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How to Plan the Perfect Fall Trip to Glacier National Park

Drive along iconic routes, take in dazzling foliage displays and enjoy time in the great outdoors.

U.S. News & World Report

How to Plan the Perfect Fall Trip to Glacier National Park

Female hiker on narrow highline trail stands on overlook with arms outstretched, looking down on going-to-the-sun road not far from Logan pass in glacier National Park, Montana, on partly cloudy summer afternoon.

Discover can't-miss experiences, places and hotels in the "Crown of the Continent."(Getty Images)

Known as the "Crown of the Continent," Glacier National Park sits on the U.S.-Canadian border in the northwest corner of Montana on approximately 1 million acres of pristine forests, mountains and lakes. Close to several towns offering a mix of eclectic museums, history and top-notch dining, along with a multitude of outdoor activities, there is plenty to do in and around the park. With the shorter days painting the leaves on the trees with brilliant colors of reds and gold, the temperatures starting to cool down and the crowds dissipating until next summer, fall is the perfect time to visit Glacier National Park's unspoiled natural wonders. Here's how to traverse the best of the park's diverse regions this autumn.

Soak in Fall Foliage on Going-to-the-Sun Road

Viewing beautiful fall foliage is one of the most popular activities during this time of year and it's particularly spectacular when driving or biking along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This 50-mile stretch crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass and is famous for its awe-inspiring scenery. Lush green valleys, rugged rivers with cascading waterfalls and snow-capped mountains will keep you stopping along the way for the next photo opportunity, but nothing is quite as moving as the magnificent glaciers for which the park was originally named. Their numbers have dramatically declined from 100, when the park opened in 1910, to 25 today, and the remaining glaciers are receding rapidly.

Bowman Lake, in the quiet northwestern section and Two Medicine, located in the southeastern portion of Glacier National Park, offer great viewing areas to view fall colors. If you're feeling adventurous, North Fork Road, an unpaved route, also offers breathtaking foliage displays.

Embrace Excellent Wildlife Spotting

The park's native wildlife is active in the fall and frequently in search of food before taking on extra fat for the winter months. There are 71 species of mammals, including bighorn sheep, elk, mountain goats, mountain lions, lynx, wolverines, black bears and the largest grizzly bear population in the 48 contiguous states. Observing these beautiful creatures is certainly exciting, but viewing is best done at a distance with binoculars and assuring the animals are aware of your presence. Surprised animals can be dangerous, so be thoughtful when in their habitat.

Tag Along Guided Tours

There's much to see and do in the fall, especially as a first-time visitor, and the best way to do this is with a guide. Take a tour of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, go fly-fishing on some of the most pristine and undisturbed waters in the U.S., try your hand at kayaking or take a scenic float ride with one of the many reputable rafting and fly-fishing companies in West Glacier. Guided boat tours of Lake McDonald are also available with Glacier Park Boat Company. If you would rather explore the park on land or go hiking, tour operator Glacier Guides, Inc. offers hiking and backpacking trips as well as rafting and fishing adventures. For horseback riding enthusiasts, saddle up with Swan Mountain Outfitters for an unforgettable guided tour of the park on horseback.

How to Get to Glacier National Park

Glacier Park Airport, located between Kalispell and Columbia Falls, Montana, is the closest gateway at 24 miles southwest of the park entrance at West Glacier Village. The next closest airport is in Missoula, Montana, which sits 132 miles from West Glacier.

Where to Stay in and Around Glacier National Park

The best and most impressive hotel options in the park include some of the oldest properties, dating back to the beginning of the National Park Service. Lake McDonald Lodge is a Swiss-style chalet lodge that was built in 1914. It's located 10 miles into the park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and sits alongside the largest lake in the park. Many Glacier Hotel (also built in 1914), lies in the northwestern corner of the park, which has been called the "Switzerland of North America" thanks to its panoramic mountain and lake views. (Note: Many Glacier Hotel is undergoing renovations in 2016, and some parts of the property will remain closed and offer limited hours, so make sure to call ahead before making a reservation.) Just outside the park in East Glacier Village is the historic Glacier Park Lodge, which was built in 1912. The most notable feature of the hotel is its impressive three-story lobby lined with 40-foot Douglas-fir trees. The Izaak Walton Inn, a historic property located halfway between East and West Glacier Park, is unique in that it's on Amtrak's Empire Builder Route and features lodge rooms, cabins or accommodations in a luxury railcar or caboose. Meanwhile, Cedar Creek Lodge in Columbia Falls, Montana, is just a a 15-minute drive from the west entrance of Glacier National Park and features an architectural design that's inspired by the original historic lodges in the park.

Explore Nearby Towns

Just 32 miles from the west entrance to the park, the drive to Kalispell offers plenty of scenic vantage points and wildlife-viewing opportunities. A walk down Main Street evokes images of the Old West with its Western Outdoor Store featuring a life-sized horse and buggy atop of the entrance. There's also the famous Kalispell tradition, Moose's Saloon. There are several museums in town when you're interested in indoor attractions, a versatile selection of dining options and local breweries and distilleries. Stop in at the iconic Norm's News Soda Fountain & Candy Shoppe, an old-fashioned drugstore lunch counter and order a regional favorite, Huckleberry ice cream. In keeping with the Old West theme, the Kalispell Grand Hotel, the only surviving historic hotel in town, is located on Main Street and offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations. For a more contemporary property, The Red Lion Inn is also conveniently located within walking distance of many of the attractions and restaurants.

Located in Flathead County and about 26 miles from the east entrance of the park, Whitefish is a picturesque western mountain town that's home to a popular ski resort, Whitefish Mountain Resort. There are several upscale lodging options, including Grouse Mountain Lodge, just a few minutes outside town, and one of the newest boutique properties in Montana, The Firebrand Hotel, offering a number of amenities including a spa and rooftop patio. The town's main thoroughfare has several quaint shops and art galleries featuring the works of local artists. Whitefish also has a distinguished culinary scene for a small town. For a special evening, head up the mountain to the ski resort and have dinner at Kandahar Mountain Lodge. Chef Andy Blanton, executive chef and owner of Café Kandahar, will prepare his Chef's Table tasting menu comprised of local specialties, such as elk, paired with wines from his "Wine Spectator" award-winning selection.

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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