Glacier National Park
Website – https://www.nps.gov/glac/index
Waterton Lakes National Park (Glacier’s sister park in Canada) – https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/waterton/
St Mary, Montana
Back in 2017, our big adventure was having a new baby. But in 2016, we took a month-long road trip out to Montana. The highlight of our trip? 6 days in Glacier National Park! Even though it is in the middle of nowhere, this was the 10th most visited national park in 2019 with 3 million visitors, which tells you how amazing it is. And it’s amazing.
We had spent our previous day in a hotel room by a giant penguin…
… which gave us an early jump to drive the two hours across Montana to the gateway town of St Mary.
Here we picked up our adventure companion for the next ten days, my Uncle John. Uncle John has lived in Japan for decades, but had lived in Montana for several years before that. When he heard we were going to spend 6 days in Glacier National Park, he decided to fly in to join us. this was very brave of him because a) he hadn’t camped in at least 20 years and b) he had never camped with a 2 and 4 year old before. We headed to the campground to set up our tents.
With our campsite ( 48°45’11.87″N, 113°26’33.48″W) ready to go… what to do? We decided to go all in and do the most popular part of the park right away – Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Day 1 – Going-to-the-Sun Road
This 50 mile road might be the most beautiful stretch of asphalt on Earth. It’s by far the most popular part of the park, and at any given point on a nice day, all three million annual visitors can be found on this road at once. I highly recommend starting early OR going late, especially if you are hoping to stop at any point along the road and park. Flexibility is also great, because weather isn’t always cooperative.
We piled into one car and away we went.
The road passes by the beautiful St Mary Lake before beginning to wind up through the mountains. The scenery just gets better and better the higher that you go.
The road itself is a wonder, as it clings to the edge of the cliffs. Driving here is not for the faint of heart.
But the scenery isn’t the only thing to look out for, keep an eye out for mountain goats.
We crested the mountains and began to drop down to Lake McDonald at the end of Going-to-the-Sun-Road.
Now the great thing about finishing this road? We get to turn around and go all the way back to the campsite! Yay!
Day 2 – Iceberg Lake Trail
After a lovely night in the campground, we were up nice and early. Our goal for the day was crazy, a 4.8 mile out-and-back hike (10 miles total) on the Iceberg Lake Trail. This was maybe just a little crazy with a 4 year old and a 2 year old, but we figured if The Pres could walk the five miles to the lake, then he’d find a way to hike the five miles back. We had hoped to do the Grinnell Glacier Trail as our “crazy hike” in the park, but it was still snowed in. While we were a little disappointed, we wouldn’t be once we started hiking this trail.
We parked at Many Glacier at the trail head and away we went. The first quarter mile was brutal for lowlander South Jerseyians like ourselves, it felt like straight up, even if it wasn’t actually that bad.
When we got close to Iceberg Lake, the trail began to cross a number of little streams. This was my favorite part of the trail, because I am eternally a sucker for bridges.
We pulled into the lake, which was stunningly beautiful. These pictures don’t begin to do it justice.
We had our lunch here while soaking in the view. Once we were done, WE GOT TO GET THE SAME AMAZING VIEWS ON THE WAY BACK! Yay!
I was fully ready to carry The Pres for stretches on the way back. But I never had to! At four years old, he finished his first 10 mile hike. What a great kid.
After this, it was back to camp for dinner and a well deserved night’s sleep.
Day 3 – Grinnell Lake Trail
While we couldn’t make it to Grinnell Glacier, we COULD make it to Grinnell Lake. We had originally planned to take the boat across Lake Josephine to cut off some of this hike, but we were all feeling so good after our hike the day before that we decided to tackle this 3 1/4 mile one way (7 1/2 miles round trip) hike.
The first stretch follows along Lake Josephine, which had lovely views. We walked down the trail, staying to the left to avoid the Grinnell Glacier Trail.
The trail then leaves the water for a while between the lakes. This was my favorite stretch of the trail, because TONS OF BRIDGES. The Pres was a big fan too, he talked about the Indiana Jones type bridge for YEARS after this.
We then arrived at the lake, where we enjoyed our lunch. A nice, long lunch. Then, we explored the lake.
We then started to head back down the trail, enjoying the views the whole way.
That night, we had hot dogs to celebrate the 4th of July. Happy Independence Day! Uncle John hadn’t had a hot dog in decades, apparently they are not a thing in Japan. We then drove Going-to-the-Sun Road again to check out wildlife. We had the road pretty much to ourselves by that point, as it empties out when everyone heads back to the hotels and campgrounds for dinners. We ended our night sitting at the campground watching some fireworks being set off at the KOA campground down below.
Day 4 – Waterton Lakes National Park – Alberta, Canada
Day 4 was going to extra exciting… we were heading to Alberta! The beauty of the Rocky Mountains does NOT end at the border, and Glacier National Park has a sister park immediately to the North of it – Waterton Lakes National Park. It requires a passport or a passport card to get there and come back, which we’d very intelligently had brought with us. So Canada bound!
Even the highway to the entrance of the park is pretty great.
We then got into the park. The kids were a little hiked out after almost 18 miles in two days, so this would be a driving tour of the park. There are some really lovely mountain views.
We made a stop at Red Rock Canyon, where the kids had the chance to climb around. Miraculously, no one fell into the water.
By this point, I think Uncle John was ready for some non-camp food. So lunch was at the Price of Wales Hotel, opened in 1927.
It was then time to start heading back to the good ol’ USA, but first we stopped to see the park’s bison herd. This was our only disappointment of the park, mostly because they are contained in a huge fenced in area, and we’d been spoiled by the bison herds at Teddy Roosevelt National Park.
We arrived back for one more night at St Mary Campground. Dinner, another ranger program (we almost never miss a ranger program when staying in a national park campground), and off to bed.
Day 5 – Trail of the Cedars
Our fifth day in Glacier, we woke up, had breakfast, and broke camp. We were heading back up and over Going-to-the-Sun Road for the final time, and this time, we’d be staying on the western side of the park for the next two days… yay! I was glad we had done Going-to-the-Sun Road twice before, because it was very cloudy this day! Made for some nice shots, but it was freezing and the views weren’t very good overall this morning. Also, driving this road in thick fog was a little terrifying.
We headed to Fish Creek Campground, set up our tents, and ate some lunch. The campsite wasn’t nearly as nice as the one at St Marys, but it was still very nice.
Trail of the Cedars – 1 mile loop – 48°40’48.95″N, 113°49’8.04″W
We had some time afterwards, so we headed to Trail of the Cedars at the bottom of Going-to-the-Sun Road. This 1 mile loop passes some GIGANTIC trees that are centuries old. Halfway around is a beautiful waterfall.
Why is this trail so green? Because mists are trapped here, nurturing all of the plant life that is along this trail.
With this, our day was already over. Back to camp for our first night at our new campsite at Fish Creek Campground.
Day 6 – West Glacier
Our last day in Glacier was going to be spent exploring West Glacier. Only a small fraction of visitors to the park make it over this way, so we saw far fewer people today than any of our first five days. Our two hikes today, we didn’t see ANYONE else on the trails!
Our first stop was the…
Forest and Fire Nature Trail – 1.1 mile – 48°37’28.47″N, 114° 7’46.42″W
This trail was a short one, but it goes through an area that burned over back in 2001, so it’s interesting to see how the forest has bounced back.
Polebridge, Montana – 48°45’54.09″N, 114°17’7.19″W
We then headed out of the park to visit lovely Polebridge, Montana. It’s a tiny town with a merchantile/bakery that you should visit.
Hornet Lookout Trail – 1 mile – 48°53’3.21″N, 114°30’24.28″W
Our last hike in Glacier was actually, technically, not in Glacier. It was Hornet Lookout in Flathead National Forest, which had beautiful views back into Glacier National Park. The trail is just over a mile up, climbing through an area that burned back in 2003.
The best part? You can rent this tower and stay up here. I’m a little sad that we didn’t get to stay up here, but maybe next time!
Then it was back to the campground for our last night in Glacier National Park. It was a magical six days that we’ll never forget.
But don’t feel too bad to us. We’d spend the next day driving south across Montana, stopping off at Grant-Kors Ranch National Historic Site, so that we could visit Yellowstone National Park the day after. But that is for another post.
Our previous stop? Theodore Roosevelt National Park – Medora, North Dakota