Montana’s Glacier National Park is definitely a bucket-list worthy destination for any family. We loved the alpine lakes surrounded by stunning mountain peaks, the availability of hiking trails that were fairly easy for the kids yet incredibly scenic, and the high probability of actually seeing wildlife every day of our visit.
When To Visit Glacier National Park
One of the highlights of Glacier National Park is the Going to the Sun Road, so you want to time your visit for the months when it is free from snow and open to cars. Due to its altitude and Glacier’s penchant for snow, that generally means the road is only open from late June through mid-September so your ideal window to visit is a bit limited. We were fortunate that Glacier's Going to the Sun Road opened just days before our visit on June 30.
To avoid peak crowds, the best time to visit Glacier National Park is at the end of June or early September. For July (the park's busiest month) and August, be aware that parking is limited at many of the trailheads so you generally have to arrive between 8:00am - 8:30am to get a parking spot!
Going To The Sun Road
This infamous and incredibly scenic 50 mile road transverses the park's eastern and western sides, passing numerous waterfalls and climbing to Logan Pass (6646' elevation and 32 miles from the west entrance). The road hosts spectacular views, and two of the park’s most popular trailheads, Hidden Lake Overlook Trail and the Highline Trail, are found at its highest elevation at Logan Pass.
The road eventually brings you back down to the valley and St. Mary Lake. To drive the entirety of the road without stops would take about 2 hours, but you should plan to stop and hike some trails along the way (see recommended easy hikes below.)
Tip: There are a number of turnouts on the Going To The Sun Road. Don't miss your chance to see a glacier from the Jackson Glacier Overlook. This helpful website lists the best turnouts on the Going to the Sun Road. We particularly enjoyed the spectacular views from the turnoff just after Lick Creek but before the first tunnel (driving east).
Where To Stay
To avoid driving long distances to see everything, it's ideal to arrange lodging in both the western and eastern sides of the park. If you can only stay in one side of the park, choose the eastern side for more hiking choices.
Lodging Near Glacier’s West Side
On the western side, you can stay in the park’s historic Lake McDonald Lodge to have easy access to the impressive clear water and colorful rocks of Lake McDonald as well as the popular Trail of Cedars/Avalanche Lake hikes.
Because national park lodging is generally already booked unless you made reservations about a year in advance, consider staying in the small resort town of Whitefish, Montana. It's a quaint town with plenty of restaurants (loved Jersey Boys Pizzeria) and shops. Spend a day at Whitefish Mountain Resort to hike, bike, zip down the mountain on an alpine slide, or take the zipline adventure course.
From Whitefish, it took 37 minutes to get to Glacier National Park's Apgar Village to explore Lake McDonald. It took one hour to reach the parking lot for the Trail of Cedars/Avalanche Lake.
We stayed at Pine Lodge in Whitefish which was walkable to restaurants and shops, offered a nice pool, and free use of their outdoor gear (kayaks, paddle boards, and bikes). You could paddle around in the Whitefish River from the dock behind the hotel or bike 30 minutes on the paved trail to reach Whitefish Lake.
And much to the delight of our daughters, the hotel offered a complimentary nightly ice cream sundae social. We would definitely stay there again. The rooms were nice (and clean) with high ceilings and an outdoor balcony. A basic breakfast was included in the rate.
Note this is not a sponsored post, but we will be paid a small referral fee (at no additional cost to you) if you book Pine Lodge using our link.
Search for lodging in Whitefish, Montana (Affiliate Link)
Lodging Near Glacier’s East Side
For the eastern portion of your stay, we really enjoyed the location of the park's Rising Sun Motor Inn which sits along the Going to the Sun Road just 25 minutes to Logan Pass, 11 minutes to the St. Mary Visitor Center (the best one in the park), and 51 minutes to the Many Glacier area of the park.
The Inn has a pretty decent restaurant on site (offers a kid menu too) and a General Store if you need any basics (snacks, drinks, etc.). It also offers easy access to the Sun Point Nature Trail and the popular trails to Baring Falls, St. Mary Falls, and Virginia Falls. Rising Sun Motor Inn offers small (emphasis on small here) cabins as well as motel-type rooms which were updated, clean, and surprisingly nice given their outside appearance.
Pro Tip: The motel-type rooms are a bit larger than the cabin rooms.
I would also recommend staying at the historic Many Glacier Hotel, but good luck getting a reservation as it is very popular both for its designation as a registered historic landmark and its proximity to some of the best hikes in the park like Grinell Lake, Grinell Glacier, and Iceberg Lake.
Favorite Easy Hikes in Glacier National Park
All of these family-friendly hikes are less than 5 miles roundtrip with reasonable elevation gain and offer the biggest "wow factor" for your effort. For more detailed information on each of these hikes, see “Best Websites You Should Visit” at the end of this blog.
Recommended Hikes Near Lake McDonald
Trail of the Cedars/Avalanche Lake
You can make this a short 0.7 mile walk along the Trail of Cedars boardwalk (a loop) or extend it by continuing to Avalanche Lake (which I recommend). The 4.6 mile roundtrip hike to Avalanche Lake was absolutely gorgeous with its green leafy ferns, old-growth cedar and hemlock trees, and a roaring creek.
Reaching Avalanche Lake, surrounded by steep cliffs and waterfalls, was simply an added bonus. For us the "journey" of this hike was just as enjoyable as the end destination.
Pro Tip: If you're not up for the entire hike to Avalanche Lake, make sure to at least walk the first 100 yards of it to see the beautiful views of Avalanche Creek.
Rocky Point Scenic Trail
If you were unable to get a parking spot at Trail of Cedars or you are looking for a way to escape the majority of the crowds near Lake McDonald, walk the easy 2.2 roundtrip Rocky Point Scenic trail near Fish Creek Campground. It follows the shoreline of Lake McDonald and offers great views at Rocky Point. Along the way, you can picnic by the shore of Lake McDonald, skip rocks, or wade in the freezing cold water.
Apgar Picnic Area
We happened upon this spot accidentally and were pleasantly surprised by the wonderful views of Lake McDonald. You'll find several short spur trails to the water's edge. This would be a good place to drop in a kayak too. If it's not too windy, you can rent a kayak at Glacier Outfitters in Apgar Village to explore Lake McDonald.
Pro Tip: If you decide to bring your own kayak, know that the park requires all watercraft to be inspected to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.
Recommended Hikes Near Logan Pass
Hidden Lake Overlook Trail
This trail follows a boardwalk behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center to reach an overlook of Hidden Lake at 1.5 miles. This was one of our favorite hikes because of its beautiful vistas and the high probability of seeing mountain goats along the trail.
Pro Tip: Hike 100 yards past the overlook to escape some of the crowds and savor the views. Note: On July 1, much of the trail was still covered in snow making for some slippery and fun walking!
Recommended Hikes Near St. Mary Lake
Sun Point Nature Trail to Baring Falls
This hike begins from the Sun Point parking area, located at the end of a short spur road off the Going To The Sun Road. My daughters loved this spot with lots of rocks to scramble up, big views of St. Mary Lake, and it's only a short walk from the parking area. After hanging out, it's just 0.7 mile walk along the Sun Point Nature Trail and St. Mary's shoreline to Baring Falls.
St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
From Baring Falls, you could continue on the trail 1.9 more miles to reach St. Mary Falls and 0.8 more miles beyond that to Virginia Falls. Or, you can park at the St. Mary Falls trailhead for a 1.2 mile hike to St. Mary Falls with the option of continuing on 0.8 miles to Virginia Falls for a 4 mile roundtrip hike.
Beaver Pond Loop Trail
This is a great loop trail (3.3. miles roundtrip) to combine with a visit to St. Mary's Visitor Center. Pick up your Junior Ranger Packet, watch a short film on the history of Glacier National Park, and view the exhibits before making your way to the historic 1913 Ranger Station which sits adjacent to the trailhead to Beaver Pond. Rather than start the trail at the Ranger Station for a clockwise loop, we began the trail at far end of the parking lot at the Red Eagle Lake Trailhead.
After walking just 0.25. miles, we took a spur trail to a pebbled beach along St. Mary Lake. It was 9am in the morning and no one was there (which was an amazing gift given the crowds we'd seen at the more popular trails). We ended up staying for an hour, skipping rocks and taking in the views, and never even finished the hike!
Recommended Hikes in the Many Glacier Area
Swiftcurrent Nature Trail/Grinell Lake Hike & Boat Tour
After visiting Many Glacier Lodge and hopefully enjoying some huckleberry ice cream, you can stretch your legs on the nature trail that encircles Swiftcurrent Lake or take a boat tour on Swiftcurrent Lake and adjoining Josephine Lake.
The boat tour takes about 1.5 hours and requires a short 1/4 mile walk to access the second boat of the tour which takes you across Lake Josephine with views of Salamander Glacier. It's a fun informative tour and a pleasant way to see the backcountry of Glacier National Park from the water. This is also a convenient way to shave miles off your hike to either Grinell Lake (easy) or Grinell Glacier, both of which are accessible by disembarking the boat at the upper boat dock on Josephine Lake.
Grinell Lake Hike is 2.2 miles roundtrip after disembarking the boat. Otherwise, it’s a 6.2 mile roundtrip hike from the Many Glacier Hotel.
Grinell Glacier Hike is 7.5 miles roundtrip after disembarking the boat at Lake Josephine. Otherwise, it’s 12 miles roundtrip from the Many Glacier Hotel
If you decide to hike, the boat operator will you give you a return ticket along with return times to shuttle you back to the Many Glacier Hotel. I recommend reserving the boat tour months in advance to guarantee a spot on the boat. You can also just show up and hope to get a spot from a waiting list (which many did successfully).
A good reason to book ahead is that it might get you into the park if it gets busy, especially during the peak months of July and August. By purchasing a boat tour ahead of time, we were allowed to pass through the park entrance to Many Glacier while others were turned away due to a lack of available parking spots. The ranger wished us luck and we were fortunate to find one of the last 3 spaces available.
Note: If you have reservations at Many Glacier Hotel or Swiftcurrent Inn, you will always be allowed entry into the park and won't be turned away.
Pro Tip: Remember to bring your binoculars to spot wildlife from the boat.
This super short 1/2 mile roundtrip hike offers your best chance to see a moose in the shallow water of Fishercap Lake. We weren't lucky enough to see one on our visit but still enjoyed a relaxing walk to the lake.
More Challenging Hikes
(If your kids are up for it! We will return one day to tackle these...)
Highline Trail (Logan Pass Area)- A bucket list hike leading from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet. The trail follows the Garden Wall ridge and the continental divide for most of its length. You’ll find spectacular views in all directions. Note that this trail was still closed at the end of June for high snow pack.
Grinell Glacier Trail (Many Glacier Area)- This strenuous hike offers outstanding views of emrald blue Grinell Lake and a closeup view of Grinell Glacier. This trail was also closed at the end of June.
Iceberg Lake (Many Glacier Area)- You’ll get plenty of amazing photos at Iceberg Lake. Even in late July, you’ll find ice floating in this alpine lake. It’s also a good hike to see wildlife (bring bear spray!)
General Tips For Your Trip
Buy bear spray
Bring a backpack to carry snacks, maps, and drinks when hiking
Have good sturdy shoes and sandals for the water
Purchase a cooler or pack a soft-sided cooler for picnics
Remember there is no cell service in the park and limited WiFi in national park lodging
Pack for cold temps in the morning and hot temps in the afternoon--layers are key. During the first week of July, we saw lows in the upper 40’s and highs in the low 70’s.
Make sure your car is fueled and pack a picnic and trail snacks. Food is limited inside the park and gas stations are non-existent. You’ll find dining in Apgar Village, Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Lodge, and Rising Sun Motor Inn.
Best Websites You Should Visit
See Montana native Traveling Mel’s website Things To Do In Glacier National Park, Montana for detailed information on all things worthy in Glacier!
Glacier National Park’s Official Website has maps, road and trail status information, live parking lot cams, downloadable maps, newsletters, Junior Ranger packet, and more!
Crazy Family Adventure’s blog Best Hikes in Glacier National Park With Kids has lots of photos of several easy family-friendly hikes.