Glacier National Park in Montana is alternately called the “Crown of the Continent” and “America’s Switzerland.” With this 3-day Glacier National Park itinerary, you’ll find out just how well-deserved both nicknames are.
This is a land where jagged mountain peaks tower over crystal-clear lakes. One of the engineering marvels of the country, the Going-to-the-Sun Road snakes among the peaks above the tree line with staggering panoramas in every direction. The remaining titular glaciers feed rushing creeks, waterfalls and cascades.
In short, there is no shortage of amazing views to be had.
We have been to Glacier National Park twice now and loved it each time. Still, even after two visits, we know there is a lot more for us to see and explore. For this 3 day itinerary, we are going to cover how to plan a visit to the park and what to make sure you see no matter what. We’ll even include recommendations if you have a couple more days to extend your visit.
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Seasons and Reservations in Glacier National Park
The first thing you need to know when it comes to visiting Glacier National Park is the season you visit makes a huge difference in terms of what is open and if you need a reservation.
Glacier National Park really is a summer park. While you can visit in the winter, spring and fall, you will find closures of facilities and roads, specifically Going-to-the-Sun Road. One thing that is tough for folks not from this part of the world to understand is summer does not start here until late June.
Logan Pass, which is the highest point on Sun Road (as it is referred to by the locals), typically does not open until late June. There are times when the road does not open until the middle of July! You can check the historical dates for opening Sun Road here. The pass typically closes in mid-October but can close as early as mid-September.
Additionally, many services and visitor centers are closed in late September and do not open again until late May or early June. You can visit outside of that window but you will have limited to no services and a lot of snow. Still, we love the idea of snowshoeing in the park amid winter.
Leveraging Our Experience and Recommendations
Our first visit to the park was early to mid-July 2012 and we found everything open and going. Our second visit was in mid-September 2023. We found pretty much all of the lodges and restaurants had just closed at that point and the shops were closing within a few days, meaning we had to be a lot more self-sufficient, food-wise.
If I were planning my one and only trip to this park, I would want to visit sometime after July 15 and before September 10. After Labor Day will typically have lower visitor numbers because school is back in session. That said, when we visited in mid-September, we did not find much of a lull in visitation at all! We think there was some pent-up demand due to the vehicle reservation system, which had just recently ended.
Glacier National Park has seen a massive uptick in visitation over the last few years. When I first visited this park in 1998, visitation was 1.8 million. When Bonnie and I visited in 2012, visitation was up to 2.1 million. By 2017, it was up to 3.3 million.
Geographically, there is not a lot the National Park Service can do to expand the physical infrastructure of this park without compromising what makes this place worth visiting to begin with. So, to manage the onslaught of visitors, the National Park Service has instituted a vehicle reservation system in 2021, 2022 and 2023. The most recent reservation system required reservations for just about every area of the park.
The vehicle reservation system allowed for visitors to acquire a reservation about 120 days in advance for some of the reservations. The remaining reservations were available at 8 a.m. MDT the day before. The reservations for Going-to-the-Sun Road were valid for three days. The reservations for the other areas of the park were only valid for one day.
The National Park Service does offer a shuttle bus from the St. Mary Visitor Center but there is limited parking at that visitor center. Additionally, the National Park Service is working on allowing access to Apgar Village so visitors can pick up the shuttle there without a vehicle reservation but has not at this point.
If you have lodging or camping reservations inside the park, you do not need a vehicle reservation for the days you are staying in the park. You can also take a private tour bus.
The most important takeaway for planning your visit in the future is to expect a vehicle reservation system. The National Park Service continues to tweak the system, so (based on the last three years) expect an announcement sometime in December 2023 for the specifics on reservations for summer 2024. Check this page for Glacier National Park reservation updates.
Planning Your 3 Days in Glacier National Park
So, for this itinerary, I am going to plan for a three-day visit hitting the highlights of this park, breaking it up geographically. You can easily reverse this itinerary based on which side of the park you approach first. I am also going to include an additional day and additional hiking options for those who have more time to spend in the park.
While we feel a casual visitor can easily feel like they have really experienced the park in a three-day visit, there is a lot to see and do in this park and you could spend two weeks there and not run out of things to do.
Day 1: The West Side of Glacier National Park
Start your visit at the Apgar Visitor Center to orient yourself on the park and catch up on current conditions. Nearby Apgar Village has a lodge, store and restaurant if you need supplies. It also offers great views and boat tours of Lake McDonald. We haven’t done a boat tour of either Lake McDonald or Saint Mary Lake but we plan on making a point to do one when we visit next.
Pro Tip: Either in the town of West Glacier or Apgar Village, go ahead and pick up bear spray. Yes, you need bear spray if you plan on doing any hiking in this park.
From there, head northeast on the main park road to Avalanche Creek. Here, you will find the Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail and the Avalanche Lake Trail, so strap on your hiking shoes, grab your pack and hit the trail. Parking here can be a challenge, so be patient.
The Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail is relatively short (just under a mile) and flat but it meanders through a beautiful cedar forest. At the midpoint of the loop, the Avalanche Lake Trail splits off. This trail follows Avalanche Creek up to its headwaters at Avalanche Lake.
Avalanche Creek is simply gorgeous. This clear water with a hint of milky blue winds through a tight chasm. The Avalanche Lake Trail follows above this chasm up to Avalanche Lake, a large, glacially-fed lake with Sperry Glacier and Gunsight Mountain looming above it.
While this trail adds about five miles and is uphill the entire way up to the lake, the uphill is gradual and the view is amazing. Seriously, this is an excellent hike and well worth your time. Even in just the first 1-2 minutes, you’ll have a much different view of the chasm than at the bottom.
Drive Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass and Then Back
Take your time driving up the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is the highlight of the park and the views are simply spectacular. There are several turnouts along the way, each offering staggering views.
For today, we are driving up to Logan Pass but not stopping there. Logan Pass is one of the most popular places in the park. The parking lot is small and often fills quite early. If you happen to find a parking spot, great! Spend the afternoon enjoying the Logan Pass Visitor Center and hiking out to Hidden Lake. But don’t plan on it!
Plan on turning around at Logan Pass and heading back west down the Going-to-the-Sun Road. If you missed any of the pullouts on the way up, you have another shot to see the amazing sights again on the way back down. Be sure to stop at Sacred Dancing Cascade and McDonald Falls on your way.
Choose a Great Hike for Your Afternoon
Here, you have a choice for a couple of good hikes: Johns Lake Loop or the Apgar Fire Lookout.
Johns Lake Loop is a nice loop trail that goes around the titular lake. The trail continues around to McDonald Creek near the Sacred Dancing Cascade and McDonald Falls. It is a 1.8-mile, easy trail with not a lot of elevation gain. You do get great views of Johns Lake, McDonald Creek and Lake McDonald.
Apgar Lookout Trail is a LOT more strenuous, with a 1,845-foot elevation gain. The views at the top from the Apgar Fire Lookout are breathtaking. Of course, that is if you have any breath left after the strenuous hike to the top! Still, this 7.1-mile trail and the views of Lake McDonald are worth the effort.
After a relatively early dinner, head back up Going-to-the-Sun Road. Check out some of the excellent sunset light on the mountains from the many pullouts
Day 2: Logan Pass and the East Side of Going-to-the-Sun Road
Get up early and head back up Going-to-the-Sun Road, not stopping at any of the pull-outs (that’s why we did that the day before). Today, your goal is to get to Logan Pass before the parking lot fills up, which can be as early as 7:00 a.m. in the summer.
Once you get to Logan Pass, check out the visitor center. It is really cool and has a lot of information about life at that altitude. Then grab your pack and hit the Hidden Lake Trail. This trail is crowded for good reason… the views are gorgeous.
You can hike to the overlook, which is a 3-mile trail with a 550-foot elevation gain. Or you can keep going on to the lake, which is a 5.4-mile trail with a 1,325-foot elevation gain. Either way, you are hiking at nearly 10,000 feet, so bear that in mind.
Also, be sure to dress in layers as it is likely to be cold and windy at the top, even in the summer.
Waterfalls on the East Side of the Park
After finishing the hike, keep heading east on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Like the west side, you will find several pullouts with excellent views. Be sure to stop at the Jackson Glacier Overlook for a look at one of the diminishing glaciers within the park.
Stop at the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead. Grab your pack for a hike to two waterfalls: Virginia Falls and Saint Mary Falls. This 3.9-mile trail is relatively flat as it winds through a mostly open area due to a 2015 wildfire.
These are easily two of the prettiest waterfalls in the park and are worth your time.
After returning to your vehicle, continue east until you get to Sunrift Gorge. Stop here to take a brief walk to see the titular gorge, where Baring Creek cascades through the 800-foot chasm. Then, continue to Baring Falls, a 25-foot waterfall, which is quite pretty in its own right.
Before exiting the park, stop at the Saint Mary Visitor Center on the east side. Why stop at this visitor center after visiting both Apgar and Logan Pass visitor centers? This visitor center highlights the significance of this area to the local tribes, in particular the Blackfeet Tribe. The Blackfeet Tribe, in dire need of money for supplies, sold 800,000 acres to the Federal Government. That land was later used to help create the park.
The Village of Saint Mary
After visiting the visitor center, head out of the park into the community of Saint Mary. If you need food or gas, you will find it here. From here, though, head south for 1.8 miles on US 89. On the right, you will find a small park with some of the best views of Glacier National Park.
Pro Tip: If you reverse this itinerary, be sure to stop at Saint Mary to pick up some bear spray.
As you walk out to catch these views, be sure to read the informational signs from the Blackfeet Tribe, which explain the religious and cultural significance this land has to the tribe.
Day 3: Hiking Many Glacier
Many Glacier, which is north of St. Mary, might just be one of our favorite areas of the park. As you drive into the Many Glacier area, the mountains seem to tower above you. Here, you will find plenty of excellent trails and the beautiful Many Glacier Hotel. This is also a great place to look for wildlife. We have spotted both black and grizzly bears, moose and mountain goats while visiting Many Glacier.
We suggest you spend your time in the Many Glacier area out on the trail! The most popular trail in the area is the Grinnell Glacier Trail, a strenuous 10-mile trail with a 2,047-foot elevation gain. You can shorten the trail by 3.4 miles by taking a shuttle boat. Arrive early, though. When we visited in September, the parking for this trailhead was overflowing by 8 a.m.
Our Hiking Recommendations for Many Glacier
On our two visits, we have hiked two excellent hikes: an out and back to Red Rock Falls along the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail. This 3.7-mile trail is relatively easy with excellent views of Fishercap and Redrock lakes before getting to Redrock Falls, a low waterfall cascading over the titular red rocks.
If you get out on the trail early, be sure to check Fishercap Lake for moose! We spotted a couple of moose there on our last hike.
The other hike we have done is a hike out to Grinnell Lake. While you can’t see Grinnell Glacier, it is an emerald lake and the hike is simply gorgeous. We turned this 6.9-mile trail into a 9-mile loop by parking at the Many Glacier Hotel and looping around Swiftcurrent Lake.
After you are done with your hike, be sure to head into the Many Glacier Hotel and check out the inside of the lodge. You do not have to be a guest here to grab a drink and enjoy the interior of the hotel and the amazing views from the back deck.
Days 4-5: If You Have More Time in Glacier National Park
If you have more time, make a point to drive the Inside North Fork Road north from Apgar Village to Polebridge and then all the way up to Bowman and Kintla lakes. This is a dirt road and can be a bit rugged, so I would not recommend it for vehicles with low ground clearance, like a sports car. I have driven this road in a sedan and it can be done but you have to be careful.
Spending a day driving this road is great for seeing old homesteads, remote mountain lakes and the opportunity to get away from the crowds and do some hiking on some remote trails.
As you head back south, detour outside the park to the Outside North Fork Road and the small community of Polebridge. There are no utility services in this town so everything is done via solar, generator or gas power. Be sure to stop at the Northern Lights Saloon to see remote dining taken to a new level.
Another area to visit is the Two Medicine area on the southern end of the east side of the park. The area is beautiful and, like Many Glacier, has plenty of excellent hiking trails.
Where to Stay and Eat While At Glacier National Park
One of the biggest obstacles to planning a trip to Glacier National Park is finding a place to stay.
On the one hand, staying inside the park is convenient and allows a bypass to the vehicle reservation system. That said, the lodges in the park are expensive and it can be difficult to get reservations. Most of the campgrounds also require reservations and are not all large RV-friendly.
Pro Tip: If you are planning to stay inside the park, you need to start looking about 12 months in advance for the lodges, and six months out for campgrounds.
On the other hand, staying outside the park is expensive as well and can have long drive times to get into the park.
West Side of Glacier National Park
On our first trip to Glacier National Park, we were on a tent camping road trip. Since we were there near our anniversary, we stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell before heading into the park. It was a bit of a drive but this is a good hotel to stay at before driving into the park. I would not, however, commute from this hotel to and from the park.
On our 2023 trip, we found a great point redemption at The Pine Lodge on Whitefish River. This hotel was also quite nice and we had a great balcony overlooking the Whitefish River. We enjoyed the hotel and the town of Whitefish. Again, this would be a great hotel for a night before or after visiting Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, it is too far to be a base for your entire visit to the park.
When we visited in 2012, we tent camped at the Glacier Campground which is not far outside West Glacier. We enjoyed this campground and would camp here again with our camper. That said, the campground is not set up for big rigs.
Regardless of where you stay, be sure to stop at Glacier Distilling Company, which is one of the first distilleries we ever visited as a couple. We went back on our 2023 trip and they have expanded significantly! These guys make some delicious whiskey!
East Side of Glacier National Park
In 2012, we tent camped at St. Mary Campground inside the park. This campground was perfectly adequate for tent camping but it lacks shower facilities.
In 2023, we stayed at the Glacier Peaks Hotel and Casino in the town of Browning. The hotel was comfortable and clean and we would stay here again. That said, it was quite far from the Saint Mary Entrance to the park and the town of Browning does not have much in the way of restaurants. That said, it was a gorgeous drive that we did not mind at all.
We would have stayed in Saint Mary or one of the lodges in the park if we could, especially the Many Glacier Hotel. Sadly, the lodges inside the park were closed when we visited in mid-September and all of the lodging in Saint Mary was full.
In terms of getting something to eat on the east side of the park, we have to recommend Park Cafe and their amazing pies! We ate there twice in 2012 and the food was amazing! I can’t tell you how much we were looking forward to eating there again when we visited in 2023. Alas, they had closed for the season shortly before we arrived.
Since most of the restaurants were closed, we ended up getting a pizza and a beer at Kips Beer Garden, which turned out to be really good. We enjoyed the food and ample selection of local beer. They have a great outdoor space for entertainment to boot.
Final Thoughts on a Three-Day Glacier National Park Itinerary
Visiting Glacier National Park is a bucket-list item. It is something everyone should do before they die. This part of Montana is simply magnificent. While it is not as known for wildlife as Yellowstone National Park is, there are some great places to look for wildlife in the park.
The real key is the alpine beauty. This park is home to some of the prettiest mountain views we have ever seen.
That said, between the seasonality and the significant visitation of the park, planning a trip can be a bit difficult, especially if you are not working well in advance. Don’t worry, though, if you have your reservations, we have a solid itinerary for you to enjoy the “Crown of the Continent.”
Looking for more details on visiting Glacier National Park? If you are traveling in an RV, check out our book, Moon USA RV Adventures. We have two itineraries that include a stop at Glacier. For a guidebook with all the details on Glacier, we recommend Moon Glacier National Park: Hiking, Camping, Lakes & Peaks by our friend Becky Lomax. We have used her book ourselves and can vouch for its usefulness!
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