When my family finally made it to Glacier National Park, we’d been driving for at least five hours, which included an intense hail storm that made us pull off the road. So when the sky cleared and the most beautiful rainbow I’d ever seen appeared over Saint Mary Lake, I breathlessly jumped out of the van to take a picture. I left the door open, I ignored traffic, I annoyed my family — well, rainbows don’t last forever. I knew it was going to be the start of a great Glacier National Park family trip.
Glacier was the farthest we’d go on that road trip before turning and going back home — to southern Florida. So we were about halfway through our vacation, we had reached the Rocky Mountains, and we wanted to soak up all of it that we could.
Location and timing on a Glacier National Park family trip
We had reservations at Rising Sun Motor Inn. This was so we could drive Going to the Sun Road the next day, because the inn is right on the road. Going to the Sun Road cuts across the park and the Continental Divide, and is an attraction in itself. Closed for most of the year because of snow, the road becomes passable in the summer. Rising Sun Motor Inn is also near a restaurant called Two Dog Flats, where we had dinner.
To do Going to the Sun Road (often shortened to Sun Road) or anything along the road, you have to start early. We wanted to hike at Logan Pass Visitor Center, which is partway between the two sides of the park. We’d read you have to get there before 10 am or risk not getting a parking spot. So we drove along the road, first where we had amazing views of Saint Mary Lake, then spotting trailheads. We decided to stop and hike to Saint Mary Falls.
Hiking in Glacier
The area around the trail was more beautiful than I could have imagined. Tiny snow-melt waterfalls and bright wildflowers in every color popped out to surprise us.
We could have continued on the same trail to Virginia Falls, but we were concerned about not making it to Logan Pass in time. I wish we’d gone. There are so many cool hikes starting from trailheads in this area, and we knew this was one the kids could handle.
Logan Pass wasn’t far, and although we were there before 10 as planned, it was definitely crowded. The visitor center, which had displays and ranger talks, was so full of people that it was hard to keep our family together. So, out we went to hike Hidden Lake Trail on the other side of the building.
In late June, the snow hadn’t completely melted at 6, 646 feet. Sun Road had opened just that week. So it was a challenge to go up the slope. Icy snow made it slippery. Loose rocks also made us slide. We hadn’t known what to expect. But we went slowly, giving the kids a boost when they needed it. The trail rewarded our strenuous climb with wow-inducing views and mountain goats.
Going back down was just about as tricky as going up, until my oldest son and I realized running down portions of the slope somehow made it better.
Our advice: Maybe wait until July or August to tackle Hidden Lake Trail.
I don’t know how long we were at Logan Pass, but several cars circled the lot, waiting for their chance to park. It’s definitely a popular place!
Visiting western Glacier
Beyond Logan Pass, Sun Road has just jaw-dropping scenery as you descend to around 3500 feet, where the Avalanche area has a campground and trails, and around 3100 feet, where Lake McDonald lies.
Lake McDonald is in the western side of the park, and there are campgrounds, lodging, trails, and lots more to do there. We stopped in Apgar Village to use the restroom, get some gear, eat some ice cream, and wade in the lake. It’s like a tiny town, and I loved it and wished we could have spent more time there. We tent camped nearby, just outside the boundary of the national park.
Our family has decided we have to go back someday. We need to hike more trails and see more places (like the Many Glacier area and the Canada side of the international peace park). When your family road trip is already three weeks long, though, you have to make some tough calls.
What to know on a Glacier National Park family trip
Coronavirus update: This year, visiting Glacier is different because of the coronavirus. First of all, the eastern entrance of the park by St. Mary is closed this year. The Blackfeet Nation borders the park, and you normally have to drive through their land to get to the eastern park entrance. The Blackfeet Nation has closed their lands to outsiders to protect their people from the virus. Also, some Glacier lodges are closed, like the Rising Sun Motor Inn where our family stayed. Although the park says it’s getting a lot of visitors this summer, it won’t be using a ticketed vehicle entry system like some other national parks.
Time to visit: Glacier National Park gets around 3 million visitors each year. Most people visit in summer — specifically around mid-June through early September — because that’s usually when roads are cleared of snow. So this is the time you can see most of the park, but it’s also when you’ll be among the crowds.
Getting around the park: Glacier is a huge park. Take a look at the national park map and compare it to a map of Montana. How you get to the park may decide which entrance you’ll approach. The main way people get from the eastern side to the western side (or the reverse) is by Sun Road. When the road is closed, you’ll have to use alternative routes to see Glacier’s other locations. Sun Road can get backed up due to visitors stopping, or the occasional car accident or rock slide.
Two parks in one: A unique thing about Glacier is its partnership with a Canadian national park. The park borders Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. Together, these two countries’ parks make up Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. You can visit one or both on your trip in this beautiful part of the Rocky Mountains.
Where to stay: There are campgrounds and lodging in Glacier National Park. Staying inside the park is great if you can get a reservation in advance. (We booked almost a year ahead.) If not, look for hotels, campgrounds, or vacation rentals just outside the park’s border.
If you plan to go on any trail, carry bear spray. You can purchase or even rent a can of bear spray at local stores, including shops within the park.
Look for trails that are shorter or don’t have an intense elevation gain when hiking with younger children.
Even in summer, be prepared for cool temperatures at high elevations. You may also need sun protection.
You may want to bring a cooler in your car, packed with snacks and drinks, in case you stay out having fun later than expected or don’t find a place to get food on your explorations.
Take advantage of special ranger programs, especially kids’ nature programs.
For coronavirus considerations, maintain social distancing and wear a mask. Trails, restrooms, and visitor centers may be crowded. Safety protocols may be changing, so look for park updates on any possible future closures.