I am such a sucker for national parks. No matter how much I think I’ve seen on this planet, whenever I visit a new national park I feel like I am just beginning to discover what mother nature has up her sleeves. Glacier National Park is one of those rugged jewels you almost can’t believe is real. If you ever find yourself in Montana, your trip would not be complete without paying a visit to Glacier!
I actually wound up going to Glacier National Park because I was in Billings to attend a conference (TBEX Billings!). It was the week of my birthday, and my boyfriend and some friends decided to extend our stay in Montana a couple of extra days to explore. Since two of us (myself included) have full-time jobs, our time in Montana was limited and we could only spend 3 days (including travel time) in Glacier National Park before we all flew home. With all that said, is 3 days enough time, and is it worth the trouble?
Yes. A hundred times yes.
When I visited Glacier National Park, my friends and I left Billings early in the morning on Saturday and stayed in Glacier until the afternoon on Monday. We spent the rest of Monday driving to Spokane so we could all catch flights home from the Spokane airport first thing on Tuesday. If you only have 2 and a half or 3 days to spare, this is the itinerary for you!
3-Day Itinerary for Glacier National Park
Day One: Kalispell, Lake McDonald, and West Glacier
If you’re coming to Glacier National Park from Billings, Bozeman, or Spokane, driving will take you anywhere from 4 – 8 hours, so plan to leave early in the day to maximize your time in the national park. We left Billings at 7 or 8 am, and in retrospect, we probably should have left a little earlier. The drive (from Billings to East Glacier, at least) is a visual feast – vast, flat plains and rolling farmland as far as the eye can see until all of a sudden you’re surrounded on all sides by pines and firs and rivers and streams.
We took the long way from Billings to East Glacier Park Village, and then carried on to Kalispell. In Kalispell, we stopped at a Walmart to get food, firewood, and other supplies for the weekend. If you have more time, I’ve heard this is also a great place to explore the downtown area, grab a bite, and check out a brewery or distillery. We were cutting towards the end of the day so we didn’t spend too much time here, unfortunately.
It should also be said that if you like cycling, Whitefish (20 minutes from Kalispell) has one of the only bike shops in the area you can rent quality bikes from for your trip to the national park. It’s called Glacier Cyclery & Nordic, and we stopped there too!
West Glacier and Lake McDonald
We finally got to West Glacier around 4 pm and checked into our cabin If you’re staying in the West Glacier, Whitefish, or Kalispell area, you can’t miss Lake McDonald. It’s the first body of water you will see after heading through the park’s west entrance, and it’s also Glacier National Park’s biggest lake. Spanning 10 miles long, Lake McDonald is actually the result of a basin carved by glaciers. The water is pristine and dotted throughout by a colorful collection of red and yellow and purple and orange pebbles that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
I’ve been told that the reason you can see each pebble so clearly is actually due to the temperature of the lake itself. Because it is so chilly, plankton growth is stunted, so murky water is practically nonexistent throughout the entire park and visitors are treated to the most incredible visibility. These pebbles, coupled with the mountains surrounding the lake on all sides, make for an absolutely breathtaking sunset viewing location. We stayed here until dusk before heading back to the entrance of the park.
Dinner at Glacier Restaurant in West Glacier
West Glacier is home to the west entrance of Glacier National Park and a handful of restaurants and lodging options. One place we were recommended to try was the Glacier Highland Restaurant, which is attached to the Glacier Highland Hotel. It’s one of the few places in the immediate area open until 10 pm, so it was perfect for us. Order the chickpea fries, the huckleberry hound burger, and a slice of huckleberry pie to round it off! Yes, huckleberry is a thing in Montana and you are going to have to try it at some point while you’re there. Fortunately, it’s absolutely delicious.
We stayed in a rustic cabin in West Glacier for the weekend. Simple but an ideal home base for exploring the park! For more options on where to stay in Glacier National Park, view hotel listings or check out my guide here!
Day Two: Going-To-The-Sun Road, Hiking, and Exploring St Mary
On your one full day in Glacier National Park, you have to spend it by driving along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Day two is all about exploring Going-to-the-Sun Road from west to east!
It is one of the park’s main draws, and it’s a spectacular drive. Going-to-the-Sun Road is typically only open in the summer months (from July – September ish), so if this is what you’re hoping to see while you’re visiting Glacier, be sure to plan your trip accordingly! This 50-mile road starts in West Glacier and ends in Saint Mary, and for a significant chunk of the drive, it truly feels like you’re ascending into the sky.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is an iconic part of Glacier National Park because it is rife with incredible vistas, and it allows you to see the lay of the land from way up high. That said, be warned that Going-to-the-Sun Road is a narrow, 2-lane road that is honestly a bit sketchy because of how narrow the path is, how tight some of the turns are, and how high up you are when you’re driving along it. But, because of how beautiful the view is, most cars will be driving slow, which in this case is a good thing! For obvious reasons, please take your time and don’t rush while driving along this road.
With no stops, the drive will take you about 1 hour to the highest point, or 1.5 hours to the end of the road at Saint Mary. But, you’re definitely going to want to make stops, so leave early to make the most out of your full day in the park!
Logan Pass is the highest elevation you can drive to on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Sitting at 6,646 ft on the Continental Divide, Logan Pass is a huge attraction for park visitors. It also just so happens to be the site of the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center (where you can get information about weather conditions, trails, road closures, and animal sightings) and home to one of the only bathrooms on the 50-mile stretch. Naturally, the parking lot at Logan Pass is almost always incredibly congested. The park does offer a free shuttle service along Going-to-the-Sun Road that stops at Logan Pass, so if you’re driving and unable to find parking here, you can always park elsewhere and take the free shuttle back.
At Logan Pass, you can check out a number of ranger-led activities and day hiking treks that the National Park Service offers. Alternatively, Logan Pass is also the trailhead for Highline Trail, one of the most famous hiking trails on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Highline Trail & Siyeh Pass
When we were planning our trip to Glacier, we were lucky enough to be able to talk to someone from the local tourism office about what to do and what not to miss. When we asked about where to hike, the two trails we were recommended were Highline Trail and Siyeh Pass.
- Highline Trail is an 11.8-mile loop that promises some of the most spectacular views. It’s well tafficked and well marked due to its popularity, and from what I’ve been told, it’s doable for even casual hikers. If you plan on hiking this trail, try to start early to beat the crowds and the sun.
- Siyeh Pass is a 9-mile out-and-back trail that allows you to witness a series of dramatically changing scenery, from creeks and spruce-fir forests to glacially-carved valleys and snowfields. We opted for Siyeh Pass based on how much daylight we had (since the hike is a little shorter), and it definitely did not disappoint.
Lunch in St Mary at Johnson’s Cafe
We actually flip-flopped and ate before hiking (oops), so my day 2 recommendations are based on how we would have done things if we could redo our day – hike first, reward yourself with a big meal after. We ended up going straight to St Mary because one of our friends actually biked the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road earlier in the morning and we went to go pick him up so we could all hike together. As he was understandably starving by the time we found him, we wound up at Johnson’s Cafe, which is one of those down-home places you just can’t forget once you walk in.
If you’ve hiked first and are looking for a hearty lunch or brunch, Johnson’s Cafe has some ridiculous options. Their fried chicken is fresh and generously served with cornbread and local honey. Their sandwiches – nestled in between thick slices of freshly baked bread – are next-level (try the Red Eagle Fire! It’s fried chicken with pepperjack cheese, grilled onions, and a ton of roasted peppers and spicy slaw). And, don’t overlook their soup of the day, which they serve to you in a help-yourself family size that ensures there’s plenty to go around. Yes, they take card. No, they do not have almond milk or any other ‘fancy’ dairy alternatives for your coffee (I had to ask).
Wild Goose Island Lookout
On your way back to West Glacier from Saint Mary, you will drive by the viewpoint for Wild Goose Island – an iconic Glacier National Park landmark. Be sure to stop here and go check out the view. It honestly looks like the entire landscape could have jumped straight out of a painting.
Catch the Sunset
I wish I could tell you where we wound up stopping to watch the sunset at the end of day 2, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that pretty much any lookout point you can find on your way back along Going-to-the-Sun Road will most likely be spectacular. Be sure to post up somewhere to admire the sunset from up high, and linger for a while even after the sun has disappeared. The array of colors that sweep over the valleys and mountains both during, and after, the sunset are a mesmerizing display.
Day Three: Polebridge, Bowman Lake, and Whitefish
You could absolutely spend day 3 driving back up along Going-to-the-Sun Road for another hike or for some even deeper exploration (we only just scratched the surface!). But we wanted to check out an entirely different area of Glacier National Park before we had to leave. On day 3, we drove up to the northern edge of the park, just 20 or 30 miles shy of the Canadian border!
If you loved Lake McDonald on day 1, you’ll go crazy over Bowman Lake, which is an incredibly peaceful backdrop to spend your last couple of hours in Glacier National Park. In order to get to Bowman Lake, you’ll need to drive for about 45 minutes to an hour on bumpy dirt roads, but it’s all worth it – I promise!
Once at Bowman, there is an easy out-and-back trail we took that dances along the lake’s edge. It’s less of a hike and more of a nature walk, with relatively level ground for the majority of the stroll. I believe the entire trail is over 26 miles out-and-back, but we only took the first 2 miles to do a little exploring before heading back to our car to go and grab a bite to eat.
Not far from Bowman Lake, you’ll find Polebridge Mercantile. Despite feeling like you are truly in the middle of nowhere, it definitely seems like Polebridge Mercantile has celebrity status because cars of hungry travelers were showing up consistently the entire time we were there. Polebridge Mercantile sells a wide variety of foods, gifts, snacks, and kitsch in case you want to get souvenirs. Their assorted freshly baked breads, for example, are awesome. But if you know what’s good for you, you’d know you’re here for one thing and one thing only: a huckleberry bear claw. Again, I won’t go into just how popular huckleberries are in Montana (insanely popular), but if you’re going to indulge in some local culinary flavors, Polebridge Mercantile’s homemade huckleberry bear claw is without a doubt one of the best things you can try, in my opinion!
We spent a good amount of time at Polebridge Mercantile eating our carbs and sipping coffee (we had an aeropress with us and we hung out outside on a picnic table with our mugs so we could people-watch) until we eventually knew it was, sadly, time to leave.
Whitefish and The Great Northern Brewing Company
If you are flying out of Kalispell or Spokane to get home, you might have time to stop in Whitefish again on your way to the airport, like we did. We went so we could return the bike we rented, and while we were there we stopped in at The Great Northern Brewing Company for beer and snacks for the road. They are a local Whitefish brewery and not only are their beers pretty good, their branding and can designs are super cool too! I’m a sucker for a good design, and I also love how their beers are named after Glacier National Park and Montana mainstays, like Going-to-the-Sun IPA and Wild Huckleberry Lager.
There you have it! Proof that even if you only have 3 days or less, you can still get a lot done in Glacier National Park! Let me know in the comments below if you’re planning a trip to Montana and considering driving up to Glacier!
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