Glacier National Park, Part 1 - Park Introduction

Every view at Glacier seemed to be more amazing than the one before.

Today I'm starting a 4 part series on our trip to Glacier National Park.  Each week, I'll be sharing  what we learned during this adventure.  I hope you will follow these posts and plan your own Glacier trip.  It is a bucket list destination, that I loved from start to finish.  So, how do you start planning a trip to Glacier and what do you need to consider?

We started out on trip at a fun deli on the way to Glacier.  Even the common mercantile had wonderful views of the mountain ranges to enjoy while eating.

Glacier National Park, Part 1 - Park Introduction

I want to fully disclose here that the prep and leg work of this trip was done by my sweet in-laws that live in Montana.  They enjoy outdoor excursions and are so much fun to travel with.  We could not have done with trip so authentically without their work and planning.  Sure, we talked about things we wanted to do, but we were pretty open to new things and just exploring what was available and open.

Timing is key when planning a trip to Glacier.  The high season for travel is typically late June through mid September.  Prices will be higher every where you go.  The tourist season is short, and every business has to account for that.  Just know this going into it and make a budget you can live with.  

Also, remember that any natural destination comes with exhilarating views and opportunities.   But nature doesn't always lend itself to our plans and itineraries.  Be prepared to regroup or have an alternate plan for days when the weather doesn't cooperate.  We had great weather with very little disappointment.  

On our way into the park on our first day at Glacier.  The mosquitos were no joke in the meadow look out!

East versus West

There is an East and West side to Glacier National Park.  We spent more time on the west side of the park.  It felt much more remote.  I loved everything about the west side of the park.  Having a vacation to just tap out and enjoy some time with our family was just what I needed.  Staying on the west side of Glacier allowed just that.  I'm so glad this is how our trip was planned.  

The East Side of Glacier has a lot more in terms of RV parks, lodges and restaurants.  Even with more access to conveniences, this is relative.  There is a limit to everything in remote locations.  But, it all comes down to the kind of experiences you desire.  I recommend visiting both sides of the park if you can do so.  Allow enough time.  The park is large, and you can't do everything in one trip.  Pick out some high lights and go with it.

There are 7 entrances to the park at Glacier.  First, define what you would like to do and plan around this.  It will help you determine accommodations, park passes and more!  

Hiking the Trail of Cedars was how we spent our 4th of July.

Plan in Advance

National parks are experiencing all time visitor records piling into these majestic destinations.  Start planning early to apply for park passes to coveted spots that you want to travel.  It is wise to plan for the things that you really want to do so that you can experience those.  You can wing it with other things that time allows for along the way that don't require passes and reservations.  But show up expecting to  gain access to every part of the park because you paid the general entrance fee.

Some of the things that were planned in advance and had passes for were:

Bowman Lake Trail is available through the Polebridge entrance.  You will need a pass to access this part of the park.  The Bowman Lake Trail is beautiful and less traveled.  Given this, get your bear spray ready just in case you need it and have it accessible outside of your pack.  We didn't see any bears because we were traveling with 3 children.  This was my favorite hike because we didn't have as much traffic, and the views were stunning.  It was worth the trip to this location.  The road was not paved going in and rather rough.  But, even the bumpy ride was worth the views.

The start of the Bowman Lake Trail was at the edge of the Lake.  We enjoyed putting our feet in the cold water after our hike.

We hiked along the edge of the lake on this lush edge of the forest.

Going to the Sun Road is the one thing that we missed on our trip.  You will need a pass!  Plus, check the regulations for vehicles and other traveling information.  Typically, the road is open from late June through mid September.  This year, it was still closed in early July.  While we were sad, we just did other things and moved on.  Mother nature just didn't have it in the cards for this trip, and it means we have to go back to do this part of the park.  The Sun Road is known for scenic views.  It is narrow and winding.  It is a slow drive.  So, plan to take your time and start early.  And, I hope to enjoy it myself when we return.

MacDonald Lake Tour is another way to experience the park.  This tour takes about an hour and can be scheduled well in advance of your visit.  Its a nice way to learn about Glacier National Park and see some additional views.  I felt like it was well worth the price.  Doing this at the end of the day was a nice way to wrap up a day of hiking in the park.  Afterwards, we sat and relaxed outside the lodge and sipped huckleberry margaritas.

Lake McDonald was a fun and relaxing way to enjoy the end of our first day in the park.

Trail of Cedars is located at the entrance of the Going to the Sun Road on the west side of Glacier.  We opted to do this hike on the 4th of July.  It was a beautiful hike but was also heavily traveled due to its location.  The sound of rushing water along the edges of the trail as you hike is amazing.  We didn't need a pass for this trail, but we had a pass for the Sun Road, and this is what lead us here.

The sounds of rushing water met us at every turn on the Trail of Cedars.

Tips for Planning Activities

This park is big!  Roads and travel can be slow.  Take this into consideration.  You can't plan an hour to go 60 miles.  Allow for enough time to get from end point to end point.  

Don't rush.  The views are majestic, and you may want to stop along the way as you go.  This is okay too!  A trip of this scale should be enjoyed piece by piece.  Don't feel like you need to pack in a full day every day.  Do what you enjoy and stop to just relax, smell the evergreens and breathe.  

Plus, hiking is something that I enjoy and is as easy or as difficult as you plan for it to be.  But, you can bike, take historic red bus tours, kayak, and more.  Take advantage of all of the outdoor activities that interest you and explore those options.  We were traveling in a group with small children in tow.   This was considered when planning trails and activities.  My in laws have biked part of the Sun Road.  This is a popular activity.  But, don't box yourself in to just one thing.

If you want a guided tour and would rather relax and enjoy the ride, schedule a tour on the historic Red Bus Tours.

If you are nervous about driving along the winding roads at Glacier, the Red Bus Tours can be a great way to experience the park.  These tours depart from both the east and the west side of the park at multiple pick up locations.  You can ride and enjoy the tour as opposed to driving.  However, these buses do hold up to 17 passengers and can be packed.  Consider this before booking a reservation and hopping on.  I don't think its a bad idea, but it may not be for everyone.  One thing that I do love about this option is that it does reduce the traffic on the roads by multiple users using one vehicle.  It is definitely better for the environment.  

With that being said, there is nothing wrong with hiking and picnicking along the way as your main excursion or choice.  A good hike is an amazing way to enjoy this park, and every trail provides new and different views and will never get old.  I was amazed at every turn!

I waded out into some very cold water to get this shot.  And it was worth it!

If you are a little more adventurous and want to take advantage of lots of different opportunities, consider renting gear while you are there and kayaking, paddle boarding or biking.  There are lots of outfitters that rent gear for visitors.  Places like Polebridge Outfitters rent these items and are knowledgeable about the area to help make these experiences fun and safe.  I enjoyed talking to the gentleman there about his experiences and things he enjoyed doing in the Polebridge area.  Email in advance and collect enough information to help you make informed decisions about activities that interest you.

We have done a river float more than once in Montana.  We did not do this on our trip this year, but I would highly recommend this if you get a chance.  It is a really fun way to take the slow "road" and soak it all in.  These can be done by inflatable rafts and innertubes.  

Finally, there are lots of people that enjoy fishing in Montana.  This is something completely out of my forte.  But, it is something that you can inquire about and try as well.

  • Think about what you want to do and plan early.  
  • Email and contact outfitting groups to ask questions gather all of the necessary information. 
  • Reserve gear and equipment early so that you can do the things that you want to do.  This is the kind of trip where you do actually need to have a plan going into it.  
  • This doesn't mean you can't adjust or do things on the fly once you get there.  But, have a plan so that you can make the most of your time.  
We adjusted several things due to the Sun Road being closed.  But that is okay.  It was amazing.  Every.  Single.  Minute!

Senior Passes

If you are 62 or older, you are eligible for a Senior Pass.  The $80 lifetime pass will allow you entrance to over 2,000 managed and recreational sites.  Use your age to your advantage.  This pass would pay for itself in no time if you are planning to travel to several destinations where the Senior Pass is accepted.  Our brother-in-law got his a couple of years ago and uses it quite a bit.  He used it on this trip! 

Where do you start?

The National Park Service has great planning resources to help you map out your journey. Start with the Things to Do.   If you want a sample itinerary based on our trip, I've constructed that as well.  

There is a Headwaters Podcast that is offered by Glacier National Park.  This might give you some ideas and pique your interest too.  

After you have mapped out your trip and time frame, what is next?  Next week, I'll share more information about where to stay while you are at Glacier.  We did a combination of both a cabin and tent camping.  But there are many more options.  

Until next time...happy camping! 

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