Years ago, I dated a guy who was originally from Montana. I'll never forget how often he told me that I had to go to Glacier National Park and that the passes on Road to the Sun usually aren't even open in May due to snow. At the time it meant very little to me. I hadn't fallen in love with mountains or our national parks yet. The outdoors were part of my life growing up but it kinda just was there and nothing more. So now that all I think about is travel, backpacking, and camping, there was no doubt that we had to see Glacier National Park.
Here's the honest truth. Tacking this trip onto the backend of our Banff trip made me do very little planning for the little time we were there in comparison. I know we didn't do it justice, but for a first-timer, we saw A LOT that I think anyone visiting this park can use as the foundation for their trip and then they can add on to it as much or as little as they'd like.
our top 3
1. Drive Road to the Sun 2. Jump in a glacial lake 3. Hike with the bears
road to the sun...(x 3)
It's iconic and quite honestly hard to avoid even if you wanted to. Road to the Sun is an "engineering marvel" to say the least. Built from 1921-1932, the road spans 50 miles from east to west gates of the park, carved and snaking it's way through the mountains. This route takes anyone with a car or bike to places you usually have to hike to see similar views, starting low in the valleys and climbing high points of over 6,000 ft, crossing the CDT at Logan Pass.
Brian had been driving all of our Banff/Glacier trip in our huge rental truck up to this point, so it was all him on this windy road experience. While I was taking all the pictures and admiring all the views, he was white-knuckling around turns on the narrow road, keeping us from going over sheer cliff drops. Seriously, he killed it...all 3 times! During out time in the park, every trail or sight we really wanted to experience required us to get to the opposite end of the park via Road to the Sun, so keep that in mind in your planning and lodging. Even when we were leaving to catch out flight back in Calgary, the gps decided it was THE way to go and Brian thought I purposefully plugged it in to make it route us that way, haha.
All laughs aside, this is an experience you have to take. Lots of views, photo opportunities, chances to kick you shoes off and dip your feet in huge glacial lakes, and all the wildlife. Throughout our trip we saw bears, mountain goats, elk, and a fox just driving Road to the Sun. Enjoy it but don't spend your entire trip in the car. Make sure you get out and check out some of the stops and hikes along the way, time permitting.
Man-made bridge on Road to the Sun
Fuel up! There is no gas and little to no cell service. Make sure you're good to go before starting the 50 mile/+2 hour drive.
Take turns. I was horrid at this, but seriously take turns driving. The passengers get to take it all in while the driver really can't because they're keeping you on the road and alive. Let them sit back and enjoy it, too, on your drive back.
There are only a few parking lots a long the way. Some will be packed (Logan Pass) and other will be empty. Find one that is around an area you'd like to explore and walk a little bit, but don't forget the bear spray!
jump in a glacial lake
It's one of those things that was probably made popular via Insta. Beautiful humans wading through turquoise waters of high elevation lakes. So we had to have the experience ourselves!
In Glacier there are 2 huge lakes, Lake McDonald and St. Mary Lake, you can easily get to and swim in around July/August, though they don't really give you that "feeling" of a glacial lake you hiked hours to get to in seclusion or with fellow hikers. To give us the full feels we decided to take a dip in Iceberg Lake (see below for beta). When we got there, it was exactly what we wanted with high rising mountains surrounding us, wild flowers, hours of hiking to get there, and then that perfectly blue water...with icebergs! The fun thing about this lake is that you can easily park yourself here for hours before heading back and in the summer, it's certainly hot enough to dip your feet in our jump in quickly and then enjoy the warmth on the shoreline rocks as you dry out.
Brian went first on this and decided to swim out to one of the larger icebergs in the lake that he could stand on. It was maybe 50 yards away but in a lake where the water never gets above 50 degrees on the surface, it's not an easy swim to say the least. He made it, we snagged a video and picture, then we swam back, struggling on the last few feet because his muscles were so cold they wouldn't work. I knew I'd never make it that far, one: hating cold, and two: having little swimming knowledge, so I decided to wade it in and just go all the way under. I think i was in there for maybe 1-minute total and on the way out I couldn't feel my feet enough to walk without falling over myself to get out. It was definitely exactly like all of the IG pictures you see...
We spend the next half hour or so drying out on the rocks and enjoying the views before heading back to the trail. It was an experience I would have regretted if I didn't do it.
Brian making his way back
Have your swimwear on you at all times! On your body, in you pack, your car, whatever! You never know when you'll have this chance unless you plan ahead.
Know your limits. That water is cold, so cold that it would be easy to cramp up and need help getting out. Don't go too far, stay in too long, or put your whole body into the water with known heart conditions. Hypothermia and cardiac arrest are some of the top causes of death in Glacier NP.
Budget your time. Make sure that you plan your hikes so time is on your side, but consider the down time you'll want to spend at these lakes. It's always the worst to get to THE place and feel rushed to leave.
hike with the bears
The thing we wanted to see most, but also experience least was a bear encounter. Obviously, getting mauled by a black or grizzly bear isn't at the top of my list, but I did want to see one on the trail. In the quick planning that I did, I found that an area of the park known for spotting the bruins was Many Glacier.
Here, several popular trails snake through areas active with bears. So when I checked the All Trails comments on trails around Many Glacier that had recent bear sightings, I put them at the top of our list. Iceberg Lake was the winner for us, not just because of these sightings but because we would get to kill like 3 birds with 1 stone on our "Glacier NP to-do list" rather having to pick and choose in the short time we were in the park.
Our hike that day was perfect and while we didn't see any bears on the way in (though we were making lots of noise and clapping around blind corners), we did see a black bear several hundred yards off the trail on our way back. It wasn't much more than a black blob moving against a green backdrop but it was the experience we wanted so we were totally satisfied.
Black bear eating huckleberries
Brush up on your bear safety knowledge. Read about it on the park's website and do some additional reading on your own. This isn't just for your safety, but also the bears. We want to keep experiencing them without jeopardizing the natural habitat they need.
Carry your bear spray ALWAYS and know how to use it properly. Period. If you don't know, learn.
Hike with a park ranger. Many of these hikes are done independently, but Glacier NP wants you to experience these trails and mountains without being in constant fear of running into a bear. Check the park's website for days and times on ranger led hikes. In addition to feeling safe, you can ask all the questions and you'll learn so much about the flora, fauna, and geological phenomena in that area of the park.
Plan to hike trails around Many Glacier. These include Iceberg Lake Trail, Cracker Lake Trail, Grinnell Glacier Trail. You should also check out Huckleberry Mountain and in the Logan Pass Area for Highline Trail, Gunsight Lake Trail, and Hidden Lake Trail These areas are popular for grizzlies, though you may see a black bear instead!
iceberg lake beta
From the parking lot, walk around the back of the shop/restaurant past all of the cabins to the trailhead. Follow the signs up the hill to get on Ptarmigan Trail. Follow this past all of the junctions, staying to the left the entire time in order to make your way up to Iceberg Lake. You'll pass several different types of wild flowers, a small waterfall, shaded areas, and the helicopter rescue spot. Continue following the Ptarmigan Trail until the junction splits at the backcountry restrooms signs (about 2.6 miles in). Continue left onto Iceberg Lake Trail and follow it all the way up to the cirque (2.1 miles). You'll still have the opportunity to see lots of wildflowers along with "no name" lake before reaching the rocky shores of Iceberg Lake.
While here, you'll find backcountry restrooms, but not much beyond that. Remember to pack out any garbage you make along the way as you follow the same trail back. This time, keep to the right the entire way to get you back to the parking lot trailhead and enjoy a cold drink or ice cream from the gift shop before you head back. You earned it!
directions to trailhead
Sunscreen! This trail has a lot of exposed portions, especially the closer you get to the lake. Make sure to pack sunscreen and wear a hat, unless you want your pack to rub up on that sunburnt skin the next day!
Bear spray! Like I said before, this trail is popular for grizzlies but black bears are in the area too. Carry your spray and know how to use it.
Drink your water! Pack at least 2 liters of water per person for this day hike. You're going to be out there for about 10 miles total and unless you feel like carrying a purification system, you won't have anywhere to fill up with fresh water (glacial lakes are NOT a pass on purifying your water just because they're super blue or clear).
Overall, Glacier is something pretty special to experience and should be at the top of your national parks list. If you're looking for more seclusion and that backcountry feel, you'll certainly get it without being too far from a popular gathering spot of fellow hikers or campers. Don't be like me and keep putting this one off, especially if you want to peek those glaciers before they're fully melted!
Need help planning this trip? Snag a pay-what-you-can coaching session with me so you can get there and have your own adventure. Digging the photography? Check out my prints gallery of this national park. Remember, 100% of what you pay for either coaching or prints goes directly towards helping Brian and I afford IVF in spring 2020.