Glacier National Park is national park paradise. Everything you learnt about in geography can be seen to the extreme here. Hike along the Continental Divide, kayak on glacial-carved lakes and spot moose grazing in the meadow.
Known as the Crown of the Continent, the park is located on the Canadian-US border in the north-west corner of Montana. From the city of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, it’s only a 3-hour drive down to the park or if you’re on a USA road-trip it’s 6.5 hours north from Yellowstone. Wherever you are, it’s worth the detour to get here.
1. HIKE A PIECE OF HISTORY
If you’re looking for 360 degree views to the end of the horizon, hike to an old fire lookout tower. Of course, any trail to the most scenic point in the park is going to be a steep, challenging grind – but a rewarding one.
There used to be 17 fire lookouts in Glacier, however technology has taken over and now just 4 remain manned in the summer. Huckleberry fire lookout is a 6-mile hike each way that climbs through the forest and over a ridge before the fire lookout appears out of nowhere, providing fantastic views across the park. Apgar Fire Lookout is the shortest trail to a fire lookout in the park at 2.8 miles each way. Despite it being short, it’s pretty steep in places.
2. WITNESS GLACIER’S GLACIERS’
In 1850 the park was home to 150 glaciers. However, due to the effects of climate change there are now just 25 active glaciers left. And based on current global warming projections, Glacier will become glacier-less in just 15 years, so it’s now or never to visit! One of the park’s classic hikes is Grinnell Glacier. Passing weeping waterfalls and alpine meadows full of wildflowers, the scenery becomes more impressive as you hike higher. It’s a 10-mile round trip so set aside 5-6 hours.
Despite the name, Glacier’s title is largely due to the fact that glaciers shaped the landscape, carving out valleys and lakes, as opposed to the glaciers themselves. There are over 700 lakes to discover and 68-marked trails to traverse, so there’s no shortage of hikes or terrain to explore.
3. SAFARI IN THE ROCKIES
Rich and diverse ecosystems mean that big predators and other rare and endangered animals thrive in Glacier National Park. Moose, lynx, bobcats, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and lots of deer can all be spotted in the area. The park also has the biggest population of grizzlies in the lower 48 states – 300 grizzlies and 600 black bears roam in Glacier.
Exploring the east side of the park near Many Glacier and Two Medicine are the preferred wildlife spotting areas as they are less developed. Whether you’re hiking or driving-by, keep 100m between you and a bear. Although it’s tempting to get that bit closer to take a great photo, don’t do it. The bears that no longer see humans as a threat have to be killed to keep other visitors safe.
4. GO ON A BEAUTIFUL BIKE RIDE
One of the best-kept secrets is the opportunity to bike or walk the Going-to-the-Sun road in the Spring when this route is closed to cars, whilst they plow the remains of the snow. Whether you’re a keen cyclist or feel like a fitness challenge then the Going-to-the-Sun road ranks as one of the best bike rides of all time.
From Avalanche Creek to Logan Pass it’s a grueling 17 miles up hill. Despite the climb, the reward takes you to sublime views looking out from an elevation of over 2000m - plus you can stop pedaling and cruise downhill on the return! Don’t let not owning your own bike stop you as you can hire one for the day from the rental shops at Apgar Village for around $35.
5. VENTURE OUT IN A KAYAK
Go for a paddle on the crystal-clear calm waters of Lake McDonald – the biggest lake in the park. As you cruise out to the middle of the lake, you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself as you take in the views. It’s also a chance to rest your legs and put your arms to work. Stand-up paddleboards and small motorboats are also available to rent from Apgar Village.
6. A FORCE OF NATURE
Triple Divide Peak, in the east of the park, is the spire that determines the journey of a raindrop or snowflake in all of North America. The peak marks the point that divides the three big river basins and whether that water eventually flows to the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico or Hudson Bay in Canada. Seeing this system on a 3D map in the visitor center is fascinating but to see this unique mountain for yourself take the 7.2 mile trail from Cut Bank Campground (just outside the park) to Triple Divide Pass.
7. ROADTRIP ALONG ONE OF THE WORLD’S BEST
Simply just driving through the park is another highlight. Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the world’s most scenic drives and is a true feat of engineering. The road winds 50 miles through the Rocky Mountains past ancient glaciers, cascading waterfalls and mountain vistas.
The road is closed for the majority of the year as snowfalls and avalanches can lead to over 60ft (20 meters) of snow accumulating in certain spots. After 2-3 months of plowing, the road then re-opens to vehicles around late June and closes in September time.
8. CAMPERS HAVE S’MORE FUN
Toast marshmallows on a crackling fire, gaze at the millions of stars above and chill in your hammock as you sip on a cold beer. While staying in a luxury lodge with showers would be nice, staying in the great outdoors is much more fun and much more memorable. As the skies darken, look out for a green haze aka the Northern Lights! Loop C in St Mary’s campground is a great place to scan the skies for Aurora and shooting stars.
There are 13 campgrounds to choose from overall. Sprague Creek is nestled amongst a lush old cedar forest, Two Medicine Campground has stunning sites with unobstructed views across the lake and Many Glacier has a few prime spots dotted along the creek, just to name a few of our favourites!
9. SAY HEY TO A PARK RANGER
Meeting a park ranger isn’t unique to Glacier National Park, but I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone visiting any national park. They are the eyes and the ears within the park and full of knowledge. Whether you go to the visitor centre to stock up on maps, attend a park ranger program or go on a guided hike, it’s wonderful to engage with those who live, work and protect these beautiful wildernesses.
10. RELAX. REFRESH. RE-CHARGE
Hiking, biking and exploring are all super-fun, but they’re also exhausting. If you need a day off during your trip, here’s a pretty good place to just chill-out. Have a lazy morning and then mooch down to the lake-shore with a comfy chair, a good book and a little picnic. Sitting along the shores of Lake McDonald just a few minutes outside Apgar Village was a great little spot!
11. VISIT 2 COUNTRIES AND 2 NATIONAL PARKS
Waterton Lakes National Parks lies just across the Canadian border, making up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park - the first of its kind in the world. Receiving one-sixth of the visitors that head to Glacier, Waterton is rugged and uncrowded. Jagged peaks and sheer cliffs rise out of the Canadian Prairies offering a slightly different landscape to explore. From Waterton, you can take the tour boat across the lake to explore the Goat Haunt section of Glacier National Park in the US, before re-entering Canada and hiking back to Waterton.