During these cold winter weeks, summer can seem so far away, but it’ll be here before you know it. If you are thinking of taking a trip to one of America’s majestic national parks this summer, now is the time to get planning and I’m going to tell you why. For the conclusion of our three-part series on “Montana and all its Majesty in Three Weeks” (see Part I and Part II), I’m going to focus largely on Glacier National Park, but also provide some tips for surrounding gems and of course, discuss why you should plan your vacation ASAP.
First, let me tell you a bit about Glacier National Park and the short trip I took this summer with my family. Glacier, dubbed, “The Crown of the Continent” is “home to more than one million acres, the beauty with glacier-carved terrain that encompasses wild meadows, glistening clear rivers, stunning 400-foot waterfalls, striking rock faces and dramatic mountain peaks, it’s truly unlike any place on earth. While Glacier National Park has one of the largest intact ecosystems in the temperate zone, it’s surprisingly easy to explore by road, trail or steam. The Going-to-the-Sun Road—an engineering marvel and National Historic Landmark—takes visitors through the heart of the park over Logan Pass and is one of the most scenic drives you’ll ever take.” (1)
Not only that, its many ecosystems host: “large mammals such as the Grizzly bears, moose, and mountain goats, as well as rare or endangered species like the wolverines and Canadian lynxes, inhabit this park. Hundreds of species of birds, more than a dozen fish species, and a few reptiles and amphibian species have been documented. The park has numerous ecosystems ranging from prairie to tundra.” (2)
“Far away in Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain-peaks, lies an unmapped northwestern corner- the Crown of the Continent. The water from the crusted snowdrift which caps the peak of a lofty mountain there trickles into tiny rills, which hurry along north, south, east and west, and growing to rivers, at last pour their currents into three seas. From this mountain-peak the Pacific and the Arctic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico receive each its tribute. Here is a land of striking scenery.”
George Bird Grinnell, The Century Magazine 1901
My husband described it as “epic, otherworldly, Lord of the Rings.” It was his first time there, and IMHO if you haven’t been there, but have been to Yosemite, it’s like Yosemite multiplied by 100!
Lesson #1 we learned (that I already kind of knew) – plan on at least two full days in the park! I tell you how we did it and then I’ll tell you how we will do it next time. We left from Missoula towards the park in the morning. If you drive straight there without stopping, it can take about 2.5 hours. However, there is a lot of stop-worthy stuff along the way. We took the western route along Flathead Lake to get there, first driving through St. Ignatius to see the beautiful Mission Mountains, then driving by Polson, up through Kalispell, a little out-of-the-way up to Whitefish, and then over to West Glacier where we stayed.
- Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. It is a beautiful, recreational lake that also has delicious and plentiful fruit (see Flathead Cherries) during the summer.
- Kalispell, home of Michelle Williams and considered the gateway
to Glacier National Park is a small city with a lot of charm. When you’re not taking advantage of the many outdoor recreational activities in the area, check out the Conrad Mansion, have breakfast at the Knead Café, or lunch at Hop’s Downtown Grill.
- Whitefish (our personal favorite) is a small town just west of West Glacier that serves as a ski resort town in the winter for the world-class Whitefish Mountain Resort and a fishing/biking/hiking/shopping/eating town for the other seasons. We just loved walking around here and looking at the little local shops filled with handcrafted goods and sipping on locally roasted coffee after enjoying a nice lunch at a town diner. [TIP: Winters in Montana can go well into spring and start early in the fall.] We didn’t stay here overnight, but next time I will.
There’s lodging for everyone in Whitefish. For a dude ranch, stay at the Bar W Guest Ranch; for a lodge on the lake, stay at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake; for a modern boutique hotel in the heart of town, stay at the Firebrand Hotel; and for a cozy B&B, stay at the Good Medicine Lodge. There’s a great array of dining to choose from downtown, so when I go back, I’ll be staying within walking distance of one the many delicious dining choices.
After our scenic drive, we arrived at the West Glacier KOA. Why did we stay there? First, we had a dog with us. Dogs are not allowed in most of the lodging in the park. Second, we booked relatively late (2-3 months in advance) so this was the best option available for us. [TIP: One of the reasons I’m saying to start planning now! Lodging in and around national parks book up sometimes two years in advance.] Third, we had a party of 10, and some wanted to camp, while we opted to stay in one of the mini cabins. Fourth, have you been to a KOA lately? A lot of them are awesome! My husband, daughter, and I stayed in
a Studio Lodge Deluxe Cabin. It came with a partial kitchen (fridge and microwave), a full bath, linens on a Queen bed, a twin bunk bed set, and a private porch, patio, and grill. This is not the KOA you stayed at when you were a kid. Aside from our accommodations, this property is right outside of the park entrance, there are multiple pools, hot tubs, hot breakfast and dinner is available for purchase by a cook in the campground, there’s an ice cream shop, recreation room, and everyone is just so friendly and its clean! All I’m saying is, don’t cross off KOAs as a potential family lodging option. They can be perfect for your group! However, next time, I want to stay in the park, and that will take more advanced planning on my part.
So, what do you do in Glacier? There is so much to do if you love the outdoors, which is why you need more than one full day to experience the park. If you only have one day or a few hours though, you must drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road. See this video that my husband produced, and you’ll know why.
I wanted to take one of the iconic Red Bus Tours of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, but again, I didn’t plan in advance, so we weren’t able to get reservations. This drive could easily take you all day if you stop a lot to see the sights, stop for a picnic by a lake, or stop for a short hike like the one we did with our daughter, the Trail of Cedars.
If you have more than one day (which I can’t emphasize more that I recommend), you can do any number of things depending on your interest and capabilities. Here are some of my recommendations:
- Take a day hike to Grinnell Glacier (you can make this more doable by taking a boat for part of it) or Iceberg Trail Lake, or many more….
- If you have your passport, go to the Canadian side of the park, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park
- Kayak, canoe, or SUP in Lake McDonald
- Raft in the Flathead River
- Have a picnic at the top of a mountain, the banks of the river, on the edge of a waterfall, or the side of a lake
- Horseback ride in Many Glacier
- Take a helicopter tour to see the pristine turquoise glacial lakes from above
- While you’re doing all these, keep your eyes peeled for: grizzly bears and mountain goats [TIP: Don’t approach any animals. Enough said.]
- Take a trip over to Polebridge a tiny little town with two main stops powered by, I kid you not, generators: The Mercantile for delicious baked goods and sandwiches; and the Northern Lights Saloon
I always say with National Parks, to stop in the biggest visitor center at the park and ask a ranger for recommendations. We told the ranger that we had a small child and wanted to do a short hike, and he gave us some really great recommendations that were tailored to us.
On the drive home (or back to your flight) back to Missoula, I recommend taking an eastern route home that runs through Bigfork, Swan Lake, and Seeley Lake to see another beautiful scenic route along the Swan and Mission Mountains and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. (All worthy of their own blog article.)
So…have I convinced you to go to my favorite national park yet? If so, here’s why you need to start planning now for your trip to Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks (or any parks for that matter). [BTW…I specifically mentioned the above three parks because they are all completely doable in a single trip if planned correctly.]
Summer is peak season – not just for the normal school break reasons but because many parts of the parks (especially Glacier) are not accessible until the summer, i.e. the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Lodging in the park is limited – in order to preserve the natural habitats of the parks, building is restricted, so lodging capacity is limited. If you want to stay in the park, which I highly recommend to get the full experience, you need to book wellllll in advance (I’m talking 6 months to 2 years depending on the park and hotel).
Tours sell out fast – many tours are capacity controlled to keep the experience enjoyable. As I mentioned the Red Bus Tours in Glacier were sold out before I could book. Iconic experiences like that book quickly.
Airfare can sell out and/or get really expensive– flying into places like Montana is expensive – mostly because these are small airports with limited connections. To get ideal flights, you should book well ahead of time.
It takes planning to get the most of it – if you want to dine in the fine restaurants of the park you need to make reservations, if you want a nice hotel room with a view you have to book it early, if you want to see multiple parks in one trip, it takes logistic coordination and preferably personal experience to know the best routes, etc.
If I have suddenly stressed you out about what should be an exciting thought, summer vacation – don’t fret. I am here to provide customized vacations planning services for your next national park vacation. Not only do love the NPS, but I also have a lot of experience with visiting them.
Let’s get started on this today! All you have to do is fill our trip planning form, and we’ll start a conversation on how to make this happen for you.
Happy Holidays to you!
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