Montana’s Glacier National Park is where everything bright and strong and never tamed comes together on high: gray wolves and great silver-tipped bears, storms that hit the Great Divide like tsunamis with golden eagles surfing the wind waves, twisted trees 200 years old but scarcely tall enough to hide a bighorn sheep, and impatient wildflowers shoving through snow to unfurl their colors.
Some 762 lakes, dozens of glaciers, and innumerable waterfalls glisten in forested valleys. But perhaps best of all, a scenic highway and more than 700 miles of trails criss-cross the park, making much of its beauty accessible to visitors.
Geographer Richard Menicke arrived at Glacier in 1992, and quickly carved out a niche for himself as the park’s foremost geographic information system (GIS) specialist, working to improve natural resource management and educate the public about Glacier’s ecological significance. Here is his insider’s guide to this “Crown of the Continent” jewel.
Glacier Is My National Park
September is the best time to visit Glacier because the crowds are gone and the park is beautiful. You can feel like you have the place to yourself.
If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to pass through the entrance gate before 9 a.m. and generally get an early start to each day. Avoid crowds by giving yourself lots of time to go big or simply relax and enjoy—whichever you prefer.
My favorite “park secret” is amazing backcountry settings that are reached quickly by foot during a day outing.
Watch out for rapidly changing weather conditions and be sure to bring plenty of layers of clothing, appropriate footwear, food, water, and bear spray when you come to the park.
Head to Many Glacier if you want to see wildlife. If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot a grizzly bear. But be warned: Make sure to enjoy the local fauna at a distance and do not approach the animals.
For the best view, head to Swiftcurrent Lookout. The apex of a stout hike with significant elevation gain in the center of the park, this fire lookout station allows visitors to see just about everywhere.
The Highline Loop or Grinnell Glacier trail are the best trails in the park and the Chief Mountain Highway—which connects Glacier to Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada—is the most scenic drive. The two parks together make up the world’s first International Peace Park, a partnership that was forged in 1932.
If you’re up for a physical challenge, try hiking the Gunsight Pass/Sperry Chalet to Lake McDonald trail (20 miles!) or from the Highline Loop up and over Swiftcurrent Pass to Many Glacier (13 miles). Both of these hikes are point-to-point treks that require a shuttle or coordination among friends hiking the same trail from the opposite direction.
To experience the park’s cultural side, hike up to Sperry Chalet or Granite Park Chalet. You can also sit at the foot of Two Medicine and appreciate the value of that valley to the Blackfeet people over time.
Any front-country, drive-in campground is the best place to stay while you’re visiting.
If you only have one day to spend in the park, make sure to take Going-to-the-Sun Road (start before 8 a.m.) to Logan Pass. Cross from west to east, or vice versa, to see the dramatic change in the landscape.
If you’re interested in a guided experience, try a ranger-led tour or seek out one of the park’s permitted partners.
The most peaceful place in the park has to be the North Fork, where you really feel “out there.”
The Lundgren family is an “unsung hero” of my park because during their many years of operating private visitor facilities in Apgar campground and neighboring West Glacier community, they kept the look and feel of the area rustic and in character of the larger Glacier experience.
Witnessing a snowfall and a grizzly bear—all in one day, in August—could only happen in my park.
If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss sledding at Logan Pass in July or swimming in Lake McDonald.
Just outside park boundaries you can visit the 2.4 million-acre Flathead National Forest, which includes the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Dog owners, take note: You can hike the trails with your pooch(es).
If my park had a mascot it would be the mountain goat.
The biggest threat to this park’s future is crowded conditions that can adversely affect visitors’ experience.
In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my park because it’s wild, historic, magical, stunningly beautiful, and globally relevant as part of the world’s first International Peace Park.
Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources: