Plus 10 Tips for Your Trip to Glacier National Park!
Whether you’ve dreamed of going for years or only just heard about it, Glacier National Park should definitely be on your bucket list. Many people are curious about what to do in Glacier National Park and how to optimize a short trip to the park. Read on for 8 amazing things to do in Glacier National Park and my top 10 tips to maximize your visit. Feel free to use the table of contents to jump around.
Glacier National Park Things to Do – 8 Amazing Experiences in West Glacier National Park
1. Walk the Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail
One of most popular and easy walks in the park is the Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail. It is an easy 1 mile loop trail with a boardwalk, so it is wheelchair accessible. We did the walk on a cold rainy morning and found it very refreshing. It even has a lovely view of lower Avalanche Gorge! The trail includes Western Red Cedar Trees, which can live over 1,000 years, and Black Cottonwood trees.
Important tip! Note that since this trail is easy, and since it is connected to the Avalanche Trail hike (which takes several hours), parking here is very scarce. Many people were parking far away after the parking lot filled up and then walking to the trail. The first day we were in Glacier National Park, we tried unsuccessfully multiple times to find parking. The next day we only found parking since the weather was poor enough that one person decided to leave. Despite the weather, multiple people desperate for parking asked us if we were staying or leaving every single time we stepped out of the car!
2. Hike to Avalanche Lake
If you are up for a challenge, take the moderate hike to Avalanche Lake. It is a four mile round-trip hike that climbs 500 feet and is connected to the Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail. Much of the hike was uphill. The hike was lovely, with the intermittent babble of the creek and with all the trees and eventually rock cliffs. Although my husband and I weren’t in the best shape, the hike was manageable. We came upon other hikers, but not an excessive amount, so the hike was pretty peaceful.
Avalanche Lake is absolutely stunning regardless of the weather and one of our top 5 favorite moments in Glacier National Park. I’ve seen summer pictures and how gorgeous it is in the sunlight, but even on our visit during Labor Day Weekend, the rain, snowflakes, and mist added a sense of mystical magic to the tranquil setting. In the distance, thin waterfalls from the hidden Sperry Glacier cascaded down the cliff. Avalanche Lake’s water was so clear and pristine. This hike definitely rewards you with one of the most beautiful and Instagrammable spots in the Glacier National Park. Be sure to take a romantic or meditative walk on the shore around the lake. I also found that the rocks and logs offered some prime opportunities for Instagram shots.
3. Drive Going-to-the-Sun Road
Our Drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road was incredible and hit all the scenic spots. This is the way to drive through the park and see beautiful scenery from your car and to access scenic lookouts. The road is narrow and a steep climb, with occasional scary sections of the road. Be a cautious and defensive driver, as some parts of this breathtaking road do not have guardrails, and make sure you have a reliable vehicle with enough gas.
Be sure to stop by other scenic points along the drive, especially Jackson Glacier.
Important Tip: note that vehicles that are over 21 feet long (including bumpers) or else over 8 feet wide (including the mirrors) are prohibited from driving Going-to-the-Sun Road between Avalanche Creek and Rising Sun.
4. Visit Going-to-the-Sun Point
This is a great scenic location with multiple attractions and one of the better outhouses in the park, and easily-accessible, epic views. We did a little hiking at the Sun Point Nature Trail. If you go right at the fork in the trail, you can hike to Baring Falls, a cute waterfall with painted rocks. If you take the trail further, you will also get to St. Mary’s Falls, which is gorgeous from pictures I’ve seen.
When you reach that initial fork in the trail, if you go left, you get to Going-to-the-Sun Point, which has an epic view of St. Mary Lake. We actually sat down on the rocks to enjoy the early morning sun and meditate.
5. Photograph Wild Goose Island
Stop at the scenic outlook to photograph Wild Goose Island. This tiny island is surrounded by St. Mary Lake and flaked by mountains, so it looks absolutely stunning.
Fun Fact: if this iconic place looks familiar, aside from seeing it on Instagram, you also might have seen it at the very start of The Shining if you’ve seen that classic horror film.
6. See Lake McDonald
This is one of the park’s most easily accessible areas and probably the place you’ve seen the most often in advertisements and social media. The lake’s famous colored rocks are plastered all over Instagram. Lake McDonald is a huge lake that you come upon early on in the park. Some people kayak or float on the Lake. At bare minimum, you have to dip your toes in the water and see the pretty rocks up close. Many photographers like to capture sunrise or sunset at Lake McDonald. If you plan on using any floatation devices, they need to be inspected first. Stores, restrooms, and more are available in Apgar Village. There also are multiple scenic overlooks / access points to McDonald Lake along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
7. Drive to Bowman Lake
If you have a good vehicle and are up for a bumpy drive to a heavenly location, then Bowman Lake should be on your to-do list for Glacier National Park. Drive past Apgar Village and continue taking the road Northwest. You’ll pass through some Nature Exhibits in the Park as well as eventually pass a Glacier National Park sign at the Camus Creek Entrance to the park, which is actually the ideal location to take a picture since it is much less crowded than the sign at the park’s main entrance.
After exiting the park, the pavement ends. The road is rough, but not terrible. For a while the pavement resumes, and you’ll drive through gorgeous forests and meadows that are primarily private property, until you reach Polebridge.
Past Polebrige is the road to Bowman Lake. Follow the signs that direct you to Bowman Lake. It is a winding road with potholes and blind curves that can at times be narrow and even a little scary when there are oncoming vehicles or impatient drivers behind you. I highly recommend bringing an AWD or 4WD vehicle, but a Kia Optima behind us managed to make the entire trip, although their sedan seemed to struggle a little at times. Bowman Lake was ultimately one of our favorite locations since the crystal clear lake is flanked by the dramatic and gorgeous mountains. It truly is like heaven on earth.
We used Google Maps to direct us to Bowman Lake. Basically, you pass Apgar Village and take Camas Road for 11.4 miles, and then you continue on N Fork Road for 12.9 miles until you turn right toward Polebridge Loop. At Polebridge Loop you continue to Glacier Drive, then turn left onto Inside North Fork Road, and then turn right onto Bowman Lake Road for 5.4 miles.
Important Tip: not only can you get to Bowman Lake from Polebridge, but you can also access Kintla Lake.
8. Try the Sweets at Polebridge Mercantile
If you go to Bowman Lake, you pass by Polebridge Mercantile. Don’t neglect to stop there for some yummy desserts and souvenirs! We really enjoyed their popular huckleberry bear claws and their other desserts! There also was a restaurant in Polebridge that we didn’t try.
Top 10 Tips for Glacier National Park
See below for my top 10 tips for Glacier National Park. These are suggestions to take into consideration to maximize your experience.
1) Go As Early as Possible.
To avoid running into parking issues at the most popular places, like Logan Pass Visitor Center or Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail, get to Glacier National Park as early as possible, ideally before sunrise, to find parking at the location you want to hit up first. We drove Going-to-the-Sun Road for the first time before Sunrise, which was a little scary, but ultimately paid off since we got to beat the crowds and drive back down at a leisurely pace. If this isn’t your thing and if it’s possible, you could always get your park map and spend a few hours scoping out the park on a late afternoon before your first full day in the park.
2) Use the parking dashboard.
I’m not sure if it was due to the pandemic or if it is a normal occurrence, but we were turned away from the park multiple times the first afternoon we tried to get there. Also, a couple of the places we wanted to hit up always had full parking. One of the most useful tools you can utilize, especially for a location like Bowman or Kintla Lake, is to check Glacier National Park’s Recreation Access Display dashboard, which will show which parking lots are full, the time they filled up the day before, and which campgrounds are full or closed. If I had known about this valuable tool ahead of time, it ultimately would have helped me strategize better during our trip.
3) Don’t Park in Weird Places.
This should be obvious, but we actually saw a lot of people park in narrow nooks and crannies along Going-to-the-Sun Road, and ultimately all of these cars got ticketed.
4) Follow All Posted Rules and Leave No Trace.
Be prepared to carry trash with you and don’t steal the colored rocks or other items.
5) Be Aware of Dangers.
Glacier National Park has a lot of wildlife, so it is important to be aware of and prepare for hazards like bears. Bring bear spray with you and properly store your food. Consider wearing a bell and make enough noise during hikes to be safe. Posted signs in the park also warn that the number one cause of death in Glacier National Park is actually drowning, so the signs are urging people not to climb over rails or do other dangerous stunts.
6) Plan Ahead and Have Backup Plans.
Glacier National Park can have inclement weather, so always have rain gear and warm clothing in the car, or else dress in layers. On our second day in Glacier National Park, we actually couldn’t drive most of Going-to-the-Sun Road since almost the entire road was closed due to expected snow and high winds. So try to have contingency plans or alternate ideas in case disappointments like this pop up.
7) Take your picture with the Glacier National Park Sign in the West side of the park.
As noted before, if you enter Glacier at the West Entrance Park Headquarters, the entrance is very busy and congested. Drive Camas Road until you reach the Camas Creek Entrance, and there you’ll find it much easier to get your picture by the Glacier National Park sign.
8) Stay Near the Park
When we visited Glacier National Park, we stayed near Flathead Lake in an Airbnb the town of Polson to save money. Although it was nice staying in a small town, it added a grueling extra hour to our driving time and took us through tons of extra miles where there was the risk of deer walking onto the road. It meant getting up even earlier in the morning to catch the sunrise, and it meant guzzling lots of caffeine in order to stay alert and drive back after a long day of adventure. If you can save up extra money before your trip to stay in or near the park, or if you can camp, I’d highly recommend staying as near the park as possible to enhance your trip. One place that has since been highly recommended to me is the Izaak Walton Inn, a unique place I haven’t had the pleasure of staying at yet.
9) Avoid Highway 486.
When you are near the Camus Creek Entrance to Glacier National Park, you might be tempted like I was to take Highway 486 to Columbia Falls. I highly recommend avoiding it unless you have a really good AWD or 4WD vehicle. The road had extremely bad washboarding.
10) Plan your visit during the right time.
Unfortunately, snow closes most of Glacier National Park. Usually Going-to-the-Sun Road doesn’t open until the June or July due to all the work that goes into plowing the road. However, you can visit Lake McDonald year- round as 10 miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road are maintained during the winter.
Glacier National Park is truly a beautiful park. Many people seem to only care about Yellowstone National Park, but it is a crime to skip out on seeing Glacier National Park. I hope you found these top sights and tips helpful, and stay tuned for future updates. For a quick recap of some of the sights, see my microblog on Glacier National Park.