Glacier National Park Vacation on a Time Budget
The best way to spend a few days in Glacier National Park
Northwest Montana receives millions of visitors every year with the major attraction being Glacier National Park. With over 700 miles of trails, 762 lakes, 563 streams and 175 mountains crammed into a million plus acres, planning a short vacation to Glacier National Park can be a challenge. There’s just so much to see and do!
Some people make this their primary destination with plans to spend many days or weeks hiking, camping and exploring the park. Millions of others include Glacier in a multi-stop vacation visiting Yellowstone and other popular attractions. As a result, choosing what you want to see and do during a two or three day visit to this vast wilderness is problematic.
Choosing what to see in two or three days
One can spend months inside Glacier Park with breathtaking vistas in every direction and still only see a fraction of this beautiful treasure. If you have to cram your visit into just a couple of days, here are some suggestions that will give you the flavor of Glacier in the shortest amount of time.
Day #1: You cannot miss this…
One of the most popular and most convenient destinations inside the park is Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is one of the most magnificent scenic drives in the lower forty-eight; a 50 mile drive from the east and west entrances to the park. Virtually every stop along Going-to-the-Sun Road offers opportunities for stunning photo opportunities, hiking trails and inviting rest areas. There are many printed maps, podcasts, smartphone apps and CDs available that will guide you along your journey and alert you to points of interest and historical significance.
Logan Pass is approximately 32 miles from the west entrance to the park and is a popular stop for many visitors. The parking lot fills up quickly, so getting an early start is recommended. Keep your camera handy, Big Horn Sheep and Mountain Goats can usually be seen in the area, sometimes walking around the parking lot.
Logan Pass has a large visitor center staffed by park rangers and staff that includes information resources, books, maps and displays. There are two primary hiking trails that are guaranteed to please. The Highline Trail is a bit challenging for novice hikers or families with small children as it has some narrow paths with steep drop-offs, but it is one of the most popular trails in the park.
Hidden Lake Overlook is a 3 mile (round trip) hike that starts from the rear of the visitors center. Some of this trail is covered in a boardwalk to keep people off the protected green areas. The hike takes you through Alpine meadows with magnificent views and wildlife abounds.
The overlook at Hidden Lake is a spectacular panorama of mountains, pristine valleys and the beautiful Hidden Lake. From here you can continue down to the lake or retrace your steps back to the Logan Pass visitor center. The hike down and back will add a couple miles to your hike.
Head East to St. Mary
When you leave the Logan Pass parking lot, turn right on Going-To-The-Sun-Road heading toward St. Mary on the East side of the park. You will notice that the east side has a different look than what you saw driving up the west side of GTTSR. You will drive by many spectacular mountains, glaciers, hiking trails, scenic lookouts and your best chances for seeing bears is on the east side of the pass.
You will exit the park at St. Mary and this would be a good place to grab something to eat, fuel-up and do a little shopping before you take the next leg of the journey. From St. Mary, go left on Rt. 89 and follow it to “Babb, MT” (see map), a few miles down the road. Rt. 3 will be a “Y” in the road; take the left leg, which will lead you back to another entrance to the park at Many Glacier.
Rt. 3 is a beautiful drive, but the road is always in need of repair, so travel slowly. Although you can see bears anywhere in the park, the “East Side” is the place that seldom disappoints. As you pass Lake Sherburne, check out the meadows on both sides of the road and be on the lookout for bears. This is a favorite foraging area for both grizzlies and black bears. Anytime you see more than one or two cars parked on the side of the road, chances are they are watching bears in the meadow. Keep your camera handy.
Many Glacier Area
The photo at the top of this post was taken last year (October 2015) from the parking lot of Many Glacier Hotel. During the same visit, in addition to seeing 3-4 bears and sheep on this outing, a small herd came running down the road toward the hotel. Photo opportunities are everywhere.
Many Glacier Hotel is highly recommended as a place to stay and it would be a great place to finish up your first day at Glacier Park. If you are staying someplace else outside the park, you can retrace your drive to get back to the west entrance of the park, or you can head back to St, Mary and continue on Rt. 89 to Rt. 2, which will take you back to Kalispell.
Glacier National Park Wildlife
From grizzly and black bears to mountain goats, deer, moose and creatures of all sizes, there are 68 species of animals that call Glacier National Park home and 277 different bird and 24 fish species. I am not a professional photographer, but these photos of mine demonstrate the opportunities available to anyone with a camera.
Yesterday you spent most of the day driving Going-To-The-Sun-Road and exploring the east side of the park. Today I recommend that you head northwest to a remarkable little place called Polebridge, MT.
Polebridge is one of the last places in America that still has no electricity, and the people who live there year-round want to keep it that way. The Polebridge Mercantile is a local landmark where you can buy sandwiches and snacks, beer and soft drinks, but they are famous for their delicious baked goods.
Directions to Polebridge
You can get to Polebridge via two different routes. From inside the park, go left on Camas Rd. at the first stop sign after the west entrance (to the right is Going-To-The-Sun-Road). From there you will follow Camas Rd. (maybe 40 minutes) until it ends at North Fork Road and turn right heading to Polebridge. The other option is to pick up North Fork Road in Columbia Falls and follow it to Polebridge.
Outside of Polebridge is another entrance to the park, just follow the signs. This park entrance offers two outstanding options for sightseeing, hiking and camping, Bowman Lake and Kintla Lake. Both lakes have camping areas, but you will need to make reservations months in advance.
This is the closest lake to the park entrance accessible via a dirt road that can be a little challenging in rainy weather. Like all of Glacier Park’s lakes it is clear as glass and surrounded by beautiful mountains. The primitive campground is located near the shore and potable water is available through spigots at the campground. Additionally, there are public toilets available. Hiking is highly recommended.
Kintla Lake and campground is located in the upper most northwest section of the park. The drive is a dirt road and pleasant, but you’ll need to go slowly due to its twists, turns and bumpy conditions. This is the most remote front-country and car camping campground and it is very quiet and is very rarely filled. So, if you are having difficulty finding a place to camp, I guarantee you this is worth the drive.
Got an extra day or two?
If you are lucky enough to have more than two days to spend in the “Crown of the Continent“, your choices can actually become more complicated. There is just so much to see and experience in northwest Montana that one recommendation just gets better than the previous one. You might choose to keep it simple and return to Glacier Park for as many days as you have left. From the “Trail of the Cedars” (see video below) to taking a “Red Bus Tour” or other popular fun-filled attractions, Glacier offers enough things to do to keep anyone busy for a lifetime.
This part of the country is famous for its trout fishing, hunting and for having some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. As a result, towns cater to the millions of tourists that visit NW Montana every year. From Eureka to the north to Polson in the south, every town offers visitors a unique slice of Montana and a truckload of memories. A few examples include:
The town of Whitefish is a very popular skiing destination, but in the summer Whitefish Mountain Resort turns into a giant playground with things to do for the whole family. In addition to hiking or mountain biking beautiful trails high above the town, you can try the Zip Line Tour, rock climbing, the Alpine Slide, Walk in the Treetops, horseback riding and numerous activities guaranteed to satisfy your quest for adventure.
If Glacier Park is the “Crown of the Continent”, Flathead Lake is the crown jewel. The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi and rated in the top 1% in the world for water purity. The Flathead offers every water sport available from Lake Trout fishing to Flyboarding, boating, water-skiing and you can rent Stand-up-Paddle boards, boats, rafts and other water toys from many places surrounding the lake like Bigfork Outdoor Rentals.
One of the most thrilling adventures on Flathead Lake is boating over to Wild Horse Island and hiking the trails. In addition to magnificent views of the lake surrounded by majestic mountains, you can see the famous wild horses, big horn sheep, mule deer and other wildlife that live on the island year-round.
Come for Glacier National Park, but try to see more
Over ten million people visit Montana every year with a third of them traveling to the Flathead Valley. Glacier National Park may be the biggest draw, but there is something new to see or experience around every bend in the road. As an example, Libby Montana became famous this year with the release of the movie, The Revenant, which had some scenes filmed at the Kootenai Falls. The breathtaking beauty of northwest Montana is unequaled and will not disappoint. If your vacation is about fishing, floating, hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, having fun and relaxing, you cannot do better than making the Flathead Valley of northwest Montana your destination.
Owner/Editor of the Flathead Guide