The dramatic landscape of Glacier National Park was formed in the last ice age when glaciers sculpted its peaks and valleys. The environment is also influenced by the Continental Divide, which runs through the center of the park and produces two somewhat different climates. On the west side, lush forests of hemlocks and western cedar are fed by the Pacific watershed; on the east side, dry, Arctic air coming down from Canada creates more open vistas and arid conditions.
Above the treeline in Glacier are alpine meadows that come alive in summer with glacier lilies, bear grass, monkey flower, balsamroot and other wildflowers. Higher still are the jagged peaks of 175 mountains, and 25 glaciers that feed turquoise lakes and streams. It all adds up to some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in North America, and people from all over the world are drawn to experience the park’s pristine beauty firsthand.
If you plan on visiting, check our suggestions for getting the most out of your trip. The National Park Service is also a good resource for information on camping, day hiking, backpacking, cycling, boating and fishing in Glacier.
Camping in Glacier
There are 13 National Park Service (NPS) campgrounds in Glacier. Most of them are available on a first-come, first-served basis. All of the campsites at Fish Creek and St. Mary can be reserved in advance, along with half of the campsites at Many Glacier and half of the group sites at Apgar.
Five campgrounds in the park offer primitive camping, with no flush toilets or running water (Bowman Lake, Cut Bank, Kintla Lake, Logging Creek and Quartz Creek). Campgrounds are generally open from late-May to mid-September, depending on snowpack. Camping fees vary between $10–$23 dollars per night during the summer season. To see which campgrounds are open and to check on camping fees, visit the Campground Status Page. All of Glacier’s campgrounds are in bear country, so it’s important to store food and other scented items outside of your tent.
Here are a few of our favorites campgrounds in the park:
Bowman Lake Campground (48 sites; non-reservable): Bowman Lake Campground is at the end of a long dusty drive to a quiet corner of Glacier with easy lake access. The 32-mile road from the west entrance of the park takes you through the small community of Polebridge, where a stop at the Mercantile is a must. The campground has plenty of trees that provide shade and privacy. No crowds here, just tranquil scenes of glacier-fed lakes and rugged peaks. Be sure to bring bug spray because the lake is popular with mosquitoes as well.
Many Glacier Campground (109 sites; half-reservable): This campground is at the center of it all, with great hiking and an historic lodge nearby. It’s also prime grizzly habitat, where you can catch a glimpse of bears and other wildlife. All that makes Many Glacier a popular camping destination, so you should expect crowds. But the sights are well worth it. Half of the campsites at Many Glacier are open to advance reservations.
Fish Creek Campground (178 sites; reservable): Fish Creek is a quiet and peaceful alternative to nearby Apgar campground, but still close enough to the west entrance of the park to pick up supplies at the general store. If you’re traveling to Glacier by train, the west entrance is also a stop on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder”, which runs from Seattle to Chicago. The campsites at Fish Creek are open to advance reservations.
Backpacking and Hiking in Glacier
Glacier is a paradise for hikers and backpackers. It has more than 700 miles of trails through a backcountry of alpine meadows, rugged mountains and glacial lakes. The hiking season in the park is relatively short because Glacier sits on the Canadian border and many trails are at high elevations. It actually snows every month of the year in the park, and some high-country trails aren’t snow-free until July or even August.
Whether you’re planning a short day hike or a long trip into the backcountry, the park’s free shuttle service can help with your transportation needs. The shuttle runs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, from the west entrance at Apgar to the east entrance at St. Mary. Because it makes stops at or near some trailheads, it gives you added options. Instead of doing round-trip routes, you can hike one-way, then use the shuttle to return to your vehicle if you park near one of the shuttle stops. The fee-based East-Side Shuttle travels between St. Mary and other park areas, including Two Medicine and Many Glacier.
Backcountry Camping Permits: Permits are required for all backcountry camping in Glacier and cost $7 per night, per person. Walk-in permits can be obtained at one of the park’s Permitting Locations the day before or the day of your trip start date. Half of all sites in backcountry campgrounds are set aside for walk-in campers. In summer months, there can be a lot of competition for permits, so plan on arriving early at a permitting location the day before the start of your trip.
Backcountry Advance Reservations: Securing an advance reservation eliminates the stress of competing for a walk-in permit during the summer. Backcountry sites can be reserved starting March 1 for groups of 9–12 campers and March 15 for groups of 1–8 campers. Applications can be submitted online only. There’s a processing fee and application fee for each reservation request you submit. It typically takes a month before you hear back on your permit status. The camping fee of $7 per night, per person is due when you pick up your permit at a permitting location.
To submit an application, visit the park’s Advance Reservations page. For more information about individual campsites and their opening dates, view the Backcountry Campsite Map. Interested in doing an overnight river trip? Find all the information you need on the River Camping Permits page. Guided rafting trips are also available through Glacier Guides.
Glacier is home to a lot of wildlife, including grizzly bears, so be sure to check the park’s Bear Safety page before hitting the trail. Safety tips include always carrying pepper spray and always hiking in groups rather than solo.
Backcountry Food Storage: The park has 65 backcountry campgrounds with 208 campsites. They’re all equipped with lockers or bear poles to store your food safely. You’ll need to bring a weatherproof food and garbage bag along with a 30 ft. rope for hanging the bag.
Avalanche Lake Day Hike (easy; 4.0 miles round-trip): Here’s a relaxing hike with minimal elevation gain that gives you a great taste of what Glacier is all about. The trail makes its way along Avalanche Creek through a forest of towering cedars and western hemlock trees. After 2 miles, you reach the turquoise water of Avalanche Lake, tucked away in a glacial valley. The summit of Little Matterhorn stands at the far end, where giant waterfalls send icy water cascading down to the lake. This can be a busy hike, so arrive early to beat the crowd. It’s also a great hike for families. At the trailhead, an accessible side trip along a boardwalk takes you through the Trail of the Cedars to Avalanche Gorge.
Red Rock Falls Day Hike (easy; 4.2 miles round-trip): With only 100 ft. of elevation gain, this short hike is very family friendly and gives you a good mix of waterfalls, lakes and geology. Begin at the Swiftcurrent Pass Trailhead at May Glacier. A short way in, there’s a side trail to Fishercap Lake with a clear view of near mountains. If you arrive at the lake early in the morning, you might see a moose. Another mile up the trail is Red Rock Lake, which has a nice beach for swimming and views of Swiftcurrent Glacier and Mt. Grinnell.
Follow the trail along the north shore of the lake past sections of crimson red rock, which is how this trail got its name, and finally Red Rock Falls. If you have the time, you can return to the trail and continue another 1.5 miles to see more falls and Bullhead Lake.
Highline Trail Day Hike (moderate; 11.8 miles one-way): Hiking the Highline is the quintessential Glacier experience. It begins at Logan Pass, where the Going-to-the-Sun road crosses the Continental Divide at 6,646 ft. Described here, it’s a one-way hike with a return shuttle to the pass. The trail runs along the western side of the divide, a 5-mile stretch known as the Garden Wall. The beginning of the hike, which draws crowds that soon thin out, is cut into a stone ledge with a steep drop-off that will have you reaching for the safety cable attached to the wall. From here, you get an impressive view of everything to the west including, peaks, valleys, Lake McDonald and, snaking its way up to the pass, Going-to-the-Sun Road. The trail then breaks into sloping meadows covered in wildflowers with the occasional stream crossing. There’s a good chance of seeing mountain goats and big-horn sheep grazing on the slopes, and maybe a bear as well.
After the route climbs to a pass between Mount Gould and Haystack Butte, it continues through open ground with non-stop views. At 7.6 miles you reach Granite Park Chalet, a rustic stone lodge where hikers can stay overnight in a no-frills setting. From this point, the trail descends through a wooded stretch known as The Loop. It emerges onto Going-to-the-Sun Road, where a shuttle bus can return you to the trailhead at Logan Pass.
Piegan Pass Day Hike (moderate-strenuous; 9.2 miles round-trip, 12.8 miles one-way to Many Glacier): A good mix of forest and high-alpine hiking, the Piegan Pass trail begins at the Siyeh Bend, 2.2 miles east of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The trailhead is at an elevation of 6,200 feet and climbs more than 1,600 ft. to the pass, so the trail won’t be free of snow until around July. Do the hike round-trip to the Piegan Pass, or arrange a shuttle and continue from the pass to Many Glacier.
The first couple of miles take you through a forest of spruce and fir, where you may come across elk. At 1.2 miles, go left at the Piegan Pass junction, and at 2.7 go left again at the Siyeh Pass (another great hike) junction. The trail breaks into meadows and eventually climbs onto open talus slopes. Ahead of you is the hump of Piegan Mountain topped by Piegan Glacier. Mountain goats, ptarmigan and marmots can often be seen along the trail, where you get outstanding views into the valley south and eventually of the Garden Wall and Bishop’s Cap. Enjoy a break at the pass, where you’re surrounded by towering peaks, then head back or continue another 8.2 miles down to the Many Glacier area.
Triple Divide Pass Day Hike or Backpack (easy–moderate; 14 miles round-trip): This is a short backpacking trip or longer day hike in a less-crowded area of Glacier. The trail begins at Cutbank Creek Ranger Station and moves easily along the creek for 4 miles. Then it rises gradually up the Atlantic Creek Valley. Although fewer people visit this part of Glacier, the views are just as amazing as anywhere else in the park, and in summertime the meadows are teeming with colorful wildflowers.
Just over 4 miles in, you’ll reach the Atlantic Creek campground. Pitch your tent, then hike a couple of miles to Medicine Grizzly Lake (easy) or take a longer, steeper trail to Triple Divide Pass (moderate).
If you hear the tumbling of rocks as you hike through the field of talus around the pass, it’s probably bighorn sheep moving across the slope. Hike this section during the rutting season in late August or early September, and you’re likely to hear a loud cracking as ram horns collide.
Boulder Pass Trail Backpack (moderate–strenuous; 27 miles round-trip, 31.5 miles one-way to Kintla Lake): One of the more adventurous trips in Glacier, this one takes you into the heart of the backcountry with its unforgettable scenery. The trip actually starts in Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park at the Waterton marina, where you’ll take a Shoreline Cruise boat south to Goat Haunt back in Glacier. The trail climbs steadily through a forest and reaches Janet Lake about 3 miles in. There’s a campsite just above the lake that makes a good stopping point if you plan on starting the hike late. If you get an early start, a good first night campsite is another 3 miles up the trail at Lake Francis or another 5 miles at Brown Pass.
As the trail continues, you emerge from the forest and begin enjoying some amazing views of soaring peaks, alpine meadows and glacier-carved valleys. At 8.5 miles in, you reach Brown’s Pass, where huckleberries are plentiful in early August. Beyond there, the trail climbs more steeply along the side of Mount Chapman before continuing west to Boulder Pass at 7,410 ft. Snow can linger along this portion of the trail well into August. If you do this as an out-and-back, you’ll turn around at Boulder Pass. Or you can continue it as a through-hike and arrange a pickup at Kintla Lake.
Cross-country Skiing & Snowshoeing in Glacier
Glacier is a beautiful place to explore all year long, not just in summer. The park has a special visitor guide if you’re visiting off-season. Winter is a great time to experience Glacier on skis or snowshoes. For maps of ski trails in the park and tips on how to avoid hypothermia view the Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing page and download the brochure. Before heading into the backcountry, also check current avalanche conditions.
Kayaking and Canoeing in Glacier
If you bring a kayak or canoe to Glacier, you’ll find lots of places to explore by water, including Lake McDonald, Lake Sherburne, St. Mary Lake, Upper Waterton Lake and Lower Two Medicine Lakes. Lake McDonald is almost 10 miles long, so you could spend a day or more paddling along its shores alone. Lake fishing is also open all year in Glacier, so if you enjoy fishing you’ve got one more reason to bring your canoe or kayak when you visit. Keep in mind that the water in all of the park’s lakes and rivers is very cold even in the middle of summer.
To prevent the spread of harmful aquatic invasive species, the park service requires all hand-propelled watercraft to have a self-certification form. Download the free online form or pick one up during business hours at one of the park’s ranger stations, visitor centers or backcountry permit offices. They’re also available at many boat launches. The signed form should be kept in your personal possession or in the canoe or kayak.
To learn more about kayaking and canoeing in Glacier, along with boating rules and regulations in the park, visit Glacier’s Boating page.
Tips for Visiting Glacier
Getting to Glacier National Park: Located in northwest Montana along the Continental Divide, the park can be accessed from the east and west. The West Glacier entrance on Route 2 is near Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, and it takes you to the Lake McDonald area, Park Headquarters and the Apgar Visitor Center. From the east, you can enter along Highway 89 via St. Mary, Two Medicine and Many Glacier. Amtrak services both sides of the park. Call 855-733-4522 for more information.
Once you’re inside Glacier, there are lots of options for getting around and enjoying the scenery. The park’s free shuttle service runs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, from the west entrance to the east entrance. See the park’s Directions & Transportation page for information on traveling to Glacier. The park’s Road Status page lets you know about roads that are closed because of winter weather or other reasons.
Park Fees and Passes: Fees for entering the park depend on the type of pass you choose and your vehicle. You can opt for a single-use park pass ($30 for 7 days), an annual parks pass or the America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass that covers all national parks and federal fee areas. See all fee details at the fees and passes page.
Glacier Weather: Glacier is open all year long, but visitor facilities and Going-to-the-Sun Road close when winter weather arrives. The typical visitor season is from late May to early September. Fall can be a beautiful time in the park, but you’ll need to be self-sufficient. If you’re interested in snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, winter can be a great time to visit as well.
The weather in the park can be unpredictable any time of the year. The Continental Divide creates a clash of climates, with warm, moist air coming in from the west and cold, dry Artic air moving in from the northeast. That clash has been known to create winter blizzards that drop more than 40 inches of snow in one day. In fact, snow can fall any month of the year in Glacier.
A typical summer day will have highs in the 70s and nighttime lows in the 40s. Both of those averages will drop at higher elevations. Average temperatures in the winter are in the 30s and teens respectively, although it can plummet to 10 or 20 below. If you’re hiking in summer, be sure to pack a rain jacket even if it’s sunny at the trailhead. Packing an extra layer of insulation is a good idea as well, especially if your hike takes you high in the mountains where cold winds can blow off mountain glaciers.
Guidebooks and Maps: The park service has interactive trail maps for 5 general areas in the park. For more detailed versions, the Glacier National Park Conservancy, official non-profit fundraising partner of Glacier National Park, has an excellent selection of books and maps for the area. You can also find guidebooks and maps at REI.com.
Animal Safety: Glacier is home to a variety of wildlife, including moose, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, wolves, mountain lions, wolverines, coyotes and a large numbers of both black and grizzly bears. Check the park’s Bear Safety page to learn how to hike and camp in bear country. To view other wildlife safely, the park service has a number of Safety Tips worth reading.
Written by Steve Burke. REI Missoula Store Manager Sean Kissane contributed to this article.