If you're interested in exploring the Crown of the Continent be sure to read this list of Glacier National Park facts and tips I've compiled to know before visiting.
I recently had the opportunity to make my second visit to the park from out of state and it remains one of my all time favorite places that I've ever been to!
Known for some of the most amazing hiking in the United States, I've spent countless hours researching, hiking and experiencing all of the beauty this great National Park has to offer.
In this post I'm going to cover a number of facts about the park along with useful information you'll want to know when planning your trip. From timed entry reservations to booking marquee lodging in the park (which sells out a year in advance) I'm going to make sure you don't face any surprises in your trip to Glacier National Park!
If you're more interested in learning about specific activities to do during your trip, be sure to check out my guide covering the best things to do in Glacier National Park after you're finished here.
I've also created several video guides you can find on my YouTube channel that will highlight some of Glacier's best hikes, my favorite activities and a number of tips from this guide. Be sure to check those out when you're finished reading this post!
You'll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I'm still happy you're here!
Where is Glacier National Park Located?
The park is located in the northwestern region of Montana, near the Canadian border. The nearest towns to the park are Kalispell, Whitefish and Babb. Kalispell is home to the regions primary airport which makes it the best jumping off point for visitors outside of driving distance.
The park boundaries span two separate sub ranges of the Rocky Mountains and over 1 million acres. Within the park visitors will have the opportunity to see glaciers, forests, turquoise lakes, wildlife and enjoy some of the best hiking trails in the United States.
What is the best town to stay in when visiting?
Whitefish and the surrounding area on the western side of the park will have the most lodging options. This is also where you'll find the highest concentration of restaurants, activities, bars and things of that nature.
It's not the cheapest area to stay, but in general this is a pretty expensive area to visit during the summer season. If you're on a budget try looking around Kalispell, or secure campsite reservations well in advance. Hotels in this area will not be cheap!
You can search for deals on hotels in the Whitefish area here.
Another not so budget friendly option, but my personal favorite, is to secure lodging within the park itself.
Glacier National Park is home to a handful of hotels that are spread throughout the park. These hotels usually sell out a full year in advance so you'll need to secure a reservation as soon as they become available. I'd recommend calling these hotels at least 12 months prior to your target dates.
During my last visit to the park we stayed at Many Glacier Hotel which is located in the Many Glacier area on the eastern side of the park. The hotel has a great restaurant, balconies with views of Grinnell Point and access to Swiftcurrent Lake for canoe rentals and more.
If you're an avid hiker and looking for something really off the grid, considering hiking the Highline Trail and spending the night at Granite Park Chalet for a truly unforgettable mountain experience.
How many days should I spend visiting Glacier National Park
Spend no less than three days visiting Glacier National Park, which will only give you a taste of what the Crown of the Continent has to offer. Ideally you'll be able to spend at least five days here during your trip.
Five days will allow you enough time to attempt at least one premier hike in each area of the park. If you're an outdoor enthusiast or avid hiker, you could easily spend a week here and still not get through all of the great hiking options.
Between my two visits to Glacier National Park I've spent about 10 days in the area and I still have a number of things on my to do list for a future trip.
Since it can take a significant amount of time to drive across the entire park, consider breaking up your stay at more than one hotel, split between different areas, to cut down on driving time.
During my last stay we flew into Kalispell during the morning. Grabbed supplies at the grocery store and hit the Avalanche Lake hike on our way to Many Glacier Hotel which is situated on the eastern side of the park. Spend a couple nights on this side before working back to Whitefish on the western side of the park for a few more nights. This will leave you closer to the airport when you eventually head out.
Understand the National Park Timed Entry Reservation System
There are two important components to this tip.
First off you need to understand how the National Park Timed Entry System works and then be sure to create an account at NPS.gov.
The first link will take you to a comprehensive guide I wrote on the subject. Not only will it walk you through the process, but I also highlight some entry hacks if you find yourself in a pinch after all of the reservation slots have sold out.
Their process is constantly evolving, but as of now, different sections of Glacier National Park require different reservation types to access.
The different areas of the park are Going to the Sun Road, Many Glacier, Two Medicine and North Fork. You will need a separate reservation to access each area.
There are some great hikes located in the Many Glacier area such as Iceberg Lake and the trail to Grinnell Lake. While other super popular hikes like the Highline Trail or Avalanche Lake are located along Going to the Sun Road. Given how dispersed the best activities are, you'll probably need more than one type of reservation.
If you're interested in learning more about Iceberg Lake be sure to check out the video guide I created on my YouTube channel when you're finished here.
Also keep in mind that Going to the Sun Road is the best way to get across Glacier National Park, from Whitefish to Babb. But without a reservation you'll need to take the longer route around the park to get from one side to the other.
Be sure to pack necessary hiking gear and supplies
There are certain outdoor essentials that virtually every visitor to the park should have. This includes basic items such as hiking boots, sunscreen, water and food. Generally speaking there isn't anywhere to purchase food, water or to refuel in the park and it can take hours to cross Going to the Sun Road. Plan accordingly!
Be thoughtful about your GPS or map situation as well. Cellular service throughout the area is extremely limited so anything past basic GPS navigation cannot be relied on. Download maps and do any activity research before entering the park.
Bear spray is an essential item to have easily accessible if you're doing any hiking during your visit. You can purchase or rent bear spray from many outdoor and general merchandise shops in the towns surrounding Glacier National Park. For guests flying into Kalispell, there's a shop inside the airport near baggage claim where you can rent bear spray.
If you're doing longer day hikes (like conquering the Mount Brown Lookout) you'll want to do some additional preparation. I've put together a complete day hike checklist that you should check out before visiting to ensure you don't leave anything behind!
Glacier National Park is abundant with wildlife
One of the most amazing parts of visiting Glacier National Park is the possibility of encountering wildlife, both small and large.
Over the span of my two visits to the park I've encountered bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wolves, moose, marmots and even had a couple way too close bear encounters.
If you're keen on spotting wildlife during your visit, Many Glacier and Logan's Pass are two prime areas to look. We saw several different animals during our hike to Hidden Lake including big horn sheep, marmots and a wolf/coyote!
While the opportunity to encounter wildlife in the park is exciting, with this opportunity comes a lot of responsibility.
The first and most important rule is that any time you spot wildlife, keep your distance. As a reminder these are wild animals and they can act unpredictably. Don't be that cringeworthy guest trying to take a selfie with a moose.
The next thing to remember is that there is an active bear population in the park. Visitors will be well served to brush up on the latest bear safety protocol provided by the National Park Service. I've personally encountered two bears while out hiking in the park and knowing these tips helped me stay safe in both situations.
And as a reminder, never hike in Glacier National Park without bear spray. This is covered in the bear safety link I provided above, but it cannot be stressed enough. If you're flying in from out of state you can rent a bottle at the airport near baggage claim.
When is the best time of year to visit Glacier National Park?
The best time of year to visit the park is summer, between mid July and late August. This is when temperatures are the warmest and ensures that snow has melted from higher elevation trails and that snow has been cleared from Going to the Sun Road.
If you arrive too early in the summer season Going to the Sun Road may still be closed to the public which is the only road that provides access to Logan's Pass.
While summer is the best time of year to visit the park it's also the busiest which means fierce competition for timed entry reservations, campgrounds and lodging. Flights will be more expensive and rental cars may sell out so plan your travels further in advance.
Don't sleep on booking your rental car! You can compare different car rental operators here to help get the best deal possible.
Ideal Hiking Season is Short in Glacier National Park
While Glacier National Park is considered to be in season from May to September, the most reliable months for hiking are mid July through early September.
This means that peak season in the park is extremely short which contributes to over crowding, higher costs and less availability of hotels and rental cars.
Going to the Sun Road sometimes doesn't open until mid July which means Logan's Pass, one of the most popular areas of the park, cannot be accessed by car until this time. If you plan your visit to the park too early in the season you might miss out on some of the best hiking in the park.
There's also a chance that some trails at higher elevations will still be obstructed by snow bridges if you visit too early in the summer. During my last visit we narrowly missed out on the Grinnell Glacier Hike due to snow even though it was the first weekend in August!
On the flip side if you visit Glacier National Park too late in the season, forest fires (here or elsewhere out West) can cause hazy conditions that are less than ideal for hiking. Alternatively, if you visit too late in September the weather can start to turn cold.
All things considered if you want to ensure the greatest odds of accessibility in the park I'd suggest visiting during early August. It will be peak season which can mean crowds and higher costs, but this should ensure you can access all of the best areas of the park.
If you don't mind waking up early, arriving at popular trailheads first thing in the morning is a great way to experience the park without the crowds.
Hotels and cars book up far in advance
The unfortunate reality of planning a trip to Glacier National Park is that it can be expensive. Flights into the area are generally not cheap, lodging options are very expensive during peak season since it is so short and rental cars get swooped up very quickly.
The most coveted hotels in this area are those located within Glacier National Park. The biggest advantage to staying inside the park is that it will substantially cut down on your driving time.
While there are more hotels located in nearby Whitefish, you'll have to drive an hour roundtrip each day just to reach the park entrance.
If you're interested in staying in any of the hotels within the park you'll need to stalk these a full year in advance. They tend to book up for the season almost immediately after the dates become available online. To start that process head over to the Glacier National Park Lodges booking site.
For other destinations, you don't usually need to reserve a rental car so far in advance. But for Glacier, you'll want to reserve your vehicle as soon as you know you're taking the trip.
There tends to be more demand for cars than availability and you run the risk of cars being completely booked up. My first recommendation would be to use a traditional rental car booking tool, or if you're not having luck there, check out Turo which is basically the Airbnb of renting cars.
Either way the strategy here is to plan and book your vehicle very far in advance. This is an exception where it's unlikely you'll find a cheaper deal as your travel date draws closer!
Understand Going to the Sun Road before visiting
Going to the Sun Road is the main artery that services Glacier National Park. The 50 miles (80 km) scenic mountain road provides access to many of the parks most popular areas. This incredible road takes visitors across the Continental Divide along one of the most scenic drives in America.
The entirety of the road is usually open by late June through September. However, the actual window varies by year with weather conditions. On my first visit to the park in 2020 the road didn't open until late July!
Since the road provides access to many of the most popular areas of the park such as Logan's Pass, it's important to carefully time your visit with the activities you hope to enjoy during your stay.
Going to the Sun Road is considered it's own sub area of the park requiring a timed entry reservation separate from other areas such as Many Glacier.
The road is also susceptible to closures due to construction. It's important to check the National Park Service website for current conditions in advance of, and on each day of your trip.
Parking is limited at popular trailheads
Glacier National Park has a reputation for its difficulty securing parking at popular trailheads and for heavy traffic along Going to the Sun Road.
Sometimes this is unavoidable, but you can avoid most of these issues by simply getting an early start to your day.
Decide which hikes are most important to you and set your schedule to attempt those first thing in the morning which usually means arriving by 7:00am.
This should ensure you snag a coveted parking spot, face fewer crowds on the trail itself and avoid the hottest part of the day.
If you're looking to do a second hike on any given day, try to pair a less popular or shorter hike in the afternoon such as the Trail of the Cedars Nature Loop or hike to Redrock Falls in Many Glacier. Parking should be more readily available, and the parking spaces will turn over more quickly at the parking lots for shorter trails.
Logan's Pass and Many Glacier are two of the busiest portions of the park, if you're attempting a hike from either area I'd highly recommend arriving to these areas by 7:00am. It can be really crowded attempting to visit either area by midday.
The park does tend to slow down in the late afternoon or early evening, but it can be difficult to complete some of the longer hikes during this timeframe with adequate sunlight. If you're attempting a hike late in the day make sure you have a headlamp or flashlight in case you're stuck out after dark.
The National Park Service offers a free shuttle system to get around the park
Parking at the most popular trailheads can be a huge problem in Glacier National Park. The timed entry reservation system has helped mitigate this a bit, but the issue is still prevalent.
But there is a way to get around the hassle of securing parking at the most popular areas of the park and that solution is the National Park shuttle system.
The shuttle system drops off and picks up at many of the most popular points of interest throughout Glacier National Park.
For most visitors, the best way to utilize the system is by parking at either the Apgar Village Visitor Center on the west side or the St Mary Visitor Center on the east side of the park. From there you can catch a shuttle that will take you all the way to Logan's Pass with plenty of stops along the way.
This is also a great solution for anyone that's uncomfortable driving along Going to the Sun Road which can be narrow with steep drop offs.
Just be mindful that during summer season, at peak times of the day, there can be lines to board the shuttle at certain spots. It isn't uncommon to spend 15-30 minutes waiting to catch a shuttle during these times.
Take an iconic Red Bus Tour along Going to the Sun Road
One of the most iconic activities you can do in Glacier National Park is to take a Red Bus Tour! The significance of these red touring buses dates back to the 1930s. Their large windows and roll back top design allows for panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes.
The touring buses seat a maximum of 16 passengers across four bench seats which hold four riders each. The seating is described by the tour company as snug and be mindful that not everyone will land a coveted window seat.
Along the scenic drive riders will enjoy commentary from knowledgeable park guides about the rich history of Glacier National Park.
Visitors can choose from options departing from the western or eastern sides of the park. Just be mindful that these tours sell out regularly so the further out you can reserve a seat the better!
Some lakes in the park offer guided boat tours
Did you know that you can take a guided boat tour in Glacier National Park? The Glacier Park Boat Company offers guided options at Apgar on Lake McDonald, St Mary, Two Medicine and Many Glacier.
The best way to book one of these tours is directly through The Glacier Park Boat Company's website.
If this is an activity you'd like to do during your visit, I highly recommend booking far in advance. While some tours offer standby options in the event a rider no shows, most tours will completely sell out. Don't expect to show up and grab a last minute seat!
Wildfires can affect your visit
Summer season, and especially late summer, is wildfire season in Glacier National Park. If conditions are extremely dry campfires within the park may be restricted. This is more of an issue if you plan to camp within the park during your stay.
If there are active wildfires in the park it could result in certain areas being closed to the public. It's always advisable to check park conditions with the National Park Service each day during your visit.
Even if there aren't wildfires or dry conditions in Glacier National Park, smoke from other wildfires in the region can drift through and cause hazy conditions and poor air quality.
In extreme instances the air quality and lack of visibility can negatively impact hiking conditions.
Consider purchasing AllTrails pro
Glacier National Park is considered a hikers paradise and offers some of the most beautiful hiking trails in the United States.
All things considered the trails are well maintained and well marked, but that doesn't mean you can't get lost or accidentally make a wrong turn!
AllTrails is a tool I use when hiking that helps me identify the best hikes, stay on the correct trail and track my progress.
Many of the features are free but you'll need to purchase the premium version if you want to take advantage of offline maps and tracking!
Food and water are generally not available inside the park
For the most part, food and water are not available for purchase inside Glacier National Park. You'll want to pack ample supplies before entering the park on any given day.
However, there are a few hotels and chalets located throughout the park where meals or water can be purchased. These are relatively sparse and the chalets require miles of hiking on foot to reach so they don't make for reliable options.
Now that you've been warned, I would still advise trying to budget time for a meal at the Many Glacier Hotel located on the eastern side of the park. Even if you don't have lodging accommodations here you should be able to access the restaurant for a meal. The hotel overlooks Swiftcurrent Lake and you can even rent a canoe or kayak here to take out on the lake before or after your meal!
Restrooms are readily available along Going to the Sun Road
You might actually be surprised at how widely available restrooms are in Glacier National Park. Will they be the nicest facilities you've ever used? Probably not, you are off in the mountains after all.
But for the most part there's a popular trailhead along Going to the Sun Road every several miles or so and with each trailhead there's almost always a restroom.
There's even a decent number of pit toilets out along many of the trails. These are basically one person outhouses that lock from the exterior. They can be quite handy in a pinch!
As a pro tip, if the pit toilet is unlocked from the outside is usually means there's someone inside. When you're finished using one, lock it back up to ensure wildlife doesn't get inside!
Cell phone service is very limited in Glacier National Park
Cellular service is difficult to come by throughout Glacier National Park. Visitors should not expect to have reliable phone, messaging, internet or even GPS service when navigating the area.
It's recommended that you download maps and plan your route before entering the park. Service can be so spotty that even GPS navigation is unreliable.
Some of the more densely populated areas of the park and high points such as Logan's Pass may provide limited cell coverage, but you should plan to be without your phone for much of the day during your visit.
Pet access is extremely limited throughout the park
In general you should assume your furry friend is not welcome to explore any of the hiking that Glacier National Park has to offer with you. Sad, I know!
Pets are not allowed on any of the park transportation systems or inside any park buildings.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Leashed pets are allowed in parking lots, roads and certain campgrounds (check beforehand for your specific area).
Given the restrictions and abundance of wildlife in the park, including bears, it's probably best you leave them at home for their own safety.
Understand the Leave No Trace Principles
It's important to help preserve the beauty of the Crown of the Continent for future generations to enjoy.
Avoid leaving any marked trails, pick up any waste you create and never take plants, rocks or other objects you find during your adventures.
Be sure to keep a safe distance from wildlife and be courteous to other hikers you encounter on the trails.
These are just a few of the most important leave no trace principles which I recommend reviewing before your visit.
I hope this list of Glacier National Park facts and tips serves you well in planning your trip to the park!