We visited the west side of Glacier National Park in September 2020, as part of Big Trip #3, and the east side in September 2022, as part of Big Trip #4.
Glacier National Park is popular! All this popularity means crowds in the campgrounds, crowds in the parking lots, crowds on the scenic drives, and crowds on the trails. So, as with all the more popular national parks, be prepared:
- Get into the park EARLY. Definitely before 8am.
- Pick a target or two to focus on each day, visit them, and get the heck out of the park.
- Take a deep breath, try to relax, and don’t lose your mind when the cars ahead of you on the scenic drive are just crrraaawwwllliiinnnggggg along.
We love Glacier! It’s incredibly beautiful and has a really fun variety of hikes. But to protect our sanity, we were careful to follow our rules above. Also, remember that dogs are not allowed on the trails in Glacier National Park. We have some dog-friendly hiking ideas in the West Glacier area in our West Glacier post; we didn’t find anywhere to hike Bugsy on the east side.
East vs West
When we first visited in 2020, the east side of Glacier was closed due to Covid, which disappointed us at the time–but in retrospect, it was a good thing as it forced us to focus only on west-side hikes. In 2022, we focused only on the east side. Glacier’s a big park and it would be a challenge to adequately experience both sides in a single visit in less than a week!
In our opinion, the west side of Glacier is more user-friendly and offers a better overview of the park. The east side is a little wilder and less crowded. We love both sides but next trip will choose to return to the east side rather than west.
Camping, eating, and drinking
Outside the park
When we stayed in West Glacier, we happily ate and drank there, with some side eating and drinking in Columbia Falls. Read about all that stuff in our West Glacier post.
East Glacier had less to offer eating and drinking-wise, but we still had fun. I’m working on our East Glacier post…
Inside the park
Staying in national park campgrounds is almost always a better experience than staying in a commercial campground nearby, but with the leap in popularity of RVing over the last couple years it’s often hard to get campsites. The national parks usually mix reservable sites with first-come, first-served, and if you don’t grab a reservation way in advance, you are often out of luck. First-come, first-served is great unless you strike out and don’t have good backup options nearby.
Two Medicine Campground
Over our eight days in the Glacier area, we only spent one night inside the national park: our very last night, at Two Medicine Campground near East Glacier Park Village. Our plan was to drive the Airstream down to Two Medicine and try to get a campsite, and if we failed, we’d leave the Airstream and Bugsy in a parking area, do a hike, hook everything back up, and drive back to St Mary, where the campground proprietor told us she had lots of availability. Fortunately, we found a spot in Two Medicine.
And boy, were we fortunate–our campsite (#100) in Two Medicine ranks as one of our favorite campsites ever. Two Medicine only has ten campsites that are big enough for RVs up to 35′ (we are 28′) and ours was lake-side with a beautiful view. We arrived at 8:30am, and a couple hours later trailers were circling the campground in vain searching for open sites.
Many Glacier Hotel
Many Glacier Hotel is a historic and beautiful alpine lodge on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake in Many Glacier. We enjoyed sipping a post-hike cocktail in the hotel’s lounge after our afternoon hike in that area of the park. The hotel was bustling and had no vacancy when we visited. It seemed like a really neat place to stay!
Hiking – West Side
REMEMBER YOUR BEAR SPRAY!!!
There are so many fantastic hiking options in Glacier, it can be a challenge to narrow down the wishlist to fit a shorter trip length. When we stayed in West Glacier, our scheduled allowed for two longer hikes and one shorter hike, so we chose Piegan Pass, Sperry Chalet, and Avalanche Lake.
The original plan was to hike the Highline Trail to Haystack Pass and back, for a total of about 7.5 miles. We got up early–or so we thought–but the parking lot was already packed at 8 when we arrived. People were tailgating! Our neighbors Mark and Pete (Pete is a girl dog) told us later that that’s a thing: get up super early, drive to Logan Pass, watch the sunrise and cook breakfast in the parking lot, then hike the Highline. Kind of neat, but way too many people for us, so we went to Plan B: hike to Piegan Pass.
Plan B was AWESOME. Piegan (pronounced “pee-gan”) is an out-and-back totaling just over 9 miles to the pass with sweeping views over the Many Glacier section of the park, which at the time was closed because of Covid. The views along the trail of mountains and valleys and glaciers and forests are just bonkers.
Avalanche Lake is another super popular hike. We lucked into a parking spot our first afternoon in town and dodged the crowds on the trail to the beautiful lake tucked into the mountains. The trail is an easy 4.6 miles and close to West Glacier in the Lake McDonald area of the park.
After hiking to Avalanche Lake our first afternoon in town, we knew we wanted a less-popular hike for our second outing, so we chose something long and steep. Success! Not many people at all were hiking to Sperry Chalet. It’s a tough 6.3-mile climb to the historic chalet–where you can spend the night! It was peaceful and lovely and we welcomed the solitude after the scene on the Avalanche Lake trail.
Hiking – East Side
REMEMBER YOUR BEAR SPRAY!!!
When we stayed on the east side, we were based in St Mary for three nights, and Two Medicine for one. The St Mary entrance to the park is in the middle of the east side of Glacier, at the eastern end of Going-to-the-Sun Road. The Many Glacier entrance is a half-hour north of St Mary, and the Two Medicine entrance is 45 minutes south. We wanted to experience all three areas in four days, so chose these hikes: Grinnell Glacier, Hidden Lake, Scenic Point, Apikuni Falls (a quickie in Many Glacier), and Beaver Pond Loop (a quickie near home).
Grinnell Glacier was #1 on our wishlist when we first visited Glacier in 2020, but it was off-limits due to Covid. Therefore, it was our #1 priority our second visit. Grinnell Glacier is in the Many Glacier section of the park, a half-hour drive from St Mary, and we were at the trailhead at 6:45am. The parking lot was already crowded! People were making breakfast like we saw at Logan Pass in 2020. We power-hiked up and had the glacier and little lake with icebergs at the top to ourselves for about ten glorious minutes. Is this our favorite hike ever? We can’t think of a better one.
The views are out of this world along the entire trail. We saw distant moose, and got scarily up close and personal with a bighorn sheep ram who really wanted to be our friend.
Pack appropriately: you’re exposed to sun most of the way, it can be windy, and it’s pretty long and steep at over 11 miles and 2200 feet of elevation gain. We cannot recommend this hike enough!
Our plan (like in 2020) was to do an out-and-back on the Highline Trail, but like in 2020, our plan was foiled. This time, the culprit was the weather. Having no reservation for Going-to-the-Sun Road, we had to pass the checkpoint before 6am, so we didn’t have trouble getting a parking spot at Logan Pass. The morning was dark and foggy, so figuring on no views on the Highline Trail, we opted for the hike down to Hidden Lake, from the same parking lot.
It’s a moderate 5.5-mile hike with 1325 feet of elevation gain. We loved it, and it was all ours since we were so early! The fog burned off and we had gorgeous views of the lake and surrounding mountains–and of a mama bear and her two cubs galloping down the hill ahead of us. More and more people were on the trail as we approached the trailhead on our return, and the parking lot was full with cars circling at 9:30am.
Scenic Point is in the Two Medicine section of the park. It’s a tough climb to a gorgeous overlook, from which we could see the Airstream! That was neat, but overall, we prefer not to see civilization from the top of a hike. It’s an eight-mile hike, gaining 2300 feet of elevation.
We needed a short hike in Many Glacier as an afternoon quickie before having a drink at Many Glacier Hotel. Apikuni Falls fit the bill as a 1.7-mile hike to pretty falls with a lovely vista point halfway up. It was a bit crowded, but had plenty of parking, which is probably rare in the afternoons–it was a dreary, chilly day.
After setting up the Airstream in our campground in St Mary, we hit the visitor center for some hiking advice. We wanted a nearby short hike for that afternoon, and the ranger recommended the Beaver Pond loop. It was an easy and pleasant 3.5 miles with some lake and mountain views, and not too crowded for a short hike near the visitor center.
Like I said: meditate, emotionally prepare yourself, and drive the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road. The views along the way, from the car window and from the overlooks, are stunning. The above photo is of Wild Goose Island in Saint Mary Lake.
Be sure to check the park website for road status and to learn if you need a reservation to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road during your trip dates. When we visited after Labor Day, road reservations were still required for most of the road, but if you get to the checkpoint early (before 6am) or late (after 4pm) you can proceed without a reservation.
This is a list in progress, but we know for sure what our #1 wishlist hike is for next visit: hike the Highline Trail all the way to the Loop. It involves a shuttle, so we’ll have to do some careful planning in order to not leave Bugsy hanging out alone in the Airstream for too long.
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