31 Jul What To Do in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park, on the border of Montana and Canada, has been our latest destination on this one-month road trip. We had passed it up on our first National Parks of the West trip, much to the dismay of our fellow Northwesterners. But this time around, we were sure to include it on the itinerary.
Our Glacier Park Itinerary
- 4 nights at Apgar Campground
- Sunday: Biked around Apgar, attempted fishing in Lake McDonald, Ranger talk about bears at campground
- Monday: Drove Going to the Sun Road, St. Mary’s Falls hike, hiked around John’s Lake and McDonald Creek, Native America Speaks presentation at campground
- Tuesday: Ranger-led Avalanche Creek hike, Hidden Lake Overlook hike, laundry, wifi café, Ranger talk about disappearing glaciers at Lake McDonald lodge
- Wednesday: Highline Trail hike, huckleberry ice cream, Ranger talk about alpine wildlife at campground
We packed up our campsite in Banff nice and early Sunday morning since we had a 6 hour drive and were aiming to find a good first-come, first-serve campsite in Glacier. When we pulled into Apgar campground around 1pm, we had a selection of maybe a dozen so-so sites and a handful of pretty nice ones. Our final choice (D175) was blessed by visits from two different families of deer behind our site on the first day!
We took the opportunity to drive through some of the other first-come, first-serve campgrounds around Lake McDonald (Sprague and Avalanche). They were all somewhat similar in terms of being well forested with varying degrees of privacy. If I did it again, I’d probably check the lakeside sites in Sprague first and then the outer end of the A loop in Apgar. Nothing we saw was cool enough to convince us to pack up and move from our original choice though.
The campgrounds in Glacier a bit more limited than those we experienced in Banff. Granted, it’s still car camping but there are no showers, dishwashing sinks, or cell service, so we had to get a little more resourceful compared to last week.
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Going to the Sun Drive
Every single person I talked to before coming to Glacier recommended driving Going to the Sun Road. In fact, most people couldn’t really remember anything else in particular about the park. We found out why.
If you have only one day – or even if you have only 4 hours – in Glacier, this is what you must do. The 50 mile road is a feat of the imagination, engineered into the side of cliffs, overlooking epic valleys. Driving through, you pass impressive waterfalls both at the roadside and across the valleys. It’s not too hard to spot white mountain goats romping around the cliffs. There are numerous pull-outs along the trip for photo opportunities or day hikes.
Going to the Sun drive can be done by personal vehicle (without a large trailer), bicycle (except during peak hours), paid bus tour, or the park’s free shuttle bus. When we drove around, many parking lots at the popular attractions filled up by 10a.m. so it’s best to go early or use the shuttle buses. As our park rangers so wisely reminded us, using the shuttles not only saves gas money but it also decreases our negative impact on the park environment.
Through a little research, I found these hikes to be most popular in the main area of the park: Highline trail, Hidden Lake Overlook, Avalanche Lake, and St. Mary’s and Virginia Falls. Parking is somewhat limited for most of these, so again, plan to do them before 9a.m. in peak season – or use the shuttle bus.
We also heard great things about hiking in Many Glacier, a more remote area of the park. We chose to save the time it would take to drive out there and focus on the main area of the park, but it’s definitely on our list for next time.
St. Mary’s and Virginia Falls
This is a relatively easy hike of 3 miles (total there and back) and about 600 feet elevation gain. We did it first thing in the morning before it got crowded, and we used our “bear warning skills” (singing, whooping, and clapping like idiots) which we learned from the ranger program the previous evening. Anyway, it worked. We saw no bears.
I was surprised because I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls, mostly in Oregon, and there was something different about these two. The color of the water, for one, is really beautiful. And then the particular way they cascade also seemed pretty unique.
We did the Avalanche Lake hike with a ranger guide. The two mile hike up to the lake (500 feet elevation gain) was interspersed with presentations and discussions about Glacier’s peculiar geology, ecology, and history. We learned that some of the oldest rock layers in the park now sit exposed above the younger layers. We were also shocked at one point to find tons of trees that had fallen uphill– they were all knocked over by the force of air expelled from a nearby avalanche.
The Avalanche Lake hike is immediately next to Trail of the Cedars, a 0.7 mile boardwalk through native red cedars, hemlock, and other trees. Both trails have impressive views of Avalanche Creek.
Hidden Lake Overlook
The first half of the Hidden Lake trail is 1.5 miles and when we went, there was still a bit of snow we had to slush carefully through. The second, more strenuous half of the trail, which takes you down to the lake, was closed off due to a mama grizzly. We actually saw her fishing in the lake, but only from a distance.
We enjoyed the magnificent views and close encounters with some other wildlife, like a huge marmot, a pair of ram goats, and two families of white mountain goats. The mountain goats, almost like mascots for the park, seemed very used to being around people and had no problem walking around us.
On our final full day in Glacier, we took on our biggest hike of the trip. The Highline Trail from Logan Pass Information Center to The Loop Trailhead totals 11.6 miles. We took the 7:18am express shuttle from Apgar up to Logan Pass and started our journey along the shaded Cliffside.
The views from this trail are simply astounding as you walk high above Going to the Sun road. Being the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy walking on loose rocks in high places, I was very glad to have hiking poles in the absence of any railing. There were some points where all I could do was stare at the ground in front of me and try to ignore the massive drop off in my peripheral vision!
When I did feel comfortable enough to look around, it was – of course – beautiful. I believe I heard someone call the first section “the Garden Wall,” which makes sense because it’s covered in all sorts of greenery and wild flowers. If you didn’t want to take on the entire trail, going out and back for the first few miles would be a really nice hike in itself.
Eventually, we reached a patch of snow and encountered a bit more uphill climbing but the majority of the first 7 miles was pretty tame. At 7.6 miles, we came to Granite Park Chalet, a small and simple alpine lodging. It was noon, and we chowed down our PB&J sandwiches while swatting away mosquitos and enjoying the panoramic view.
From the Chalet, we descended via the 4-mile Loop trail (which is not a loop itself but you can catch a shuttle from the end and get back to where you started). Although downhill, this section was probably the most difficult because it is so exposed to the afternoon sun. I would never attempt trying to climb up it after 9am in the summer, but a few brave (or unaware?) souls were giving it a go.
We reached our the shuttle stop tired and hot but feeling very accomplished. We both agreed that the Highline hike was a great way to end our time in Glacier.
We took a little time between hikes to explore the Apgar area on our bikes and attempt a little bit of fishing. Fishing is actually allowed in the park without a permit, although there are a few creeks where it is prohibited and the endangered bull trout must be released if caught.
Finally, we took the opportunity to learn more about the park through evening ranger talks. We learned about bears, other alpine wildlife, the shrinking glaciers, wildfires, and more.
Have you been to Glacier? What part of the park did you enjoy the best? Where should we go next time we visit?
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