“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” -John Muir
At the beginning of our national parks journey, I was told many times that I should wait and visit Glacier National Park last. It’s so breathtaking it will make other national parks pale in comparison. I found distinct beauty in each national park we visited so I didn’t truly appreciate what people were saying until we visited Glacier National Park. Each national park is unique in its own way, but I also understand why people told me to wait. What you will see in Glacier is natural beauty on steroids! :)
Views along the Going To The Sun Road @Glacier National Park
We originally planned for a 2 week trip to cover Glacier NP, Banff and Jasper NP. Our plan was to fly into Calgary airport, drive to the east side of Glacier NP and spend a few nights there to explore the east side of the park, then go to the west side, before driving north back into Canada to explore Banff and Jasper. Unfortunately, the Canadian border and the entire east side of Glacier Park was closed due to COVID. We thought long and hard about cancelling the trip but in the end, we decided to visit Glacier NP and Whitefish Lake. Even though the east side was closed, we saw quite a bit. If I were to do it again when the park is fully opened, I would spend all 9 days 8 nights exploring just the park. There is just so much to see and so little time!
As mentioned in my previous posts, it’s imperative to understand the park before booking lodging. Glacier NP is divided in 5 areas: Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, North Fork and Goat Haunt, St Mary/Logan Pass and Two Medicine. I recommend you split your stay between the east and west side of the park. On the west side of the park, you can explore Lake McDonald, North Fork and Goat Haunt, and Logan Pass. From the east side, you can explore St. Mary, Many Glacier and Two Medicine. Just to give you an idea, it takes about an hour from West Glacier to Logan pass and about 2 hours to St. Mary; Apgar Village is about 20-30min from the West Glacier and depending how far north you go on the North Fork Road, it could take an hour or more. I would plan for activities by area. The map below will help orient you to the park.
Glacier National Park Map via NPS
We flew into Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) located in Kalispell which is 30miles (about 30-40min) from the west entrance of Glacier National Park and 12 miles from the town of Whitefish. The airport is small, and the car rental counters are a few steps from the gate. It’s very convenient to fly in and rent a car. After renting the car, we headed to the nearby SuperWalmart and picked up a cooler, bear spray, bear bells, and groceries before heading to our lodging. We split our lodging between 3 sites: Glacier Under Canvas (3 nights), Lake McDonald Lodge and Cabins (2 nights) and The Lodge at Whitefish Lake (3 nights).
We loved our stay at Under Canvas which is 10 minutes from the west entrance. This location has a picnic tent set up with tables and grills, so you can have a cook out with your family. That was quite convenient. We picked up hot dogs/burgers and kept them in a cooler. There are outdoor fire pits, and they provide S'mores for anyone who wants to make them. They offer coffee/tea 24/7 and can even have coffee/tea/chocolate delivered to your tent in the morning as early at 6:30-7am. The staff is very friendly and helpful. You should keep in mind that this is still “camping” so don’t expect the typical 5 star luxury resort amenities. The bed is very comfortable. For a family of 4, the suite is very spacious. If you have a family of 5 or even 6, you can request a cot or two for a small fee or you can get the tent with an adjacent "hive" (teepee) which has 2 twin beds. Each tent has a wood burning stove which is more than enough to keep the tent warm. The hive doesn’t have a wood burning stove, and can be cold at night and early morning -so layer up. They provide a sleeping bag if requested. Under Canvas normally has a restaurant on site that offers dinner/breakfast but due to COVID, it stopped this service. They still give pre-packed breakfast and for a charge, you can get pre-packed lunch boxes.
Outdoor picnic area set up and play area @Glacier Under Canvas
Our stay at The Lake McDonald Lodge and Cabins was just "ok." We stayed in a cabin which is very small. Maybe the rooms in the main lodge are better. There is a restaurant onsite that you can get dinner and drinks. There is a small beach area, a dock for boating/kayaking and a small grocery store. If I were to stay inside the park on the west side again, I would rather stay at Apgar Village location. There are many more activities to do and a nicer beach area on Lake McDonald. The view of Lake McDonald is better from Apgar Village.
We spent a last couple days at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake which is amazing and a nice way to end the trip after "roughing it." It’s about 20 min from the park so you can stay here and drive into the park. We didn’t because we want to minimize driving. This hotel offers many water activities like kayaking, canoeing, jet skiing, or boating. It has a coffee shop, poolside tiki bar, and two restaurants. There are plenty of nearby activities as well that can keep you busy for days. The Whitefish downtown area is charming and has lots of good restaurants and shopping. I do recommend spending a couple days in Whitefish if your schedule allows.
We drove from West Glacier to Going to The Sun Road and made our first stop at Logan Pass Visitor Center. As the name implies, the drive is breathtaking. I felt so satisfied to be immersed in such beautiful scenery. One thing to remember is that Going to The Sun Road only opens for a few months in the summer. When we were there, the road was opened from mid-July to the first week of September. I’d say the trip to Glacier National Park won’t be complete if you can’t drive the Going to The Sun Road. So, plan your travel time accordingly
Logan Pass Visitor Center is an excellent spot to stop regardless of whether you like to hike or not. It’s wheelchair accessible and has an amazing view with frequent wildlife sightings. We saw many mountain goats here. Behind the visitor center is the trailhead to Hidden Lake. We wanted to hike to Hidden Lake, but unfortunately, the trail was closed due to grizzly bear activity. The trail was closed a week before we arrived and was probably to remain closed for another 3-4 weeks. Even though we couldn’t hike the Hidden Lake Trail, you can stand at the trail head and still appreciate the expansive view of the mountains. The parking can be challenging here because it’s a very popular stop. If you approach it from the west side, there is a little parking lot right before you reach the visitor center. I would park there if you see any open spot. From this parking lot, there is a path that will take you to a viewing area which I recommend you check out. The view is spectacular with the occasional mountain goats roaming about. From here, it’s a very short walk to the visitor center.
(1) Hidden Lake Trailhead (2) Mountain goat @ Logan Pass Visitor Center ( 3) Mountain goat roaming at the overlook right before Logan Pass Visitor Center
We ended up doing Highline Trail instead. The trail head of the Highline Trail is directly across the street from the Logan Pass Visitor Center. The Highline Trail is absolutely awesome and should not be missed. It’s the best hike that we did in Glacier, and perhaps the best hike we did of all the 18 national parks we’ve visited. I would be happy to hike this trail over and over again. The Highline Trail is definitely intimidating at first due to length and level of difficulty. It’s a 14.9 miles round trip with 2,578ft change in elevation. Yes, you heard it right, 2,578 ft. This was why I didn’t plan on doing it. Once we started the hike, we couldn’t stop. Every turn you take is another gorgeous view inviting you to explore further. Before we knew it, we were 3.5-4 miles in. We would have kept going, but didn’t plan for a long hike, so had to head back. We completed about 7-8 miles total on this trail. You will see rams, mountain goats, and deers roaming about, sometimes parking themselves right on the trail. I do have to warn you that the beginning of the trail can be scary for little kids or someone afraid of heights because you have to walk along the edge of the mountain while holding on to a rope. It sounds scary, but really not that bad. Don’t let this discourage you from hiking this trail. Another thing to remember is that you can trek as far or as little as you like. You can turn back anytime. I hope one day we can go back and do this whole trail.
Highline Trail @Glacier National Park
We did a combined Trail of the Cedars as well as Trail to Avalanche Lake. It’s a total 6.7 miles round trip with 757ft elevation. The trail is well shaded and has some steep inclines. As long as you take your time, you shouldn’t have any problem tackling this trail. The first 0.5 miles is along a wheel chair accessible wooden path. This will take you to a view of a gorge. From there, you can either loop around and go back to the parking lot or you can veer left and head on to Avalanche Lake. Bring a bathing suit, lunch and lots of drinks/snacks for this trail. Along this trail, my daughters loved to stop and play around the rocks/water stream. As you make it to the lake, there is a large open beach area and good spot for photo op, but I wouldn’t station here. After taking pictures, if you keep going pass this open beach area, you will find a few spots on the left of the trail that are more secluded. We spent most of our time at these secluded spots for our lunch, enjoying the view and rock skipping. You can view the waterfall in the distance. You can still swim but it’s pretty cold as the water is from melted snow.
(1) Trail of The Cedars (2) Avalanche Gorge (3) Avalanche Lake @Glacier National Park
We started our 3rd heading to Jackson Glacier Overlook. It’s a quick stop for viewing of the Jackson Glacier. We wanted to hike to St. Mary and Virginia Falls so we spoke to the ranger who recommended we take the trail from Jackson Glacier Overlook to St. Mary/Virginia Falls. I did part of this trail and had to turn back after the suspension bridge because there was a grizzly mama bear with her cubs just hanging out in the middle of the trail. The trails are covered with tall bushes as tall as my 9yr old. I would recommend AGAINST taking this trail to Virginia and St. Mary Falls. Even with bear spray, we didn’t feel comfortable hiking in the tall bushes. You wouldn’t be able to spot a bear even if it was there.
(1 & 2)Jackson Glacier Overlook (3)Suspension bridge (4)The trail to Virginia Falls from Jackson Glacier Overlook @Glacier National Park. Bushes are pretty tall pass my kids' shoulders.
On this trail, you can visit Deadwood Falls which is about a 2.9mile round trip with 626 ft change in elevation from Jackson Glacier Overlook. It located right before the suspension bridge. We hung out here for a while for lunch and the kids enjoyed it. You can walk right up to the waterfalls. Our kids played in the water for a while. Though the water was cold, we were so hot from hiking uphill it was a refreshing relief. If you have time, I think it’s a nice stop especially with young kids.
Deadwood Falls @Glacier National Park
This was our second attempt to visit Virginia and St. Mary Falls. The parking lot at St. Mary trail head is small and always seems full. We drove to the next parking lot and luckily, we found a parking spot. If this parking lot is full as well, you can try the next parking lot which is the Barring Falls trailhead. It would add another .5 mile, but you get to see another waterfall. We hiked to St. Mary Falls and continued to Virginia Falls from there. This is about 3 miles round trip with 452 feet in elevation. We got to the trail head around 10:30-11am and I must say it was pretty hot hiking down. The first part of the hike was through an area of burned down trees from a previous fire. You will be exposed to sun and I therefore recommend hats. The view of St. Mary Lake along the trail is beautiful. When you reach St. Mary Falls, there are areas where you can sit and have lunch. I saw quite a few people jumping from the boulders, but based on their hollering, the water must have been freezing. This is glacier cold water. We then continued our hike to Virginia Falls. You can hike all the way up to the fall and it was cool. My daughters loved to stand in front of the falls and feel the mist. After hanging out there for a while, we followed the trail back 1000ft, where you will see an area that takes you to the lower part of the water falls and streams. That’s where we spent most of our time before hiking back. It’s a nice area with shallow water where our kids enjoyed playing. There are many big rocks which make a nice seating spots.
(1)St. Mary Falls (2)Virginia Falls (3) Area below the Virginia Falls @Glacier National Park
We drove to Apgar Village with hopes to rent kayaks and spend time on Lake McDonald. Unfortunately, all the kayaks were rented out. I recommend making a reservation in advance if you want to do this. We would have loved to kayak on Lake McDonald. In this area, there are hotels, restaurants, water sport rental offices and a beach area. If you have to stay inside the park, this location is better than the Lake McDonald Lodge and. We ended up just hanging out at the beach. We met a friendly local couple who let us use their grandkid’s kayak. My eldest daughter got to kayak on Lake McDonald. Apgar Village is a good place to get gifts, coffee, ice cream, etc.
Lake McDonald @Apgar Village
We just relaxed at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake and explored the downtown area. This hotel will provide transportation to take you to town and back, so you don’t even need to drive your car. This is a ski resort town in the winter, so you can drive to the ski resort and take the lift up for a scenic tour in the summer. They also offer a wide range of activities like biking, zip line, alpine slide, adventure parks or summer tubing. You can find more information here https://skiwhitefish.com/summer/
@The Lodge of the Whitefish Lake
1. Download GOOGLE MAP OFFLINE. The internet service is limited to none inside the park.
2. Use the National Parks App. This app is great because it gives you a general idea of different trails and attractions at the park. It also gives description of the trails, their level of difficulty, and whether it’s family friendly or not.
3. Remember Glacier National Park is BEAR COUNTRY!!!! Bear Spray, Bear Spray, and Bear Spray. Go in a group! Make noise! Keep the children between adults. We bought bear bells at Walmart and put them on our backpacks. I would NOT let the kids run off a head of you.
4. Must Bring: sun screen, bear spray, binoculars, camera, water shoes, and lots of snacks
5. Even with our 5 full days at Glacier NP, we still only explored parts of the park. There are so many spots that we were unable to visit because of either time constraints closure due to COVID (the entire east side of the Park was closed) or bear activity.
6. Book lodging early if you want to stay inside the park. Most people make reservation 8 months to a year out.
7. Make sure you visit in the summer so the Going to The Sun Road is open. It’s usually open from mid-July to the beginning of September.
8. The weather is unpredictable so bring layers, lots of layers. The weather was perfect for us during the day hiking, but it did get cold early in the morning and at night
9. We ended our trip staying at the Whitefish Lodge which was a nice treat! I always plan a day or two at the end of trip to unwind. Our national parks trips involve lots of hiking, so it's nice to end your trip hanging around a pool and enjoyed hot meals. The Whitefish downtown was super cute and walkable.
10. Last but not least, there is just not enough time to see all in any national park. It's good to choose some highlights of the parks and allow some downtimes especially when you travel with young kids. We have modified our plan all the time. For some kids like ours, they would be just happy spending hours playing near a water stream.