My husband and I made an 11-day trip to Glacier National Park, in August of 2019, and it was NOT what we expected.
For us, Glacier National Park was one of those dream vacations. Not only because it was a 40 hour trip for us!….. But because it’s one of those places we all talk about….. That you see famous pictures of….. with breath-taking, remote places that look fake, and you never expect to actually see exist in real life.
And it’s true that those places exist….and that they are incredibly beautiful and serene.
But….. there were so many things we did not expect or plan for, that it greatly ADDED to our stress, and TOOK AWAY from our enjoyment. I feel that if we had known some of these things, we could have avoided some bad experiences, and also just have been better prepared for the inconvenience of others.
For those big nature fans out there, who have been to half of the National Parks, and go to a different one every year, you may read this and think, “She should have expected that, what an amateur!”
To which, I would have to say that I agree; I am an amateur. LOL! Please give me some grace for my lack of experience and small amount of ditziness.
But, to all the other amateurs out there, who haven’t made very many big National Park trips…. (or possibly very many trips at all)…… Here are 8 things to know before going to Glacier National Park!
#1- Plan ahead….. way ahead
Okay, this may sound obvious. But when I say plan ahead I don’t just mean to have a general itinerary the day ahead….
I mean….take out time weeks before you ever leave for your vacation, (possibly even months), to get online and do research.
Know ahead…..there are SO many things to do in Glacier National Park, and also in the surrounding area, that you will NOT have the time to do it all in one trip. And if you’re anything like me and my husband, this will bum you out!
We made a rough list of all the different things we would have liked to try to do while we were there, and then tried to plug them in a day or so ahead of time…..
This was not productive AT ALL.
The park is so big, and some of the things are very far away from each other. We ended up spending a lot of time driving, instead of DOING. Driving back and forth from one side of the park to the other. Up and down the Going-To-The-Sun Road. And to and from the park from where we stayed.
Also, some activities REQUIRE planning ahead because things are busy and you have to book them ahead of time. For example, renting kayaks or canoes. Booking hotels, (almost everything in the actual park was booked up by the time we started looking). Getting boat ferry tickets that take you to drop off locations for certain hikes. But they only run during certain parts of the year, and certain times of the day. So you have to start at this time, and be back by that time or you’ll be stranded….
Also, we wanted to go all the way over to the East entrance of the park, and go north, CROSS THE BORDER to Canada, and take a boat on Waterton Lakes, which are connected to Glacier. (It is only about an hour away, so it’s a great opportunity). So this would all require planning ahead to buy tickets and bring a current passport.
PHEW!!! I hope you can see what I mean by all the options and information needing to be gathered ahead of time if you want things to go smoothly. This is a HUGE place! You can’t just bop around and figure it out as you go.
If I were to do it again, I would make a list of everything I wanted to do, this is including specific hikes. Then I would look at a map of the park and plan them in the order that they are from one end to the other. And then change lodging accordingly. (I will talk about lodging more later).
This would be the best plan of action, UNLESS you plan on staying in one area the whole time and doing everything there is to do in that one area. This is a good plan too. But we wanted to try and see as much as possible in the 11 days we were there.
#2- It’s bear country…. seriously
So my husband and I have made a handful of trips to Colorado, which we love! And we have been to multiple different cities and towns there, and seen quite a bit in a short time. (I will probably do a much delayed blog post or two about it in the future).
But, of all the time that I have spent in Colorado…. around the locals, in the stores, hiking, etc….. never was there such a “presence” of bears as there was in Montana.
For whatever reason, (IDK why), I was just expecting Montana to be the same as Colorado in this regard. I thought, “Sure, there COULD be a bear…. but there probably wasn’t going to be.”
Well, here I am to give you a heads up! For those of you who want to go hiking and camping all around, enjoying God’s beautiful creation, and have a grand ole time…. you need to factor the bear possibility into your plans.
And not just black bears, but big ole grizzly bears.
There were bear warning signs everywhere. Bear spray for sale, everywhere. Pamphlets on what to do and what not to do when you encounter a bear. Partial park and camping closures due of bear activity. Camping restrictions and tent rules. Molds of actual gigantic bear paw prints found in the park. And even tons of souvenirs with jokes about bears eating you as their snack.
#3- You WILL have to poop in a hole
This is one those things that I probably SHOULD have known ahead of time. Maybe I am super ditzy…. but of all the things you hear about Glacier National Park, and how popular it is, and how many people visit it every year….. I just assumed that they would have nice amenities.
This actually goes for a few other things too, like lodging and restaurants, which I will talk about next.
Buuuuut, as many of you are probably thinking, and already know…. it would be VERY hard, and a lot of work, to get plumbing all the way out to these places. Duh Sara… *rolling eyes*
And therefore, you have to poop in a hole.
A big, smelly, creepy, cavernous, black hole in the ground.
I feel that is all I have to say about that.
#4- There is huckleberry EVERYTHING
Embarrassingly enough, I wasn’t actually aware that huckleberries were a real thing.
I mean, I hadn’t actually given it much thought before. But I just sort of assumed it was a cheesy pet name people used. (Plus, I’m going to try and use the excuse that I was raised in Florida. *wink*).
Well folks, they ARE real. And, they are GOOD!
If you’ve never had huckleberries before, don’t be afraid to give them a try.
I played it safe at first and went with huckleberry ice cream. It’s hard for them to mess that one up, right?
Then, when I found out that was good, I tried a huckleberry cobbler, (twice just to be sure). And then even bought the real deal…. whole, raw huckleberries from a local farmers market we ran across!
They have jams, and jellies, candies, and even licorice.
(Warning! They stain everything).
#5- The closer you get to the park, the LESS lodging there is
So, once again, I just assumed that a popular, sought after place such as Glacier National Park would surely have plenty of lodging to accommodate it’s many yearly visitors.
As I talked about in a previous blog post, (Our Trip to Glacier, the Ups and Downs)…… We ended up staying in Whitefish for the majority of our trip. (About 30 minutes outside the west entrance of the park). And then later, we stayed at the east entrance of the park for 2 nights.
We had multiple reasons for staying in Whitefish. But one of them was due to the fact that there was nothing left inside of the park to stay at. And also, all of the towns right outside of the park were extremely small and dinky, with very few food options.
Am I the only one shocked about this?
I expected there to be lots of nice hotels and resorts around both entrances of the park. But instead, the closer you got to the park, the more remote things were, and the less options there were. And…. (not to be uppity), the less nice they were. Most were MOTELS, not hotels…. if you know what I mean. (Just trying to be real here).
And as far as the east entrance is concerned, there is literally hardly anything to talk about.
There was one main hotel, (which we stayed at), that was very expensive. And there is a gas station and a few places to eat…. All of the other hotels are not directly near the entrance. They are down the road a ways.
I do have to say though that although it was pricey, we really enjoyed our stay here. And the restaurant was very good. (For more information follow the link: St. Mary’s Village Resort).
Buuuut…. Expect to have no options.
#6- Pack your own food
I won’t ramble on too much about this one.
We were surprised to run into the same situation with food as we did with lodging.
Once again, plan ahead. There are only a FEW places to actually eat inside of the whole park.
We packed lots of snacks, and LOTS of water for the whole day.
Also, the few food places we did find were sadly not very good. You ate it because it was the only option.
Also, even outside of the park we ran into some issues. We would come out of the park after a long day of living off of trail mix and protein bars. We’d both be craving some “REAL” food, as my husband would say….. And find out that a lot of places were either closed for the season, or they closed early, at like 6PM!
We’d then begin a game of Marco Polo with the restaurants on google maps on our drive home, exhausted.
SIDE NOTE: One recommendation I have for right outside the east entrance is RISING SUN PIZZA. (Unfortunately I could not find a website for them. But they should pop right up on google maps, right near St. Mary’s Village). They had some GREAT pizza.
#7- Their parking lot and bus system is archaic
I want to say this may have been the MOST stressful part of the whole trip. The lack of organization and communication about the parking lot status’s.
Let me paint a picture for you…..
You didn’t get to bed until about 11 PM, because you were in the park all day, had to find dinner somewhere, and had to drive back to your hotel outside of the park and take a nice hot shower. Then you wake up at 6 AM, to be able to pack things up again, eat, and get ready to head back into the park for the whole day again.
You have a hike picked out and decided on. The park entrance is 30 minutes away, and then the hike is another 30 minute drive down the one-lane, Going-To-The-Sun highway.
You hustle and get to the park entrance by 8 AM, so you can start a hike at 8:30…. just so the gate attendant can tell you that the TINY parking lot at your trail head is full….. at least they think so anyway.
You then try to be positive and ask them about another trail head that you had considered before. Just for them to say, “I’m not sure. It was close to full 30 minutes ago, but I haven’t heard anything. You’ll just have to drive 45 minutes into the park and find out.”
……. Do I need to say anything more?
The attendants hardly communicate with each other. They only use walkie-talkies. Nothing is automated. Nothing is digital. They don’t have rangers posted at various stations to keep reporting back to the front.
I have to say, I may be a little entitled in some of the topics of this post, but I feel that this is not one of them.
We could not properly plan our days. It seemed that we couldn’t beat the crowds unless we wanted to wake up at 4 AM.
We have been to other parks in Colorado where there system was much better than this. They knew when their parking lots were full and notified every car that drove that direction. They had digital counters that were displayed for all of the different parking lots, and updated frequently. And then…. they offered buses to drop you off instead if you could not park. With huge parking lots at the bus stops.
Glacier offered buses too. But the one time we decided to take one… (after having multiple of the above described circumstances)…. there were so many people waiting at the bus stop at our trail head, that we had to wait outside for about 40 minutes just for the bus to get there. And then make it all the way back to our car after making other multiple stops along the way.
Not fun. NOT convenient.
#1: Schedule for extra time if you are taking the buses.
#2: Be prepared to waste time driving to places that will end up being closed. Try not to schedule too much into one day.
#8- Maybe you shouldn’t “window shop” your hikes
My last helpful tip I have for you today, is more of a suggestion. And I am including it in this list because it is something that we did, and I found that it led to some disappointments.
What do I mean by window shop? Let me explain…
What we did when planning our trip was…… we looked on Google and typed in “Glacier National Park”. Then, we looked through photos and found all of the most amazing and spectacular ones….. and we told ourselves that we were going to hike those same hikes as the people who posted the photo, and see the same thing, and take a similar photo…..
Then, when we actually got into the nitty-gritty of picking out and planning our hikes… we found that the most spectacular photos were often at the end of some hike that was 26 miles and a boat ferry long!
Unless you are a seasoned hiker, who isn’t afraid of back-country camping with the grizzly bears….. look for hikes that are in your mileage range, and expect to see some pretty awesome things.
DON’T expect to see everything you saw on Google.
We had a very busy, action-filled, and stressful vacation. There was a lot of driving. A lot of hiking. And a lot of just sitting, and appreciating the views.
If you want to make sure you get the most out of YOUR trip to Glacier as possible…. (even is that just means seeing some awesome things and being stress-free)…. then I hope these “8 Things to Know Before Going to Glacier National Park” will help you do that.
All-in-all, I learned that this is the wilderness! The vast, vast wilderness. Be prepared before you go. *wink*
Until next time,
Take each day one day at a time, and live in the moment.
Her Life In Season