A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

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How to do the Going-to-the-Sun Road right, learn about Native American history and more

When you grow up in Montana, it’s easy to take for granted the wilderness in your backyard. The Rocky Mountains that line the Flathead Reservation, where I was born and raised, supplied endless access to trails, rivers, waterfalls and lakes. In addition to those mountains, driving a few hours to the south brought us to Yellowstone National Park and driving a couple hours north landed us in Glacier National Park.

Located on the traditional homelands of the Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish and Qlispe tribes, Glacier offers an opportunity for everyone to connect with the land, learn the history and develop a nuanced understanding of our national parks while exploring one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.

The park is generally separated into two sections: the west and east entrances. Both sides offer unique experiences and easy access to more than 700 miles of hiking trails. The entire eastern border and entrances are located on the Blackfeet Reservation, which gives you the opportunity to frequent many tribally owned businesses.

My childhood was filled with countless opportunities to camp and hike through some of the most stunning landscapes in America. These experiences shaped who I am, and I’m grateful for my tribes, Salish and Kootenai, and others, as well as agencies who fought for the land and guaranteed that we don’t forget the histories that connect us to it.

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A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

Tailyr Irvine is a photographer and writer based in Missoula, Mont. Her work focuses on providing in-depth representations of the lives and complex issues within the diverse communities that make up Native America and the American West.End of carousel

How to get there

There are seven entrances to Glacier National Park, but the two I recommend are the West Glacier Entrance on Highway 2 and the St. Mary Entrance on Highway 89. Both entrances bring you to the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road.

There are several towns within 45 minutes from the west entrance that offer hotels, camping and Airbnbs. These gateway towns are a good option if you want to save money and explore the local businesses as well as the park. Lodging in the park can be expensive, and because of demand, it can be difficult to secure reservations. Consider staying in Columbia Falls, Kalispell or Whitefish for access to restaurants, bars and local shopping.

The best time to visit

Although Glacier is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, what’s accessible can greatly depend on weather. Roads and many trails are closed during the winter months because of heavy snowfall. Also be mindful that many businesses and lodging options are only open during the summer season. Late June through September is the best time to plan your trip, especially if you want to hit Going-to-the-Sun Road. This year, the road opened June 13, which is the earliest it’s opened since 2005. To moderate visitor demand, the park has a reservations system in place at some entrances. You’ll need a reservation to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road, in addition to several other points of entry, for much of the summer.

Where to stay

Many Glacier Hotel

If you have one day to spend in the park, this is the hotel to stay at. Many Glacier Hotel sits on Swiftcurrent Lake on the east side of the park and offers jaw-dropping views of Mount Grinnell right outside your window. It’s a perfect base for this side of the park and offers easy access to the Grinnell Glacier Trail, one of a handful of trails that will take you to an actual glacier. The hotel also offers access to horseback riding and the Red Bus tour, and it even offers a free tour of the hotel.

1147 Route 3, Browning, Mont. 59417 | 855-733-4522| Website

Lake McDonald Lodge

Lake McDonald Lodge is one of the most popular places to stay in the park. It’s located on the shore of the largest lake in the park, Lake McDonald, with easy access to fishing, kayaking, tours and trails. The historic Swiss-style chalet lodge, built in 1913, offers guests a rustic stay with access to three restaurant options in the lodge. If you choose to stay here, it is conveniently a departure point for the Red Bus tours, which brings guests all the way to Logan Pass.

288 Lake McDonald Lodge Loop, West Glacier, Mont. 59936| 855-733-4522 | Website

Sperry Chalet

Though only accessible by a nearly seven-mile hike, Sperry Chalet offers an experience similar to camping without the hassle of carrying camping gear. The stone rooms in this historic chalet shelter you from the elements with beds and lots of blankets. There are no lights, heat or water, so be prepared. The hotel provides you with three meals each night you stay. This is a great place to stay for access to backcountry hikes.

Gunsight Pass Trail, West Glacier, Mont. 59936 | 888-345-2649| Website

Camping in the park

There are 13 campgrounds in Glacier. Many require reservations, but if you’re looking to try your luck at the few first-come, first-served campgrounds, try Two Medicine Campground. If you plan ahead, reserve Apgar or Many Glacier campgrounds.

Website

St. Mary

Located on the Blackfeet Reservation, this small town is minutes away from the St. Mary Visitor Center on the east side in the park. You’ll find lodging for all price points and travel styles — campsites, cabins, RV parks and luxury hotels — plus stunning views of the mountains.

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A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

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Things to do

Going-to-the-Sun Road

If you’re going to do one thing on your trip, Going-to-the-Sun-Road is it. But it’s probably part of most visitors’ plans, which is why you’ll need a reservation to do this spectacular drive for most of the summer. The 50-mile route cuts across the heart of the park and offers incredible views of the mountains, wildflowers and waterfalls. At the highest point, Logan Pass, you cross the Continental Divide. You’re able to park at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and explore the landscape. Be sure to check out the boardwalk behind the visitor center that begins a three-mile hike to the Hidden Lake Overlook. This family-friendly hike is a great opportunity to spot wildlife and stretch your legs if you’re driving the entire road. The road is the park’s main attraction so be sure to start your drive early if you want to avoid crowds. Be sure to check for vehicle restrictions and weather-related closures.

BTW: If you don’t want to do the drive yourself, check out Sun Tours, a Native American-run company that educates visitors on the history of the Blackfeet people. You can learn more about its founder, Ed DesRosier, by listening here.

Website

Museum of the Plains Indian

To begin to understand the complex legacy of national parks and land-theft in the United States, Glacier and local tribes created the Native America Speaks program. If you want to learn the history of the mountains, rivers and glaciers you’re climbing on, your first stop should be to the Museum of the Plains Indian, located on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Mont., for this series, as well as other history of the area. This program will connect you to the history, culture and language of the original stewards of the area now known as Glacier National Park.

BTW: Check its calendar for a rotation of exhibits.

19 Museum Loop, Browning, Mont. 59417 | 406-338-2230 | Website

Avalanche Lake Trail

Avalanche Lake Trail is a popular nearly five-mile trail that’s a good fit for families or anyone needing time to adjust to the elevation. You’ll begin at the Trail of the Cedars Trailhead loop. There’s also a wheelchair-friendly loop that takes you on a raised boardwalk lined with red cedars and black cottonwood. You have an option to complete the loop or continue to Avalanche Lake, where you can see waterfalls and the famous avalanche chutes. The short hike takes you through more cedars and forested areas before you reach the edge of Avalanche Lake, where you can see the glacial-fed waterfalls cascading down Bearhat Mountain. This trail is very popular in the summer, so if you’re looking for a little more solitude, you can continue on the path to the opposite end of the lake.

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BTW: This is a great place to take a break and picnic next to the lake.

Website

Running Eagle Falls

Near East Glacier in Two Medicine, Running Eagle Falls is a short, wheelchair-accessible loop that leads to a stunning waterfall. The entire trail takes about 15 minutes to complete, making it perfect for kids or anyone looking for a quick adventure. On this trail, you’ll likely run into birders, runners and other hikers.

BTW: The trail is named Running Eagle, or Pi’tamaka, after a female warrior from the Blackfeet Nation. Her father taught her to hunt and fight, and after his death, she went on to be a part of many raids where she gained her reputation as a warrior.

Website

The Highline Trail

For more experienced hikers, this almost-12-mile hike follows the continental divide through Glacier. It begins at Logan Pass and ends at the Loop. It is a one-way hike with the option of taking a shuttle back when you reach the end. This is basically a hiking version of driving Going-to-the-Sun Road, with the trail following the road before taking you through a valley and around the mountains, revealing unobstructed, majestic views of the park.

BTW: This is a difficult hike, with around 2,000 feet of elevation gain and spots with small trails next to steep 100-foot drop-offs, so be sure you are prepared.

Website

Kayak the lakes

Bring your own kayak or rent a kayak from the Glacier Park Boat Company to explore the waters in the park. Get on the water at Lake McDonald or Two Medicine in the early morning to see some of Glacier’s most breathtaking sunrises. Remember: If you bring your own kayak or boat, you must have it inspected before you can access the lakes.

BTW: If you want to cut some miles off your hikes, Glacier Park Boat Company will drop you at the trailhead across the lake, saving you about four miles on the Grinnell Glacier hike and about six miles on your Upper Two Medicine Lake hike.

406-257-2426 |Website

Horseback ride with Swan Mountain Outfitters

Cowboy up with a horseback ride through the backcountry of Glacier with Swan Mountain Outfitters. This family-owned business offers one-hour tours for beginners as well as full-day tours for more advanced riders. Summit mountains and see the parts of the park only accessible on horse. Rides are available on both sides of the park, leaving from Lake McDonald, Apgar and Many Glacier.

BTW: If you plan ahead, you can go horseback riding in the morning and rafting in the afternoon.

26356 Soup Creek Rd, Swan Lake, Mont. 59911 | 406-387-4405 |Website

Skip to end of carouselThings locals think you should know

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

Make sure to book accommodations well in advance. For park lodges, think one year; for campsites, book six months out. For hotels near the park entrances, reserve nine months ahead.

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

Remember to fuel up before you enter the park; there are no gas stations inside Glacier. Cell service can be very limited, so be sure to download any maps ahead of time.

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

A local’s guide to Glacier National Park

If you’re visiting the second week of July, experience North American Indian Days — a powwow and rodeo held in Browning, Mont., on the Blackfeet Reservation. It’s a great way to learn about the culture and tribe who occupied this land long before the park was established in 1910.

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Where to eat

Breakfast: Two Medicine Grill

Located in East Glacier near the park’s entrance, Two Medicine Grill is a classic American diner with big portions and friendly service. It opens at 6:30 a.m., making it an easy stop before a long day of hiking. There is also a funky store next door, the Glacier Park Trading Company, where you can look for souvenirs while you wait for your meal.

BTW: Make sure to get a slice of homemade huckleberry pie for later — or for breakfast. No judgment.

314 U.S. Highway 2, East Glacier, Mont. 59434 | 406-226-9227 | Website

Breakfast and Lunch: Sunflower Cafe & BBQ

Whenever I’m traveling, the first thing I look for is where I can get a cup of coffee. If you’re like me, then you’ll enjoy starting your mornings drinking coffee next to an outdoor fire pit while your breakfast cooks. Sunflower Cafe in West Glacier has breakfast by a fire, coffee and brunch (they also have cocktails and dinner served until 9 p.m.) You can pick up boxed lunches to take with you to the park. Start here with coffee, and then take the box lunch to enjoy at Avalanche Lake.

BTW: For those of you struggling without cell service, you can post all your Glacier National Park photos using their WiFi near the fire pit.

12070 U.S. Highway 2, West Glacier, Mont. 59936 | 406-233-9583 | Website | Instagram

Lunch: Rising Sun Pizza

Sitting on the Blackfeet Reservation minutes from the east entrance in St. Mary, Rising Sun Pizza is the place to refuel and enjoy a beer after a long day of hiking. You’ll find pies like the Rising Wolf (sausage, pepperoni, jalapeños and onions) and Blackfeet (chicken, black beans, red onion and cheddar cheese), plus wings and salads. If you’re looking to support a tribally owned business and eat some of the best pizza in Montana, this is your place.

BTW: Consider ordering ahead; the shop can get busy.

3141 Highway 89 W., St. Mary, Mont. 59417 | 406-732-9995 | Website

Dinner: Belton Chalet

The Belton Chalet in West Glacier offers an upscale dining experience in a lodge built by the Great Northern Railroad in 1910. Although a bit pricey, the Belton offers a warm environment to watch the trains roll by with a tap house and deck. You’ll find dishes on the menu like bison meatloaf, Flathead Lake trout and pastas with elk sausage. This is the place to go in West Glacier if you’re looking for a bougie break from roughing it in the sticks.

BTW: Every night the staff lines the deck to greet the evening train, a tradition that dates back to its opening year.

12575 U.S. Highway 2, West Glacier, Mont. 59936 | 406-888-5000 | Website

Dinner: Babb Bar Cattle Baron Supper Club

With a unique, rustic interior — a cabin but with a big tree trunk in the middle — this Native American-owned restaurant is the only place for anyone looking for a steak dinner near the park. Let me set the scene for you: You just spent a week roughing it in the woods. You’re tired. You’re craving a home-cooked meal. You arrive here, order the steak, sip on a glass of wine and reflect on all the magical places you just saw.

BTW: If wine isn’t your thing, try the huckleberry margarita.

3990 U.S. Highway 89, Babb, Mont. 59411 | 406-732-4033

Dinner: Johnson’s of St. Mary

Johnson’s is not fast food. Your order will take time, so if you’re in a rush, you’ll want to go somewhere else. But if you’re in the mood to decompress in a rustic-style restaurant, this is your place. Although there may be a wait, you won’t get bored. The walls are covered in the owner’s family history and western memorabilia. With items such as spurs and antlers — lots and lots of antlers — this spot will keep your eyes busy and your stomach full. Explore a bit outside the restaurant for a 10/10 view of the valley and east side of the park.

BTW: Do yourself a favor and get the bison barley soup.

21 Red Eagle Rd., St. Mary, Mont. 59417 | 406-732-5565 | Website

Provisions: Polebridge Mercantile

If you find yourself on the more remote northern end of the park, the Polebridge Mercantile has fresh baked goods, coffee, a deli and ice cream. It’s also a good place to fuel up and secure supplies before beginning your trip at this end of the park.

BTW: Try the huckleberry bear claws.

265 Polebridge Loop, Polebridge, Mont. 59928 | 406-888-5105 | Website

About this guide

Editing by Amanda Finnegan. Photo editing by Lauren Bulbin. Design by Stephanie Hays. Copy editing by Jamie Zega. Design editing by Christine Ashack and Matt Callahan.

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