How to Have an Epic Family Vacation with Kids and Toddlers at Glacier National Park
I’ve written previously about doing a Montana road trip with kids and how I think the focal point of that road trip should be Glacier National Park.
Today, I want to focus more on just the park itself for families, and why Glacier National Park is a great family destination, along with what to do in the park that both kids and adults alike will enjoy.
Where to Stay with Kids in Glacier National Park
First off, let’s talk about where you should stay when visiting Glacier National Park. There are so many amazing places in Montana within a day trip’s drive to Glacier, that it might be tempting to stay farther away and assume you can easily drive there.
However, I highly recommend if Glacier National Park is a focal point of your Montana family vacation, that you should stay close to the park so you can be up and at the park early.
This is for two reasons.
The first reason is that the park’s main lots can fill up fast during peak season (which is mid-June through August).
The second reason has to do with the kids themselves: Glacier National Park is all about the hiking (besides a certain famous drive I’ll get to in a moment) and most kids are going to be happier hikers first thing in the morning while they’re fresher, less tired, and full of energy (at least…that’s my kids!!).
You can also stay right in the park if you plan early enough. The park lodges book up early, often a year in advance or more.
—> You can check out my guide here on lodging in and around Glacier National Park for more tips on where to stay, including a chart about the lodges and motels located within the park.
But if you want my top three picks right now for where to stay with kids when visiting Glacier National Park, here they are:
Isaak Walton Inn
Located in Essex, the Isaak Walton Inn places you right in the middle of convenience for Glacier National Park since you’ll be thirty minutes from both the west entrance and east entrances of the park, plus you’ll be close to Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Swan Lake, and Flathead Lake.
Kids will love that the Isaak Walton Inn is right by a working Amtrak station. The lodge itself is lovely and nice to stay in thanks to its family suite rooms, but to really “wow” your kids, book early to get one of the old railcars that have been converted into standalone units you can sleep in — some even have kitchens!
Whitefish Lake Lodge
I adore Whitefish and it’s a great place for families, plus it’s just a 20-minute drive from Glacier National Park.
The downtown area of Whitefish is charming and artsy and great for kids, plus it’s right by a historic train depot.
A couple miles away from downtown is Whitefish Lake, which is simply stunning in its mountain-framed beauty. Stay at Whitefish Lake Lodge for easy access to the lake, while a shuttle provides quick transportation to the downtown sights.
Lake McDonald Lodge
For a place to stay in the park, I chose Lake McDonald Lodge over the beloved Many Glacier Lodge on the east side because sometimes with kids…convenience is nice! At Lake McDonald Lodge, you can easily get to the serene beauty of the lakeshore, and it’s just a 10-minute drive from the Avalanche Lake trailhead.
In addition, there’s an onsite restaurant at Lake McDonald Lodge, and you’re a short drive or walk from Apgar Village, where there are ice cream shops and a pizzeria. There is also a watersports rental place in Apgar, perfect for a family outing of kayaking or standup paddleboarding along Lake McDonald.
Hiking With Kids and Toddlers in Glacier National Park
Now for those famous Glacier National Park hikes.
Hiking with toddlers and older kids can be an incredible, rewarding experience.
It can also be miserable and filled with whining — from both kids and adults alike, ha!
Therefore, if you’re not avid hikers as a family, stick to well-travelled trails. Most of these are known for being easier and you don’t need to worry about sheer cliff drops or being alone with just you and a grizzly bear for company and no other hikers around.
Some good family hikes in Glacier include:
My top pick! You start out on Trail of the Cedars (more on that next) and then begin hiking up the mountain at a gradual incline past roaring rivers and thick forests. The pinnacle point of the hike is the beautiful Avalanche Lake where you can sit on big logs while the kids play by the water’s edge.
Trail of the Cedars
This is a shorter trail along raised wooden walkways that is framed by beautiful tall pine trees as you cross over winding creeks and rivers. It is wheelchair-accessible in addition to being easy for little kids to walk along. Trail of the Cedars meets up with the Avalanche Lake trail for those planning to do a longer hike.
Hidden Lake Overlook
The trailhead for this is by the Logan Pass parking lot along the Going-to-the Sun Road. It’s steep at times, but kids will love this hike due to all the wildlife you’re likely to see along the way.
On the east side of the park, a great Glacier National Park hike for kids is the Virginia Falls hike. The trail takes you past two waterfalls: St. Mary Fall and then onto the impressive Virginia Falls.
What to Bring When Hiking in Glacier National Park with Kids
Even if you’re on the busy trails, ALWAYS have bear spray with you. This is the best way to protect your family if you encounter wildlife along the trail. You can buy some to have on-hand or rent some from the visitor center.
Bringing a baby or kid carrier with you on your hike will ensure your young child can nap comfortably and that you aren’t stuck carrying a child on your hip for part of the hike. You can also cover more ground.
When my children were babies, I preferred the Ergo Carrier for hiking.
As they got older, our Osprey worked great. My 2-year old slept in it the whole way down the mountain on our way back from Avalanche Trail!
If your toddler or preschooler is new to the world of hiking kid carriers, introduce them to it with some short hikes at home before your trip to Glacier so they don’t balk at being in it when you’re about to start hiking in Glacier!
And no, I don’t mean just healthy, protein rich snacks, though those are of course good to bring, too. No, when hiking with kids, you want some bribe-worthy snacks as well. For my girls, that’s chocolate or fruit snacks. You’ll no doubt know what will make your kids keep taking some more steps!
I’ve found that for older babies and toddlers, these yogurt melts work like a charm.
Also, be sure to keep snacks well-packaged in your day pack so they don’t attract animals, and try not to drop any crumbs. Plan ahead to pack all your garbage out with you.
Change of Clothes
Kids get wet. Hiking when cold is miserable. Enough said, right?! So, stick extra under layers in your daypack. And don’t forget a change of socks!
—> REI Brand baselayers for kids are great! They’ve been packed and put to use on many trips we’ve taken around Montana and beyond.
Lake Adventures to Have in Glacier National Park
Lake life is a great life for families, and in Glacier National Park, you’ll be privy to playing along the shores of some of the most breathtakingly beautiful lakes in the world.
Three that stand out for families (in addition to the aforementioned Avalanche Lake) are:
The largest lake in Glacier National Park is Lake McDonald. With mountains jutting up into the sky in the distance and colorful, smooth rocks along the shoreline, it’s a hit for photographers. It’s also the only lake accessible in the winter, thanks to Apgar Village being on its shoreline.
A clear, tranquil lake framed by massive mountain peaks in northwest Glacier. It’s a great place to try to spot a moose wading in the water.
A peaceful lake framed by majestic mountains, located near the St. Mary entrance in the Many Glacier area of the park. This is a great lake for hikers as there are many trails leading from and around the lake.
I also chose these three because they’re all easy to get to driving and so you don’t have to hike to them, though be aware that the road to Bowman Lake can be extremely bumpy and muddy — 4-wheel or all-wheel drive is best if you have it or can rent a vehicle with that option.
Family Snack Break on Way to Bowman Lake: A Yummy Treat in Glacier National Park
Bowman Lake is also just a short drive from one of my favorite family destinations in Glacier National Park: Polebridge Mercantile. Ok, technically this little store and cafe is right on the outskirts of the park, but if going there from Apgar, you’ll be driving through the park for part of the way.
It’s an interesting drive going from Apgar to Polebridge Mercantile since you’ll pass through the part of the park that was greatly damaged in past wildfires.
Seeing the new tree growth among older trees is beautiful in its own way and reminds you that forest fires are actually good for forests and part of a forest’s lifecycle, but only when they happen in a naturally occurring manner. It makes for a great science lesson to teach the kids on your drive to Polebridge Mercantile!
Ok, so about this Polebridge Mercantile. I wrote a whole post about Polebridge Mercantile here, but basically, I recommend it for families because the huckleberry bear claws are out of this world delicious and there is plenty of room to run around for the kids — there’s even a small outdoor play structure in the back.
If you’re looking to eat, the Northern Lights Saloon & Cafe right by the Polebridge Mercantile is also historic and a great option for lunch or dinner.
From Polebridge Mercantile, it’s nine miles to Bowman Lake. This lake is often less crowded than those closer to the main entrances, such as Lake McDonald.
One cool thing about Bowman Lake (in addition to its mountainous beauty!) is that this is a common place for moose to hang out, and if you have the chance to see an elusive moose while in Glacier, you and your family will never forget it! Just remember to keep your distance of course. Moose can be unpredictable.
Family Fun on the East Side
Alright, let’s move over to the east side of the park now and talk about the lakes there, plus the glaciers! Yes, no doubt your kids want to actually see a glacier while in Glacier National Park and the east side is where you’ll want to do it.
For families traveling with kids who want to see a glacier, but don’t want to do super long hikes, your best bet is Glacier Lake to see Salamander Glacier, or if your kids are used to longer hikes, keep going on to Grinnell Glacier.
From Many Glacier Lodge, there are boat rides across Swiftcurrent Lake and Josephine Lake each day during the summer months (weather permitting) that take you from Many Glacier Lodge across gorgeous Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes.
(Side note: If your family are a bunch of avid hikers, then you can also start the hike from Many Glacier Lodge instead of taking the boat ride, which saves you a few miles. My sister and brother-in-law did this with their 1-year old and said it was a great hike.)
Once you’ve crossed the lake, you can do a hike to Grinnell Lake and catch a glimpse of Salamander Glacier. Grinnell Lake has an incredible turquoise hue from the glacier water dripping in to it.
To see the awe-inspiring Grinnell Glacier requires a longer hike, but if your kids are up for it, it’s a memorable one!
(Quick note about 2021: This info for the east side is for normal years, aka not pandemic ones! If visiting this summer, carefully check what is and isn’t open. It’s possible the entrances for the east side won’t open this year. And even if they do, the boat rides to Grinnell Glacier may not be operating, and the restaurants and lodges may also have limited services, so plan accordingly.)
Going-to-the-Sun-Road: The Most Epic Drive to Do in Glacier National Park
Now you know there are amazing things to do with kids in Glacier National Park on both the east side and the west side, but how do you get between the two ends?
The answer? Going-to-the-Sun Road!
Going-to-the-Sun Road is the only road through the park that goes from the west side to the east side.
If open, this drive is a can’t miss. Just tell the kids no fighting or whining allowed since there are some white-knuckling parts of the drive for the driver.
If you don’t want to drive it yourself, the red buses are also an option (though double check if they are running in 2021). The red buses are more like cool large vans that have a reclinable roof and tour guides that are mesmerizingly knowledgeable about Glacier National Park and its history and wildlife.
There are also free shuttles (once again, double check they are running in 2021) that go from one end to the other with some drop-off/pick-up sites, but these don’t provide a tour guide or information about what you’re seeing (though most stops along the road have informational signs where you can read about the different sites in front of your eyes). These shuttles can also mean being in one stop perhaps longer than you wish, which can be more of a pain when you have kids with you, so make sure you read the timetables and take it all into account when planning your day.
The main stopping point along the Going-to-the-Sun Road is Logan Pass. If you’re lucky you’ll be there on a clear day and the views are astounding. This is also where you’re likely to see mountain goats, especially if you do that aforementioned Hidden Lake Overlook hike.
Enjoy Your Family Vacation at Glacier National Park!
However you decide to experience the wonders of Glacier National Park with kids, I would give yourself at least three days during your Montana vacation that is dedicated to Glacier. This way you don’t feel too rushed, you’ll have three mornings to enjoy and can even head back in the evening after a mid-afternoon nap.
With three days, though, plan on just exploring either the east side or the west side of Glacier National Park (besides what you’ll see of each side when driving Going-to-the-Sun Road). Though with kids, if you want to adequately explore both sides without feeling harried, try to give yourself at least five days in Glacier National Park.