Travel | USA | Glacier National Park in a Day
Montana’s Glacier National Park encompasses more than 1,500 square miles of Rocky Mountain wilderness in the northwestern part of the state. It’s vast, and the park’s scale and majesty has a way of making you feel like the tiny, insignificant, vulnerable human you truly are. Let’s be real: a day is not enough time to truly experience this humbling, gorgeous, excruciatingly photogenic place.
But a day was all we had this summer, and we knew we had to spend it wisely. Our itinerary took us by car from a campsite near Glacier’s St. Mary’s entrance on the east side, over Going-to-the-Sun Road, and out through the west side to Whitefish. I’d say it was mission accomplished.
How to See Glacier National Park in a Day
Our morning started early, with coffee made on the campfire. We headed to Going-to-the-Sun Road, went on a moderate hike, dipped our feet in Hidden Lake, enjoyed a picnic, watched wildlife frolic in fields full of wildflowers, photographed the rainbow rocks of Lake McDonald, bought some postcards from the gift shop, hit the road before dark, and were playing vintage pinball machines over a beer in a campground less than an hour later. The day honestly couldn’t have gone much better, and I hope some of the tips below help you to plan a better trip to Glacier National Park, even if it’s a short one.
Spend the Night Outside the Park
Chewing Blackbones Campground
Forget about camping in Glacier National Park. It’s not gonna happen. Well, there’s a miniscule possibility it could happen, but you might give yourself an aneurysm in the process. Most of the sites are first come, first serve, and the park is completely overrun with tourists in the summer so you’d have to be in there waiting at dawn to snag a site just as someone else is leaving. (Half the sites at St. Mary’s are reservable in advance; try your luck no more than six months ahead, but no less than three days.) We actually went to the park gates in hopes of getting a site in the park the night before, but nothing was available. The experience was super frustrating. How could a park be so insanely busy? Luckily, the park ranger recommended heading up the road about six miles up Highway 89 to Chewing Blackbones, a campground on the Blackfeet Nation reserve.
I can’t say enough great things about Chewing Blackbones. There’s an RV area and tent sites, as well as a huge open grassy field on the shore of Lower St. Mary Lake that acts as a “pitch anywhere” area for campers. The field was almost empty so we opted to set up there, spending a gorgeous night beside a beach fire under the star-filled sky, and the long, dry grass in the field was practically like a mattress under our tent. It was quiet and tranquil, and beyond scenic. Plus, the folks who ran the place were super friendly, and even delivered a huge load of firewood to our tent for a fraction of what it costs at other campgrounds.
We woke up early, made our campfire coffee, and headed back to the St. Mary’s entrance, ready to check out Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Stop Along the Way (If You Can)
Going-to-the-Sun Road might as well be one of the manmade wonders of the world. I grew up in Alberta so am no stranger to world-class mountain parks, but I was awestruck by the engineering that went into this amazing parkway, built between 1921 and 1932. It really illustrates the impact that vehicles had on tourism in America.
Where Canadian parks like Jasper and Banff are largely left in their raw state, I felt like Going-to-the-Sun Road had turned this spectacular landscape into almost a Disneyland of nature. I’m not saying that entirely critically, either; the infrastructure in this part of Glacier National Park really makes some of the most spectacular scenery nature in America accessible to everyone.
The speed limit is slow, and the views are of the quality that make you feel like you’re in a dream. One of the things I really loved about Going-to-the-Sun road is it was designed so that you can pull over and appreciate the view, or park and head onto one of the trails, or take in one of the attractions. The amount of pull-out spots is kind of staggering, and totally different from the Canadian parks, where it’s go, go, go. However, as I said, it’s a bit of a Disneyland in terms of tourist count and as far as parking is concerned, it’s like downtown Seattle. If you see a spot coming up at a point of interest you MIGHT be interested in, snag it, because there probably won’t be another one.
Repeat the process through the rest of the park until you reach Agpar Village. Then, park the car.
Hop on Glacier National Park’s Free Shuttle Bus
Did you miss anything you wanted to see because there were just too damn many cars? Thought so. Not to worry – Glacier National Park has a free shuttle bus that takes hikers back and forth along Going-to-the-Sun Road. You can catch it in Agpar Village, along with most of the other major stopping-off points and campgrounds. We packed some snacks, I shoved a sweater in my backpack and topped up my water bottle, and off we went.
The bus headed back east, giving us a new perspective on all the sights we’d just passed in the opposite direction. The views from this road would be hard to ever tire of. An hour or so later we got off the bus at Logan Pass, a spot we’d wanted to check out but couldn’t because the parking lot was rammed. The hellishly crowded visitor centre here offers information on hiking, and helpful rangers are on hand to answer questions. We considered doing a challenging hike, but there was a chance of rain in the weather report. That, combined with the fact that we were advised to catch the return bus by at least by 5 p.m., two hours before the last shuttle down to Agpar Village, lest we get left behind because of the crowds, we opted to hike to Hidden Lake. The trail starts just behind the visitor centre.
Hike to Hidden Lake at Logan Pass
I have no doubt there is a plethora of dreamy hikes in Glacier National Park, but if you’re only there for one day, Hidden Lake is a great place to start. It’s easy to get to, not too long, unbelievably scenic, and difficult enough on the return that it made up for some of the eating of gas-station snacks in the car.
Little marmot buddy under the boardwalk
You’ll climb the boardwalk stairway behind the visitor center and proceed through a wide-open alpine meadow that, depending on the time of year, may be filled with wildflowers. Among the greenery, snow-white mountain goats cavorted in the distance under the watchful eye of Mount Clements. It felt surreal, like I’d suddenly found myself in a Ricola ad. The trail continues to a lookout, with Hidden Lake far below. Here, the goats are fearless; babies were passing within a few feet of camera-toting tourists. The chipmunks also know how to take advantage of the situation, stuffing their cheeks with snacks offered by visitors.
View from Hidden Lake Lookout
The lookout is roughly halfway. If you choose the option to continue down to the lake proper, you’re looking at a 5.4-mile round trip, total.
Passing the overlook, you’ll proceed onto a section along the side of Mount Clements that looks suspiciously like the scenery in nature documentaries where bears come out from their caves after the winter. The rocks are brilliantly coloured, and alpine flowers are everywhere. Soon after, the descent begins; a series of switchbacks takes you down about 770 feet from where you were viewing the lake from above.
When we reached the lake at the bottom, we cooled our cans of V8 and ate an apple and some crackers while dipping our feet into the waters of Hidden Lake. Other groups were swimming or sitting along the shoreline, but it was still pretty peaceful. Finally, it was time to head back up. The return trip was a bit advanced for me, but I felt very proud of myself for getting it done.
Just after we passed the lookout (and another very sweet li’l baby mountain goat), a storm suddenly blew in. The weather changed in the blink of an eye. By the time we got back to the Logan Pass bus stop, we were windblown, chilled, and soaked.
Recharge at Agpar Village
The bus ride back to Agpar Village was crowded, the epitome of what my boyfriend and I have taken to calling “human hell.” But the chance to rest was welcomed, and at Agpar Village, I treated myself to a latte from the gift shop. The rain had stopped so it was also a good opportunity to check out famous Lake McDonald, the foot of which lies here. I’ve seen so many photos of the rocky, rainbow bottom of the lake, and it’s just as stunning in person.
Again, Camp Outside the Park
Unless you have magical powers and managed to score a campsite within Glacier proper, it’s time to go. It’ll be dark soon, and you want there to be a little bit of light left to set up your tent. It gets dark early in the mountains.
By the time we hit the road, we were worn the hell out because it had been a long day, so we decided to try out a KOA campground located near Whitefish, 24 miles from the west side of Glacier National Park. This was my first experience with KOA, or Kampgrounds of America, and oh, my God. It was exactly what I needed.
KOA campgrounds are the ultimate in convenience camping. They’re packed with amenities – this one had mini golf, pool, horseshoes, a playground, a restaurant, and included a buffet breakfast. It’s the opposite of roughing it, the cruise ship of camping. A bit expensive, mind, but in this case it was so worth it.
We got our tent set up, then walked around to check out the grounds. It’s a very family-oriented, spot, with lots of fun kids’ activities. I’m basically an adult kid, so it worked for me. The facilities were great; I enjoyed visiting with the animals at the petting zoo, especially the three pigs, one of whom proudly presented me with a stick as a gift. I could have sat there scratching him all night long, but it started getting dark so I tore myself away, washed the mud off my hands, and we went inside the main building.
I couldn’t help but grin as we looked around the room. Fate had clearly smiled upon us: the walls were lined with vintage pinball machines and old arcade games. And they sold beer in there! We fed the machines with quarters for at least an hour till we realized it was pitch black outside and we hadn’t even started dinner. At least the tent was up.
A fire, a cob or two of campfire-cooked corn, and a hot (free!) shower later, I headed into the tent and promptly fell asleep. I may not have seen all of Glacier National Park, but considering we did it in a day, I feel like we nailed it.
Glacier National Park in 1 Day
So, to recap:
- Camp on the east side of the park at Chewing Blackbones or another nearby campground
- Get an early start for Going-to-the-Sun Road
- Stop anywhere you see an open space at a scenic viewpoint because they fill up fast
- Park at Agpar Village and take the free shuttle bus back up to Logan Pass
- Hike to Hidden Lake (or choose another hike of moderate length)
- Take the shuttle bus back down 2 hours before the last one to ensure you actually get back to your car
- Camp outside the park on the west side (the Whitefish/Kalispell KOA rules)
What to Bring to Glacier National Park
- Snacks, and water
- A poncho or water-resistant jacket – even though it may seem dry, storms come up quickly in the high altitudes.
- A sweater – If the weather changes, it’ll get super chilly up there.
- Sturdy footwear – Even though it seems basic, the Hidden Lake hike is challenging if you want to go beyond the lookout and down to the actual lake.
- Patience and tolerance – If you’re looking for raw wilderness and solitude, you’re going to have to go deeper into the park than this. Expect crowds, and potentially long waits for the bus.
Do you have any tips for a quick visit to Glacier National Park, Montana? Any favourite spots in the park? Please share ’em in the comments.