Guest blogger Nancy Monson shares some insider tips
for visiting Glacier National Park in Northern Montana
Last August, I went to Glacier National Park in northern Montana…and it was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. Up to that point, I thought the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, Denali in Alaska or the Rockies in Banff, Canada were the most beautiful mountains I’d seen. But Glacier blew these sights away.
The 7,000-year-old-plus glaciers that created these hills, valleys and lakes are almost gone today (and will disappear entirely by 2030, it’s predicted). At this point, it’s difficult to distinguish them from the large snowfields that dot the mountains. Yet there are no plans to change the name of the park from Glacier, and the scenery is so spectacular that the passing of the glaciers doesn’t detract. Of course, you can’t help but feel sad to see what climate change is doing to our landscape, but the park is still ecologically diverse and exciting. There’s a wide variety of native plants and wildflowers as well as animals—grizzly bears, beavers, wolverines, and bighorn sheep to name but a few—to view at every turn of the trail.
A bit of history
The park, which sits on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, is officially known as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and extends partially into Canada. Glacier was founded as a national park in 1910 and joined with Waterton in 1932. The area is also shared by the Blackfeet people.
When to visit
Hardy types might want to brave Glacier in the winter, but for most people, summer to fall is the best time to visit. The biggest draw in the park is a steep, winding roadway called the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Due to heavy snowfall, it doesn’t typically open until late June or July, and only stays open for a couple of months. The bottom portion of the park is open 365 days of the year, however.
The National Park Service reports that since Glacier sits atop the Continental Divide, cold, dry Artic air comes in from the Northeast while warm, wet Pacific air comes in from the West, meeting at the Divide. As a result, the weather can vary greatly. We found that the mornings were quite chilly while the afternoons were downright warm and even shorts weather.
Out of the ordinary
Just viewing the scenery is great from your car or a Red Bus (see below), but you can also hike many of the trails, fish, bike and camp (with precautions against bears, such as taking along bear spray).
My friends and I went paddleboarding and kayaking (arranged through Go Glacier Outfitters) on Lake McDonald, the spectacular glacial lake near the park’s Apgar entrance—a memory that will stay with us forever.
One of the great finds during my trip was the huckleberry, a sweet but also tart wild berry that only grows in Montana and the Pacific Northwest. (It’s a cross between a raspberry and blueberry, I’d say.) My friends and I went into a huckleberry frenzy prompted by the vast array of available products both in Glacier and in the town of Hungry Horse, Montana (we particularly enjoyed eating and shopping at The Huckleberry Patch). We scooped up huckleberry taffy, licorice, jam, pie, scones and muffins, tea, and coffee. But our favorite by far was huckleberry ice cream (Tillamook is a popular brand in the West and incredibly creamy).
IF YOU GO
The closest airport is Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, MT, about 30 miles from the park’s West Entrance. Amtrak also services Glacier. Another option is to fly into a major city and drive. It takes about 10 hours from Seattle, for instance. We traveled up from Bozeman in the south of Montana, a beautiful drive that took about six hours (with a stop along the road for a picnic lunch).
Park entrance fees
Car: $30 for a 7-day permit for all people in the vehicle; Single person entry: $15; Motorcycle entry: $25; Annual pass: $45
Red Bus Tours
It’s possible to drive your own vehicle up the Going-to-the-Sun Road (and there’s even an audio tour you can download to guide you), but given my fear of heights I wasn’t having any of that. Glacier also offers shuttle bus service around the park.
We booked a nine-hour Red Bus Tour, a Glacier tradition since 1914. (There are also shorter tours.) The red open-air buses can accommodate up to 17 people and were built by the White Motor Company in the 1930s and are lovingly maintained. The bus tour took us up the iconic road from the western Apgar Entrance and through the park to the eastern St. Mary’s Entrance and back down again. In between, we stopped several times, most notably atop the Continental Divide at Logan Pass for a bathroom and shopping break—and a close-up view of some longhorn sheep, who decided to visit the parking lot and block traffic.
Our tour guide, known as a “Jammer,” was a lovely young woman named Claire who had an endless supply of anecdotes and information about the park as she skillfully maneuvered the bus around the very, very curvy, steep roads. (Did I mention the roads were curvy? And steep? I wisely chose the non-cliff side of the bus and spent the day hugging the window.) Claire also supplied us with blankets against the early morning chill. (By afternoon, however, it was so warm that we had shed our coats and the blankets!)
A range of lodging options are available within the park, but can be pricey and fill early for the summer.
For information about lodging, contact Xanterra Parks and Resorts. There are also motels and campsites just outside the park gates.
Believe it or not: A summer job for you?
A park job isn’t just for young adults and park rangers—we met several older adults who had signed on to work at Glacier for the summer. If you’re looking for a temporary job in an amazing setting, contact Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which runs the lodging, stores, Red Bus Tours and restaurant services throughout the park (as well as at other national parks in the US).
*All photo credits: Nancy Monson
About the author
Nancy Monson is a freelance writer, editor and artist, as well as a health coach. Her articles on travel, lifestyle, health, nutrition, crafts, creativity, pets and entertainment have been published in numerous magazines, such as AARP The Magazine, Family Circle, Glamour, More, Reader’s Digest, Redbook, Shape, USA Today, Woman’s Day and Women’s Health. She is also the author of three books.