As soon as you see one photo of Glacier National Park, it will skyrocket to the very top of your bucket list. Imagine gorgeous greenery, wonderful wildlife, and heavenly hiking (wow, is the alliteration too much….?). OR stop imagining and get to planning! A trip to Glacier will be one you won’t soon forget. I visited Glacier National Park in July of 2020 and it has become one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited!
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While there are many pros and cons to visiting Glacier in the summer, I believe the pros outweigh the cons. The crowds can be a turn off but with the new reservation system, it’s much more manageable! Being able to see the full park without any road closures is something you need to experience at least once in your life!
TLDR version; July, August, or even September is the best time to visit Glacier National Park. Keep reading to discover a bit more about the park and everything else you need to know to plan your trip!
Table of Contents
ABOUT Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is located in the northwest corner of Montana, bordering Canada. The park actually blends with Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and creates the first ever international peace park. Read: it’s in the middle of nowhere, y’all. But the middle of nowhere is beautiful and SO worth making the trek.
The park was founded in 1932 along with Waterton Lakes to celebrate peace and friendship between the US and Canada (source). Aptly named, the park is home to 26 glaciers. Due to climate change, every single glacier has shrunk in size between 1966-2015 (source). While that news is somewhat depressing, the good news is the ecosystem and wildlife has changed very little and continues to flourish.
That could change in a second though, so we need to all be mindful to love this area and take extra good care! When you visit, be sure to follow leave no trace principles, pack it in, pack it out, and do not disturb the wildlife!
GETTING TO and AROUND the park
Because of its remote location, getting to and around Glacier requires some flexibility.
Glacier Park International Airport is located in Kalispell, MT, about 30 minutes from the west entrance of the park.
You can also fly into Calgary, BC and drive four hours south to the park if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous! This will allow you to check out Waterton Lakes International Park on your way down, as well. Don’t forget your passport!
Missoula, MT also has an airport located about 3 hours away from Glacier National Park. The benefit of flying here versus the Glacier Park airport is cost. Typically, small airports very conveniently located near a tourist destination will cost you a pretty penny (and also have 1+ layovers from any major city).
You 100% need a rental car or a tour company in Glacier National Park. Like most national parks, everything is reachable by car only. You’re not going to find an Uber here, either!
If you live near Glacier and are driving in, first off–lucky you! Second, Glacier is pretty remote so be ready for a good road trip! The closest city is Kalispell, MT, located about 29 miles away. Whitefish, MT is another decent sized city located about 30 minutes away.
Couer D’Alene, ID is just under 5 hours away, Bozeman, MT is 5.5 hours.
If you’re road tripping from Yellowstone National Park, expect that drive to take you about 8 hours.
In the Park
There is a shuttle bus that can take you down Going-to-the-Sun Road. I’m sure you can imagine this requires increased time and flexibility on your part. However, you won’t have to fight as hard to find a parking spot at a good pullout!
Otherwise, while driving through the park, expect to take it nice and slow. No one is in a rush–and you really shouldn’t be! Enjoy the views from every angle and also make sure you don’t drive off the steep cliffs, ok?
Again, similar to several other national parks, the weather is pretty unpredictable. The weather is pretty mild in the summer with highs into the 70s/80s and lows into the 30s some nights. I can’t speak to the winter because I haven’t been there in winter but I have a really good feeling it’s COLD. Pack all the layers you own and then some if you head here during the winter wonderland.
The main thing you need to have is a good pair of hiking boots. Hitting the trails is the BEST way to truly experience the beauty of Glacier National Park. The terrain is rough in some places with some chance of river crossings, rocky or muddy areas depending on the difficulty of the trail you choose.
Going from there, you’re going to want layers. The mornings and evenings are cool and if it’s sunny, it can get ~warm~! I would usually start the early mornings with a tank, a pullover, and my Patagonia Nano Puff (I’m a wimp in the cold, ok.). By the afternoon, I just had a tank and some cropped leggings and was comfortable.
Definitely pack a rain jacket for unpredictable weather as well! Basically, pack for summer and winter. Simple, right?!
Don’t forget sun protection and a sun hat! When I’m hiking, I like a baseball cap situation but I know I should probably embrace a more wide brim hat for more sun protection.
Make sure you grab my national park packing checklist to simplify your life!
WEATHER and the BEST TIME TO GO
Given its northern latitude and high elevation, temperatures are cooler with lots and lots (and lots) of snowfall in the winter months. Only certain roads are open year-round.
If you want to visit in the winter, Going-to-the-Sun Road is only open up from the West Entrance to the Lake McDonald Lodge. Most other roads are closed. However, if you’re up for the challenge there’s snow shoeing, skiing, and some beautiful winter hiking to be had!
Fall and Spring bring a few more openings, but the famed Going-to-the-Sun road is typically closed from sometime in October until about July! You’ll be rewarded with less crowds and beautiful autumnal colors or spring blooms but at the trade off of not experiencing the whole park.
The BEST time to visit Glacier National Park is between July and September. Going-to-the-Sun road is open, the weather is fantastic, and you have the entire park open for your enjoyment. Crowds are the heaviest in July and August, but we went in July and honestly didn’t think it was too bad. The worst part was finding parking–otherwise the trails we chose weren’t too terribly crowded!
If you can swing it, September would be awesome because everything is still open but it’s not quite as crowded. However, Glacier National Park in July was truly out of this world. Some snow was still melting, there was water flowing beautifully down the garden wall, and everything was just so GREEN. It is truly the most beautiful sight I have ever seen in my whole life!
And that’s why I think, despite the crowds, the best time to visit Glacier National Park is in July.
Info updated for 2022.
As of summer 2021, you need a vehicle reservation to use Going-to-the-Sun Road and the North Fork. For 2022, this applies between May 27 and September 11 from 6 am to 4 pm.
It’s not the end of the world if you aren’t able to get a reservation, but I highly recommend trying your hardest! Driving along Going-to-the-Sun Road will forever be one of my favorite memories.
We almost didn’t get a permit–we tried 3 days in a row, waking up at the crack of dawn trying to find cell service in the middle of nowhere Oregon to get our passes! Our back up plan was to get into the park before 6 am to still be able to access the road. We also got there a day before our reservation started and we just waited to drive through the road until after 4 pm. Sunlight sticks around until after 9 in the summer so you still have plenty of time to explore!
You need to be very diligent and research if you are trying to get a reservation. You do not need to get an additional vehicle reservation if you have lodging, camping, or commercial tours within the park.
Reservations are valid for 3 days.
Here’s where it gets tricky: reservations are released on a rolling basis 120 days before the date you want the reservation to start. Clear as mud, right? So basically, on March 2, they release a certain amount of reservations for May 27, and on March 3 a certain number for May 28, and so on and so forth.
The good news is that if you miss the rolling reservations, the park releases the remainder of the reservations 2 days prior to the effective date. This is how we ended up getting reservations! We tried for the date before we wanted to go and the first day and FINALLY got one for the secondary we would be there!
The reservations are released promptly at 8 am MST and will most likely be gone by 8:05 (if not earlier!) so make sure you set an alarm, mark it on your calendar, train a carrier pigeon, etc.
See more info and reserve a ticket here.
WHAT TO DO IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
I can only speak of visiting Glacier National Park in July, so this list is geared towards summer activities. I hope to visit in the fall/spring/winter (heck, I’ll just move there in the name of research if I have to!) and update this list as I go!
Obviously. This is a hiker’s haven. We talked to SO MANY people while we were here, and while we only did 3 hikes we got a great list of other hikes that come highly recommended.
The Highline Trail
This is certainly only a starting point. I have a really good feeling every single hike in Glacier National Park is magical!
Head over to Lake McDonald and rent a kayak, canoe, paddleboard, or water watercraft fits your fancy and spend the afternoon overlooking the beautiful colored pebbles and soaking in the amazing mountain views.
Drive Going-to-the-Sun Road
Not much for hiking? That’s okay! You can still very much enjoy the beauty of Glacier. Hop in your car and drive from one end to the other of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Take your time, soak it in, and absolutely stop at every pull out you see!
Look for wildlife
Glacier National Park in July was a gold mine of wildlife activity for us. Also the place of our FIRST EVER grizzly sighting!!! We became obsessed with grizzly bears during our trip to Yellowstone in 2020, so this was a long time coming for us.
There’s no specific place that is good for wildlife like Hayden or Lamar valleys in Yellowstone because the wildlife is everywhere! However, the Many Glacier Valley and Logan Pass are two excellent spots to start.
Explore Many Glacier
Relax at the Many Glacier Hotel, watch the sunset, and ride the boat across Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes. This is also where you can find the trailheads for Grinnell Glacier/Lake and Iceberg Lake.
Visit Bowman Lake and Polebridge Mercantile
On the other side of the park from Lake McDonald is the similar yet equally beautiful Lake Bowman. The mercantile is actually just outside the park, but has souvenirs and pastries.
Glacier National Park provides a few different lodges within the park and then several campgrounds as well. Just as with reservations at many other national parks, you gotta be on your sh*t to get a reservation. Be prepared to book as far in advance as possible!
There are 6-7 hotels/inns run by other companies within the park and also 2 backcountry chalets you can hike to for overnight accommodations. See that info here.
If you have an RV or van, you can stay at a campground but won’t have any amenities. We stayed at the Kampgrounds of America St. Mary’s and LOVED it. My favorite part was getting ice cream at the store every night 😉
Don’t mind staying farther away for a bit more upscale accommodations? Check out Great Northern Resort or The Lodge at Whitefish Lake.
Get ready to spend some moneyyyyyyy on food while you’re here! When we visited Glacier National Park in July, the grocery stores were not very well stocked. From the size of it, I think that’s par for the course! If you know you want to stock your RV kitchen/Airbnb/hotel room beforehand, I would stop in a bigger town like Kalispell or Whitefish to do you grocery shopping.
There are a couple stores to grab essentials but again, your options will be limited. Also something to note: if the reservation is doing any sort of ceremony or observation, you won’t be able to buy alcohol. We visited during a dry weekend and our hikes were a *teensy bit* less satisfying without a summit beer (but still amazing, I’m just dramatic).
While you’re in Glacier, you MUST get a huckleberry item!!! Two Sisters Cafe is on your way back from the Many Glacier entrance. Stop here and grab at least a slice of huckleberry pie to go. You won’t regret it!
Head over to Lake McDonald to grab a cocktail from Lucke’s Lounge with a view one afternoon, too!
A trip to Glacier National Park is something every travel lover should experience in their lifetime. Whether you are an outdoor enthusiast or not, the beauty of this area will amaze you! But you should definitely spend a good bit of time outside while you’re here 😉 Because of its location, preparing to visit Glacier requires a bit more planning ahead. This post should have everything you need to get your trip started on the right foot.
Glacier National Park in July, August, or September will give you the best opportunity to experience the full park, spot wildlife, and enjoy the lush greens in all their glory!
I’d love to hear about your experience in Glacier National Park. Comment below and tell me about your trip. Likewise, let me know if you have any questions while planning your trip!