The ‘Crown of America’ has everything you need for a socially distant vacation outdoors. There are over 147 hiking trails, campsites, lakes, breweries, wineries, and the best dawn in America. The Patagonia logo has nothing on these sunrises! Visiting this national park during the pandemic may leave you disappointed if you don’t plan accordingly. I’ve broken down some tips into five sections so you can skip around as you wish:
- When to visit
- What to pack
- What to do
- Bear country tips
- Where to camp
- Pandemic closures
When to Visit
Traveling during the peak season, July to August, will give you the best weather, but you’ll have to be comfortable waking up with the sun to beat the crowds and mid-day heat. If you visit during the off-season you can expect snow, trail, and road closures. Snow can occur at any time in Glacier and you can’t predict when trails will be open. One thing you can predict is plenty of crowds.
Trailhead parking fills up before 7:30 am and the brutal summer heat can wear you down when starting hikes later in the day. If you arrive late prepare yourself for long parking wait times and a hotter, more heavily trafficked hike.
What to Pack
Glacier National Park is bipolar when it comes to weather. Early mornings and evenings can drop to below 30 degrees while it can blaze over 80 degrees at high noon. Pack layers and be prepared to shed them throughout the day. I started the hikes in leggings, a crop top, flannel, and Marmot jacket. I shed the top two layers throughout the hike and was so thankful to have a pack to store them in.
If you plan on going kayaking in Lake McDonald be sure to bring a swimsuit and a waterproof jacket. I fell into the water within two minutes of kayaking and was so thankful to have a jacket when the winds picked up on the paddle back to Apgar Village. Read more hiking tips including my favorite hiking boots here.
What to Do
Due to the park closures, there are a limited number of trails open. This means more people in a small area and less parking so arrive early! The best four trails that are open right now are St. Mary Falls (easy), Highline Trail (medium) and Grinnell Glacier (hard). Glacier National Park is famous for Going to the Sun Road which leads to some of the best trailheads in the park.
St. Mary’s Falls (side note: open these location links in Google Maps and “star” them before your trip because you’ll have limited cell service upon arrival) is a beautiful and easy hike for all ages. This heavily trafficked trail takes you through winding mountainsides overlooking West Glacier lakes, over wooden bridges, and sojourns at four breathtaking waterfalls. Make sure you don’t turn back early because the best waterfall was at the very end of the out-and-back trail, Virginia Falls.
Grinnell Glacier trail is located at the end of the Highline Trail so you will need to hike Highline to reach this trailhead. Unfortunately, without the shuttles running you will need to hike both trails out-and-back (aka double the length and time hiking). The trail started at the Logan’s Pass Visitors Center. It took us a total of 8 hours to hike over 15 miles and 1,200 feet in elevation to Grinnell Glacier and back.
The Highline and Grinnell Glacier trails are located along a rocky cliffside with such steep drop-offs that they provide a rope to hold onto as you hike. Wildflowers grazed in the fields along the trails and mountain goat families surprised us along the trail. I highly recommend packing at least 4 liters of water per person. I ended up buying my own backpack and water bladder after this hike because I ran out of water halfway through the hike. Dehydration is not a fun game to play on a cliffside.
Lake McDonald kayaking is also a must-do. The lake is known for rainbow-colored pebble flooring and crystal-clear waters. Kayaks are available for rent in Apgar Village where you can also enjoy some huckleberry ice cream after your paddle. Huckleberries are kind of a big deal in Montana. After grabbing your kayak avoid the crowds by paddling to Fish Cove and park your kayak on the colorful, rocky shoreline for a breathtaking swim (literally, because of the frigid waters). The 360-degree glacial mountain backdrop makes for an incredible paddle.
Bear country tips
As soon as you arrive into Montana you’ll see signs to be “Bear Aware.” I highly recommend buying or renting bear spray upon arriving if you are traveling with two people or less. Bears are less likely to bother loud groups of three or more people. Luckily, the only bear we saw was from the comfort of our vehicle. We had a good time making up bear songs, clapping and yelling “Hey Bear!” along the trails. Making noise every five minutes during your hike will alert bears to your presence. The worst thing to do is scare a bear. Be sure to watch this video before hiking in Glacier to know what to do if you do come across a grizzly, brown, or black bear. If you see a polar bear you’ve hiked too far!
Designated camping areas will provide bear storage lockers. Dispersed and backcountry campsites don’t have bear storage so purchase a bear canister to store food or scented toiletries. Make sure to store your canister at least 100 yards away from your campsite.
Where to camp
Fish Creek was the only national park campsite open in 2020 and we can expect the same campsite closures for 2021 if the pandemic persists. The good news is there are plenty of State Forests surrounding Glacier that have fully functioning campsites open. You don’t need to book these campsites in advance, but I recommend arriving before 8:30 am on the morning of your stay to reserve your site.
We stayed in Big Creek Campground which was about 2 miles away from a side entrance of Glacier National Park. It was 30 minutes from Apgar Village and over an hour away from the Highline Trailhead. Other campgrounds we researched that are close to the park were Lid Creek Campground and Devil Creek Campground.
Most campsites cost less than $20 a night and need to be paid for and reserved upon arrival. Chat with the friendly camp host near the entrance of each campsite if you have any questions. You can also look for free dispersed camping so if the campgrounds are full you can always find a spot.
During the 2020 season, Glacier National Park has closed East Glacier, Two Medicine, Babb, Browning, most campsites, and shuttle operations. We can expect the same closures into 2021 if the same COVID-19 conditions persist. Bummer, I know! But you can still have fun exploring West Glacier where most of the top trails are including Lake McDonald.
Glacier National Park was a bucket list trip for me, but BC (before COVID) I prioritized traveling abroad over visiting America’s National Parks. I’ve been traveling across the world to experience otherworldly hikes when there are some right in our backyard! The snowy mountain peaks, botanical trails full of wildflowers and curious wildlife, Glacier sit on top of my National Park experiences.