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Glacier National Park is tucked within Montana’s northwest region along the border of British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. This over 16,000-square-mile park is a nature lovers paradise and one of the few places left in the U.S. where you can enjoy pristine wilderness and possibly not see another human for several days. It also offers more developed areas for those who want to take advantage of outdoor adventures along with modern facilities. If you plan on visiting, these top things to do can help make your trip one that’s especially unforgettable.
Take a Hike
While you can see plenty of amazing scenery from the road and your car, if at all possible, you should really get out on foot to experience nature first-hand. Hikes in Glacier National Park range from flat, easy, ranger-led interpretive hikes that are wheel-chair accessible to challenging back-country trips that only those who are highly fit and experienced should attempt. A few favorite hikes here include Highline Trail, a high-elevation trail accessed from Logan Pass that offers magnificent views along the 20-mile one-way route (most visitors just sample the first few miles or so); the three-mile round-trip Hidden Lake Overlook Trail, also accessed from the Logan Pass Visitor Center, and the roughly 3.5-mile trek to two stunning waterfalls, St. Mary and Virginia Falls.
Drive one of the world’s most scenic roads
If you’re on very limited time and have to choose just one thing to do, it should be driving one of America’s most scenic routes, Going to the Sun Road. The breathtaking 50-mile highway bisects the park east and west, spanning its width and crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. There are lots of pullouts and scenic viewpoints along the road where you can stop and take in the awe-inspiring views of diverse terrain that includes large and brilliant glacial lakes, cedar forests and windswept alpine tundra at the peak. Here at the nearly 6,700-foot-high pass, you’ll find a visitor center that offers more spectacular vistas as well as being the starting point for Highline Trail.
Wildlife is frequently seen from just about any point along the roadway, including mountain goats and bighorn sheep that are almost always spotted at Logan Pass, lounging in the sun right alongside the highway.
See a glacier before it disappears
The park’s glaciers have been in a melting trend ever since 1850, though there have been periods up until 1980 during which they did expand. Since 1980, they have been receding more rapidly than they had in the past. Just a little over a century ago, there were some 150 glaciers here, but today, just 26 remain, and those are all predicted to disappear by 2030, if not sooner. Part of the reason is that the warmer climate is encouraging plants to bloom too early – and then pollinating birds arrive too late for the insects and plants on which they rely, throwing the cycle out of sync. Grinnell Glacier is one of the park’s largest, but between 1966 and 2005, it lost almost 40 percent of its acreage. It measured 710 acres in 1859, and today, it’s just 152 acres in size. If you want to see it, taking the 6-mile Grinnell Glacier hike will reward you with a gorgeous view of glacier carved land.
Sperry Glacier sits on the north slopes of Gunsight Mountain and has retreated 75 percent since the mid-19th-century. At one point it covered 930 acres, but the latest estimate found an estimated area of 216 acres. While it has significantly retreated, you can still see magnificent but minor glacial features, like large moraines, streams and milky aqua-hued lakes. Many of those of choose to visit Sperry, choose to spend the night at Sperry Chalet, a 1913 mountain cabin, before hiking the steep trail.
Rent a kayak and paddle Two Medicine Lake
Two Medicine borders East Glacier, and is one of the park’s lesser-explored regions as it’s not a direct artery of the popular Going To the Sun Road. Heading here offers the opportunity to enjoy especially tranquil outdoor activities among incredible scenery with the calm shorelines and pristine turquoise waters of Two Medicine Lake, which reflects soaring spires rising straight out of the earth. Visitors can rent kayaks, as well as canoes and rowboats, to explore the deep blue waters with striking snow-capped mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. The area also offers a varied selection of trails, campgrounds and more.
Hop aboard a scenic boat tour
There are a number of beautiful, long and thin glacier-carved lakes in the park that offer scenic boat tours, which is a fun way to learn more about the area as well as enjoy the scenery from the more unique perspective of the water. Lake McDonald offers hour-long cruises from the boat dock at Lake McDonald Lodge that allow visitors to revel in the tranquility of this emerald-hued lake, the largest in the park, aboard a historic wooden boat. St. Mary Lake, located about five miles from the park’s east entrance, offers a boat tour that will take you on an up-close visit of Wild Goose Island as well as boasting epic, panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Some of the highlights of the tour that begins from Rising Sun boat dock, include Sexton Glacier, remnants of Great Northern Railway President Louis Hill’s private cabin and little islands that are dotted across the water. The narrated excursion is available with or without a guided hike.
In Many Glacier, you can tour both Swiftcurrent and Joesephine Lakes by boat that departs from the Many Glacier Dock. This scenic trip requires a short hike between the lakes, and if you’d like a lengthier trek, that’s an option too.
Rent a watercraft and explore the park’s lakes on your own
If you’re prefer to be more independent and explore the lakes on your own, you can rent a motor boat, row boat or canoe at both Lower Two Medicine Lake and Lake McDonald. During the summer, there are usually lots of calm, warm days that just beg for getting out on the water, particularly at Lake McDonald. On Two Medicine, you can paddle around to discover remote banks or find that perfect fishing hole.
If you have your own watercraft, that opens up a couple of other possibilities as boating and paddling are also allowed on St. Mary Lake and Sherburne Lake. Just keep in mind that if you bring our own, the boat must pass a quick inspection for invasive species.
Test your luck fishing
While there is better fishing outside Glacier National Park, you’ll still have the chance to catch species like cutthroat trout, northern pike, whitefish, kokanee salmon, rainbow trout, and lake trout that are found in lakes and streams, all while enjoying a relaxed atmosphere and amazing scenery. You don’t need to have a license or permit needed to fish inside the park, you’ll just have to follow a few guidelines, paying attention to things like which lakes are off-limits and which types of species are catch-and-release only. Even if you don’t catch your dinner, it’s an ideal time to enjoy relaxing in the silence and relishing the view.
Go on a whitewater rafting trip
Right on the edge of the park, you’ll find some of the best whitewater rafting in the state on the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River. Multiple raft companies operate commercially guided raft trips, and some combine excursions with other activities like horseback riding or hiking. It’s a thrilling way to experience some of the region’s best scenery, but if whitewater sounds a little too heart-pounding, you can take a more tranquil, scenic float trip on the river instead, with a mellow ride along the North Fork of the Flathead River that runs along the western boarder of GNP. No experience is required, and with day as well as multi-day whitewater and scenic rafting trips for most ages, it’s a fun option for just about everyone.
Be mesmerized by Cracker Lake
Cracker Lake may be one of the most captivating lakes you’ll ever see. Its crystal clear aqua blue waters are showcased by dramatic Mount Siyeh which majestically rises up in the background. The constant low temperatures of the water and rock flour silt combine together to create its striking hue. The downside is that it’s not all that easy to get here – you’ll have to make a 6.3-mile trek up and back. When you reach the 5.8-mile mark, you’ll get to an overlook that offers incredible views from the north end of the lake – even without the spectacular surrounding mountains, it would be worth the effort to get here just to see its jaw-dropping color. With just another half-mile to go, when you reach the end you’ll enjoy even more breathtaking views from a red rock outcropping.
Watch for wildlife
Glacier National Park is filled with many different species of wildlife. And due to lack of development, it’s a haven for rare and endangered species, including the largest population of grizzly bears and Canadian lynx ouside of Alaska, though they remain quite elusive, preferring to stay away from humans. There’s a better chance of catching a glimpse of majestic bald eagles soaring overhead or sitting perched on tree branches near the edge of a lake. Bighorn sheep, rocky mountain goats, elk and red fox are commonly spotted, while occasionally visitors will get to see a bobcat, grey wolf, moose or black bear.
Embark on a Jammer Tour
Glacier National Park is famous for its cherry-red buses. The historic vehicles that date back to the 1930s are a symbol of the park, and a throwback to another era. Referred to by the locals as “Red Jammers,” a name that comes from the days when buses all had standard transmissions and drivers could be heard “jamming” the gears as they traversed the rugged mountain highly. They’re a great option for those who don’t want to drive or don’t have a vehicle with them to experience the famous Going to the Sun Road and some of the most impressive untamed Montana wilderness.
Camp in the wilderness
There are very few spots left in the U.S. where you can truly escape into the wilderness and enjoy the outdoors without ever running into traces of human existence. Glacier National Park is one of the exceptions. If you take least a two-day trip into the backcountry and set up camp, you’ll experience a world where the air seems fresher than anywhere you’ve ever been, the stars shine brighter, and wild animals could possibly kill you and no one would ever know. Okay, that part may not be what you want to hear, but as amazing as your adventure is likely to be, there are dangers involved that you should be aware of to decrease the risk of injury or worse.
Water is surprisingly the number one cause of fatalities in the park, so take extreme caution near water, and be extra diligent when venturing onto very steep slopes. Take precautions to prevent unwanted animal encounters, such as making noise when out on the trail, bringing bear spray and ensuring that all edibles, food containers (whether they contain food or not), cookware and garbage, are stored in a food locker or hung up when not in use, both during the day and at night.
Take a selfie with the World’s Largest Purple Spoon
While this probably isn’t what you came to Glacier National Park for, taking a selfie with the World’s Largest Purple Spoon is a must while you’re here. After all, how many spectacular mountain landscapes can you post on Facebook before your friends start getting bored? Might as well shake things up a bit. The big purple spoon named Big Martha is located just outside of the park in East Glacier right across the street from the Glacier Park Lodge. You might combine your visit with a breakfast of stuffed French toast served at the cafe next door, it’s to-die-for!
Go on a day trip to Waterton Lakes National Park
Back in 1932, Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes Park, which sit just across the border in Canada, were linked together, creating the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first of its kind in the world. Waterton Lakes National Park lies along the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide in southwestern Alberta, and boasts a unique blend of unusual geology, a relatively mild climate, rare wildflowers, and an abundance of wildlife. It’s a continuation of Montana’s “Crown of the Continent” ecosystem, with its prairie-meets-mountains landscape, and well-worth a day trip, or longer. One of the most popular places to visit is the Prince of Wales Hotel. It also happens to be one most photographed hotels in the world. Even if you don’t stay overnight, you can Located high on a bluff overlooking Waterton Lake and the town of Waterton, the views are spectacular.
If you decided to head across the border, just remember that everyone entering Canada is required to have a passport.
Explore remote wilderness areas from the back of a horse
The park’s backcountry offers the chance to explore some of its most magical secrets. As they’re located off the beaten track, and sometimes way off the beaten track, other than on foot, the best ways to see them is on horseback. You’ll have a multitude of options to choose from, the hardest part is deciding which horseback adventure to take. Trips include everything from a short one-hour sampler to multi-day excursions. Those who are looking for an unforgettable, all-day horseback riding adventure, might want to choose the Poia Lake ride, which is brimming over with panoramic views of the valley, allowing riders to take in thousands of years of geological history. There are also all-day rides to Cracker Lake, as mentioned earlier – its striking turquoise waters are something everyone should see at least once, and if a 12.6-mile round-trip hike is too much, journeying there on a horse may be a perfect alternative.