Glacier National Park is and always will be the reason I fell in love with traveling to iconic national parks. The vastness and beauty of this park can ground and center you like no other place; I especially love the feeling in my lungs when breathing in its cool, fresh mountain air. Having been introduced to this park in the mid-nineties, we knew that a return visit with our children would expose them to the same sense of wonder we had found 20 years ago. Visiting Glacier National Park with kids was just as unforgettable as our past experience. The park still offered incomparable mountain scenery, bountiful wildlife creatures, overwhelming peace, and solitude. Aside from the retreat of the glaciers which are the namesake of the park, very little has changed in the park in 20 years.
Our family likes to venture off the beaten path a bit and Glacier National Park makes this very easy. There are several central areas of the park which seem to attract the most people, but just getting off the road and onto a trail or heading to a less visited part of the park can make a big difference in the park experience.
Going to the Sun Road
The Going to the Sun Road is the major highlight of the park. If you only have a day or two to spend at Glacier this should be the area where you focus your stay. The winding and meandering 50-mile road splits the park in two from west at the West Entrance near Apgar to the east at St. Mary. Stops at the informative visitor’s center at Apgar or farther down the road at Logan’s pass can provide more park details. There are many informative stops, trail heads, and areas to photograph and breathe in the sites. Oversize vehicles and trailers are not permitted. Along the drive expect to see waterfalls, verdant vistas, snow-capped mountains, the breathtaking crystal clear glacial waters of Lake McDonald, and if you are lucky perhaps a winning wildlife sighting. Near Logan’s Pass we had our first Grizzly spotting which was bravely manned on the road by a park ranger who monitored the behaviors of the dumbfounded human witnesses furiously snapping pictures of the Grizzly on a kill. If you have been to Yellowstone and witnessed the Bison traffic jams you can understand the throngs that gathered here.
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There are many hiking trails to take advantage of while on this road. From rigorous to easy, there will be one just right for your family, so be sure to get out, stretch those legs, and breathe in that fresh mountain air. The kid-popular and accessible Trail of the Cedars is located north of Lake McDonald and is manageable for even the tiniest of hikers. It connects to Avalanche Lake which is another popular trail. The rushing water, aqua-colored glacial water bodies, trees fallen from the avalanches, and the commanding views at the trail’s end all make this more moderate hike well worth the time.
One of our favorite trails is the Highland Trail, located at Logan’s Pass on the Going to the Sun Road. Although not suitable for younger children due to dangerous heights, older, experienced kids will love the adventure. The 11-mile, one-way hike allows for beautiful vistas and cliff-hugging curves; the hike itself is easy in that there is little change in elevation. Keep an ear open for shrill screams of the cute pika that inhabit the talus slopes; they scream when they spy soaring hawks and eagles that may threaten them. It is advisable to plan for a shuttle at the end of the trail. With the trailhead also at Logan’s Pass, the less adventurous might instead opt for the Hidden Lake Nature Trail which is an easy 2.7 mile trek through the Alpine meadows with views of the Hanging Gardens.
Shuttle and Bus System
Should you choose not to drive the road or are in a vehicle over 21 feet, consider the NPS free shuttle bus which you can catch at either the Apgar or St. Mary’s Visitor Centers. Logan Pass is the place to switch to the opposing directions shuttle. This free service stops at points of interest along the road, and schedules are available daily. You can utilize the shuttle to get to hiking points of interest and then return on a later shuttle, or use it to drive the full 50 miles of the Going to the Sun Road with interesting stops and family activities along the way. Should you use the service for a hike be prepared with everything you need for the drop off and plan the wait for a shuttle at one of the 16 stops along the way into your day. Check the shuttle schedule carefully.
You might also consider the iconic Red Bus tour operated by Xanterra. The vintage canvas topped red buses made the tours back in the ’30’s and continue today. For the native perspective tour, consider an accompanied ride with the Blackfeet where native people will point out knowledgeable features of the park, its history, and culture. Both of these are separate from the National Park Service and require a fee.
The road is ONLY open when it can be fully cleared of snow which can be as late as early July. Our last trip was the last week of June, and unfortunately, there was six feet of snow still left piled on the road. If Going to the Sun Road is the reason you have come to visit, make sure you plan your dates accordingly. Since we were unable to complete the 50-mile Going to the Sun Road trip we successfully visited other areas of the park. Our brood was not disappointed in the least. Other parts of Glacier are just as beautiful.
If you are looking to see a glacier at Glacier National Park, then Many Glacier is the place. North of the St. Mary entrance and the Going to the Sun Road on the east side of the park is the Many Glacier entrance. The crowds will start to dwindle in this area. Here you can access the Grinnell Glacier hiking trail, a strenuous, close to eight-mile hike that will lead you to views of the receding Grinnell Glacier. It is predicted that these glaciers may be gone by 2030. With kids, this will be an all-day affair, so bring required gear and food for the day. You will be rewarded with an unforgettable view. Do not, however, venture onto the glacier. Snow may hide deep crevasses which can be quite dangerous. Enjoy from afar.
The Swiftcurrent Pass trailhead is in the lot at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn at Many Glacier. We had grand plans to hike the 14-mile trek to see faraway views of the Swiftcurrent Glacier, but Mother Nature and her lightning storm had other plans. It did not matter though because we enjoyed a terrific hike that allowed us a close encounter with a momma moose and her calf hiking our trail upon return. We took care to go the extra long way around them as they seemed to have set up shop on the trail.
We love the Two Medicine Area. On both occasions this was a favorite area to explore. There are significantly fewer people and more space to enjoy the magnificent park. There is a small ranger station here, although nothing like the visitor center at Apgar or Logan’s Pass.
The Scenic Point hike is nothing less than mind-blowing. In a short four miles you must hike over 2300 feet in elevation to 7500 feet. There are pretty waterfalls along the way, and as the tree line fades, the landscape becomes like a tundra. We were amazed to find a frog family hiding beneath rocks high up in these parts. We also spied Big Horn Sheep on the adjacent mountain and the Mountain Goat were sharing the trail with us. On that same adjacent mountain we saw a back country snowboarder slicing his way through the snow. On that hike he was the only other human we encountered.
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Alternately the Aster Park Overlook Trail on the opposite side of Two Medicine Lake provided lovely scenery and a chance to watch some critters in action. The hike itself may be considered strenuous for some children, but there is such a dramatic change in vista and experience here. At the top, we took in beautiful mountain vistas and at the bottom, verdant fields of wildflowers and a beaver pond. We spent a good hour reveling in the play of a beaver pair as they slapped at the water and furiously gathered sticks. At the end of the trail, there is a volunteer-manned cabin. Here, the kids were able to create a pencil drawing of one of the animals they spied during their trip under the tutelage of a volunteer artist. It is one of their best memories.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton is the sister park of Glacier located in Canada to the north of Glacier. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is the name of the union between the two parks, the first of its kind. Like Glacier, Waterton is known for its mountainous grandeur and spectacular vistas. Waterton lakes can be accessed via the east side of Glacier. Be sure to bring appropriate documentation for foreign travel into Waterton. There are several lodges and inns for travelers to rest their weary hiking legs, especially if you have decided to try out the park’s Triple Crown of Waterton challenge. This test asks for the visitor to complete three magnificent and strenuous hikes. Belt notch seekers beware!
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Where to Stay
There are a variety of lodging experiences both inside and outside of Glacier. Should you decide on staying more than one night, the options for typical National Park Lodges include: Glacier Park Lodge, Lake McDonald Lodge, and the Many Glacier Hotel.
Glacier Park Lodge on the east end is a large lodge constructed of giant fir trees and offers great photo ops. On the southeast shore of the lake, Lake McDonald Lodge on the Going to the Sun Road offers cabins, motel rooms, AND cruises on the serene Lake McDonald. Many Glacier Hotel is alpine styled and located north of St. Mary and Going to the Sun Road; it provides views of Swiftcurrent Lake.
Our RV trip afforded us the opportunity to check out some terrific KOA campgrounds in Montana and Wyoming. The KOA in St. Mary/East Glacier was terrific. Although the sites were out in the open, the views of the mountains were irreplaceable. The fact that they have a large hot tub to rest in after a long day of hiking was key. We have become KOA converts and plan to seek them out whenever on the road. The KOA in West Glacier is located a couple of miles from the Going to the Sun road. They also have cabins, a game room, and of course, the requisite hot tub!
See our list of other options to stay near the Glacier National Park.
Read more about KOA camping here.
Other Places to Visit
In my opinion, you can’t fully experience Glacier in less than a week. We were lucky enough to combine our trip with a seven-day excursion to Yellowstone which is about a one-day RV drive away. Combining the two parks allow for some serious nature therapy. The landscape, wildlife, and geothermal attractions at Yellowstone are the hallmarks of this great park. We flew into Billings, picked up our rental RV there, and headed to Glacier for a week before driving South to Yellowstone.
Great Falls Montana is an interesting way stop for history-hungry kids. Known for the rugged landscapes depicted in Charles Russell’s’ paintings, Great Falls is also home to the Lewis and Clark Visitors Center set on the Missouri River in this, the third largest Montana City. The kids dressed up like explorers here, learned the real pronunciation of the squaw, Sacagawea, and learned about the struggles of the explorer and their native friends as they portaged their canoes past unnavigable waters to get to the Pacific Ocean.
Bear Tooth Highway
This by far is the most dramatic and beautiful drive I have ever taken. The Bear Tooth Highway connects the Mammoth area of Yellowstone to Montana via the north. This is a road filled with grand vistas and mind-numbing beauty. There was an unexpected T-bar near the top for the early July back country skiers to take advantage of and we saw them! As the road is filled with switchbacks, snow, and perhaps even mudslides, it is important to note that it may not always be open. It is also important to note that the drive may take up to eight hours. I wish we had more time and would love to go back here to spend some quality time.
On the southwest side of Glacier is the grand water span known as Flathead Lake. It is adjacent to the Flathead Indian Reservation. This vacation area is a draw for all kinds of nature lovers from city folk looking for a Montana getaway to true outdoors people. Flathead Lake Lodge is one of the greats offering an all-inclusive family friendly dude ranch experience. Read all about Trekaroo’s experience at Flathead Lake Lodge.
Being on an RV trip meant I did most of the cooking, usually roadside, while the rest of my family went on short hikes to gather up wood for the evening fire. A couple of nights I was given a welcome break while we filled up on some tasty treats.
We made a return to Serrano’s Mexican restaurant after a 20 year hiatus. Seriously, how many restaurants stay open 20 years? Not much had changed at Serrano’s after 20 years. The food was filling and tasty, and the service was Montana pleasant.
Farther north at St. Mary, we indulged in some belly splitting homemade pies at the Park Cafe. There were so many choices, it was hard to choose after a tasty dinner. Visiting Glacier National Park with kids was unforgettable, but the kids still talk about those pies years later!
Know before you go:
- The weather can be tricky. Check the park website before your trip to know what will be open when you arrive.
- The weather also dictates that you should dress in layers and be prepared for rainstorms. This is not flip-flop and t-shirt time.
- Plan on wearing sunscreen. The sun can burn you even when it is cool, and the reflective power of the snow calls for sunglasses and face shielding hats.
- Plan carefully to avoid any disappointment. Both times we went during shoulder season to avoid the crowds. In late June the Going to the Sun Road was still closed even though they had forecast it to be open. In mid-September everything was open, but it snowed our first night there. Weigh your options regarding crowds and weather. There is a reason everyone goes in July and August. This is not much of a problem if you are in driving distance and can change your plans, but for us flying across the country, it left little room for altering plans.
- This is Grizzly country. Stated another way: THIS IS GRIZZLY COUNTRY. When hiking, regardless of the area, always make noise, sing songs, and yell out periodically. Do not approach the bears. If you spy one while on the road watch from a safe distance. If you spy one on the trail DO NOT RUN. It is best to seek out the advice of a ranger at one of the visitor’s center before beginning a hike.
- If hiking, invest in some bear spray. As we were told by a ranger, this is not meant to be worn as perfume. (Can you believe people spray it on themselves like insect repellant?) It is meant as a last resort to spray at the bear like MACE if one attacks.
- Do not scare your kids about the bears. They will happily sing along as you meander the trail. It is advisable to keep kids in the middle of two adults. I gladly let my husband go first!
- Plan your driving and monitor your gas tank. There are not many gas stations in these parts. It is advisable to fill up whenever you see one.
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