Glacier National Park is a national park in the state of Montana, on the US – Canada border, encompassing part of the Rocky Mountain range. The park is famous for its alpine scenery, glaciers, plentiful lakes and an ecosystem that is still in tact despite a century of human intervention. Needless to say, Glacier is a nature lover’s paradise.
No trip to Montana is complete without visiting the park in some capacity, and here are just a few trips in Glacier National Park that show you how to make the best of your experience with the time that you have.
Preparing for Glacier National Park
In the summer months, Glacier is a wilderness wonderland. Feet of snow are exchanged for lush, green moss, grass and wild mountain flowers. Visitors can explore the park and many of the backpacking trails without need of snowshoes. All of this becomes accessible for a short season, until rugged cold weather sets in and the park and most of the surrounding area close for winter.
Even in summer however, the climate still holds potential for extreme weather. Before our trip into Glacier’s backcountry, we spent nearly a week waiting out a slow-moving bout of cold weather and rain that left nearly a foot of snow on the mountain passes- in September! Summer snow is not uncommon in Glacier, and when it hits it’s quite cold and unpleasant. Be prepared!
You can check out our gear lists for Weekend Backpacking, or our more robust PCT Gear List if you’re interested in backpacking in the park but don’t know what to bring. Aside from that, here are a few essentials for hiking in Glacier:
Rain Gear: Don’t go without a rain jacket/poncho and a waterproof pack cover! Even though the weather may be great in the valley, conditions at higher elevations are volatile and difficult to predict. The temperature on many of the mountain trails is already much colder, so you definitely do not want to be miles away from shelter with no rain protection- you’ll risk hypothermia, even during a short day hike.
Down Insulation: You’ll need a down insulated sleeping bag if you’re camping in the park. 20 degrees should keep you warm and comfortable. We also highly recommend a down jacket, even over fleece- down is warmer and lighter- and you’ll want something warm for the mornings, evenings and if the weather turns sour.
Trekking Poles: We tend to just avoid conditions that require an iceaxe. Though it’s on our adventuring to-do list, we are southerners with minimal snow and ice experience, and prefer to hike in conditions that we know how to handle. In the likely event that there are leftover snow drifts in some sections of the trail, trekking poles should do you just fine.
Good Shoes: I feel like this should go without saying, but don’t try to experience the park in flip flops. I see people do this throughout the National Parks, and maybe I’m getting old, but I just don’t see how hard it is to put something on that will lace up and give you a little more freedom. Wear running shoes at the least, and a pair of broken-in hiking boots at the most.
Rope: If you’re backpacking, you need 25 feet of rope or parachord to hang your food bag. That means no bear canister, woohoo!
One Morning/One Afternoon: Going-to-the-Sun Road Scenic Drive
Drive, or take the free park shuttle (it is not non-stop) along Glacier’s famous scenic drive. Going-to-the-Sun Road provides park visitors with a unique opportunity to experience the peaks, valleys and alpine environment of the remote Rockies without a penchant for hiking strenuous backcountry.
The full drive cuts through the park, going northeast, and can take anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours.
Be sure to take advantage of the overlooks! As the road makes a winding ascent into the mountains, you’ll be focusing more on just staying on the pavement and won’t be able to fully take in the views. Park at the overlooks to really appreciate the scenery and best of all- take in lungfuls of the pure, alpine air.
You can also stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Center for more information on the park environment and a quick pee break.
One Day: Day Hike in Glacier National Park
Glacier’s scenery has to be experienced to be believed, and if you can afford the time, there’s no excuse not to get out from behind the glass and take it in. There are many scenic hiking trails in the park, of varying distance and difficulty level, with most accommodating the casual hiker.
In our experience, the trails out of Logan Pass and Many Glacier offer the views and landscapes that the park is famous for, though Two Medicine Lake in the south side of the park is also quite beautiful.
Amazing views of the Rocky range and glaciers. For a refreshing hike that’s well worth the time, take the trail out of Logan Pass all the way to the Granite Park Chalet, where you can take a break and look around. You can then double back to Logan Pass for a total distance of 15.2 miles.
Hike to the Granite Park Chalet from the opposite direction for a more challenging hike that experiences some dramatic landscape changes and a opportunities to see some of the park’s famous wildlife.
Combine the two for a satisfying day hike- just make sure you can get back to your car if you park at either trail head!
Multiple Days: Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park
Get your money’s worth with a multi-day trip into Glacier’s interior valleys and alpine trails. Visit any of the ranger stations in the park (except Goat Haunt) to obtain your permits for the backcountry sites. Glacier is great in that it reserves 50% of its backcountry campsites for walk-in reservations, so if you’re not the planning type, you can still get a phenomenal backcountry trip.
Glacier National Park has some of the nicest, most accomodating backcountry campsites we’ve ever seen. Each site has a pit toilet (sweet, sweet luxury) and a designated food preparation area with either a bear box or a pole to hang your bag.
We were blown away by our 5 day trip through Glacier’s backcountry, and we highly recommend taking a route long enough that shows all the park has to offer, but the extensive network of trails caters to backpackers of all experience levels.
Our daily mileage was usually between 12 and 16 miles, and if you don’t want to hike that much, there are plenty of campsites in the backcountry that will allow you to do less miles and more relaxing! If you lower your mileage, we recommend choosing between the alpine passes in the northwestern area of the park or the more developed (but certainly no-less beautiful), lake-filled valleys north of Many Glacier.
Day 1: Logan Pass to Many Glacier
Take the Highline Trail out of Logan Pass, taking up the Swiftcurrent Trail at the Granite Park Chalet down to the Many Glacier campground. Eat dinner and/or breakfast at the Motor Inn. Less food you have to carry!
Day 2: Many Glacier to Glenn Lake Foot
Take the Ptarmigan Trail up to Ptarmigan tunnel, a cool and unusual feature for a backpacking trail. From there it’s easy walking to a series of picture perfect lakes nestled in dramatic mountain valleys.
Day 3: Glenn Lake to Kootenai Lake
Get an early start on this day, you’ll be tackling Stony Indian Pass from the south. The Pass is long and quite steep in places, but it’s the most difficult of the passes on this trip and it’s easy going once you’re over the top. Keep an eye out at the Kootenai Lake campground- it’s a good place for moose sightings!
Day 4: Kootenai Lake to Hole in the Wall
Hole in the Wall is one of the coolest campsites in the park, and in many parks for that matter, so it can sometimes be difficult to snag for your itinerary. If you don’t get Hole in the Wall, Brown Pass is 2 miles closer and supposedly just as nice.
This hike will take you to the Goat Haunt ranger station and then up a long, gradual ascent to Brown Pass.
Day 5: Hole in the Wall to Bowman Lake Parking Area
Your last day! It’s an easy one; the hike out of Brown Pass is a sharp descent, followed by a flat walk along the lake. From there you should be able to easily snag a ride back to another part of the park or to your car if you don’t have a pick-up. Hitchhiking in and around the park is not difficult, despite Glacier’s size. During the summer months a free shuttle runs the length of Going-to-the-Sun Road and paid shuttles run to the peripheral establishments and visitor centers like St. Mary and Many Glacier.
These are just a few of the ways you can see the real Glacier, on your own time and without paying for an expensive tour. Do you know of any more trips in Glacier National Park? Please share them with us in the comments!