Free Things To Do in Glacier National Park
- #1View all Photos#1 in Glacier National ParkHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Housed in a small cabin built in 1929, the Apgar Nature Center sits in a grove of cedar trees and is one of the official park visitor centers. The nature center features interactive activities for kids: children can feel a grizzly bear's fur, listen and identify birds by their "songs" or create their own puppet show. Educational displays detail plants found in the park and teach about the habitats of the vast array of wildlife. Ranger-led talks and other programs are held in the outdoor seating area.
Recent travelers recommended making this visitor center your first stop in the park to gather important information on road and weather conditions, bear sightings and trail closures. Families particularly enjoyed the junior ranger programs and special activities, and many visitors were impressed with the restaurant, the helpful staff and the free Wi-Fi. Many also noted that this is the place to park for free shuttle service and park tours.
- #2View all PhotosfreeLake McDonald#2 in Glacier National ParkHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park, is the major hub of activity on the west side. Carved out by massive glaciers thousands of years ago, the valley is home to the rustic Lake McDonald Lodge – one of the park's most popular accommodations – and several historic chalets. The area offers an array of activities including bus tours, boat tours, horseback riding, ranger presentations and access to two of the park's popular day hikes, the Avalanche Lake Trail and Trail of the Cedars. The lodge offers numerous dining options in a hunting lodge setting, complete with a roaring fireplace in the lobby. The lodge opens in late May and closes in late September and advance reservations are highly recommended. Tours and activities, as well as the park's free shuttle service, operate on the same schedule. There are also several campgrounds situated around Lake McDonald, as well as the Apgar Visitor Center. Reserve online in advance of your visit.
Recent visitors loved this crystal clear lake and many commented on its rainbow-colored rocks, advising that the shore on the west end was the nicest. Some suggested visiting in early May to avoid crowds and save money on the park entrance fee, but noted that roads, shops and restaurants are closed until later in the month. Lodge guests loved the rustic ambiance and peaceful location, but some bemoaned the limited parking and lack of televisions. However, animal lovers noted that this is one of the few areas in the park where pets are welcome. To learn more about the facilities at Lake McDonald, visit the NPS website.
- #3View all Photos#3 in Glacier National ParkHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
One of two wheelchair and stroller accessible trails in the park, Trail of the Cedars is a short loop hike – less than a mile – that begins and ends on Going-to-the-Sun Road, meaning you can hike it in either direction. The hike features a raised boardwalk that passes through a fragrant, old-growth red cedar forest, but the highlight is at the midway point. Here, you'll reach a footbridge over Avalanche Creek with sweeping views of the gorge and a stunning waterfall surrounded by rainbow-colored rocks. The only downside? Since this easy hike is accessible to visitors of all skill levels, parking is often difficult to find during peak season (July to Labor Day).
Many recent visitors touted this trail as the best walk in the park, saying it's not only an easy, accessible path, but also offers breathtaking views of the gorge and Avalanche Lake. Many recommend visiting early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid crowded parking lots, noting that the picnic grounds near McDonald Creek are a great place to break for lunch or dinner. Travelers also commented on the lovely cedar fragrance in this old-growth forest. Access to the trail is free with park admission. You'll find the trail more than 5 miles northeast of Lake McDonald Lodge. For more information on hiking, visit the NPS website.
- #4View all Photos#4 in Glacier National ParkSightseeing, FreeTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDSightseeing, FreeTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Going-to-the-Sun Road is a paved, two-lane highway that snakes through Glacier National Park, dividing the park into east and west regions and crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. One of the most spectacular scenic drives in America, this road is both a National Historic Landmark and a Civil Engineering Landmark and passes through almost every type of terrain the park offers, from glacial lakes, waterfalls and cedar forests to alpine peaks. Several viewpoints and pullouts make it easy to stop and take in the view and snap photographs. Though portions of the 52-mile route are open year-round, the alpine sections do close due to snow. Generally, the road is fully open in late June or early July, but check the park website in advance.
Recent visitors called this scenic drive "breathtaking" and one of the most spectacular routes in Montana. Reviewers also cautioned that the twisting mountain road is not for timid drivers. Many warned about tourists gawking at the scenery instead of paying attention to the road and advised making use of the many pullouts for admiring the stunning scenery and wildlife.
- #5View all PhotosfreeLogan Pass#5 in Glacier National ParkHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
The visitor center at Logan Pass is located in the middle of the park off the Going-to-the-Sun Road, less than 20 miles west of the St. Mary visitor center and about 30 miles north of the Apgar Visitor Center. Offering maps and trip-planning information, the center also features exhibits, restrooms, water fountains, a bookstore, ranger-led guided hikes, parking and free shuttle service to the other two visitor centers.
Most recent visitors recommended taking the free shuttle service to the visitor center in Logan Pass and noted that many of the hiking trails start there, including the Highline Trail and the Hidden Lake Trail. Several hikers noted that even in July, it was cold and windy with snow on the ground, and recommended wearing multiple layers and appropriate shoes. Those who drove to the pass also commented on heavy traffic during high season, as well as the crowded and limited parking at the visitor center.
- #7View all Photos#7 in Glacier National ParkHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
The Iceberg Lake Trail is a favorite among experienced hikers, who are treated to stunning views of Mount Wilbur, Iceberg Peak and the Continental Divide upon reaching the snow and ice-filled lake. The hike begins behind the cabins at Swiftcurrent Lake and shares the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail for the first few miles, splitting off just past the Ptarmigan Falls. Hikers are rewarded with views of gorgeous alpine meadows in the spring and summer.
According to recent visitors, the trail is well-suited for avid hikers, and may be too difficult for casual travelers who are unfit, as the trail is mostly uphill. Many also enjoyed seeing grizzly bears, bighorn sheep and mountain goats along the way. Travelers said that late spring and early summer were the best times to see the floating icebergs on the lake, and cautioned that even in the summer, it can be cold or rainy. Some visitors even tried the "polar bear plunge:" a freezing post-hike dip in the lake.
- #9View all PhotosfreeGrinnell Glacier#9 in Glacier National ParkHiking, Natural Wonders, Recreation, FreeTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Natural Wonders, Recreation, FreeTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Named for anthropologist and conservationist George Bird Grinnell, the Grinnell Glacier is one of the most-photographed attractions in the park. The Grinnell Glacier hike is a little more than 10 miles round-trip and, at the viewpoint, reaches 1,600 feet in altitude. Hikers can take a shortcut to the trailhead by using the Glacier Park Boat Company shuttle or catch the trailhead at various points including Logan Pass and the Many Glacier Hotel. If you want to park your car, a free shuttle service runs from all three visitor centers: Apgar, St. Mary and Logan Pass. The early morning boat shuttles from Lake Josephine or Swiftcurrent Lake are popular with hikers, as the boat ride trims several miles off the trail. Reserve a round-trip ticket in advance ($27.50 for adult; $13.75 for children). One-way return-only tickets are available on a space-available basis and can be purchased from the boat captain.
Most recent visitors called this daylong hike a "must-do" and loved the variety of wildlife, from bighorn sheep and mountain goats to marmots and bears. However, reviewers also warned that it's best for physically and aerobically fit individuals due to the altitude and difficult descent. Some suggested taking the boat tour to eliminate several miles of hiking. Many travelers recommended starting the hike early in the day, bringing bear spray, warm clothing and food and drinks, and wearing sturdy hiking shoes. The trail is typically open from early June through late September, depending on the amount of snowfall. Access to the trail is included in your park admission. For more information on day hikes, visit the NPS website.
- #10View all PhotosfreeHighline Trail#10 in Glacier National ParkHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
One of the most popular hiking trails in the park – and one of the most strenuous – the Highline Trail follows the Continental Divide and features stunning scenery of glacial valleys, alpine meadows and a famous ledge called the Garden Wall. Here, the trail narrows to just a few feet and the drop-offs are known to terrify those with a fear of heights. The park service has installed a hand cable along this stretch of the ridge for safety. Because the trail is 11 miles round-trip, it's not considered suitable for novice hikers (although there is a short loop to visit only the Garden Wall). The Garden Wall is located a quarter mile from the trailhead for those who prefer the shorter hike.
To reach the one-way trail, travelers recommended parking at The Loop (located around 13 miles east of Lake McDonald Lodge) and hopping on the free park shuttle up to Logan Pass, where the trailhead begins.
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