ULTIMATE GLACIER NATIONAL PARK GUIDE FOR ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS
When you think of Montana, you probably think of towering mountain peaks jutting jaggedly against a huge blue sky while waterfalls cascade over cliffs, wildflowers bloom in gorgeous colors and glacial lakes shine in hues of teal and turquoise. Nowhere embodies this slice of Montana better than Glacier National Park.
The best things to do in Glacier National Park all center around nature, which probably comes as no surprise. But what might surprise you is the wide range of activities you can do while there, from adventurous excursions to wildlife viewing to peaceful hikes. There are even some fun mountain towns located just outside Glacier National Park that you’ll want to check out if you have the time.
As Montanans, we have a special place in our hearts for Glacier National Park and today we’re going to share with you our top recommendations for what to do while visiting this majestic mountain paradise.
IMPORTANT TRAVEL INFO for 2021: Glacier National Park is requiring a separate entrance ticket for Going-to-the-Sun Road this summer between the hours of 6am and 5pm from May 28 to September 6, 2021, in addition to the regular park pass due to expecting a record breaking number of visitors in summer 2021. The ticket sales open up for each date 60 days in advance with some held to be released two days in advance. Find out more here. Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the top things to do in Glacier National Park and several of the hikes listed below are only accessible from this drive so be sure to plan ahead for this extra ticket requirement if going to Glacier this summer.
Water Adventures in Glacier National Park
White Water Rafting
Navigating your way down rushing white water rapids is a quintessential Montana activity, and one you can easily do while in Glacier National Park. A prime white water rafting location in Glacier National Park is the Middle Fork of Flathead River, which makes up the southwestern border of the park.
Stand Up Paddle Boarding
A serene way to spend the day on water in Glacier National Park is by going paddleboarding. Feel the freedom of a day on the water as your body propels you and your board forward as you take in majestic scenery all around you. Paddle boarding is possible both on lakes and rivers in Glacier National Park. For lake stand up paddle boarding, check out Lake McDonald while river stand up paddle boarders will enjoy the calm areas of Flathead River in West Glacier.
Glide through the water on a kayak that makes it easy to relax and look around to take in the views when you’re not paddling around.
Important Inspection Tip: It is important to note that if you are renting water equipment such as paddle boards and kayaks outside of Glacier National Park or bringing your own from home, you must get them pre-inspected before putting them in the water or risk being told you can’t go on the water. This is because of freshwater mussels, which can cling to equipment and transfer to new waters where they damage the endemic flora and fauna. You can get them inspected at the checkpoint booths located all around the park. To bypass any worry about this, you can rent right in the park from Glacier Outfitters, which has pre-inspected equipment.
Hike or Drive to Scenic Glacial Lakes
The lakes in Glacier National Park may not be the color you’re expecting — instead of dark, murky water, many of the lakes in the park are a bright teal color. This is due to the clear and chilly glacial water that fills the lakes with this hue. Two of the best glacial lakes to see in Glacier National Park are Grinnell Lake and Iceberg Lake.
Must-Do Hikes in Glacier National Park
Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake
This popular hike in Glacier National Park is a big hit with pretty much everyone since it is a relatively easy trail that is 4.5 miles roundtrip and is easily traversed by families and those who aren’t experienced hikers. The other reason it’s so popular is the “Trail of the Cedars” at the beginning of the trail that takes you through a rainforest, by Avalanche Gorge, river rapids, and eventually to gorgeous Avalanche Lake.
For those with limited mobility, you can just do the Trail of Cedars part of the trail, which is less than a mile and is wheelchair accessible.
Grinnell Glacier Trailhead
This is a tougher hike as it is 7.6 miles roundtrip and climbs 1,600 feet in elevation at the peak of the hike, but it’s worth it for the incredible views of Grinnell Glacier that you’ll be rewarded with. If the length worries you, you can shorten the hike to 4.5 miles by taking a boat ride from the nearby Many Glacier Hotel.
For some more off the beaten path hikes, check out our best hikes in Glacier National Park article.
The Glaciers in Glacier National Park
When Glacier National Park was established in 1910, it was home to more than 100 glaciers. That number has decreased significantly in the past century due to increased temperatures, but glaciers can still be seen from the road or on foot. The best time to see the glaciers in Glacier National Park is in late August and early September, when most of the snow has melted.
Jackson Glacier is the seventh largest glacier in Glacier National Park and is the easiest glacier to see since it can be seen from Going-to-the-Sun Road. The Jackson Glacier Overlook is located on the east side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, about 5 miles east of Logan Pass.
Grinnell Glacier in the Many Glacier area is possibly the most famous of all the glaciers in Glacier National Park — and for good reason. As mentioned in the hiking section, the 7.6 mile hike via Grinnell Glacier Trailhead offers spectacular, breathtaking views of the Many Glacier area as you climb 1,600 feet in elevation. The hike is challenging, but can be shortened to about 4.5 miles with a boat ride from the Many Glacier Hotel.
As you’re driving into the Many Glacier area, perhaps on your way to the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, keep your eyes peeled for Salamander Glacier. The glacier sits in a basin just above Grinnell Glacier and can be seen from the road as you drive through the park entrance station.
Sperry Glacier can be seen from Hidden Lake Overlook. The 1.3 mile hike (one-way) from Logan Pass is mostly on a boardwalk with stairs — so it’s significantly less challenging than Grinnell Glacier. Bring your binoculars and map to ensure the best view of this iconic glacier. A view of Sperry Glacier can also be obtained via a very challenging 8.5 mile one-way hike with a 5,000 foot elevation gain from Lake McDonald Lodge.
Scenic Drives to Do in Glacier National Park
Going to the Sun Road
This is easily the most famous drive in Glacier National Park and for many, it’s the top thing to do. As long as you don’t have a fear of heights, the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park should be toward the top of your must-do list. The drive isn’t for the faint of heart, though. It’s winding road takes you up to 6,646 feet in elevation (at Logan Pass) and while the views are breathtaking, the sheer drop off cliffs alongside parts of the road also may have you holding your breath — or at least white knuckling the steering wheel!
Just be smart, implement those defensive driving techniques you learned back in high school, and keep your eyes on the road (this is where having a good travel buddy who can take turn driving comes in handy) and you should be fine.
Going to the Sun Drive is the only road in Glacier National Park that goes across the interior of the park, which is another reason it’s so popular and why it’s your ticket to incredibly beautiful and remote scenery.
By the St. Mary’s entrance to the park on the east side of the park is the Many Glacier drive, located north of Going to the Sun Road. This road slices into the east side of the park and provides visitors with some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in Glacier National Park. It’s where you’ll find Apukani Falls, Grinnell Lake, Fishercap Lake, Iceberg Trail, and the Swiftcurrent Area. Most of the popular sights to see in the Many Glacier area require a hike so bring your hiking boots and bear spray.
Note: This road is undergoing construction work in 2020 and 2021 so expect delays and that some parts may not be accessible.
Glacier National Park is home to an abundance of wildlife. Get excited about the possibility of seeing bears, moose, wolves, mountain lions, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and rocky mountain elk.
While you never know when or if you’ll see any of these animals, you can increase your chances by visiting these locales in the park:
Bears: Early morning and evening hours are when you’re most likely to see a grizzly bear. They are elusive, but have territories all over the park. Black bears are often seen along St. Mary Falls Trail, though they can also be seen anywhere in the park. Always carry bear spray.
Moose: Fishercap Lake is a prime spot to see moose, sometimes even wading in the water.
Mountain Goats: There is a natural salt lick that attracts mountain goats a short distance from the Flathead River observation platform off of Highway 2 a couple miles southeast of the Walton Ranger Station.
Bighorn Sheep: Increase your chances of seeing Bighorn Sheep by hiking the Highline Trail or Grinnell Glacier Trail, visiting the Hidden Lake Overlook near Logan Pass, and around the Swiftcurrent area.
Though technically not right in Glacier National Park, a lot of people use this town as the gateway to Glacier National Park. It’s a charming mountain town with a rustic little downtown area, a gorgeous lake, and lots of nearby outdoor activities.
WHERE TO STAY IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
After partaking in all these things to do in Glacier National Park, you’ll likely be tired and want somewhere great to rest your head. Here is a quick guide to Glacier National Park camping and lodging.
There are only seven lodges that are actually inside the gates of Glacier National Park, and they vary in amenities and views. If you want to stay inside the park, be ready to book as soon as rooms open up a year in advance.
Click here for our Ultimate Guide to Glacier National Park Lodging, including a helpful chart for the lodges located inside the park!
Camping is also a popular way to spend the night in Glacier National Park, especially if your goal is to completely immerse yourself in nature. Glacier National Park has numerous campsite within the park, just be sure to check what type of permit you may need (if camping in the backcountry, that’s a different permit than staying at a campground). Like the aforementioned lodges, campsites within the park’s borders are all run by the park service.
However you decide to spend your time in Glacier National Park, one thing is for certain — bring a good camera and be ready to soak in all of the incredible views!