Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park Lake View

Glacier National Park’s Late Thaw

When is the best time to visit Glacier National Park?

Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park
Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

Montana’s northwest jewel, Glacier National Park, is the epitome of a wild west adventure vacation. World class majestic peaks, herds of high country wildlife, and photo ops at every turn put this spot on many bucket lists. Because the tourists jam the roads from mid-June to early September, try going early to see some unobstructed views, experience less traffic, and ease of access to the abundant wildlife.

Are you more adventurous and less averse to crowds? Read more to have the best experience with the least amount of inconvenience.

How to Get There

The nearest airport is Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, 29 miles to the Southwest, Missoula 150 miles to the South, or Great Falls, 150 miles to the Southeast. If driving, use US Highways 2 and 89. Rental cars are available in Kalispell, Missoula, Great Falls, Whitefish, East Glacier, and West Glacier, and at any of the airports.

No car? No problem. Since 2017 the park has had a free shuttle service you can board from the west at the Apgar Transit Center or the east at the St. Mary Visitor Center. The visitor centers at the park are very helpful. The shuttle makes 20 stops throughout the park, most on Going to the Sun Road. Buses run from about 7 am to 10 pm but the months of operation are very seasonal, typically July-September so check ahead of time.

When to Go There

Glacier National Park Lake View
Glacier National Park Lake View

While on a road trip to Glacier National Park in what we thought was Spring, was more accurately Late Winter/Early Spring depending on the weather of the day. At the end of April, we knew we were early to the park. The access gate was unmanned and the park was therefore open and available to us at the reduced cost of zero dollars. But, the most amazing clue: We were the only ones on the roads and in the parking lots at any time of day.

Access to the Park

As of June 1, 2018: $35 vehicle fee, $30 per motorcycle – annual park pass $70.

Moose in Glacier National Park
Moose in Glacier National Park

There are six paved entrances to the park. Going to the Sun Road cuts across the park from West to East but is closed in the middle due to snow during the off season. Access to the sites along this road is gained from West Glacier in the Southwest and from St. Mary in the east. Polebridge is the entrance from the west to access Bowman and Kinsla Lakes. Camas Creek enters South of Polebridge and intersects with Going to the Sun. Many Glacier enters north of St Mary on the East and accesses the Many Glacier Hotel and many hiking trails. From Montana Hwy 49 at Two Medicine you can get to Lower Two Medicine Lake and Two Medicine Lake and more hiking trails to Pompelly Pillar and over Pitamakan Pass.

Keep in mind, in the summer months, the parking lot at Logan Pass Visitor Center is usually at capacity due to its proximity to the most popular hiking trail to Hidden Lake.

From West Glacier, you’ll encounter Lake McDonald, the park’s longest lake. It will be the first to impress you with the vastness and clarity of this Rocky Mountain area.

Nature’s Zoo at Glacier National Park

Mountain sheep in Glacier National Park early spring
Mountain Sheep not expecting a vehicle until snow melts. Note: No cars on the road.

RULE: If an animal reacts to your presence, you are too close for a photograph session with them. Selfies are for people and places, not wildlife.

Although they look just like the sheep you see in a barnyard with a few adaptations, the mountain sheep can be dangerous if surprised or threatened (their interpretation). And likewise for the buffalo or grizzly bears. In fact, it is recommended when camping or hiking the trails to make noise, don’t cook near where you sleep, and avoid sleeping in the clothes you cooked in.

Bison in Glacier National Park with calves
Dug-outs protect the calves from weather and predators view.

Unexpected Surprise

Glacier National Park Mountain Goat herd

As we drove the roads of the park, we noticed the sharp creases in the mountain formations which appeared stark in contrast to the snow. Had we come later in the season, like typical vacationers, we could not have taken the vivid photos of the landscape that we now had access to. Many photos were taken as we literally came to a stop in our lane and took advantage of the photo op. No cars were coming in either direction so the animals and mountain majesty were ours to savor without interference.

 

 

Prudent Preparation

Glacier National Park's Two Medicine General Store
Glacier National Park’s Two Medicine General Store in winter with snow

As with any alpine terrain, it is exciting and memorable up to the moment when you wish you had 4WD or chains/cables with you. Then it’s just memorable. Abrupt weather changes are standard mountain fare. As they say: The worst decisions make the best stories. Also highly recommended are enough gas to keep warm for an extended time while idling, food, water, etc. Remember, not many havens are open for business since the crowds aren’t here yet and cell service may not exist.

Beer for Any Season

Regardless of the time you venture to Glacier National Park, there are many breweries in the Big Sky state that are worth visiting. Plan a travel route that takes you past them, or simply to enjoy while at a local bar, taproom, or restaurant. The Montana Brewers Trail Map gives you all the info you need including location, hours, and proximity to ski resorts (also helpful when going in early spring!).

Map of Montana Breweries
Montana Brewery Map from the Montana Brewers Association

Some of the state’s brewery standouts include Big Sky Brewing Co., Überbrew, The Great Northern Brewing CompanyBias Brewing, and Bitter Root Brewery. And don’t forget Lewis & Clark Brewing Co., which was awarded several medals for beer, and the coveted medals for Small Brewing Company and Brewer of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival in 2018. The resources available through the Montana Brewers Association website are very clear, concise and informative so make sure to include their website in your vacation planning.

Most prefer the summer months to visit Glacier National Park. However, there is just as much beauty to be found in the early months and without the crowds. Is it worth it to go during the offseason? You decide. Seize the season!

 

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