One of the jewels of North America, Glacier National Park has been stunning travelers from all over the world for generations. It was made an official part of the U.S. national park system in 1910 and spreads out across more than a million acres of land in northwest Montana. From the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road to the nearly 750 miles of hiking trails it offers, there is no shortage of things to do and places to see at Glacier.
In the early 1890s, Scottish naturalist and advocate of wildlife preservation John Muir, visited the park and was quite taken with it, to say the least.
"Give a month at least to this precious reserve," he said in his 1901 collection of essays, Our National Park. "The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. Nevermore will time seem short or long, and cares will never again fall heavily on you, but gently and kindly as gifts from heaven."
If you are planning your trip to what the Native Americans called "The Backbone of the World," here are a few steps you take to get the most out of your adventure:
Make a plan…
Glacier National Park is massive, which means it's unlikely you'll be able to see everything, so make sure you do plenty of research beforehand to fit in everything that is important to you. Whether you are a first-time hiker looking to get your feet wet, so to speak, in the park or a seasoned veteran, you can find hiking trails that will suit your skill level. If you are a bit wet behind the ears when it comes to hiking, be sure to do some physical conditioning before your trip. Glacier's high elevation means the air is thinner, making activity a bit more taxing on your body. While you're planning your trip, consider what you want to get out of it. Do you want to admire the flora and fauna? Look for trails that have lots of wildflowers and wildlife. Are you a shutterbug? There are no shortages of photogenic spots in the park, though there are definitely a few spots you don't want to miss – but more on that later. Glacier is a huge park with a lot to offer, so it's essential that you go in with a game plan.
…But be flexible
You know what they say about best laid plans, and there are plenty of factors out of your control at Glacier. Your first trip once you arrive at the park should be to stop at the visitor center. There, you'll find out if you have to shift your plans around slightly to accommodate for incoming weather, construction or other issues that may close down trails and roads temporarily. One of the largest draws, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, is frequently under construction, which may impede your progress into the park, so give yourself more time than you expect to get to trail heads.
Consider the weather
Because Glacier National Park is so high – the highest point of Going-to-the-Sun road stands at 6,646 feet above sea level – you can usually depend on it being between 10 and 15 degrees colder in the park than in the surrounding areas and can vary widely during a single day. Summer temperatures can pass 90 degrees during the day, then plummet as low as 20 degrees at night. Because of this, be sure to dress in light layers so you can add or shed clothing as the weather dictates.
While there is plenty to see in Glacier National Park, here are a few of the most popular spots:
- Going-to-the-Sun Road: This road is one of the main arteries of the park, traveling over the Continental Divide. It will take you past dozens of hiking spots and photo opportunities, though the drive alone is worth the trip.
- St. Mary Lake: An incredibly photogenic spot, St. Mary Lake and its Wild Goose Island stand as the eastern gateway to the park.
- Logan Pass: The highest point on Going-to-the-Sun Road, Logan Pass will offer incredible views in all directions. If you're looking for wildlife, you'll find it here – mountain goats can be found all over in this high-elevation section of the park.
- Highline Loop: Experienced – and fit – hikers at Logan Pass may want to give this difficult-but-rewarding trail a try. Considered a must-see trail for hikers all over the world, this trail will reach elevations well past 7,200 feet and show you some of the world's most beautiful views.
As with any trip, security is paramount. Most visitors park their cars at trailheads and set off on their hikes, leaving their valuables vulnerable to break-ins. If you have a pickup, be sure to bring a truck bed box with a secure lock. Small valuables should be kept in lock boxes.