After our last trip in July 2018 to Glacier National Park, it may now be my favorite national park (Zion was before). It could be that we just happened to time it perfectly and were blessed with clear skies and warm weather or it could be that I had just forgotten how incredibly striking the mountains and lakes in the park are. Either way, a trip to Glacier National Park should definitely be on your bucket list. Here are some tips to help you plan and make the most of your time in Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park Tip #1: Orient Yourself
The majority of hikes and attractions you will see on your first trip to Glacier N.P. lie in a triangle, with Apgar on the southwest side, St Mary’s on the east side, and Many Glacier on the north-east end. While there are 13 campgrounds in Glacier, the four most popular are Apgar, Avalanche, St Mary’s, and Many Glacier.
Glacier National Park Tip #2: Drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road
The drive from Apgar to St Mary’s is called the Going-to-the-Sun road and it is a must do when you visit Glacier. While you can easily drive your own vehicle, taking the free shuttle allows you to relax and enjoy the views more. (See shuttle info below).
Note that the section from Avalanche campground to Logan Pass, has vehicle restictions. Your total vehicle length including trailer must be 21 feet or shorter and no wider than 8 feet.
The Going-to-the-Sun road closes in the winter due to snow and typically reopens at the end of June or early July. You can check the road status here.
Without stopping, it will take at least 2 hours to drive the entire 50 miles of the Going-to-the Sun Road. You absolutely must stop and take in the views at Logan Pass!
The Apgar, Logan Pass, and St Mary’s visitor centers all have restroom facilities, trip planning information, bookstores, drinking water, and exhibits.
There are no gas stations in the park so make sure you fuel up in West Glacier. In addition, the only food options along the drive are at Rising Sun, Lake McDonald Lodge, and Apgar Village. There are many picnic areas along the way, however parking in the midle of the day can be limited.
In general, you should arrive in Glacier N.P. prepared because there are not many food choices and once you are in, you won’t want to leave. There are a few restaurants in Apgar Village, but we never eat at those since the food is crappy and it’s too expensive for such a large family. I did however appreciate that the market in Apgar Village sold cold beer and at a very reasonable price!
Glacier National Park Tip #3: Go to Logan Pass
Logan Pass is the highest point on the Going-to-the Sun Road at 6,646 feet. It’s 32 miles from the west entrance and 18 miles from the east entrance. Finding a parking spot here between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. is very difficult (see shuttle info).
Logan Pass is where our favorite hike the Highline Trail begins from. There is another nice, and much shorter/easier hike from here called Hidden Lake Overlook that has gorgeous views and is great for younger kids. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep are often seen from here.
Glacier National Park Tip #4: Use the Shuttle
Using the shuttle system is a great way to see the park especially if you have a vehicle that’s too long to go on the Going To The Sun Road. The shuttle runs from July 1 to Labor Day.
Whether you are camping in the park or have accommodation outside the park, if you want to avoid crowds I highly recommend getting to the park visitor center early because the line for the shuttle as well as the crowds on the trails can get pretty bad by 9 a.m..
If you are trying to do a long day hike from Logan Pass, I recommend getting on the express service shuttle to Logan Pass which begins @ 7:00 a.m at Apgar Visitor Center and runs direct to Logan Pass every 15 minutes until 8:00 a.m.. If you are not going to Logan Pass, you’ll have to wait for the 8:00 a.m. shuttle from Apgar visitor center.
Glacier National Park Tip #5: Camping in the Park
It takes a lot of time to get into the park if you stay in West Glacier and especially if you stay further out in Columbia Falls, Kalispell, or Whitefish.
While I love the cute town of Whitefish and totally recommend staying there a few days before or after, but if you want to get the most out of your stay in Glacier NP, camp in the park.
Camping in the park is not only gorgeous, but it puts you close to the shuttle service which will save you time and get you on your hikes earlier when the trails are less crowded, plus you get better photos in the early morning light.
Most of the campgrounds are first-come-first-serve but fill up quickly so try to get there before 10 a.m.
The good thing is that once you get a site you can stay there for for up to 14 days from July 1 to Labor Day (and 30 days the rest of the year). Camping fees are $20/night. This is very helpful if you decide to arrive in Glacier at the last minute (like we tend to do) and don’t have reservations.
You can check this website for up-to-date information on which campgrounds currently have spaces available. Note: We didn’t have any cell service in the park so it’s a good idea to check campground availability when you are in Columbia Falls or West Glacier so you know which side of Glacier to drive into.
There are no hookups in any of the campgrounds, but Apgar, St. Mary’s, and Many Glacier do all have a dump and water filling station.
It’s easy to tent camp here as there are many water faucets throughout the park and each bathroom (which has flushing toilets) also has a gray water dumping station.
Most campgrounds allow you to run your generator from 8-10 a.m., 1-2 p.m., and 5-7 p.m. The following campsites do NOT allow generators at any time:
- At Sprague Creek Campground,
- In Loop C in Fish Creek Campground,
- In sites 49-84 in the Rising Sun Campground,
- In sites 86-100 in the Many Glacier Campground,
- In Loop A of St. Mary’s,
- And sites 1-36 in the Two Medicine Campground.
RVs and truck and trailer combinations are not recommended at these campgrounds:
- Bowman Lake,
- Cut Bank,
- Kintla Lake,
- Logging Creek,
- Quartz Creek,
- and Sprague Creek.
Glacier National Park Tip #6: Finding Showers
The only negative in my opinion of camping inside the park is the lack of showers.
There are showers available to the public at Rising Sun and Swiftcurrent Campstores for a fee. Rising Sun is near St Mary’s and Swiftcurrent and is within walking distance from Many Glacier Campground.
The St. Mary’s and Fish Creek campgrounds have free token operated showers only for guests staying at those campgrounds (token can be received for free from camp hosts).
Glacier National Park Tip #7: Apgar Campground
Apgar campground is the first campground you get to when you enter from the West Glacier side and is adjacent to the visitor center which is the major pick up/drop off location for the shuttle that takes you to all the major trailheads.
One nice thing about Apgar is that it can accommodate larger RV’s and trailers (up to 40 feet).
For ease of trailhead access and to enjoy Lake MacDonald, I recommned trying to stay 2 or 3 nights at Apgar if you can.
Lake MacDonald is great for boating, water skiing, canoeing and fishing, but keep in mind that the water is very cold. We also enjoyed the bike paths surrounding the Apgar campground and that it was a short walk to Apgar Village for drinks, snacks, or supplies.
Glacier National Park Tip #8: Avalanche Campground
This is a first come first serve campsite and has the benefit of being close to the trailhead of Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake, both of which are good hikes for younger children.
Note that only 50 sites will accommodate vehicle lengths up to 26 feet and that there are fewer ammenities here.
Glacier National Park Tip #9: St Mary’s Campground
St Mary’s campground is reservable 6 months in advance through this website.
St Mary’s campground sits on the northeast side of park, past the Going-to-the-Sun Road. While it does provides a shuttle up to Logan Pass, one of the absolute best parts of visiting Glacier National Park is the Going-to-the-Sun Road so you’re not going to want to miss out on this scenic highway.
To see the Going-to-the-Sun Road, you can take the shuttle from St Mary’s to Logan Pass and then change shuttles to ride down to Avalanche and back up in order to see the views.
Driving Times to St Mary from West Glacier:
Via Going-to-the-Sun Road: 50 miles, 2 to 2 1/2 hours
Via US Hwy 2 to Hwy 89: 90 miles, 2 to 2 1/2 hours
Glacier National Park Tip #10: Many Glacier Campground
Half of the campsites at Many Glacier are available for advance reservations through Recreation.gov at least 3 days in advance. The other half are first-come first-serve.
If you like getting off the beaten path and are looking to be closer to some backcountry trails, or are hoping to see a bear, then this is the campground for you.
There are about 600 black and 300 grizzlies in G.N.P and your odds of seeing one are a bit higher on this side.
Trailheads start at a higher elevation than those on the west side of the park, resulting in a shorter ascent to reach scenic vistas.
- Most campsites and driveways are very small and will not accommodate towed units over 21 feet.
- A limited number of sites can accommodate towed units 26 to 30 feet.
- Many campsites will not accommodate camper slide-outs.
Driving Time to Many Glacier from St Mary’s:
20 miles, 30-40 minutes
Glacier National Park Tip #11: See an Interpretive Programs + Join the Junior Ranger Program
Though we refer to these presentations as junior ranger programs, they are great for adults too.
The campgrounds and the visitor centers will have a calendar listing the talks the rangers will be doing each night.
I am always impressed with the presentations and highly recommend making time to see one.
If your child wants to get a junior ranger badge, they will need to attend one of these interpretive programs and get thier workbook signed by the ranger at the end.
Glacier National Park Tip #12: Do an Epic Hike
For a short hike (about 4 miles round trip), do Avalanche Lake, Hidden Lake overlook, and St Mary’s Falls.
A few years ago we did the long 12 mile RT hike to Grinnell Glacier and our minds were blown with how gorgeous it was. This time we opted for the Highline trail and we were even more impressed with this trail because it takes you high above Grinnell Glacier and gives you view of all the mountains surrounding the park as well as three alpine lakes. It is not an easy hike and you can get all the details about the hike here.
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If you have questions, please let us know in the comments.