Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Glacier National Park

Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Glacier National Park

Imagine tranquil water so still you can clearly see every colorful stone, glacier-dotted mountain peaks, and the kind of terrain that makes you forget you’re in the USA. That’s Glacier National Park. Read on for my guide to everything you need to know before you visit! 

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Rachel Off Duty: Rachel on a Hike in Glacier National Park

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Tucked up into the northwest corner of Montana, right below the Canada border, you will find what many call the Switzerland of America: Glacier National Park. When I found out I would be going to Montana at the end of the summer, my immediate inclination was to head south, towards Yellowstone. But my adventurous friends convinced me to consider Glacier, which I had honestly never heard of before. I am SO glad they did. 

Imagine tranquil water so still you can clearly see every colorful stone, glacier-dotted mountain peaks, and the kind of terrain that makes you forget you’re in the USA. That’s Glacier National Park.

Here’s everything you need to know before you visit! 

Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Glacier National Park

How to Get There

Rachel Off Duty:  Driving Around Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park sits at the northern border between Montana and Canada, in the Rocky Mountains. You can drive or fly, making this one of the easier national parks to get to (not many national parks have an airport nearby!). 

To Drive: The park is accessible by US Highway 2, Highway 89, and Highway 17. There are several different gateway towns near the entrances to the park that serve as both destinations in themselves, and a home base while you explore everything Glacier has to offer.

  • From Billings to East Glacier: 6 hours drive time and a possible rest stop and (if you need one) in Great Falls 

  • From Billings to West Glacier: 7.5 hours drive time with Butte, Missoula, Kalispell, and Whitefish along the way 

  • From Spokane to West Glacier: 4.5 hours drive time via the 90 or the 95 (stop at Kootenai Falls for a beautiful scenic detour!) 

  • From Bozeman to East or West Glacier: 5 – 5.5 hours drive time (almost the same distance) 

Tip: Be sure to download the area map for Glacier National Park on your phone before your trip! Most of the park will not have cell signal, so you’ll need an offline map to reference to help you get from point A to point B once you’re there!

Find rental cars near Glacier National Park here.

To Fly: Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) is located in Kalispell, just around 30 miles from the West Glacier entrance to the park. The most flights to FCA are available in the warmer months, but a handful of airlines do fly to Kalispell year-round. Depending on where you are in the US, your odds of finding either a direct flight or a route with only 1 layover are high!

Tip: There are free shuttle services from the FCA airport. For all the details, read here!

Search flights to Glacier National Park here.

Cost of Entrance

Rachel Off Duty: Rachel in Glacier National Park

The cost of entering Glacier National Park is $30 per vehicle (regardless of the number of people you have in your car) and $25 per motorcycle. I have a National Park Annual Pass that costs $80 and allows me unlimited entrance into America’s national parks for 12 months – something I highly recommend if you plan on visiting national parks and other federal recreation sites at least 3 times within a calendar year!

How to Get Around

Rachel Off Duty: Rachel Exploring Glacier National Park
Rachel Off Duty: Rachel Exploring Glacier National Park

The easiest way to navigate and get the most out of Glacier National Park is by renting a car. You can rent a car from the FCA airport or wherever you are heading to Glacier from (we rented our car in Billings and started our trip there!) – Search For Car Rentals in Montana Here

If you can’t, or don’t want to, rent a car, there are a handful of alternative ways to explore Glacier. 

  • Hop On, Hop Off Shuttle: The National Parks Service offers a free hop on, hop off shuttle that provides two-way service along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. During the high season (July through Labor Day weekend) shuttles come every 60 minutes and they begin at 9 am, end at 5 pm. In the winter months, I believe the frequency of shuttles slows down or ceases altogether. Consult a visitor’s center when you arrive in Glacier National Park for the most up-to-date information on shuttle services!

  • East Side Shuttle: Glacier Park Collection offers a reservable shuttle from June through September. It travels from the east side of Glacier National Park between Glacier Park Lodge and Saint Mary Village (where you can take the Hop On, Hop Off Shuttle from there). 

  • Grouse Mountain Lodge: The Grouse Mountain Lodge offers a complimentary shuttle to and from the FCA airport, the Whitefish Amtrak Station, and Downtown Whitefish. 

  • Whitefish Mountain Resort Shuttle: During the winter months, you can take a complimentary shuttle to and from the Whitefish Mountain Resort, departing daily from Grouse Mountain Lodge. 

  • Red Bus Tours: You kind of can’t take a trip to Glacier without noticing the famous red busses from Red Bus Tours. They are vintage 1930s buses with roll-back tops and knowledgeable tour guides, and you can choose to depart from either the east or west side of the park. For a leisurely visit to Glacier and a guided itinerary, Red Bus Tours seems like a good way to go! 

 

Gateway Towns

East Glacier

A small village on the eastern side of Glacier National Park, this will likely your entrance point if you’re coming from Billings, like I did. Here, you’ll find motels, some restaurants, a grocery store, car rentals, shuttle services, gas stations, and of course, beautiful scenery (and it’s only just the beginning!). 

Saint Mary

Saint Mary is a teeny town on the eastern side of the park, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. It’s at the east entrance of Going-to-the-Sun Road, and close to Two Medicine and Many Glacier, so the location can’t be beat. If you find yourself here, don’t leave without a no-nonsense, hearty breakfast or lunch at Johnson’s Cafe. Despite the lack of frills and the down-home attitude, their soup and bread is honestly ridiculous, and their sandwiches could rival any other diner I’ve ever been to in my life.

West Glacier

West Glacier will likely be your starting point if you’re coming from Bozeman or Spokane. You’ll also find some lodging options, good restaurants, a grocery store, and a small camp store for basic supplies. Eat at Glacier Highland Restaurant and get a slice of huckleberry pie while you’re there!

Whitefish

Unlike some of the smaller, scanter towns in the area, Whitefish is lively and bustling by comparison. It’s a mountain resort town and sort of a hub of happenings in the area. Here, you’ll find a downtown with restaurants, breweries, shops, and bars; accommodations and transportation; and several tours that depart from Whitefish to explore the surrounding area daily. 

Kalispell

Just 20 minutes away from Whitefish, Kalispell is another comparably sized town and also the location of the FCA airport. Downtown Kalispell is home to a slew of restaurants, breweries, distilleries, art galleries, and more. There’s also the gorgeous Flathead Lake in Kalispell, in case you momentarily forget just how incredibly gorgeous this part of Montana really is. 

When To Visit

Rachel Off Duty: Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Glacier National Park

The peak tourist season for Glacier National Park is July – August, a short window of time due to the park’s geographic location and climate. July – August promises the highest chance of warm, sunny days and brisk (but bearable) evenings. Because this window of time is so short, it’s best to plan out your lodging several months in advance because the park does get packed. 

September – October is also a gorgeous time to visit Glacier National Park. Most of the park’s facilities stay open at full-force through Labor Day weekend. After Labor Day weekend, park services and some seasonal lodging and activities might start to wind down for the season, but you will still be able to do a ton as long as the roads aren’t closed due to construction or snow. 

Of course, you can still visit Glacier National Park in the snowy months, but some of the park’s most famous sites and the Going-to-the-Sun Road might be closed, which would be a shame. However, we took some beautiful drives throughout the park that didn’t involve Going-to-the-Sun Road and I would argue they are still well worth the trip even if the weather doesn’t work in your favor. Totally up to your preference and the kinds of activities, and weather, you want to experience! 

Where to Stay

Rachel Off Duty: Renting a Cabin in Glacier National Park
Rachel Off Duty: Rachel in a Cabin in Glacier National Park
Rachel Off Duty: Rachel in a Cabin in Glacier National Park

Camping ($)

There are over 1,000 campsites to choose from in Glacier National Park, and even more in the surrounding gateway towns, like St. Mary and West Glacier. I believe most campsites in the area cost between $10-$25/night, and you should plan on bringing cash to pay for the number of nights you will be staying when you arrive. Many campsites that require on-site payment with cash are first-come first-served, and you can simply pay for the number of nights you wish to stay by putting your money into a provided envelope and depositing the payment for your campsite into a box or tube. You should see an envelope receipt that you can tear off and clip to your numbered site to indicate that it’s been paid for. 

Alternatively, there are a number of sites that can be reserved in advance and paid for online. Fish Creek, St. Mary, Apgar, and Many Glacier offer sites that can be reserved ahead of time. For more details on these sites and more, the National Parks Service offers some good information and links to research campgrounds here

Cabins ($$)

I’m all for camping. I love it and I actually don’t mind sleeping on the ground (as long as I have an inflatable pillow). But when we went to Glacier, we actually rented a cabin because we were all flying in from out of town, and we didn’t want to lug sleeping bags and tent equipment with us from California. The cabin we rented was a rustic cabin (read: bring your own bedding!) and cost us $45 – $65/night. If you’re up for sharing bathrooms with the surrounding guests, and not having many amenities other than a roof over your head, rustic cabin camping can be a super affordable alternative to spending the night in a hotel, and doing so allowed us to stay as close as possible to the entrance of the park. Check out the cabins we rented here.

Check out other cabins near Glacier National Park here on Airbnb and here on HipCamp!

New to airbnb? Use this link to save up to $55 on your first booking.

New to HipCamp? Use this link to save $10 on your first campsite.

Hotels ($$$)

From motels to luxe lodges and resorts, there is a lot to choose from in the areas surrounding the park. While I haven’t stayed in any of the hotels here myself (yet!), I have heard good things about Many Glacier Hotel, Lake McDonald Lodge, Black Bear Lodge, and The Downtowner. 

Find hotels near Glacier National Park here.



Booking.com

What to Pack 

Rachel Off Duty: Rachel in Rachel Off Duty: Rachel in Glacier National Park

The weather in the summer months (July – September) is typically between 70-80 degrees during the day, and 40-50 degrees at night (or lower depending on how high of an elevation you’ll be staying at). The below isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but a kickstarter to help make sure you don’t forget anything essential when planning your trip! 

P.S. I have added links to some camping gear I personally use and recommend.

  • Tent (if camping) 

  • Sleeping bag (if camping or cabin camping. Note – if you’re in a pinch, Walmart in Kalispell actually sells sleeping bags for under $10_

  • Pillow (buy from Walmart in Kalispell or bring an inflatable pillow

  • Sleeping pad (if camping) 

  • Lots of layers (think quick-dry base layers, fleece, down, and waterproof shells) 

  • Multiple pairs of socks 

  • Hiking boots and other comfortable, durable shoes 

  • Warm gloves

  • Sun hat and beanie 

  • Swimwear (if you’re up for a glacial swim!) 

  • Sunglasses

  • Matches

  • Water bottle and water treatment system 

  • LED headlamp

  • Cooking utensils (if camping or cabin camping)

  • Food and food supplies (if camping or cabin camping) 

  • Sunscreen

  • Insect repellent

  • Bear canister*

  • Bear spray*

  • Bear bells*

*it’s grizzly country in Glacier National Park, so yes – this is not a drill. You will see most if not all hikers visibly carrying bells or spray.

What to Do

Rachel Off Duty: Everything You Need to Know to Visit Glacier National Park

You could spend weeks in Glacier National Park trying to cover every inch of the area. There is so much to do and see and explore, but on your very first visit, here’s where you can start: 

  1. Drive Going-to-the-Sun Road

  2. Go hiking (Try Highline Trail or Siyeh Pass) 

  3. Visit the highest point in Glacier National Park: Logan Pass

  4. Rent a kayak or a paddleboard

  5. Visit Lake McDonald

  6. Enjoy the sights in Many Glacier 

  7. Grab a huckleberry bear claw from Polebridge Mercantile 

  8. Have a picnic at Bowman Lake 


RELATED: How to Spend 3 Days in Glacier National Park


Other Tips and Tricks

Rachel Off Duty: Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Glacier National Park
  • Glacier National Park is in grizzly country. Take necessary precautions to have the right tools in the very rare chance of a bear encounter. 

  • Carry in, carry out. Leave no trace and make sure you dispose of your trash properly in marked garbage bins in the park and surrounding areas.

  • Check the visitor’s center at Glacier National Park when you arrive for the most up-to-date information about weather, open (and closed) trails, trail conditions, bear sightings, etc. 

  • There are 7 Glacier National Park entrances total: West Glacier, Saint Mary, Camas Creek, Polebridge, Two Medicine, Many Glacier, and Cut Bank. 

  • Consider avoiding tagging specific locations in the park on social media, and instead tag ‘Glacier National Park’ if you’re going to do this at all. Instagram geo-tags have made national parks a bit chaotic as of late, with everyone cramming to get to the Instagrammable lookout spots rather than taking the time to explore the rest of the park in its entirety.


I hope this guide helps you prepare for your first encounter with Glacier National Park. If you have any questions, drop them below!

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Rachel Off Duty: Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Glacier National Park
Rachel Off Duty: Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Glacier National Park

Hey there! I’m Rachel, a travel writer and a full-time advertising / marketing expert. In 2019, I traveled more than 25 times while working 9 to 5, and since then I’ve committed myself to living a more adventurous life, even if it means bringing my laptop along for the ride.

Are you hungry to travel more, but overwhelmed with how to juggle work and play? You’ve come to the right place!

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2 Responses

  1. Glacier has been on my bucket list for a few years now and this makes me want to go even more! I’ll have to look into getting a flight out there once travel is safe again.

    1. Yes!! I’m itching to get back to national parks myself. I’d definitely plan a trip closer to the shoulder if you can (september / october). You will love it!

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Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting Glacier National Park