Your Guide to a Glacier National Park Road Trip
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It's known for one of the prettiest drives in the United States, but you can also see 26 glaciers—and a whole lot more—on a Glacier National Park road trip.
A Glacier National Park road trip is ideal for those who want to admire some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes, even if just out the car window. Even better is getting out into that wilderness on a hike, bike ride, or, in the winter, for some fabulous skiing.
Where is Glacier National Park?
“Where is Glacier National Park?” is a frequently asked question since there are two: one in Canada (in British Columbia) and one in the United States (in northwestern Montana). It’s even more confusing because the American Glacier National Park is paired with Waterton Lakes National Park, a Canadian national park just across the border in Alberta (it’s north of Glacier’s eastern section). The two together are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. If you plan to visit more than one national park or historical site this year, make sure you look into getting a National Park Pass.
The history of Glacier National Park
Noah Clayton/Getty ImagesKnowing the history of a destination helps you plan your trip and understand what you’re looking at while on the road, and though these rare vintage photos of America’s national parks give you a glimpse into that, they certainly don’t tell the full story. Indigenous peoples lived in what is now Glacier National Park since at least the time of the Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. The lands that became the national park were not empty and uninhabited when it was established in 1910—the Blackfoot (Niitsitapi), Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai nations were among those who first lived there.
After becoming a national park in 1910, Glacier National Park grew—in a way—in 1932. That’s when the U.S. park and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park were united to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The 1931 proposal to create the joint park was “intended not just to promote peace and goodwill between nations, but also to underscore the international nature of wilderness and the cooperation required in its protection,” according to Parks Canada. It’s the first park of its kind in the world, uniting two national parks in two different countries. The two parks together are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the ideal Glacier National Park road trip includes visits to both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the International Peace Park.
What to see and do in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park has a fitting name, as the park has 26 glaciers in addition to a million acres of stunning mountains, valleys, waterfalls, meadows, and lakes. The National Park Service details the various places to go and all the things you can do in the park, as well as provides advice about weather-related closures. For example, you can take a day hike or a backpacking trip on the 700-plus miles of hiking trails, or go biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fishing (no license is required), swimming, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and boating. The area in and around the park also has several museums.
Plus, spotting wildlife is always a possibility in national parks. Among the animals that live in Glacier National Park are bighorn sheep, mountain goat, bear, elk, moose, deer, and coyote. If you’re planning other U.S. road trips, you might want to know about the strangest animals found in each state.
How to get to Glacier National Park
For a road trip to America’s Glacier National Park, situate yourself on a map by looking to northwestern Montana, just south of the Canadian border. You can take a road trip into the park from major centers like Spokane, Washington (a five-hour drive from the park’s west entrance, at West Glacier), from Montana’s Missoula or Great Falls (under three hours, depending on which entrance you choose), or from Canada.
If you’re coming from farther away, you have two options if you want to keep your road trip within and near the park. You can fly into Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana, near Whitefish; it’s about a half-hour drive to the West Glacier entrance. Or you can take Amtrak’s Empire Builder line, which stops at four stations convenient to the park. (A note for your return trip: Not all stations sell tickets.) The main train station is in the town of Whitefish; you can walk to some hotels from East Glacier and Essex stations, and the accommodations near West Glacier station are about two miles away. Love train trips as well as road trips? You’ll want to check out the most scenic train rides across America.
The best road trip in Glacier National Park
You can go to Glacier National Park for a day trip, for the weekend, or explore into its deeper corners on a weeklong road trip. Highway 2 is the fastest east-west way to get across the park, but traffic, wildlife, weather, and the spectacular views can slow down the drive beyond what would otherwise take a couple of hours. Trips going north-south will take longer.
Every Glacier National Park road trip needs to include a drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road—it’s known as one of the most beautiful drives in the country. However, keep in mind that you can only drive the whole thing in the summer after the snow has melted. It takes at least two hours to drive this 50-mile stretch of road that crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. You’ll see waterfalls, forests, valleys, and snow-capped mountains, and you can get photos of a glacier from the Jackson Glacier Overlook. You’ll also likely spot mountain goats and bighorn sheep, since they’re often near Logan Pass.
It’s much easier to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and take photos when you don’t have to do the driving. Take a mini Glacier National Park road trip via the free Glacier National Park shuttle service along Going-to-the-Sun Road. There’s even a free downloadable Going-to-the-Sun Road audio tour. For photo inspiration, check out these spectacular photographs of America’s national parks that will leave you awestruck.
Where to eat in Glacier National Park
via tripadvisor.comKeep in mind that many restaurants within the park are seasonal and open only during the busy summer season, not necessarily at other times of the year. Pack your own food and drink accordingly. When dining at area restaurants, look for huckleberries, trout, and bison on the menu.
Near the western park entrance, try Cafe Kandahar in Whitefish or Moose’s Saloon in Kalispell. Near Lake McDonald, check out Jammer Joe’s Grill & Pizzeria, and in Apgar, Eddie’s Cafe & Mercantile. In East Glacier, the Whistle Stop Restaurant and Two Medicine Grill are solid picks.
Many road trip routes will take you past Stoney’s Kwik Stop in Greenough. Grab a milkshake (local huckleberries are always a hit) at the gas station, and then get your photo taken with the immense roadside bull, a Glacier National Park landmark. For more must-visit spots, check out our list of the oldest tourist attractions in every state.
Where to stay in Glacier National Park
Depending on where you choose to take your Glacier National Park road trip, you’ll have plenty of choices of where to stay in or near the park. An ideal trip will have you based on both the west and the east side so you can explore more. It’s wise to make reservations in advance, particularly when school isn’t in session and the park is busiest.
The Glacier Park Collection offers a wide variety of Glacier National Park lodging throughout the park (including in Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park, where the castle-like Prince of Wales Hotel has been sitting above Upper Waterton Lake since 1927). Explore the whole park and stay at hotels in East Glacier, West Glacier, the villages of St. Mary and Apgar, and the Lake McDonald area. You’ll also find a good selection of historic grand hotels, cabins, and motor inns at Glacier National Park Lodges.
Many people choose to stay in the town of Whitefish, known as the gateway to Glacier National Park. The town is also popular because of its festivals, art galleries, craft breweries, and nearby skiing. Consider booking at the Hampton Inn & Suites Whitefish or the Firebrand Hotel.
It takes about 40 minutes to get from Whitefish to Lake McDonald and the town of Apgar, where Going-to-the-Sun Road begins. Lake McDonald Lodge and Belton Chalet are good choices for Glacier National Park lodging if you want to start your road trip early; both are part of the Glacier Park Collection.
The best time to visit Glacier National Park
Heath Korvola/Getty Images
As with most national parks, the best time to visit Glacier National Park really depends on what you want to do. Summer is the park’s busiest season. Keep in mind that you can’t drive the whole Going-to-the-Sun Road until the snow melts; most years, it’s fully open between late June and the third Monday in October. Still, it’s always wise to check the National Park Service’s website for current road conditions. Looking for more road trip inspiration? No matter what time of year it is, these are the 15 best national park road trips to take all year long.
For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.
Some sites listed here may not be open or may have limited hours or other restrictions due to COVID-19. Please check with them before you go. Further travel restrictions also apply to Canada.