Exploring Glacier National Park for the First Time

Exploring Glacier National Park for the First Time

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We want to introduce you to our latest guest author, Alex Sumuel from Wander With Alex. We are thrilled to have her help us in exploring Glacier National Park.

We haven’t been to Glacier yet, so having Alex give us her first-hand view is an invaluable introduction for any first time visitor.

As you will see, she has presented some of the highlights that no one should miss on a visit to this amazing park. So, let’s explore some of the best hikes and top views in Glacier National Park.

Exploring Glacier National Park 

Glacier National Park is located in the sub-ranges of Montana’s Rocky Mountains and has more than 700 miles of hiking trails, 130 named lakes, thousands of plant species, hundreds of animal species, and 26 active glaciers. Visiting Glacier National Park is like experiencing nature untouched, as many of its original plant and animal species still remain today. 

From dense forests and rugged mountains to clear blue lakes and breathtaking waterfalls, Glacier National Park is an adventure that every avid hiker should experience. Currently, there are 26 named Glaciers at the park, but sadly they are slowly disappearing due to climate changes. Latest research has indicated that the park’s glaciers could be gone by 2030. That’s all the more reason to start planning your Glacier National Park vacation today!

Know Before You Go – Tips For Visiting Glacier National Park

A mountain stream rushes through Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park hiking trails are located along the Going-to-the-Sun-Road. You must purchase a ticket online before you get to the park. If you do not have a ticket, you can only enter the park before 6AM and after 5PM. Tickets go on sale two days prior and they sell out fast! Note that tickets are only required from May to September. The Park is minimally maintained during the winter months due to heavy snowfall. 

There are also entrance fees which range from $20 to $35 dollars depending on how you are entering the park. A 7-day vehicle pass is $35. 

There are more than 50 hiking trails at Glacier National Park, so be sure to plan out your hikes ahead of time. This is important because some of the trails are very challenging and can easily take up the entire day. Be sure to pack plenty of water, hiking shoes, bear spray, sunglasses, sunscreen, snacks and anything else you may need for a half to full day hike.

Bear Safety – Exploring Glacier National Park Safely

Bears in Glacier National Park

Glacier National park is home to a large number of black bears and grizzly bears. When hiking in bear country, be sure to carry bear spray and hike in groups. Be sure to never leave food behind and to avoid packing items that have strong odors. On your hikes, be extra alert in areas that a bear may frequent like streams and berry patches. As well, try to avoid hiking early in the morning, in the late evening, or after dark. 

The Trail of the Cedars

Exploring the Trail of the Cedars in Glacier National Park

The Trail of the Cedars is considered an easy, family friendly hike that is approximately one mile in length. It’s also one of two handicap accessible hikes, the other being Running Eagle Falls trail. Parts of the trail are along a boardwalk which takes you through a gorgeous inland rainforest. The area is filled with beautiful western hemlock and western red cedar trees. The trail is a loop and is also the beginning of the Avalanche Lake Trail.

Avalanche Lake 

Avalanche Lake is and essential stop when exploring Glacier National Park

Avalanche Lake is one of the most popular sights at Glacier National Park because of its scenic route and gorgeous glacier views. This hike passes through a beautiful pacific rainforest, a gorgeous gorge, and drops you off at Avalanche Lake. 

Starting your hike from the Trail of the Cedars, the hike to Avalanche Lake is about 5.9 miles there and back. It is considered a half-day hike and its difficulty level is categorized as moderate. You’ll take a short hike through the Trail of the Cedars to the beginning of Avalanche Lake Trail. Then you’ll continue for about 2 more miles to Avalanche Lake where water trickles down from the Sperry Glacier. The trail also extends about 0.7 miles further to the other side of the lake if you’re looking for more views.

St. Mary Falls

St. Mary's Falls one of many waterfalls in Glacier National Park

The beginning of St. Mary Falls is located at either the shuttle bus stop or parking area. This hike is approximately 1.7 miles with an elevation gain of about 215 feet. St. Mary Falls is an easier hike that is perfect for the family to enjoy and is one of the more popular trails in the park. 

You’ll begin your hike by walking downhill through a charred forest. In 2015 the Reynolds Creek fire destroyed much of the area, which remnants of can still be seen today. Despite the area’s grim past, the cleared forest makes way for beautiful views of several mountains. As you continue your journey, you’ll walk along the St. Mary River until you reach St. Mary Falls. Once you reach St. Mary Falls, there is a bridge that allows you to cross the river giving you access to stunning views of the three-tiered waterfall.

Virginia Falls

Virginia Falls can't be missed when you come to Glacier for exploring

As you leave St. Mary Falls, you can continue on towards Virginia Falls. Along the way you will cross several creeks, so watch your step! You’ll then pass several smaller spills until you reach the stunning Virginia Falls waterfall. The views are breathtaking and there is an opportunity to see this waterfall from multiple angles. St. Mary Falls to Virginia Falls is 3.8 miles total if you are beginning at the St. Mary Falls parking area. There is an elevation gain of 110 ft and the hike is rated moderate. 

Explore Lake McDonald

Exploring Glacier includes kayaking Lake McDonald

Exploring Lake McDonald is a must! The lake is located on the West side of the park and is approximately 10 miles long. The lake is incredibly calm, and the views are stunningly beautiful! Go swimming in the clear blue glacier water. Or rent a motorboat, kayak, canoe, rowboat, or paddleboard from Glacier Outfitters or Apgar Rentals, and explore the lake. Enjoy the blue waters, open skies, mountains, glaciers, and fresh air. Then take your watercraft over to a private beach and have a picnic! 

Going-to-the-Sun Road

Going to the sun road is essential for driving in Glacier National Park

Going-to-the-Sun Road is a 50 mile two-laned highway that takes you through Glacier National park. The bidirectional highway will take you from the east to west entrances and takes about 2 hours in moderate traffic. Access to most of the Park’s hiking trails are along this road. The views along the route are remarkable and there are many places along the way to stop and take photos. 

According to the National Park Service, portions of the road remain open year round. However, in the winter months, this is highly dependent upon the weather. Typically you can access the road by June or July, but by October portions of the road are shut down due to heavy snowfall. 

Visiting Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is full of Rocky Mountain Peaks

From camping and hiking to kayaking and white water rafting, Glacier National Park should be on every outdoor lover’s bucket list. With more than 50 hiking trails, be sure to plan your trip with enough time to explore the park at your own pace. The hikes in this article are rated moderate and are relatively short. If you enjoy longer hikes, be sure to do your research and plan ahead of time for the most enjoyable experience.

About the Author

Alex Sumuel, our featured guest author of the week, is the founder of Wander With Alex. Alex enjoys traveling and exploring new places, as well as inspiring others with her adventures on her blog. She visited Glacier National Park in July of 2021 and gives us a peek into what it’s like to explore Glacier National Park! All photos are credited to Alex Sumuel.

Explore More Hiking in the USA

While you are discovering new hikes in the United States, read about some of the bucket list trails in our guides to hikes in the US.

And just across the border, you’ll find some great ways to explore other great trails in Canada.

And be sure to check out our Hiking page for all of the best trails and gear for a great outdoor experience.