The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Glacier National Park in September
September 25, 2020
Table of Contents
Updated with information for visiting in 2021
Epic views, crystal clear glacier-fed lakes, huckleberry treats, flowing waterfalls, bear sightings and an awe-inspiring scenic drive - what more could you ask for? Glacier National Park is definitely a contender for my favorite US National Park. Not only is it stunningly beautiful, but it offers a wide variety of things to do at every skill level. Everyone should make a trip here in their lifetime, I’m already planning my second visit.
Glacier National Park sits on the northern edge of Montana and stretches up to the Canadian border. It was the 10th most visited US National Park in 2019 and received 3 million visitors. In the 1800’s it was home to 80 glaciers, today just 26 glaciers remain in the park. I set out to see two glaciers, but only made it to one (more on that later!). While I didn’t see many glaciers, I did see incredible lakes, mountains, waterfalls and views that make this park more than worth a visit.
- As of September 6, 2021, a reservation is no longer needed to drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
- Bears are an extremely common occurrence in the park. Remember, you are visiting their home! Be sure to carry bear spray and understand how to use it. You can’t fly with bear spray so you’ll need to purchase it locally; you can buy it at grocery stores and gas stations. I bought mine at Super 1 Foods in Columbia Falls because I heard it was cheapest. It cost $30 and I had to ask for it at the register.
- Trails also close often due to bear activity. Check the trail status on the website or talk to a ranger before visiting. If a trail is "posted" for bear activity, it means that it is not closed but to be extra cautious.
- Be sure to rent your car and hotel far in advance. Things book up quickly in the summer months!
- Start the trails early in order to avoid the crowds.
- There is very little cellular service in the park, so make sure you have a map or know where you’re going ahead of time.
- Gas is not available anywhere in the park, be sure to fill up before entering.
When I visited in September 2020, the east side of Glacier National Park was closed. As of this writing in September 2021, Many Glacier Valley is now closed due to construction. This guide covers the west side of the park and does not include the Many Glacier, Belly River and Two Medicine areas of the park on the east side. It also includes some things to see and do that do not involve a ticket to the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Pro Tip (learn from my mistake!): It is imperative to rent a car if the shuttles aren’t running. You will likely still want one even if the shuttles are available, but it's especially necessary without them. Kalispell is a small town and the entire city runs out of rental cars on busy weekends. I was supposed to visit during Labor Day weekend, but I didn’t rent a car far enough in advance (1 week) so there were none available. I postponed my trip three weeks in order to secure a rental car.
Without the shuttles, parking and congestion is definitely an issue in the park. I made sure to get to the trails I wanted to do very early so I could get a parking spot. I waited in one pretty long traffic jam while going past the Trail of the Cedars but overall it was okay at the end of September. If you visit in July or August, be sure to plan to arrive in the park early.
Fly into the Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell and you’ll be a quick 30 minute drive to the entrance of the park. It is super convenient! Another option is to fly into the Missoula airport and drive a two and a half hour drive to the park, where the flights are normally cheaper.
The summer season is the best time to visit to ensure you’ll have nice enough weather for the higher elevation hikes. July and August are the best time of year, but of course this also means large crowds and higher prices. In May and June, many areas of the park are still closed due to winter snowfall. It is normally in early June when a large effort of snow removal occurs along the Going-to-the-Sun road. The snow clearly usually takes 10 weeks and the latest the road has ever opened was July 13th!
The weather in September and October can be unpredictable so plan accordingly. I visited Glacier National Park at the end of September and it was nice weather overall, but I experienced multiple weather extremes. I hiked through snow, ice and hail, while other areas of the park were completely clear and sunny. However, it was worth it to experience the park with slightly less crowds than in the peak summer months. Mid to late September is also when many businesses close for the winter. Some restaurants had already closed down and for others it was their last operating weekend of the season.
In the winter, most of the park is closed. Typically the only available area is from the West Glacier entrance to the Lake McDonald Lodge. There are, however, trails available for skiing and snowshoeing, including an unplowed section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
If you can book early enough, a stay on Lake McDonald will get you really close to incredible hikes. Towards the northern edge of the lake, you’ll find the Lake McDonald Lodge, cabins and motel. The rustic Lake McDonald Lodge has a variety of room types - from hostel style rooms to suites. The building is historic, charming and accompanied with high end dining options. Motel Lake McDonald is nearby and offers a more budget friendly option. All of the accommodations here give you a sizable head start on driving up the Going-to-the-Sun Road and beginning your hikes!
There are also cabins located on the southern edge of Lake McDonald - the Apgar Village Lodge and Cabins offer beautiful views of the lake. These also look really nice and will get you slightly closer to the trails.
If you’re feeling adventurous, and once again if you book well in advance, the Granite Park chalet is located even further into the park and is only accessible by trail. The shortest trail to access it is 4 miles, but the 8 mile trek on the Highline trail is better known because of its incredible views. While staying here, you must pack in and out all of your own food and water. Reservations for the year normally open up in January!
There are several options for cabins, chalets and motels located just outside the entrance of the park. Staying in West Glacier will get you the closest. Rent a spacious cabin in West Glacier Cabin Village or stay at the historic Belton Chalet (the first Great Northern Railway hotel in the area!).
I stayed in Hungry Horse at the Mini Golden Inn Motel. It was very basic but had what I needed for a low price. It is only 20 minutes away from the park entrance and located across the street from the delicious Huckleberry Patch!
Also nearby is the Glacier Basecamp Lodge, which offers cabins and hotel rooms within walking distance of a water park. It’s located in between Columbia Falls and Hungry Horse. Hungry Horse is closer to the park but I drove to Columbia Falls multiple times to pick up take-out meals.
The Glacier Basecamp Lodge is right by the very interesting ‘Ten Commandments Park’... I’ve never seen more billboards in my life. (they put the Ohio ‘Hell is Real’ billboards to shame, iykyk)
The number one thing you need to eat while visiting Montana is a form of huckleberry! I had never had huckleberries before visiting; they are similar-looking to blueberries but larger and darker. Huckleberries are actually the official state fruit of Idaho, but they seem to be the unofficial state fruit of Montana. Every single shop, gas station or store seemed to have a selection of huckleberry items to choose from. They taste like blueberries but are less sweet and a bit more tart.
My favorite huckleberry treat was the huckleberry bearclaw from Polebridge Mercantile. It had the perfect amount of sweetness to balance out the tart huckleberries in a large and tasty treat. Polebridge Mercantile also has a wide variety of savory rolls - I had a pesto roll filled with pine nuts and sun dried tomatoes. It is definitely worth the trip out to Polebridge for these treats, I will talk more about the area in the itinerary below.
Huckleberry pie is a must while you’re visiting. I had a slice from The Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse and it was mouth-wateringly good. Here they serve huckleberry pie and ice cream and have a gift shop full of huckleberry related gifts. This place is consistently highly rated and known to be one of the best huckleberry pies out there, so it attracts crowds and long lines but is absolutely worth the wait.
There are many other interesting huckleberry things you can try while visiting too. I really enjoyed some huckleberry licorice but was dying to try a huckleberry margarita. Most restaurants and shops will have a nod to huckleberry somewhere in their assortment.
Here is a list of some delicious restaurants that I tried just outside the park:
- Cooper Mountain Coffee - This Northern Montana coffee chain has a little drive-up window in Columbia Falls. Try their campfire coffee for a sweet treat or have one of their bakery items like a bagel or cookie.
- Montana Coffee Traders - This cafe has three locations in Northern Montana and has coffee, gifts and a great breakfast menu. I had the veggie breakfast wrap and it turned out to be a gigantic burrito full of vegetables, eggs, potatoes and cheese. It was really delicious and filling!
- Josephine’s - Josephine’s is a cute little restaurant (attached to a distillery) offering craft cocktails and comfort food like gyros and poutine. I had a delicious alcoholic slushie with my veggie gyro.
- Backslope Brewery - Backslope Brewery has a wide offering of beers, salads, burgers and more. They have a bustling outdoor patio and are always rotating their beer selections.
- Vaqueros - Vaqueros serves up flavorful and filling mexican plates at great prices. They are also one of the only restaurants in town that stays open late!
The Going-to-the-Sun Road is a 50 mile scenic drive that climbs to an elevation of 6,646 feet. Without stopping, it would take at least 2 hours to drive the entire road. But you’ll want to make lots of stops along the way! Be sure to allow a lot of extra time for scenic pull offs and traffic jams caused by full parking lots or wildlife sightings.
Here are some views on the road that you shouldn’t miss:
- McDonald Lake - There are multiple opportunities to turn off and get a view of this lake. It is the largest and deepest lake within the park.
- McDonald Falls - This gushing waterfall is located on McDonald Creek and is a quick and beautiful stop.
- Sacred Dancing Cascades - Just up the road from McDonald Falls, the Sacred Dancing Cascades overlooks a series of little waterfalls.
- Bird Woman Falls - You can see this 580 foot waterfall as you climb towards the highest area on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It's a majestic sight to behold.
- Haystack Falls - This giant waterfall goes right under the road as you drive over it.
- Weeping Wall - Drive through a waterfall as melting snow and ice seep out of the side of the mountain. The Weeping Wall is right across from Big Bend. There is a lot more water in the summertime, it wasn’t really flowing while I was there in late September.
- Big Bend Overlook - This large bend in the road has an incredible view of mountains and valleys. It offers one of the best views in the park and has a lot of parking for pulling to the side.
- Jackson Glacier - The Jackson Glacier is the seventh largest glacier in the park, visible right from the road.
Keep an eye out for bears, moose and rams while driving the scenic road (perhaps more important than the views)! It is very common to see wildlife right off of the road. Look for stopped cars and people pointing to see if you can sight something. I saw a black bear right off of the road across from Big Bend.
The Highline Trail and Hidden Lake Trail.
Spend a day hiking from Logan Pass. In the peak months and during Covid-19, be sure to arrive early to snag a parking spot at the Logan Pass visitor center (like before 8am). I’m placing these hikes on day one of the itinerary because I feel they offer the best views and are the thing to prioritize if you don’t have much time. However, look at the weather during your trip and save these trails for the day that will have the best visibility. The conditions can be really unpredictable in the mountains. Try not to make the same mistake I did and attempt these hikes on a day with snowy weather, only to find that the next day is a lot clearer!
The Highline Trail is one of my all-time favorite trails because of its breathtaking views. The trail carves along the edge of a mountain, following along the continental divide and towering above the Going-to-the-sun road. Despite being on the edge of a mountain, it doesn’t have steep drop offs. There is one point at the beginning where there is a rope to hold onto, but there was plenty of space on the trail so I didn’t feel it was necessary. Depending on the time of year, wildflowers scatter the grass around the trail and waterfalls trickle down the mountain through the path. It is also a great trail for wildlife spotting - I saw a black bear from a very far distance!
My intention was to take the Highline Trail to the Garden Wall Trail and the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. The hike to the Grinnell Overlook and back would have been about 15 miles round trip. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse during my hike. I could barely see any of the views because of thick fog. On top of that, the trail began to get really icey and the sky was raining and hailing. I turned back after only going 4 miles out (so I went 8 miles total). Despite the weather, the views were incredible. The fog created views that were constantly changing and warping with the weather.
There is another trail to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook that’s slightly shorter. Traveling east from the loop trail and a different parking lot, it is about 12 miles round trip. The Loop Trail takes you past the Granite Park Chalet, where you stop and rest or use the restroom. When the park shuttles are running, many will do this entire path one way and take the shuttle back to their car. From the beginning of the Highline Trail to the beginning of the Loop Trail is about 19 miles.
The Hidden Lake Trail also leaves from Logan Pass. The hike leads you to a beautiful blue lake nestled between mountain peaks. The trail is 5.4 miles and offers an overlook of the lake before descending down to the water. The descent section was closed due to bear activity when I visited, so I turned around at the overlook. This part of the trail is mostly on an elevated boardwalk through a valley.
I actually did this trail twice! The first day, I hiked up with hopes of seeing the lake and it was not visible whatsoever with the thick fog. Thick ice on the boardwalk and hail made this extra challenging. I decided to do it again the next day with the hopes of actually seeing the lake. Not only did I see it clearly, but luckily most of the ice on the trail had also melted. The weather can change really quickly at Glacier! Be sure to keep an eye on the sky and if it's completely foggy in the Logan Pass parking lot, it will probably be foggy at the lake too.
St Mary Lake, Three Waterfalls, Avalanche Lake and Polebridge.
Drive to the gorgeous St Mary Lake near to the end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. I recommend taking the Three Waterfalls Trail beginning from Sun Point. From there, you will pass Baring Falls, St Mary Falls and then Virginia Falls. The hike is 4.6 miles and is relatively easy with little elevation. Also from the starting point, follow the trail to Sun Point, where you’ll see a beautiful view of St Mary’s Lake. We climbed up on some rocks and ate our lunch here.
The waterfall trail begins with many burnt trees from a fire in 2015, which was sad to see but the views of the water were stunning. The waterfalls get more impressive as you go. The final one, Virginia Falls, towers at about 50 feet. The Virginia and St Mary Falls are a lot bigger, but Baring Falls was a lot less crowded and felt more secluded. If you are low on time, you can park at a different parking lot and take a shorter walk to St Mary Falls, but I recommend doing all three!
The hike to Avalanche Lake is located much closer to the entrance of the park, just past Lake McDonald. The trail is 5.8 miles round trip and begins at the Trail of the Cedars, a short elevated trail. It winds through cedar trees and over streams of bright blue water and moss-covered rocks. The trail to Avalanche Lake makes for a nice walk through a beautiful forest and leads to the gorgeous lake. It was raining pretty hard when I made it to the lake, but it was still beautiful. Waterfalls carve down the mountains in the distance and the water is perfectly clear and blue. The trail is heavily trafficked and parking can be limited, so consider going early or late in the day to avoid the crowds.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, exit the park from the main entrance and head north to the tiny town of Polebridge for an extremely satisfying huckleberry bearclaw. In order to get to Polebridge, you must go up a bumpy 25-mile unpaved road. I was driving a rented Nissan Versa and it was rough but turned out okay (I just had to take it really slow). Keep this in mind and consider renting a larger car than I did!
Polebridge and Bowman Lake are located outside of the Going-to-the-Sun Road and do not require an entrance ticket.
Polebridge is an unincorporated community powered by generators and solar power (no electricity!). The town has cabins and a hostel to stay in, along with a couple restaurants. Polebridge Mercantile sits in the center; you can’t miss the adorable red and white building. They offer a variety of fresh baked pastries, rolls and treats, along with other rations and gifts. As mentioned in the food section at the top, I had the huckleberry bearclaw and a savory pesto roll and both were delicious. The shop has a fair amount of outdoor seating and is a great place to sit down, relax and enjoy your snack.
While in Polebridge, you also must enter back into the National Park to see Bowman Lake. This involved driving down another long unpaved road, which once again wasn’t great in the Nissan Versa. Bowman Lake is absolutely gorgeous and doesn’t get the crowds that the rest of the park gets because it’s so remote. The water is so clear and beautifully reflects the rocky cliffs that frame the lake. It definitely feels like a bit of a hidden gem in Glacier and is worth the bumpy ride.
I would recommend a bigger car with 4 wheel drive for the roads out to Bowman Lake and Polebridge. However, if you’re like me and don’t want to pay more for that, I recommend giving your tiny rental car a quick rinse at a car wash. If you wash your car a little bit, but not enough that it even looks like you washed it, they’ll be less likely to charge you the “offroading” fee they warn about. I rented from Hertz and didn’t get charged any extra!
McDonald Creek Trail and Whitefish.
If you’re looking for another quick trail that’s close to the park entrance, check out the McDonald Creek Trail. This easy trail is just north of Lake McDonald and is a peaceful walk through a forest along the McDonald Creek. There are multiple waterfalls to admire along the way. The total trail is 5.6 miles and also connects to a loop around John’s Lake. I did part of the McDonald Creek Trail but stopped early because I was hiking alone and nervous about bears. I didn’t see any, but this trail is supposed to be good for wildlife spotting!
Before leaving the park for good, I stopped in Apgar Village for a view of Lake McDonald and to visit the visitor center. They had their gift shop outdoors due to Covid-19, which I thought was a really nice and safe touch.
The cute resort town of Whitefish is a great area to ski, shop and dine located 40 minutes from the Glacier Park entrance. The Whitefish Mountain Resort has skiing, bike trails and hiking trails on the mountain. The most popular trail is the Danny On Trail, which leads to incredible views of the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park. It was 3.8 miles to the top and you can take the chairlift up or down if you don’t want to hike the entire thing! The resort also has a really fun Alpine Slide where you can control your own speed as you wind back and forth down the mountain.
Beyond the ski resort, downtown Whitefish is a great area to walk around and eat or shop. I bought some delicious huckleberry licorice at Whitefish Quilts and Gifts. For food, check out the Wich Haus for delicious farm-to-table sandwiches using seasonal ingredients. For a higher end meal, visit Cafe Kandhar for a multi-course tasting menu using ingredients sourced from the Montana mountains. For dessert, have a scoop of ice cream from Sweet Peaks Ice Cream, where they serve flavors like the seasonal ‘mountain chai’ or the always popular huckleberry.
Flathead Lake is the largest natural lake in northwest Montana and is a beautiful place for boating or swimming. I visited Flathead Lake State Park on the northern edge of the water and enjoyed the lovely view. The park also has hiking trails, campgrounds and lots of tables to enjoy a packed lunch.
Of course there are many other incredible trails in the park that I didn’t cover. I hope that by the time you visit, the east side of the park is reopened! (I certainly will be going back when this happens). There are so many more hikes in the Many Glacier and Two Medicine areas of the park. Be sure to check the website for details so that you know what to expect before traveling.
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