Glacier National Park, or the Crown of the Continent, is a glorious place to reconnect as a family in Northwestern Montana. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, visitors can relax in mountain chalets or grand park lodges after hiking through the back country rich in wildlife. Take a vintage red bus or a restored wooden boat to tour a park known for its ecological diversity. For the horse-lover, saddle up at one of three corrals in Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park, located in a quiet corner of northwest Montana, is one of the Top 10 most visited national parks in the United States. The park owes its rugged landscape to the glaciers that cleaved its mountaintops and gouged its valleys thousands of years ago. Today, the majestic pointed spires rise up from the alpine meadows painted with summertime wildflowers. Glacier National Park has 25 remaining glaciers but you will have to hike to see one up close.
Glacier National Park is a convergence of the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest and the prairie ecosystems, each bringing their specific species. From the Triple Divide Peak, rain can flow into the Pacific Ocean, the Hudson Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.
History of Glacier National Park
The Great Northern Rail Road (GNRR) completed its line near present-day Glacier National Park in 1891, connecting Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington. The Great Northern wanted to increase tourist travel to the area and planned a string of luxurious lodges.
Great Northern lobbied extensively for the protection of the area and Glacier National Park was established in 1910, after Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks. Later in 1910, GNRR opened its first Glacier property, Belton Chalet, followed by the Many Glacier Hotel.
More Than One Park, it’s Two
In the Canadian Rocky Mountains just north of Glacier National Park, Waterton Lakes National Park was created in 1895. In 1932 the two national parks would join to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the world’s first international park.
In 1995, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique landscape. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park has its own border crossing so visitors can tour both sides of this park, located along the Chief Mountain Highway (open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.).
Activities in Glacier National Park
There are several concessionaires that offer activities in Glacier National Park. Glacier Park Boat Company has been ferrying passengers since 1938. Tours are available at Lake McDonald, Saint Mary Lake, Swiftcurrent Lake and Two Medicine Lake; reservations are recommended.
The DeSmet tour along the glassy waters of Lake McDonald is narrated by a park ranger and fulfills our Junior Ranger program requirement ($17.25 for adults, $8.75 for kids 4 to 12, and free for lap children under 4). The tour was a relaxing way to see Glacier National Park from the water; I highly recommend it for families.
Red Bus Tours are another popular way to explore the park. There are 33 vintage red tour buses that are fully restored. I found the tours to be a little long for most kids; take a picture instead. Just don’t open the doors, the frames are make of oak and are very fragile.
For kids ages 7 and older, Glacier National Park has guided trail rides originating at the corrals at Many Glacier, Lake McDonald and Apgar.
Kids at Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park has a Junior Ranger program for kids to learn more about the park. To earn the collectible badge, kids are required to complete a booklet filled with age-based activities and attend one ranger program.
During the summer, park rangers open up the Discovery Cabin located near Apgar Visitor Center for kids to touch their way through a frontier mountain cabin. There are several hikes that kids will enjoy along with the interpretive displays at the visitor centers located at Saint Mary, Logan Pass and Apgar.
Lodging in Glacier National Park
I always recommend staying in the national park properties to extend the park experience. As the sun sets, guests congregate in the lobby to discuss their park adventures. Some guests can be found in a quiet corner absorbed by a book. At the tables, families gather and play a game together. It makes for a magical experience that few other facilities can duplicate authentically.
I booked a room at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Located through the Many Glacier Entrance on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park. It’s an easy commute from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Many Glacier Hotel, located a short distance away, are more secluded than the other lodges.
Swiftcurrent Motor Inn has a relaxed atmosphere that fits the needs of families. In the main building, we enjoy a pizza at the Swiftcurrent Restaurant. We return for breakfast for family favorites and a separate kids’ menu (open 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., serving breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Getting to Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is in the northwest corner of Montana, 275 miles northeast of Spokane, Washington. Explore it by car due to its remote location.
Glacier Park International Airport is near Kalispell, Montana, 30 miles away. Missoula International Airport and Great Falls International Airport, each about 150 miles away, offer a larger selection of air carriers.
Glacier National Park is serviced by Amtrak on both sides of the park. The Glacier Park Express offers shuttle service from the train depot through the western entrance to Apgar Visitor Center.
Getting Around Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. Admission is $25 per vehicle for a 7-day summer pass (May 1 until October 31) or $20 per vehicle for a 7-day winter pass (November 1 until April 30). An America the Beautiful annual pass is available for all visitors for $80 or visit during one of the fee-free days.
Glacier National Park has two main entrances, the west entrance near Apgar Visitor Center and the east entrance near the Saint Mary Visitor Center. The entrances are connected by the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a seasonal road that bisects Glacier National Park. It opens in late June or early July depending on the winter’s snowfall.
There’s an entrance at Many Glacier and Two Medicine as well. All entrances offer park ranger stations, camp grounds and picnic areas.
Note about Bear Safety:
Glacier National Park has two types of bears: black bears and Grizzly bears. Knowing the difference is important since each species has different behavior. To find out more information, attend a ranger program about bears in Glacier National Park.
I did. My boys loved the bear programs and I felt more confident afterwards.
Park Rangers offer some guidelines to reduce bear encounters:
- Hike in groups of 4 or more.
- Keep a clean campsite.
- Make noise while you are hiking by wearing bear bells and talking.
- Carry bear spray. Keep it accessible when you are out hiking and know how to use it.
Tips from a Traveling Mom:
- National parks are popular destinations during the summer–make reservations as early as possible. Reservations for lodging are available 13 months in advance.
- Parking can be an issue at popular destinations during the middle of the day, visit early or late in the day. You will be rewarded with better light for photos along with a parking spot.
- Wild animals are unpredictable, give them space and don’t feed them. The NPS recommends 25 yards between you and most animals, 100 yards for bears.
- Bring food and refillable water bottles for your visit. Food service can be limited and kids love picnics.
- Dress in layers and carry a rain jacket, even in the summer.
- Most parks allow adults to complete the NPS Junior Ranger booklets for the same badge or patch.
- The cell coverage is limited to the immediate areas around Apgar or Saint Mary visitor centers and the Lake McDonald Lodge.
- Wi-Fi isn’t available in Glacier National Park.