Approaching Glacier National Park from the east side was, at first glance, underwhelming. We came in through a town that had seen better days. Some trash, plenty of run-down buildings, and no major views to speak of.
We drove past the East Glacier Park Railroad Depot, the Glacier Park Lodge, through the village, and up into the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. I laughed and pointed at a sign that read “Be Alert for Free Range Cattle.” Lo and behold, we encountered a number of cows and their calves up on the banks, wandering the road, and headed down through the meadows to the creek.
Then we drove the road that dips into the park and goes up and up and up. It was there we experienced just a taste of the views we would see during our week in Glacier. And those views were HUGE and seemed to go on forever. The trees, the greenery, the pale blue lakes, the mountains, glaciers, hillsides, and creeks went as far as we could see.
We drove north, hoping to score a campsite at Two Medicine Lake. No luck. We continued on to Cut Bank and missed the last campsite to the car just in front of us.
This forced us to backtrack quite a ways south to head around the lower part of the park up to a privately run campground with a nice bathhouse. We stayed two nights here and traveled into the park for adventures.
The West Glacier entrance is where all the action is: super crowded with people, long lines of cars, places to get food (restaurants, cafes, and even a grocery), and souvenir stores.
Glacier is BIG. One of the biggest parks I’ve EVER been to. It was hard to wrap my mind around the scale of this place. I read that 95 percent of GNP is wilderness. And here a few other facts from the nifty “Glacier Park 101” guide:
- GNP was established as the 10th national park on May 11, 1910 (six years before the formation of the NPS).
- There are 762 lakes in the park.
- GNP covers 1,583 square miles of land.
- Only 25 named glaciers remain (down from 150 in the mid-19th century).
- You can hike 745.6 miles of trails.
- With 1,212 campsites available, you still need to make reservations or be poised and ready to grab one at first light.
- The Going-to-the-Sun Road (which is SPECTACULAR) is 52-miles with two lanes and cuts right through the heart of the park.
- GNP was established as a World Heritage site in 1995.
- Over 3 MILLION people visited GNP in 2016 (which was also the National Parks’ Centennial).
- Bears swim in the rivers and blow bubbles with their noses (true fact – we saw one do it!).
Glacier smells like pine forests, ozone (especially near one of the many rivers and creeks), and dirt.
Everywhere you go, the views will leave you verklempt and/or gobsmacked. All I said the whole time was, “Holy shit!” or “Wow!” I clearly didn’t have command of my language skills in the face of such immensity.
Driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road is spectacular.
I have never seen a road quite like this. I mean, San Francisco and Highway One in California both have roads that are unforgettable – with views of the ocean, views of the mountains, and in the city, views of houses after houses after houses that seem perched precariously on the hillsides.
But the Going-to-the-Sun-Road is both a technical marvel and a way to see the best parts of Glacier National Park from a birds-eye viewpoint.
Driving this road three or four times during our trip, we stopped often to take in the views of a few of the remaining glaciers. We spotted Big Horned Sheep walking along narrow mountain trails. We spied mountain goats perched on impossibly small rock outcroppings far above the road we were driving, their white coats making them visible from a distance.
The hike at Logan Pass to see Hidden Lake is a MUST DO. But, be prepared: there are SO many stairs. As we hiked, we saw one big fat marmot (my first ever), several mountain goats chilling out in the bushes, and lots and lots of tourists. The reward was cresting the final hill to see Hidden Lake, a gloriously blue lake hidden deep in the mountains.
Another highlight of driving the Going-to-the-Sun-Road was watching the creek turning into a roaring falls called Sacred Dancing Falls before filling the 10-mile long Lake McDonald. I mean, how wonderful is that?
I spy a BEAR!
Farther up the creek we spied a black bear and pulled off the road to get some photos. This big black bear lounged in the water, occasionally dipping his head and actually blowing bubbles under the water with his nose. It was hilarious. And as is normal in national parks, people were pulling off the road, or stopping right in the middle of the road, to check out what we were looking at. A bit of chaos ensued as people realized there was a bear hanging out in the creek.
Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park
Our favorite part of the park was the western side for how remote and beautiful it was. We traveled the 32 miles of dirt roads willingly to get away from some of the crowds. Our campground at Bowman Lake was small, quiet, and definitely off the beaten track. We stayed a full three days and explored quiet hiking trails, a magnificent arching rainbow after a thunderstorm, were visited by curious chipmunks and rather tame deer. We saw one HUGE black bear on one of our early morning trips out of the campground. We also met a couple who travel with their cat, who was on a leash stalking and pouncing on the grasses beside the lake.
Getting to Kintla Lake is an adventure all on its own. It’s an additional 15-mile drive on a bumpy, dusty dirt road from the Polebridge park entrance (and that’s after the 32 miles we drove to get to Polebridge). You’ll pass open meadows, densely forested areas, and even a small patrol cabin whose front door is covered with nails and whose windows are covered in barbed wire – all in an effort to keep the curious (and destructive) bears out.
On our hike around the lakeside trail, a family informed us we just missed seeing a small black bear. On our way back to camp, we found a secluded spot and Nelson went skinny dipping in the VERY cold water; I dunked my head just to get refreshed – that water was way too cold for my bones.
On our way back, we stopped in the charming town of Polebridge, MT.
This tiny town has a general mercantile store and a pizzaria/bar. The pizza was pretty darn good but the ooey gooey bear claws from the store were even better. Polebridge, with its official “Little Free Library,” is situated along the banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River. The views are completely captivating but it’s the red mercantile store that drew us in. What a blast from the past, this old-west looking store!
Cut Bank Campground
We spent our last two nights at Cut Bank campground because (despite multiple attempts) we never could get into Two Medicine campground. Cut Bank turned out a great place to end our trip. The campground is small, remote (another several mile long dirt road to get there), and has hiking trails right there.
East Glacier at Many Glacier/Swift Current entrance is a hikers paradise – and beyond horsebacking riding, there’s almost no other activities offered there. The day we were there was incredibly windy. The whitecaps on the lakes were tremendous. Horseback rides were cancelled. We stayed just a few minutes and headed back to camp at Cut Bank to get away from the blowing wind and sand.
Lessons learned touring Glacier National Park
Here’s what we learned:
- Bring your patience.
- Expect crowds – lots of them, everywhere.
- Get reservations for lodging and camping ahead of time if you can.
- Bring binoculars, extra batteries, and alllll the memory cards you have for your camera – the views never end and there is SO much to see!
- Be alert for stopped traffic. Could be an animal sighting, an accident, or some bonehead doing something remarkably stupid in traffic trying to get a parking spot.
- One day won’t work in this park – it’s simply TOO BIG. A week was barely enough time to scratch the surface of what’s available to do and see.
- Be prepared for all kinds of weather – hot, cold, rainy. Layer up!
- Have extra snacks and water in your vehicle and for your hikes. There are not a ton of places to get food once you really get into the park. Plan ahead.
- Fill up your vehicle with gas, especially on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and anytime you’re venturing away from the main gates (like out to Polebridge, Bowman Lake, or Kintla Lake).
- Be prepared to fall in love. This park is MAGNIFICENT.