At 1,583 square miles, there is a lot to explore at Glacier National Park. However, a lot of the park is backcountry, accessible only by hiking, biking or some form of water transportation. There is no way you could cover everything in a single trip, but there are some gems that are worth visiting as first-timers to Glacier National Park.
Below is a list of must-sees by myself and others, who have hiked, rowed and driven through the park and captured its beauty!
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This 50-mile road running East to West through the park is the perfect way to see many of the must-sees at Glacier National Park. It serves as a great introduction to the park, but don’t let the word “introduction” fool you. The drive alone is spectacular, passing by lakes, waterfalls, rushing creeks, glacier overlooks and most likely some wildlife.
You will pass through different ecosystems along the two-lane, winding road. Some of the coolest things to see are easily accessible by pulling out of the road. McDonald Creek is an unbelievable color of blue, with amazing clarity. The Weeping Wall is a sight to behold and perfect on a hot day when the mist cools you down. And St Mary Lake makes for an amazing first/last view, depending on which way you choose to travel the park.
There are a few things to keep in mind if you choose to travel Going-To-The-Sun Road. The road peaks at over 6000 feet in elevation, so in its entirety it is a seasonal road. Parts of the road from West Glacier to McDonald Lodge are usually open year round. Before visiting, take a trip to the Glacier National Park Service website for information, including historical opening and closure dates!
It is important to know that reservations are now required to access Going-To-The-Sun Road. To enter at West Glacier or St. Mary (access points) a park pass is needed. You are also required an entry ticket reservation/ reservations within the park for lodging/camping/bus tour etc. Detailed instructions can be found on the Glacier website, and reservations can be made through the NPS Reservation System. As of mid June 2021 it seems that days until September are booked. More tickets become available two days in advance on a rolling daily window.
Thanks to Val from Voyages with Val for contributing this piece! Check out her Instagram for more nature photos!
Lake McDonald is a must-see for first-timers in Glacier National Park, and kayaking on it is one of the best things to do in West Glacier! Apgar Village is located right on the edge of Lake McDonald and only five minutes from the West Glacier entrance. Apgar Rentals is located in the village and has a variety of kayaks, paddleboards, canoes, and boats for rent. Boat rentals are by the hour, so you can spend as long or as short as you want on the lake, gliding through the smooth waters and taking in the mountain views. It is also possible to bring your personal kayak to Glacier, but make sure to check if any inspections are needed.
Any time of day is great to kayak on Lake McDonald, but an early morning kayak can be so peaceful. That leaves the entire afternoon for hiking or taking a scenic drive through Glacier. You can also grab lunch in Apgar Village at Eddie’s Cafe or ice cream to eat while sitting by the lake. Sunset is also a perfect time to visit Lake McDonald. An afternoon kayak trip followed by photographing sunset would be an unforgettable end to your day in Glacier.
Lake McDonald- Historic Boat Cruise
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There is no better way to relax in Glacier National Park than aboard one of the historic wooden boats that tour the lakes. You’ll see parts of the park from an amazing point of view only visible from the water. Although you might have to indulge in a few “bad dad jokes”, the captain will share the history of the boats and the lakes as you cruise. Each classic wooden boat is unique and custom made for use on the lakes in Glacier National Park. The oldest boats are the Sinopah and Little Chief, both built in 1926 for the Glacier Park Hotel Company. The tours are intimate, with group size generally in the 40-50 people range.
Cruises depart from 4 locations: St. Mary Lake at the Rising Sun dock, Lake McDonald at the Lodge dock, Two Medicine Lake and from Many Glacier you’ll enjoy a tour of both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Also some of the best hikes in Glacier National Park are best reached by boat. You can choose to include an optional hike on many of the tours. The boat will drop you off at the hiking trail and pick you back up when you’re done. Each cruise and hike length varies, but in general, you can plan 1-2 hours for a boat cruise only and 3-4 hours if you want to hike.
Reservations for the tours run by concessionaire Glacier Park Boat Company can be made online or by phone in advance. However if you find yourself in the park looking for something to do, it is often possible to get same day tickets at one of the docks as long as you are willing to be flexible on time and location.
Thanks to Shimona from Sidecar Photo for contributing this piece! Find yourself the perfect tripod to capture all the beautiful views you find at Glacier National Park, and check out Sidecar Photo‘s Facebook Page for more inspiration!
The Avalanche Lake trail is a very popular trail at Glacier National Park.
The first part of the hike is called the Trail of the Cedars. It is located along a boardwalk that winds through a cedar forest. After that, you arrive at the Avalanche Gorge. The mossy green rocks and rushing water make for some beautiful scenes worth a photo.As you continue to the lake, there are lovely, lush views along the way, as you the hike near the rushing water of Avalanche creek. There are lots of small waterfalls to look for along this section.
The trail is about 4.5 miles there and back, so it takes about a half-day. It’s mostly not too strenuous, although there are some moderate sections. Less experienced hikers can manage this one though. At the end of the trail is a wonderful view of Avalanche Lake surrounded by mountains. You can see Little Matterhorn’s pyramid-shaped peak from here. The water is a beautiful turquoise and it’s a great reward for making it to the end of the trail.
The lakefront is a great spot to stop and have a breather before heading back down the trail. It does get crowded so it’s best to walk around the lake to find a quieter spot.
Glacier National Park is bear country so definitely pack your bear spray. Even though this is a well-trafficked trail, there have been stories of bears approaching hikers. It’s always good to follow the recommendations to enjoy this trail safely.
Hidden Lake Trail
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One of the best must-see things to do in Glacier National Park is the hike to Hidden Lake. The hike to Hidden Lake is one of the best hikes in Glacier National Park and is a must-do for anyone visiting. The trailhead starts at the Logan Pass Visitor Center which is at top of the Continental Divide. To get to the Logan Pass visitor center you have to drive the scenic Going-to-the-Sun-Road, which is a must-see in itself. The hike is a total of 5.4 miles and has an elevation gain of 1,325 feet.
You will cross through alpine meadows for the first half of the hike which has gorgeous wildflowers in the summer months. The higher you go on the trail equates to even more gorgeous views. The Hidden Lake trail is also known for spotting wildlife so keep your eyes peeled while on the hike. Once you reach the lake overlook you will realize why this is one of the best hikes in Glacier National Park. The lake and its surroundings are absolutely gorgeous!
Logan Pass Visitor Center
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One of the highlights of visiting Glacier National Park is doing the famous Going to The Sun route all the way to the top, with a stop to Logan Pass Visitors Center. A wonderful stop along this famous drive, the Logan Pass Visitors center is a center, museum, place to talk with guides, and also the start of many wonderful alpine trails you can easily do up in the summit area. The views from Logan Pass are limitless. They are also different from an alpine perspective. You are in the peak areas of the park and the terrain varies from alpine flowers, plants, lush forests to open and expansive rock areas. It is a fascinating stop and place to explore.
The Visitors Center is fantastic for many reasons. It is helpful to get more information about the area, and learn the history of the flora and fauna of the area. At the center you can check out the fascinating displays that share the history and development of the park throughout its start and becoming a national park. An interesting fact of the center is that it straddles the Continental Divide, located at 6,700 feet.
Just outside the visitors center are a variety of alpine trails you can take to visit the more unique parts of the higher elevations and even see the wildlife in their habitat. You can trek on a wide variety of hikes from short to longer, easy to strenuous and challenging trails with spectacular countryside to discover. This all starts with a visit to the center and talk with the rangers on what you can do with the allotted time frame you have for visiting this area.
Grinnell Glacier Overlook
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Grinnell Glacier Overlook is one of the best Going-to-the-Sun Road stops, providing breathtaking views of an electric blue lake; a striated mountain, dramatically jutting out of the valley below; and of course, the snowy white of Grinnell Glacier. There are a couple of ways that you can get here- you can either hike the Granite Park Trail, which rings in at 11.4 miles out-and-back with the additional climb to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook from the Granite Park Chalet (which is absolutely worth a visit of its own) or via the Highline Trail, arguably the park’s most iconic hike, that will take you 11.8 miles (one-way) through the park’s most gorgeous landscapes, starting at Logan’s Pass.
Along either of these trails, you’ll have to make a steep climb to the overlook. For example, along the Highline Trail, you’ll have to ascend about 1,000 feet in approximately half a mile (while your legs will hate you, the view will be worth it!). Once you’ve reached the overlook, take a second to catch your breath and drink in the absolutely spectacular views of the scene before you.
Make sure to make the additional climb to the highest viewpoint at the overlook, though- from here, you’ll be able to see a series of jewel-colored lakes dotting the landscape and, on a clear day, straight to Canada! While hiking here will easily take up half your day, the views at the overlook and along either of the trails are absolutely worth the time (and worth those burning thighs!)!
Thanks to Julia from The Cure for Curiosity for sharing this hike! Check out her Instagram for more amazing photos!
One of the best ways to take in all of the beauty of Glacier National Park is to set out on foot on one of its most scenic trails: The Highline Trail. This point-to-point hike starts at Logan Pass Visitor Center right behind the Continental Divide sign. It will take you a full day to trek the 11.8 miles one-way. Don’t worry, you can grab a shuttle ride back to the Logan Pass Visitor Center at the end of the trail. You don’t need to hike back!
The Highline Trail will take you along the edge of the mountains, offering cables to assist where it is narrow, all the way to the top of mountains. From views you can get from the Going-to-the-Sun Road to vistas that are only visible on foot, you’ll be in awe as you make your way through the mountains and to the Granite Park Chalet. You’ll gain over 2,000 feet on this journey!
In addition to great views, you’ll have the opportunity to add on some side trails. Some include the stunning Grinnell Glacier Overlook, which is only 0.6 miles one-way but will make you really work for it. You’ll gain another 1,000 feet in this short distance! If you’re debating whether to add it to your Highline Trail hike – do it! The views from the top are the best Glacier has to offer.
This difficult, but beautiful, hike will leave you exhausted at the end of the day. Take some water and food with you, but also make sure to know where to stay near Glacier National Park to ensure there’s a hot shower and warm bed waiting for you at the end of the day!
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First-timers to Glacier National Park absolutely must add Virginia falls to their list of things to see! Located along the Going-to-the-Sun Road between Logan Pass in Saint Mary Lake, a mild hike takes you to one of the largest waterfalls that you can see up close in the park. You’ll want two to three hours to hike to and from the falls and to stop and take photos along the way.
This is a must-see for first-timers to the park because you can walk right up to the falls. You can even take a quick dip in the pool at the base of the falls. And as a bonus, you’ll walk past another waterfall on the way.
The full hiking trail is 3.6 miles and rated as moderate and the views are worth every step. Starting from the parking lot near St. Mary Falls, you’ll descend into the mountainside with a relatively flat trail to start with. It’s a relatively easy trail until you get to the stunning St. Mary Falls. With bright turquoise water rushing from the falls, it’s a spectacular sight to see!
Continuing on, the trail gets a little more steep, with more rocks and tree roots to step around on the path. You’ll pass the lower Virginia falls along the trail, but keep going! When you see a really tall waterfall, you know you’ve made it all the way to Virginia Falls.
This is a perfect spot to stop for a snack or picnic. And if you’re planning to make this a little longer part of your time in Glacier National Park, swap out your hiking shoes for water shoes and take a dip in the pools at the base of the falls. It’s quite refreshing, especially on a hot summer day.
Virginia falls is one of the best waterfalls in Glacier National Park, and is a must see for any first-time traveler to the park.
While there are enough must-sees for first-timers in Glacier National Park to cover an entire vacation, there are also some other gems nearby. Flathead Lake is located just an hour South of Lake McDonald. The clear water and many access points make it a hot place to be in the Summer.
A bit further Southeast is world-famous Yellowstone National Park. While this park is also huge, there are some extra awesome sights that can be covered by visiting Yellowstone in 1 Day.
And if you want to cross the border into Canada, Waterton Park is the adjacent park. The border separates what is actually one big park.
This list is just a starting point, and there is sure to be much beauty to be seen along the way (and maybe a mountain goat or two!)
A Truthful Traveler