake.

Many Glacier Hotel with Swift Current Lake in the background. Photo: Jason Heltzer

Many Glacier is remote. Aside from Many Glacier hotel and the nearby Swiftcurrent Inn, there are no other accommodations or restaurants.

There are two restaurants in the Many Glacier hotel. Neither takes reservations, so no need to prepare in advance. Waits for the main dining hall can be 45 minutes to an hour during dinner time, so plan ahead. Next door to the main dining room is a bar that serves a limited menu from the dining hall. The food is better than you think, and the dining hall, with a view of Swiftcurrent Lake and the mountains, is a gorgeous place to get dinner after a long day on the trails.

We spent three nights in Many Glacier. That seemed like a good number of days, but had we stayed another day, we would have had plenty of places to explore or even a day where we just took in the views on the expansive back porch.

View of Lake McDonald from the shared balcony at Village Inn at Apgar at 10pm as the sun was setting. Photo: Jason Heltzer

The west side is dominated by Apgar. Apgar has a range of accommodations, including an extensive campsite. We stayed at the Village Inn at Apgar, an outdated motel that sits on the shores of Lake McDonald. The scenery and generous balconies more than made up for the outmoded rooms. There are several restaurants and stores in Apgar. Apgar has more “civilization” than Many Glacier, and this may be appealing or revolting depending on the goal of your trip. It’s more crowded and has a very large campground. We stayed one night in Apgar. We did not have time to do any hikes in Apar so another day would have been good.

There are more numerous options outside of the west entrance of the park. You find more options in Whitefish, including some nicer hotels and restaurants. Whitefish is a ski resort in the winter. Seven minutes’ drive outside of Apgar is West Glacier which sports motels, a post office, Amtrak station, and several independent restaurants — although calling this a town is a stretch. Keep in mind both of these are outside of the park, so you’ll potentially face long lines of cars when you choose to enter the park. West Glacier is next to the entrance. Whitefish is a 37 minute drive to the entrance.

We did not explore Two Medicine which is in the Southeast corner of the park. Like Many Glacier, you have to exit the north east entrance to then re-enter the park in the south east entrance.

See the section below on “what to see” to give yourself an idea of other locations to stay in at the park.

Keep in mind that reservations go on sale a year in advance. This means to get the best rooms during the busy summer season, you have to call the day reservations open, a year in advance! There are periodic cancellations, but it can be slim pickins if you don’t book far in advance. At the time we booked, there was no fee to cancel as long as you did so 30 days before your arrival date. Within that 30 day window, it was $15 cancellation fee, up until (I think?) 3 days before arrival. I called around all these windows when I wanted to change rooms, and was only moderately successful.

What to Pack

I created this packing list, and updated it after the trip. This was for a trip in July. Depending on the time of year, you may alter the list.

Getting There

I suspect that most travelers enter the park at the west entrance near Apgar. The entrance is a 30 minute drive from Kalipell, MT where there is an adequate airport. United has a direct flight from Chicago only during the summer. There are quite a few airlines that connect through Denver.

Missoula, MT is 2.5hr drive to Apgar and is an alternative. Great Falls, MT is also an alternative, albeit a smaller airport than Missoula. It’s also 2.5hr drive to the north east entrance of the park and may be a consideration if you plan only to be in Many Glacier on the east side.

Important Considerations

Note that no rooms in the park have TVs nor air conditioning nor wifi. The hotels will say that they sport wifi, but it’s usually only in the lobby and it’s often both unreliable and overwhelmed. It tends to work better at night when there are fewer people attempting to use it. We had better luck in Apgar, but you should assume that will not have regular access to the Internet or cellular networks, especially in Many Glacier. To give you a sense: at one point, we bought a calling card and used a payphone — an adventure paralleling some of our hikes. This also makes it hard to split up your group since you cannot rely on texting or calling. Some hikers bring serious walkie-talkies. We just stayed together the entire trip.

We went the first week in July and did not find the lack of A/C to be problem, although we used oscillating fans in our rooms periodically. It does start to get cold at the end of August. Check average temperatures before packing. Keep in mind that the weather conditions in Apgar or Many Glacier may be very different than up in the mountains. Check Logan Pass weather to get a sense what it might be like higher up on the trails.

Also recognize that Glacier is at altitude, roughly 6,500–8,000 feet. Naturally, this is relevant for those that are affected by altitude. Expect some bloody noses, fatigue, and more labored breathing during exertion. Drink lots of water and take acetaminophen to combat these effects. For comparison, Park City, UT is 6,800, Denver is 5,000 and the top of Vail mountain is 11,500. Because many of the hikes gain/lose significant elevation, it’s wise to have a wide range of layers. For example, we started to hike the Highline at 7:30a (trailhead at Logan Pass, the highest point along Going-to-the-Sun road) where it was in the low 40s. We finished the hike 1,800 ft lower and it was in the low 80s.

There is a medical clinic in West Glacier. St. Mary is the small town at the northwest entrance of the park near Many Glacier. It’s not clear if there is a clinic there — I would assume not.

There are gas stations in West Glacier but not in the park at Apgar. Many Glacier also does not have a gas station, but Babb, MT (about 15 minutes away) and St. Mary, MT (about 30 minutes away) both have collections of stations. So plan to enter the park with a full tank.

Glacier can suffer from forest fires in the summer months. The rate and severity of these fires has increased with global warming. You may find various roads closed due to smoke concentration or nearby fires. We went in 2018 and left two weeks before a major fire was sparked by lightning on the north side of Lake McDonald that destroyed historical cabins. This closed the park for several days and stranded some visitors. Because there is essentially one main road — Going-to-the-Sun road — forest fires can strand people a lot easier since there are no alternative routes. Keep up to date with info desks at your hotel since cellular and wifi can be nonexistent. Even if fires may not threaten where you are staying or roads you plan to use, it can produce a smoke haze in the park that can affect your experience or picture taking. During fire activity, you may notice a campfire smell throughout the park and those who are sensitive to such things should keep this in mind. Because you cannot rely on Internet or cellular access, it’s a good idea to regularly check with information desks at your hotel or with other travelers on weather conditions.

Wildlife Safety

Grizzly bears are an issue in the park, and you have to take them seriously. Making noise while you walk (singing or wearing a cow bell on your pack are suggestions) and carrying bear spray are both recommended. We always had someone with bear spray at the front and back of our peloton. We also accumulated other hikers with us which helps too. The key is if you are confronted by a bear, walk away slowly. Do not run. A bear’s instinct is to chase you if you run. Easier to type on a blog post than to execute in real life, but this is drilled into you when visiting the park. Glacier’s trail status includes information about bear activity. During our stay, one of the trails we hiked was closed two days later because of bears. We also found that hikers coming from the opposite direction were good about warning us. You can also ask helpful information guides at information desks at hotels or the visitors’ center in Apgar, or park rangers who tend to have current information about threats.

Keep a safe distance from wildlife. It’s tempting to get that picture, but you don’t want “almost posted to insta a great pic of a mother Grizzly bear with her cubs” on your epitaph. While driving to dinner, we saw a mother bear and two cubs and one homo sapiens that was idiotically close. I almost took a picture of the human for next of kin just in case.

Snow Bridges and Glacier Safety

While hikers are encouraged to take the proper and typical precautions in the wilderness, many hikers will encounter something they may not have before: snow bridges. Unfortunately, many hikers still crossed the bridges. Don’t do this. It’s impossible to tell how thick the bridge is and how far you would fall if you broke through. Just because someone else just crossed it, doesn’t mean you are going to make it. A ranger told me that aside from drowning, falling through snow bridges is the second most frequent way people die in the park. The bridges along the Grinnell Glacier hike is the one spot where people are most frequently injured in the park. Keep in mind there are quite a few snow fields where there is snow but clearly it’s on solid ground; these are okay to cross. This differs from a snow bridge that connects two ridges with nothing underneath.

The Grinnell Glacier hike, and some others, offer an opportunity to come face-to-face with a glacier. Do not go onto snow-covered glaciers because the snow can hide deep crevasses. If you are able to get onto the glacier, do not venture far or alone. Because the glaciers have been retreating, it’s possible they will become too far removed from the trail.

Water

A delight of Glacier is the numerous waterfalls along hikes. Because the water is snowmelt from high elevations, the water is really cold, and it offers an opportunity to cool off by dipping your hands and face and perhaps hat in runoff. Although it’s snow and sometimes glacial runoff, it does not mean you can drink it! Animals often pee in these channels, and it’s wise to skip drinking the runoff without proper purification, as tempting as it may be.

Food/Dining

Many Glacier has limited food options. There is one nice dining room, an adjacent bar, and a limited coffee shop. The nearby Swiftcurrent Inn has a restaurant at which we had a lousy experience. Unlike junctions at Yellowstone, there are no places to buy groceries in Many Glacier. As previously stated, Apgar has more choices, including taking a short drive to leave the park to access a wider selection of restaurants. Like many NPS lodges, there are no reservations for dinner, so plan for waits and putting in your name early. Dining rooms had many gluten-free and vegetarian options.

I highly recommend buying groceries before entering the park. If you fly into Kalispell, on the way into the park, you will pass through Columbia Falls which has a large grocery store. Keep in mind when you are perusing the aisles that there are no refrigerators in rooms in the park. Also be mindful of where you will store your groceries on the way to the park (a reason to have an ample-sized car). We routinely made breakfast in our room and packed sandwiches for lunch on the trail so our schedules weren’t restricted by requiring us to be in a village for lunch. If you are camping, there may be requirements that you store food in bear safe containers.

Getting Around

Going-to-the-Sun road is one way in each direction. It’s not for the faint of heart with its twist and turns and steep drop offs. Mix in the distractions of the scenery and you won’t be surprised that there are periodically accidents that block the road. One of the days we were there (thankfully a hiking day) we heard there was an accident that closed the road. The NPS also closed the Apgar entrance since it didn’t want to exacerbate the situation. I am certain that was a large disappointment to the people trying to enter the park or stuck on the road.

Speaking of Going-to-the-Sun road, there is a shuttle service that has periodic stops along the way. There are two lines; one loops from Apgar to Logan Pass and the other loops from the northeast entrance at St. Mary to Logan Pass. This is critical for hikers, especially those wanting to hike Highline or Hidden Lake or others that have trailheads at Logan Pass. Logan Pass has parking, but it’s limited and often fills by 8a or 9a. Also, some hikes are one-way and not a loop, so for those that park at a trailhead, the shuttle system can get you back to your car. It’s also a reason to have two cars. You can park at the end of a trail, then drive with the other car to the trail head. When you are done, you drive back to the trail head to get the other car. This is a common maneuver for Highline.

Biking the park is not for the faint of heart. There is little room on the roadside for bikes, and given it’s one lane in each direction, when bikers are climbing uphill, they can hold up traffic. In addition, you would be navigating a lot of blind corners. If that wasn’t enough to deter you, the trip from Apgar to Logan Pass is 32 miles and 3,300 feet in elevation. I might be the most frightened to come down from Logan Pass — make sure your brakes are in good condition!

Photographing Glacier

The first principle in photographing Glacier is accepting the reality that you will not be able to capture the sheer beauty of the landscape with a camera. While your cell phone camera is great for panoramas, and your cell phone is light, I urge you to consider bringing an SLR camera with a wide-angle lens and a kit lens. I think it’s worth the extra weight while hiking, and the cell phone pictures just don’t compare to the wide-angle pictures and low-light pictures I took. You could get away with skipping your zoom lens. While there were occasions we saw wildlife, it was not frequent enough to warrant hiking with a much heavier lens. Same with binoculars and wildlife scopes.

Internets

You should assume you will not have any cellular service or wifi in your hotel room. The only place to get reliable Internet is in main lobbies of some of the larger hotels in the park over wifi. Even if you pop on wifi, you may find wifi choked with too much traffic. Apgar reception is better than Many Glacier, but it’s safest to assume you will not have access to the Internet. Do not assume you can get text messages or place phone calls in the park. The only time I got cellular reception while in the park was at Granite Park Chalet, one of the high points on the Highline trail.

While lack of network connectivity may be anxiety-inducing in many, it is a great blessing as it forces one to disconnect from technology and the news and instead focus on absorbing the scenery and getting exercise.

Keep in mind that this means navigation apps in the park are useless. You may be able to download the map to use offline, but it’s best to plan to use a paper park map — GASP — like the olden days. The good news is that most of the driving is on one road. Getting from St. Mary to Many Glacier had two turns and it was helpful to have a map.

Also keep in mind if you are meeting other people at a hotel, arrange in advance for all guests to be able to check in since you won’t be able to call the hotel while in the park. You should also share itineraries in advance so your travelmates know when you expect to arrive.

Passes

You can purchase a park pass at the West Glacier or St. Mary entrance. I assume the same for Two Medicine as well. The entrance at St. Mary was not staffed the times we went through it, and West Glacier wasn’t staffed at night. The entrances will still open, however. So don’t worry if you will arrive at odd hours, you will be able to drive in and purchase the pass at a later time.

Sites and Activities

From Many Glacier

MUST SEE:

  • Many Glacier Hotel. Even if you aren’t staying there, spend time at the Many Glacier Hotel, in particular the outdoor balcony facing Swift Current Lake.
  • Swift Current Lake Boat Ride: This ride gives you a great view of the hotel and the glacier-carved mountain chains that terminate there. The ride has two parts. After crossing Swift Current Lake, there is a short uphill walk to another boat that takes you across Lake Josephine. These tickets book up months in advance, so book when you get your hotel rooms. The boat company only sells reservations for half of a boat’s capacity, and the rest are sold up to three days before in person. There is only one company that operates the boats. Certain times include a ranger-guided hike of Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier. The boat ride is a great way to shorten the Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier hikes by about 1.5mi, not to mention a great way to get the history of the area and exquisite views of the hotel.
North boat dock on Lake Josephine. Photo: Jason Heltzer
View of Many Glacier Hotel from the boat ride on Swiftcurrent Lake. Photo: Jason Heltzer
Don’t be these silly people waiting in line early in the morning for boat tickets. Buy them in advance. Photo:Jason Heltzer
  • Grinnell Glacier hike (~7.6mi roundtrip from Lake Josephine, ~12mi from Many Glacier Hotel): Grinnell Glacier hike has a trailhead on Lake Josephine, which is where the boat ride drops you off. It’s a lovely hike that gives you a great view of Grinnell Glacier and then terminates at the glacier itself. The trail also overlooks Grinnell Lake, which is an impossible greenish-bluish color. Note this hike is snow free in mid-July. We hiked it July 6th and there were three significant snow bridges that caused us to turn back. The park Rangers had closed the trail before the first snow bridge, which unfortunately did not dissuade many hikers from attempting to cross them. One hiker fell through a bridge a was lucky to only fall 5 feet and not injure themselves. Note that if you don’t have a ticket on the boat, you can walk about 1.5mi from Many Glacier Hotel to the Grinnell Glacier (and Grinnell Lake) trailheads.
Grinnell Lake from the Grinnell Glacier trail. That color! Photo: Jason Heltzer
  • Iceberg Lake (~10mi roundtrip): Iceberg Lake has a trailhead at Swiftcurrent Inn. The trail is very steep at first, so prepare for frequent rests. It then gradually climbs to a steep bowl carved out of rock that hosts a charming lake that, you guessed it, has icebergs for much of the year. We encountered a good set of icebergs in early July. The water temperature was just over freezing. Some people choose to go in the water — and 3 of the 4 of us went in for a moment. It was an amazing experience but one that you should undertake with great caution.
The water was really cold. Photo: Jason Heltzer

NICE TO SEE:

  • Red Rock Falls (~4.2mi roundtrip): Red Rock Falls is a shorter and mostly flat hike with a trailhead at Swiftcurrent Inn. It ends at a collection of red rocks forming a waterfall of snowmelt. Red Rocks Lake, which is fed from the waterfall, offers incredible scenery. We did this as a warm-up hike to Grinnell Glacier.
The rocks are, indeed, red. Photo: Jason Heltzer
  • Grinnell Lake (~3mi roundtrip from Lake Josephine trailhead, ~6.4mi roundtrip from Many Glacier Hotel): Grinnell Lake is a flat loop around Grinnell Lake with a trailhead at Lake Josephine where the boat has a dock. The lake is gorgeous, and this is a good hike to take younger kids on. There are ranger-lead tours here if you have a boat ticket at specific times of day. It’s also an area known for Grizzlies.

From Logan Pass

Logan Pass is midway between Many Glacier and Apgar and is an 1–1.5 hr drive.

MUST SEE :

View from the Granite Chalet along the Highline Trail. Photo: Jason Heltzer
  • Highline (~12mi one-way): Highline is the most popular hike in the park, and for good reason. The hike takes one along the Continental Divide, and you peer down various mountain chains carved by glaciers. Highline starts at Logan Pass. Because it’s a time-consuming, day-long hike, most hikers start in the morning. This means that the parking lot at Logan Pass fills up quickly — usually by 8a or 9a. Logan Pass is at the midpoint of Going-to-the-Sun Road, so it also means that it’s a ~1.5hr drive from wherever you might be staying. So plan for a very early morning. The hike is also one-way and is not a loop. This means that if you have one car, you must wait for a shuttle at the end of the hike at “the Loop” to take you back to your car. Some hikers opt to park their car at the Loop and take the shuttle up to Logan Pass to the trailhead. If you have two cars, each which can hold your entire group, you can park one car at the Loop, then drive up to Logan Pass with the other. Then take your car at the Loop to drive up to Logan Pass to retrieve the other car. This solution is the easiest because it does not depend on the shuttle times or capacities. Highline is not for those afraid of heights. There are portions of the trail near the beginning where the trail is a mere 2.5–3feet wide with a 150ft drop off to one side. Along this short stretch, there are wires along the rock face to hold on to. This stretch may be a mile or so. During the hike, you lose about 1,800ft in elevation, and the temperature differences can be substantial. For us, we started the hike and it was 40 degrees (we had gloves on and five layers), and as it ended, it was 80 degrees and we were in shorts. The 1,800ft elevation change is net, so keep in mind there is a bit of up and down throughout the hike. The hike takes you over a mountain pass and then after a brief decent, a gradual climb to Granite Chalet. At Granite Chalet, there is a bathroom and small “store” where you can buy snacks, but no electricity. You can actually stay at Granite Chalet if you want to be in the remote wilderness, willing to backpack in, and are less interested in camping. The decent down from Granite Chalet is less inspiring, and can be punishing on the feet and knees. I found it helpful to have trekking poles for the decent for both balance and to reduce wear on my knees. It’s also wise to bring a change of socks to avoid blisters.
The start of Highline includes a stretch of narrow trail with steep dropoffs. A cable helps keep your balance. Photo: Jason Heltzer
  • Hidden Lake (~5.4mi roundtrip): Hidden Lake leaves from Logan Pass and with only 1,300ft elevation change, a nice hike for younger hikers. Because the hike is at Logan Pass, however, it’s very high elevation and often this trail is not open until mid-August. There is a hike to an overlook which is shorter and less intense. The views in any case are spectacular. Because Logan Pass is also the trailhead for the very-popular Highline hike, the parking lot there can fill up by 8a-9a. Because Highline is a very long hike, there is not as much turnover in the parking lot. Taking a shuttle to Logan Pass or arriving early is recommended.

From Apgar

Our only hike in Apgar/Lake McDonald area was John’s Lake, a brief ~1mi jaunt through the forest. It’s good for kids and to warm up, easy to park nearby, but not something to go out of your way to do. Apgar Lookout, a ~7mi hike overlooking Lake McDonald, was on my list and often recommended.

From Two Medicine

We did not make it to Two Medicine. Two Medicine Pass and Upper Two Medicine Lake were both recommended.

More Information on Hikes

I found hikingglacier.com indispensable when planning our hikes in advance. While the pictures can feel like they are giving away the “payoff” of the hike, no picture does justice to the sheer beauty of the Glacier. Just remember, you won’t be able to access the website while in the park due to lack of cellular or wifi connectivity.

Our Itinerary

Our trip was from July 4th — July 8th.

We flew from Chicago to Kalispell, MT on a direct United flight which is only offered over the summer.

We rented a car in Kalispell, MT near the airport. We stopped to buy groceries in Columbia Falls, MT which is on the way to the west entrance of the park at West Glacier. The restaurant offerings in Columbia Falls are not good, although authentic and local Montana experiences. West Glacier and Apgar dining options are marginally better, although dominated by park-goers.

We stopped by the visitors’ center in Apgar to get an official park map and to purchase a more detailed trail map. After a short hike on the John’s Lake Trail, we drove across Going-to-the-Sun road to St. Mary. We then drove north through Babb, MT and eventually to the Many Glacier Hotel. We stayed in Many Glacier for three nights. As we checked out of Many Glacier, we drove to Logan Pass to do Highline, and then we continued driving west to Apgar. We stayed at the Village Inn at Apgar, which overlooks Lake McDonald. We left the park and departed from Kalispell, MT the next morning. All told, we hiked about 33mi, most of which in three days.

Day 1: Arrival, John’s Lake hike + Going-to-the-Sun Road drive

Day 2: hiked Red Rock Falls, Swiftcurrent boat Ride followed by Grinnell Glacier

Day 3: hiked Iceberg Lake

Day 4: hiked Highline

Day 5: departure

If you happen to use this guide, please return the favor and shoot other recommendations/corrections in the comments below. Thanks!

Jason Heltzer

Written by

Dad, venture capitalist at @OriginVentures, @chicagobooth professor, Chicagoan. I was a nerd before it was cool to be a nerd.

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