My family and I are planning a week adventure to Glacier National Park. With our travel restricted to the United States and big cities off the list, this felt like may be the perfect destination. Alpine glaciers, pristine lakes, 734 miles of hiking trails - it is often called The Crown of the Continent and covers two mountain ranges and more than 1 million acres.
Photo Credit: Justin Pritchard
There are many smaller airports that could work but the easiest is Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell Montana. This is just 12 miles from Whitefish, the main town just outside of the park.
Our plan is to spend 3-4 nights in Whitefish at The Lodge at Whitefish which is fashioned after the great park lodges and also offers condominiums or luxury home rentals. Located just outside of Glacier National Park, you are perched right on Lake Whitefish where you can launch a kayak or paddleboard directly from the marina. The Lodge also has great options for hiking with the Whitefish Trail just 2 miles from downtown. Mountain Biking, Fly fishing, and even great golf is all easy to access even without venturing into Glacier National Park.
Whitefish is a great home base. The Lodge at Whitefish has a sister property located right in downtown called Firebrand Hotel. The two offer a shuttle that runs between the properties making it easy to go into town for dinner. The town's historic railroad depot is still a working station with great history. Montana Coffee Traders makes a great cup of coffee and seek out a table at Cafe Kandahar to try the locally raised buffalo and Elk.
photo: Ruben Van Wijngaarden
Most visit Whitefish to venture into Glacier National Park. The park offers many different basic accommodations but they fill up fast. While none of the in-park offerings will be on the same level as The Lodge at Whitefish, you will be inside the park and therefore not waiting at the entrance. I think it works well to combine your stay - part inside and part outside - if you are not excited about the more rustic accommodations. Go ahead and pre-purchase your visitors or vehicle pass online in advance and know that arriving very early at the entrance is the best way to avoid the lines.
The 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road connects the East and West entrances of the park and is a natural start to exploring Glacier. Driving takes about 2 hours to go from start to end. The highest point of the journey is Logan Pass at 6,646 feet, where many stop to explore (and hopefully see Bighorn sheep!) so know that often the parking can be full between peak hours. Apgar Visitor Center, Logan Pass Visitor Center, and St. Mary Visitor Center are all located along the road and offer restrooms and park information. While the Glacier Park Shuttle Service is not going to be operating in summer 2020, you can still access the audio tour with information on each stop.
We plan to spend our first half of the trip in Whitefish and then spend 3 nights a Lake McDonald Lodge, one of the Glacier National Park Lodges. Designed as a classic Swiss Chalet Lodge in 1913, it is situated 10 miles into the park from the West entrance on Going-to-the-Sun Road right on the largest lake inside the park. They offer a main lodge plus cabins - rustic, but you are here for the location.
For one night, we plan to hike to Sperry Chalet. The trail leading to the outpost begins right at Lake McDonald Lodge and the trip is 5.8 miles. This is one of two outposts you can hike to in Glacier but it is the more approachable than Granite Park Chalet. Sperry Chalet offers full restaurant services making it an easy option. (Note: no alcohol is allowed in the dining room so it might be worthwhile putting a bottle of wine in your bag to enjoy in your room later in the evening.) There are no showers here so a short stay is probably all you need. Reservations are very difficult so be sure to arrange this far in advance.
Be sure to check out the Glacier Junior Ranger program for kids. Booklets are available from the park visitor centers at Apgar, Logan Pass, and St. Mary. When you complete at least five activities from the booklet, take it back to any visitor center to have a ranger check your answers to receive a badge. The National Park Service offers tons of great resources for learning about glaciers, wildlife, native american culture, and more online. These would be great to review with your kids in anticipation of the trip.
The final piece to our trip - and a must for anyone exploring this area- is a tour with Sun Tours to explore the native history and culture of the Blackfeet Tribe ancestral homeland. The owners of Sun Tours worked with the park service to introduce visitors to the history of the Blackfeet Nation directly from lifetime residents of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. This is also a great thing to talk through with kids. Work continues by the Blackfeet Tribe to better the connection for tourists visiting and an interesting topic to explore in advance.
A trip to Glacier can be combined with so many other adventures in this part of the world. Heading up into Canada is an easy option (in normal times - not summer 2020) with Banff just a six hour drive and Jasper just beyond that. You can also combine this trip with one of the many outstanding ranch properties in Montana. We also have partners that can help you manage all of the details, take you to lesser-known trails, navigate the entrance crowds if you would prefer to leave the details to local guides.
Remember that July and August are peak times for visiting so you will need to have some patience. You are likely to encounter congestion and long wait times around parking lots, visitor centers, and entrance stations. Many of the most popular hikes also see lots of people. Let us help you with a guide who can identify some less-popular options if you really want to avoid the crowds. You can check out the webcams set up by the NPS to get a bit of insight into the crowds at a particular time and place. And remember, travelers that enjoy trips the most are flexible. Keep your options open and be ready to revert to a plan B. The resources available online and in visitors centers can be great for pivoting.