Megan Elizabeth (Senior Wilderness Expert)
Feb 14, 2019
The Interliner's Guide to Glacier National Park

You have the world at your fingertips as an airline employee, but some of the most life-changing places yearning to be explored and discovered could very well be within your own backyard. Whether you need an escape from your real world routines or you want to experience the raw, natural beauty of America, let ID90 Travel be your guide as we offer advice and trip guides for traveling to the sacred wild places in the U.S. National Park System.  

WELCOME TO THE CROWN OF THE CONTINENT

First up: Glacier National Park, which became America’s 10th National Park on May 11, 1910. Located in Northwest Montana, Glacier National Park was ranked the 10th most visited National Park in 2017 of the 59 parks within the system. The main driving route through the park is the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 53-mile long paved road that winds and turns its way through the park and crosses the Continental Divide at an elevation of 6,646 feet. Construction of the road was completed in 1932 and park visitors can opt to drive the road themselves, take a ride on the free shuttle, or partake in a guided bus tour for a small fee. Whether you want to play on the many lakes, take a hike, or hang in a hammock, Glacier has something for everyone. In this guide we will prepare you for your trip by providing local airport information, lodging and camping recommendations, as well as activity guides based on length of stay. Because this park is the 12th largest of the 59 National Parks, we’ve designated the campsites, lodging locations, and trail recommendations based on which side of the park each resides. If you want to stroll among wildflowers, witness wildlife in its natural habitat, and swim in glacial lakes, then come play in Glacier.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

When to Visit

Glacier National Park is open year round, but can often be bombarded with snow in the off-season winter months, so we recommend checking the National Park Service website for the most up-to-date information regarding road and trail closures as you plan your trip. Keep in mind that midweek flight loads tend to be a little lighter in this region as tourists plan week-long stays in Glacier that begin and end on a weekend. Tourist season starts in May and peaks from June - September. Expect snow and colder temperatures by October through April. 

Admission Fees

7-Day Permit by Car, $30.00

Single Entry, $15.00

America the Beautiful Annual Pass, $85.00 Unlimited admission to America’s National Parks, valid for 12 months from the date of purchase. Rule of thumb: if you know you will visit three National Parks (or one NP three times) this year, just buy the annual pass to save some dough.

2019 Fee-Free Days, FREE Mark your calendars, because Glacier National Park participates in fee-free days throughout the year. Fair warning: expect heavy traffic! January 21 - Martin Luther King, Jr. Day April 20 - First Day of National Park Week August 25 - NPS Anniversary September 28 - National Public Lands Day November 11 - Veterans Day

What to Pack

If you’ve never adventured outside, don’t fret -- there’s no need to burn through a few hundred dollars at an outdoor retail shop to be prepare for your trip. Here’s a list of must-have items to amply prepare you to take on the wild, known as the Ten Essentials to those more seasoned wanderers. We’re willing to bet you have most of these items at home already; however, in case you don’t, we’ve provided retailers in the Glacier NP region to purchase any items you forgot, don’t have on hand, or that are prohibited from flying with you.

  1. Navigation: map and/or compass. You will not have cell service in the park. Stick to clearly marked trails or take guided hikes with a park ranger if you choose to not have these items. You will receive a park map for free upon entering the park, but note that individual trail maps are not available unless you have purchased or printed them in advance. We recommend the Hike734 map created by Jake Bramante, a local Montanan who became the first person to hike every mile of trail within Glacier in just one summer. You can purchase his waterproof maps for $11.95 at local shops within the area or visit his website. The map makes an incredible keepsake that is both practical and pretty. We also recommend using the Chimani app for iOS and Android, a park guide that can be used offline with your mobile device. The app sorts park sights and activities into easily identifiable categories to ensure you get the most out of your Glacier National Park experience. You can download the app by visiting the Chimani website.

  2. Sun Protection: sunglasses, hat, and sunscreen. You’ll be hiking at elevation, so you will be closer to the sun than your skin is probably used to experiencing.

  3. Insulation: layers and rain gear. You’ll be playing in the Rocky Mountains, which means unpredictable weather can strike at any time. A rain jacket or reusable plastic poncho should suffice if you run into an unexpected rainstorm. Pack a moisture-wicking garment or two to help keep you dry and comfortable in the sun. In case of a cold front, be sure to pack a couple of long sleeved garments or a warm jacket -- it’s called Glacier Country for a reason.

  4. Illumination: flashlight and/or headlamp with extra batteries.

  5. First-Aid: if you don’t have a full kit, just stock up on some bandages, gauze, adhesive tape, and disinfecting ointment, especially if you’re clumsy like me.

  6. Fire Starters: only pack if you plan to camp. Note that fires are only allowed in the park at certain campsites, assuming that there are no fire bans in place at the time. Also note that one cannot fly with “strike anywhere matches.” Disposable and Zippo lighters, as well as standard matches, are permitted in your carry-on bag.  

  7. Pocket knife: note that a pocket knife is not permitted in your carry-on baggage. Obviously.

  8. Nutrition: bring snacks for the trail and if you plan to camp overnight, be prepared with the necessary food and items to cook your meals. If you’re bringing a camp stove, note that you can’t fly with the fuel in your carry-on or in your checked luggage.  You will have to purchase the fuel upon landing.

  9. Hydration: always bring at least one bottle of water and be sure to hydrate frequently. The general rule of thumb for hiking hydration is one liter of water per two hours of hiking. If the weather is calling for warmer temperatures, you’ll want to have one liter of water per one hour of hiking. 

  10. Shelter: obviously if you’re planning to camp, you’ll be bringing the necessary gear to set up a comfortable campsite. Packing an emergency space blanket is recommended to help keep you warm in case of emergency while you’re hiking, but you can also pack a large trash bag as an alternative to the space blanket.

In addition to the Ten Essentials of Backpacking, adventurers should also consider the following items when traveling to Glacier National Park:

  1. Bear Spray. This is bear country, so do not attempt hiking in this region without bear spray. This item is considered a hazardous material and cannot fly with you under any circumstance. If you’re staying at a hotel or local campground, they will likely have spray you can borrow or rent for your adventure, or you can purchase your own bear spray at local retailers. You can also rent cans of bear spray at Apgar Village in Glacier National Park. As a friendly reminder, always make noise when you’re hiking. Clap your hands and yell “Hello” to bears every 100 yards or so to ensure you don’t surprise one of these fluffy (yet deadly) creatures. Check out the How to Use Bear Spray video, created by Janet, a SkyWest employee and 2019 ID90Travel Ambassador.

  2. Bug Spray. We don’t want you to spend your mountain-escape-time escaping the region’s bugs and insects.

  3. Camera. Even if you’re just going to be using your cellphone, we promise you will want to have photographs from your adventure in Glacier. You may consider buying a charging case to ensure you don’t run out of power while you snap those Instagram-worthy landscapes and selfies.

  4. Binoculars. This one isn’t a necessity, but if you happen to have a pair lying around then you should definitely pack it. Wildlife abounds in the park and binoculars are a splendid addition to have in your pack if there happens to be a moose or bear sighting during your visit.

  5. Carabiner. Don’t spend big money on an actual carabiner for climbers. Just buy a couple “fashion” ones at a local retailer so you can clip items to the outside of your pack for easy access (hats, bear spray, etc.).

  6. Comfortable pack of some kind. Whether it’s a backpack, a bonafide hiking pack, or an oversized satchel, you’re going to need a durable bag to house your water, snacks, camera, bear spray, and other gear items.

  7. Deflated inner-tube. Glacier is known for its incredible lakes that you are welcome to splash around in at your leisure. If you don’t want to spend money on a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard rental, bring your own water toys to enjoy.

  8. Watershoes or shoes/sandals that can get wet. Sure, Glacier has plenty of beaches… but the beaches are all made up of colorful river rocks and stones. Watch your step, or just wear comfortable shoes that can get wet without getting ruined to protect your precious feet.

  9. Toilet paper. Yes, this is definitely something to pack or purchase upon landing. Outhouses, restrooms, and pit toilets are available within the park, but always be prepared in case nature calls at an inconvenient time, or in case the bathrooms don’t happen to be stocked. But please, for the sake of the wildlife, don’t litter the trails with your toilet paper! Bring a ziplock bag to store your waste until you can dispose of it properly. Pack it in, pack it out. If you answer nature’s call while out on the trail, always remember to stay at least 200 feet from water sources, campgrounds, and the trail. Urine contains salt that, believe it or not, wildlife wants to enjoy. Gross, but cool. To maintain safe trails, you must maintain safe distances when using nature’s natural facilities.

Local Outdoor Retailers

Sportsman and Ski Haus 145 Hutton Ranch Rd. Kalispell, MT 406-755-6484 Army-Navy 2140 U.S. Hwy 2 E, Kalispell, MT 406-756-3500

The Toggery     327 S. Main St. Kalispell, MT 406-755-1500   122 Central Ave. Whitefish, MT 406-862-2271 REI 2270 Highway 93 North, Kalispell, MT 406-755-4839 Rocky Mountain Outfitter 135 S. Main St. Kalispell, MT 406-752-2446  

GETTING THERE

Montana is the fourth largest state in the United States, so we have provided the five closest airports to Glacier National Park entrances. We've also provided the airport code, the city in which the airport resides, and the distance from the airport to the park entrance, as well as the commercial airlines and rental car vendors that service each airport.

FCA - Glacier Park International Airport

Kalispell, MT 24 miles to West entrance Airlines: Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, United Car Rentals, In Terminal: Avis, Budget, Hertz, National/Alamo Car Rentals, Off Terminal: Dollar, Enterprise, Thrifty

MSO - Missoula International Airport

Missoula, MT 132 miles to West entrance Airlines: Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, United Car Rentals, In Terminal: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Thrifty Car Rentals, Off Terminal: Dollar

GTF - Great Falls International Airport

Great Falls, MT 156 miles to East entrance Airlines: Alaska, Allegiant, Delta, United Car Rentals, In Terminal: Alamo, Avis, Enterprise, Hertz, National

YYC - Calgary International Airport

Calgary, Alberta, Canada 187 miles to East entrance Airlines: AeroMexico, Air Canada, Air North, Air Transat, Alaska, American, British Airways, Central Mountain Air, Delta, Hainan, KLM, Sunwing, United, WestJet Car Rentals, In Terminal: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Thrifty Car Rentals, Off Terminal: Discount, Driving Force, Economy, Nu, Routes, Drive

*Important Notices: a. Don't forget the Golden Rule of #NonRevLife: pack your passport. b. Calgary International Airport is located in CANADA. c. YYC is only 90 miles to Canada's famed Banff National Park, which is a solid backup plan if you opt out of the 187 mile drive to Glacier National Park.

HLN - Helena Regional Airport

Helena, MT 200 miles to East entrance Airlines: Alaska, Delta, United Car Rentals, In Terminal: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, National, Car Rentals, Off Terminal: Enterprise  

STAYING THERE

Hotels/Motels

Why do we love ID90Travel so much? Because of the steep discounts. A quick search reveals that ID90Travel users can save a minimum of 20% off per night when booking through the app or website in the Glacier National Park region. Remember that most tourists book their Glacier vacations one year in advance with peak months running from July through September. Some tourist folks may have to cancel due to extenuating circumstances, so if you can't find availability through the app, go old school and call each hotel for availability. Don't forget to tell them you work for an airline and ask for the ID90Travel rate.

Lodging within Glacier National Park

Within the park itself are other lodging options that can be booked via telephone (855-733-4522) or online. These rooms are typically booked six months or more in advance, so always ask about cancellations when checking availability. 

West Side: Granite Park Chalet (note: this lodging requires a 4.2 - 7.6 mile one-way hike to reach this chalet, depending on your starting point within the park) Lake McDonald Lodge Motel Lake McDonald Village Inn at Apgar

East Side: Many Glacier Hotel Rising Sun Motor Inn and Cabins Swiftcurrent Motor Inn

Camping

​Still can't find a room to book? No problem. Glacier National Park is home to hundreds of campsites (1,212 to be exact), most of which are booked on a first-come-first-served basis and a handful that can be booked in advance. Click here for the latest information about campsites and availability. Camping fees within Glacier National Park vary from $10-$23 per night during the summer season. Bring cash, as the first-come campsites require payment in an envelope dropbox.

Two Medicine Campground

Book in Advance Campsites 

West Side: Apgar (book-in-advance for parties of 9+) Fish Creek

East Side: Many Glacier (has some first-come-first-serve sites) St. Mary

First-Come-First-Serve Campsites 

West Side: Apgar Avalanche Bowman Lake Kintla Lake Logging Creek Quartz Creek

East Side: Cut Bank ​Many Glacier (has some book-in-advance sites) Rising Sun Sprague Creek Two Medicine

Backcountry Camping

All backcountry camping permits are handled through the National Park Service. For information about reserving a backcountry campsite, please visit the NPS website.

 

ACTIVITIES AND DAY GUIDES

The park boasts a variety of activities for all skill levels. With over 1,000,000 acres of land to explore, the park can easily feel overwhelming when you arrive, but don’t panic. We took the guesswork out of your itinerary by testing the most worthwhile sights to see based on your length of stay within the park.

One Day in Glacier People plan week-long adventures here and still don’t get a chance to see everything. Heck, people spend their entire lives here and still don’t get to see it all. If you only have one day to explore this luscious land, here’s the best way to see as much as possible on a crunched schedule.

  • Drive Going to the Sun Road and
  • Hike to Hidden Lake Overlook at Logan Pass or
  • Hike to Avalanche Lake
  • Catch sunset or stargaze at Lake McDonald

If driving along a road that borders giant cliffs makes your heart race a little too quickly for comfort, you can opt for a Red Bus Tour, which offers you a comfortable ride in a vintage 1930’s open-top bus with a human guide to tell you all about the park’s rich history, foliage, and wildlife. 

If you're feeling adventurous, then buckle up, buckaroo. Get up early to drive Going to the Sun Road in its entirety. This stretch of road is an expansive 53-miles long with views literally around every turn. Plan for this round trip adventure to take almost a full day all on its own, as the road has plenty of pull-offs along the way for photograph opportunities, hiking, and the ability to enjoy all the sights Glacier has to offer. Stop at Logan Pass to hike Hidden Lake Overlook, which sits atop the Continental Divide at an elevation of 6,647 feet. The hike is a quick 2.8 mile round trip trail with an impressive view. You can hike all the way to Hidden Lake too if you feel up to a 5.4 mile roundtrip hike. Logan Pass is the bonafied halfway point along the road and serves as the middle ground between the West and East Side of the park. Once you cross to the East Side, be sure to pull-off at Wild Goose Island for an unbelievable view and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Bears and moose are frequently spotted in this area. Follow the thin trails through the brush and relax along the beach that sits just beyond the treeline.

If you only have time for one trail when you visit Glacier, Avalanche Lake is the must-see experience. The trail is rated as Easy/Moderate because of its 4.5 mile round trip length and a few points of steep elevation gain, but don’t let that make you think twice about completing this hike. Rest assured that this trail is child-friendly and have confidence in your body. You’ll see water that is glacial-blue, cascading dramatically over cliff walls and rocks, and you’ll be able to dip your feet (or whole body if you’re brave enough) into the crystal clear Avalanche Lake that is cold year-round thanks to the surrounding glaciers. Although this trail is the most frequented within the park, bear sightings happen fairly regularly so remain alert. 

As your day comes to a close, stop in at Lake McDonald to catch the sunset. The best places to enjoy the views and waters of Lake McDonald can be found by following the signs to Fish Creek, Apgar Visitor Center, or Sprague Creek, or utilize one of the pull-offs along Going to the Sun Road just west of Lake McDonald Lodge. When the water is calm enough, the peaks reflect into the water like a mirror. That view is so spectacular that you may notice goosebumps appearing across your skin. If you get to the lake early, you can rent paddle boards, canoes, and kayaks in Apgar Village to enjoy at your leisure. If you get to the lake late, no worries. Just look up and enjoy the free show in the sky of glowing, shooting stars. You may even see the Milky Way or the Northern Lights. 

Two Days in Glacier

Since you have an extra day to play, we’re going to suggest you spend some extra time exploring the East Side of the park. That side is far less crowded and offers a more rugged environment to unleash your wild side and get a little more intimate with the park’s offerings. Warning: you’re gonna get dirty and sweaty.

Day One 

  • Hike to Grinnell Glacier or
  • Hike Lake Josephine loop and
  • Hike to Apikuni Falls

We still recommend waking up early to hit the road, but we want you to make a pitstop at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, which is located on the East Side near the Many Glacier Hotel. This trail is the most popular of the glacier-viewing hikes within the park and for good reason. You can hit the trails with two options in mind: You can complete the 10.3 mile round trip moderate hike by beginning at the trailhead, or shave some time (and miles) off your journey by taking the boat tour for a fee across both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, for a total of 7 miles round trip. Start early and bring plenty of water for this hike. This hike offers views of Grinnell Glacier and Salamander Glacier, with the surreal sight of emerald waters in Upper Grinnell Lake.

If you’d prefer a more mild hike, we suggest completing the 4.9 mile loop around Lake Josephine. The trailhead for this hike can be found near the Many Glacier Hotel. Park in the hotel’s parking lot and head towards the south end of the hotel along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake. Keep your eyes peeled for moose sightings and other big game that frequent the area. If you plan on completing this loop, we also recommend visiting Apikuni Falls on your visit. This is a 1.6 mile round trip trail that is worth the effort, with the trailhead located just before the more heavily populated Many Glacier area.

Day Two

  • Drive Going to the Sun Road
  • Hike to Avalanche Lake
  • Sunset or stargazing at Lake McDonald

After some serious miles on the trails in Glacier, we invite you to finish your round trip journey on Going to the Sun Road. Once you reach the West Side, we still highly recommend hiking to Avalanche Lake if you have the energy. But if you'd rather pause for a swim or paddleboard session on Lake McDonald to finish up your two-day journey, hey, we support that too. You've more than earned a little rest and relaxation after the miles you put in. 

Three Days in Glacier

 

If you’re lucky enough to have three days in this hiker’s paradise, then strap on your boots and get ready to pack in the miles. This three day itinerary will provide you with two days of heavy hiking that is evened out by one day of relaxation on the lake.

Day One

  • Hike to Grinnell Glacier
  • Relax by Swiftcurrent Lake

The hike to Grinnell Glacier is a must-see recommendation from the Two Day Itinerary, but it’s truly a must-see for anyone visiting Glacier with the time to hike the 10.3 mile round trip trail. Start early to avoid too much sun exposure, and be prepared for incredible views of wildflowers, meadows, and glaciers. You’re going to be exhausted after this hike, so we recommend a low-key evening on Swiftcurrent Lake to take in the views and a chilly dip in the water.

Day Two

  • Hike to Iceberg Lake and/or
  • Hike to Ptarmigan Tunnel

The hike to Iceberg Lake is absolutely stunning, especially during the magical glow of sunrise. The trailhead for this 9.6 mile round trip moderate hike is located near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Turn right immediately after the Inn and follow the road to the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Tunnel Trailhead. This hike has everything from meadows to waterfalls and steep cliffs to keep you intrigued. When you reach Iceberg Lake, you’ll be met with an emerald lake of floating icebergs. If you dare brave the cold water, you are welcome to swim to, and literally chill on, the icebergs.  

Time permitting, we also recommend hiking the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail if the tunnel is open, which is dependent upon bear activity in the area. The 240-foot man-made tunnel is usually open mid-July through October 1. The first 2.7 miles to Iceberg Lake shares the trail route to Ptarmigan Tunnel. If you’re going to be putting in those miles anyway, you may as well see two insane views, right? The total trail distance to Ptarmigan Tunnel is 10.5 miles roundtrip and is considered a strenuous trail due to its distance and elevation gain, but the hike definitely feels fast thanks to the beautiful scenery that will surround you. You’ll reach Ptarmigan Lake, which is a great place to rest and have a snack or swim before the most grueling part of the hike: two switchbacks that gain a total of 400 feet in 0.6 miles. We promise the views on the other side of the tunnel are well worth the effort here, as you’ll see a vast array of colors in the valley. You’ll also see stunning views of Elizabeth Lake, as well as Old Sun Glacier, which sits atop the 10,004 foot tall Mt. Merritt.

Day Three

  • Visit Polebridge Mercantile
  • Relax by Bowman Lake

Go sit down and relax. Right now. Set up a day-camp of relaxation at Bowman Lake, one of the less-visited lakes in Glacier. You will encounter some rough and bumpy dirt roads to get there, so be sure to take your time and savor the views you encounter. We promise the view is worth the effort, just be gentle with your rental car! The approximately 35 mile drive to Bowman Lake takes about 1.5 hours and there are no amenities along the way for gas, so plan accordingly. Packing all the food, snacks, and drinks you’ll need is absolutely necessary for your day on this particular lake.

We recommend taking the Outside North Fork Road route, which begins from Apgar Village in Glacier’s West Side. You’ll take Camas Road northbound to the Camas Creek Entrance of Glacier, where you’ll take a right turn. Congratulations, you’re now on North Fork Road that will take you to Polebridge and eventually to Bowman Lake. We highly recommend stopping in the Polebridge Mercantile, a bakery known for its huckleberry bear claws. Get one (or four). The shop is a staple if you’re passing through town. You’ll follow the dirt road to the Polebridge Ranger Station and follow the signs to Bowman Lake. The road gets really “fun” from here on out, so beware of blind corners and narrow roads. Once you arrive at the lake, sling up your hammock, go for a nice swim, or simply enjoy the view and peaceful environment.

 

THANKS FOR VISITING!

Whether you had one day or an entire week, Glacier National Park is bound to leave an infallible impression on your spirit. From her cascading peaks to her emerald glacial waters, the beauty found and experienced here is truly like no other place in the entirety of North America. You’ll look back on your photographs with nostalgic memories of a magical escape that you’ll want to return to again and again.

 

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