We have wanted to visit Glacier NP for years. In 2017, we came close to adding it to our Tetons/Yellowstone adventure but we just couldn’t make the timing work. I am glad we didn’t because we would have sorely needed more time to explore this beautiful park!
Glacier NP has the largest concentration of Grizzlies in the US adding a bit of adventure when we were out on the trails, especially in the Many Glaciers area. We are weirdos that hoped to see one. Not super up close, and using all safety. We did get to view one from a very far distance that some folks were tracking with their scopes. We also smelled them at times while we were hiking the Hidden Lake and Iceberg Lake trails – it was an intense wet dog smell. Otherwise we mostly saw black bears, and all of those were from our vehicle.
In 1967 two deaths from Grizzly bear attacks at Glacier in one night changed the National Park system forever. Two women (both 19 years old) in for the summer to work concessions were attacked by two different bears in two different areas of the park on the same night, both during overnight backpacking trips. One had a male companion who was also mauled but survived. This is detailed in the book “Night of the Grizzlies” by Jack Olsen.
These events caused the NP system to change their guidelines. Prior to this, there was garbage piled up unsecured at campsites, littering and feeding the wildlife was perfectly acceptable. Also, it wasn’t common to close areas due to bear activity or to provide education to the public about bear safety. Due to many of those changes and the education plastered everywhere it can be, bear attacks in the park are practically non-existent today, especially when you consider millions of people visit each year.
We stayed at both the West and East entrances. The first 4-5 days we were in the West Glacier Village. They had some cute shops, a gas station and a restaurant. However, that part of the park is densely wooded, and while it’s scenic, the hikes, wildlife viewing opportunities and the overall landscape are in my opinion are far superior in the East.
West Glacier Village has many shops, a restaurant, a gas station, mini-golf, and the campground we stayed.
Going to the Sun Road connects both sides of the park, with the mid-point taking you high into the mountains at Logan’s pass. The road at times is a bit terrifying, and I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt that way after having been through Pikes Peak, Million Dollar Highway, and Beartooth pass only mildly bothered by the heights. I think it’s because Going to the Sun is more narrow and that adds a lot of tension to the experience. We had to keep our side mirrors folded in, and some of the turns were tight with rocks jutting from the mountainside. Definitely a technical drive, gorgeous though.
While the west side’s Lake MacDonald is far more famous due to the “fruity pebble rocks’ made famous by vloggers and tiktokers (which are also found everywhere else in the park), I found the east side’s St. Mary’s lake to be much prettier with more mountains and less trees obstructing the views. The infamous “Wild Goose Island” area of the lake makes it clear that the reason it’s the most photographed in the park is not just because it’s in the opening shot of “The Shining”.
There are few glaciers you can view in the park. One is a famous hike called “Grinnel Glacier”, which we deemed to be a little outside of the scope of our fitness level. We like to go on hikes that are challenging and that we enjoy. We don’t like to go on hikes that we struggle so much we can’t enjoy them. So, we eliminated our chance to see that one for now. However, on the eastern side of the park you can view “Jackson Glacier” from an overlook area, and “Salamander” Glacier straight ahead as you enter the park through the Many Glaciers entrance. So, another reason to love the east side is all the glaciers you can view are over there.
We considered driving the 30 miles up to Canada as their side continues the park called “Waterton Lakes National Park”. From the pictures, it’s gorgeous, but our time here was so limited we decided to focus it all on Glacier. We will try out Waterton on another trip when we go to Calgary and Banff. We are here too late in the season to make that all work before the snow is a problem. There was way too much good hiking to pass up here.
Since that hiking was our main activity, I will break the rest of this up by the trails we explored.
Hidden Lake Overlook Trail – (Logan’s Pass-3 miles, 635 ft elevation gain)
Boy, this could be a favorite for anyone visiting the park. It starts from the Logan’s Pass Visitor Center, its a shorter hike you could do with kids. It is uphill to the viewing point but a lot of it is on boardwalks with steps here and there. We unfortunately did not pick the best day to do this hike – it was drizzling and foggy. The trail is popular because of both the end viewing point and it’s wildlife. There are often mountain goats and big horn sheep, and occasionally a grizzly bear but they were all likely bedded down somewhere for the day. We only saw ground squirrels and a marmot. The viewpoint is fabulous though, even with the fog.
Red Rock Falls (Many Glacier – 4 miles, 100 ft elevation gain)
This one starts behind the Swiftwater Inn in the Many Glacier Area. The Many Glacier area is where a bulk of the bears in the park live, but you should have bear spray with you on all ventures, even short jaunts to roadside waterfalls. This hike is relatively flat, and one of the only places I saw families with children out on the trails. Some of that might be we visited after schools started back. There is a small lake early on in the hike where we were greeted by a cow moose and her yearling (I am estimating). The rest of the trail was uneventful until we got to the pretty falls. We did see a bullmoose laying down by the creek while enjoying the falls.
Iceberg Falls (Many Glacier -10.6 miles, 1500 ft elevation gain)
This hike was an absolute favorite (it also starts behind Swiftwater Inn, Many Glacier Area). Though, our Garmin said we’d gone 13.1 miles when we got back. We had a full day to enjoy – a Sunday with a blue sky and perfectly 70 degrees. It’s rewarding the entire time. The beginning of the hike takes you up a mountainside trail with beautiful views of surrounding mountains. Then you spend some time going in and out of shady forests with tall pines and lush ground greenery of grasses, moss, ferns, and bushes. The halfway point is Ptarmigan Falls. A perfect place to sit on a rock, have a snack and drink some water. (On the way back, we used this also to try and cool our feet, but that almost freezing water will take your breath away!)
The rest of the way to the lake boasts more mountains, valleys and forests that take your mind and sooth your soul. Ed commented at one point that everytime he gets a glimpse of my face it has a huge smile on it. I hadn’t noticed, but he was right! We saw a huge bull moose in a smaller lake when we were almost there. As the lake comes into view, the only thing standing between you and that turquoise paradise is a meadow filled with wildflowers and a perfect framing of trees.
I have always wanted to pick huckleberries and the hillside was full of perfectly ripe ones! Along the way I also found Thimbleberry and one single delicious raspberry bush on the way as well. Thimbleberry can be found all over the park, it’s a bit like a raspberry but a bit flatter and more delicate.
To say this was magical is an understatement. This absolutely was one of the best hikes I have ever been on! The last mile or so I was certainly ready for it to be over, but still felt elated by the adventure. A shower and good dinner afterwards was also heaven!
Sunrift Gorge/Baring Falls (St. Mary’s Entrance – 2 miles, 250 ft elevation gain)
We ventured out one evening after Ed had worked late just to get some steps in. We had our sights on St. Mary’s Falls but without the shuttle you can hardly ever find parking at that trailhead. This is a great short hike for any age or skill level. If you don’t want to venture to the falls, no worries there is plenty of beauty just looking around at Sunrift Gorge and there isn’t much walking there other than a staircase down.
St. Mary’s Falls/Virginia Falls (St. Mary’s Entrance – 4 miles, 285 ft. elevation gain)
St. Mary’s falls was my favorite in the entire park. We must have seen a dozen or more while we were here. What makes it special is the beautiful blue pools. Virginia Falls is another mile or so and most of the elevation gain is to get to that one, so if you want a pretty flat easy trail don’t miss St. Mary’s falls! There are several waterfalls in between the two that we didn’t see any names notated. You might want to take the shuttle from St. Mary’s visitor center to this one because we tried many times to park there with no luck. We finally found a spot one weekday evening.
Aster Park (Two Medicine – 4 miles 880 elevation gain)
On our last day at Glacier, we visited the Two Medicine entrance. It’s amazing to me at all four entrances there is a picturesque lake, and each part of the park has both a cohesive feel but it’s own distinct style. As we entered, we stopped at Running Eagle falls, named after a Native American woman who was a fierce worrier in the early 1800’s. This was easily my favorite waterfall in the park, and we must have seen more than a dozen.
We parked at Two Medicine Lake, and took the Aster Park Trail. Aster falls was a beautiful halfway point, and also we found some of the best walking companions. One, was a couple who were 80 celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary. I spent a long time talking to the wife, who to me was absolute goals! I can only hope when I am 80 I am out there enjoying nature, and it’s not like it was an easy trail either with the elevation gain. They were both so excited to see a moose on the trail as that was their main goal. He said “Well, we met our goal what will we do for the rest of the time here?” Suffice it to say they cracked me up! We also spent time with another full-time couple originally from Mississippi who hiked to the top with us, and it was nice to trade war stories and experiences.
Overall, we loved this park as much as we expected we would. I was waiting to see this one before I listed our favorite hikes and national parks as part of our first year review. I have a hard time ranking parks because they are all different in their own way, but our favorites of the 23 we have visited so far all carry equal weight in terms of beauty, activities, and overall experience:
Top 10 lifetime hikes (again not ranked):
Endless Wall Trail and Long Point Trail – New River Gorge National Park, WV (Home state! But this was not a National Park at that time, I haven’t visited again since it became one)
Iceberg Lake – Glacier National Park, MT
Narrows and Angels Landing – Zion National Park, UT
Lost Mine and Balanced Rock – Big Bend National Park, TX
Specimen Ridge – Yellowstone National Park, WY (This one is for the diverse wildlife we encountered)
Hidden Falls/Inspiration Point – Grand Tetons, WY
Emerald Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
We have now been in Medora, North Dakota for the past few days visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park, more on that in the next post!