I Worked in Glacier National Park. These Are 5 Must-See Gems
Skip an expensive Switzerland trip this summer and head to Montana for the trip of a lifetime.
Glacier National Park has been famously described as “America’s Switzerland” by the Great Northern Railway. It truly does live up to that name. Visiting Glacier is the closest you’ll get to feeling like you’re inside a fairy tale. Beautiful blue lakes, waterfalls everywhere, regal animals gracing the woods. This is a must-see national park.
It is one of the few places left in the United States where you can see a glacier. And they’re melting quickly, so you need to plan a trip as soon as possible! One of Glacier’s biggest attractions is its beautiful turquoise lakes. These formed thousands of years ago as the glaciers, which weighed millions of tons, slid down the rough mountainside, grinding up the rock into very fine particles and dragging them down alongside. Down in the valleys, the glaciers melted to form lakes; the sediment that descended with the glaciers is too light to sink and too heavy to float, so it stays suspended in the water and reflects the light from the sun, creating the famously opaque blue color.
Surrounding these breathtaking lakes are massive granite walls and lush green forests. These forests are home to thousands of species including bears, moose, mountain goats, big horn sheep, and marmots. Seeing these alpine animals with the beautiful landscape as a backdrop makes you feel as if you’re in a magical wonderland.
I lived and worked in Glacier National Park in 2019 at the age of 19. So, I got to experience the park in ways that many people haven’t. Therefore, I wanted to put together my must-sees so you could experience the best places in the whole park.
One specific thing to know before you go: A reservation is required for Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is the only road to take through the park, as well as the North Fork road, which runs around the park and ends at the East Entrance, where you’ll take the Going-to-the-Sun Road back through to the West. You have to drive on one of them if not both to see the park. Both require reservations from May 27 to Sept. 11, 2022, so make sure to plan ahead!
Now, let’s dive into some of the top things to do in Glacier National Park.
Hike Grinnell Glacier
This is an 11.2-mile roundtrip hike with 2,191 feet of elevation gain. It’s a very popular hike that may be crowded in July and August. There may be some snowpack that will hinder your progress up to the final lake if you go as early as June and as late as September. You pass three lakes to get to Upper Grinnell Lake, where you’ll see Grinnell Glacier. There’s an option to add a few miles if you want to go see the shores of lower Grinnell Lake.
You can also take a boat across the first lake, Swiftcurrent Lake, to avoid 4 miles of the least exciting part of the hike. With a short walk in between, this approach takes you across the second lake, Lake Josephine. It gives you the option of seeing the views but not having to hike 11 miles to get there. Always be prepared with bear spray on these hikes, because a bear sighting is never out of the question.
Stay at Many Glacier Lodge
This lodge is located on Swiftcurrent Lake with some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. It books up, so plan ahead to reserve a spot or keep checking back on the website to nab any cancellations. The lodge is modeled after old Swiss lodges; the employees even wear lederhosen! It truly feels as if you’re halfway across the world when you step into this place.
The rooms are small with basic amenities, but the location is what makes this lodge so special and unbelievable. Watch the sun set over the lake while you stand on the porch and wait for it to get dark around 11 p.m., depending on how close to the solstice you plan your visit. Wake up and beat the crowds in the morning to enjoy some of the park’s most sought-after hikes before too many people hit the trails.
Go Boating on Lake McDonald
Lake McDonald offers boat tours, and kayak, paddleboard, and motorboat rentals. It is the first spot you will see upon arrival to the park through the West entrance (your most likely entrance point as its closest to all civilization). After a long day of driving, go for a relaxing paddle on the lake and see the beautiful views of the mountain range there. This lake isn’t as striking as some of the other lakes in the park but it is still so beautiful. You feel like you’re living a lake day in the ’70s.
You can also go on a scenic boat tour courtesy of a historic 100-year-old boat. I was a guide here at Glacier Park Boat Company! The guides will tell you all about the geology, history, and ecology of the park. You can tune in if you’re interested or tune out if you’re just there for the views. Regardless, it’s an enjoyable experience. You can even bring alcohol on the boat if you want to turn the 7 p.m. cruise into a booze cruise!
Bike the Going-to-the-Sun-Road
If you visit early enough in the season, (aim for before the summer solstice on June 22), the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road will still be closed to cars. Instead, you should take a scenic bike ride up it! The date of the road opening changes every year depending on ice pack conditions so the earlier the better if you’re aiming to try this.
This is not an easy bike ride. When coming from the west side, the first half is almost entirely uphill. Start at the Avalanche Lake trailhead and end your ride at Logan Pass Visitor Center, the point between the west and east side of the park.
This will be a 16.1-mile bike ride, but it is well worth it for the views up top. The best part is that you can speed back down the mountain, going almost entirely downhill. But be careful: This is a curvy road with a large drop off on the side.
Hike to Granite Park Chalet
This is an old Swiss-like chalet nestled into the mountains of the park. There’s no running water or electricity so it’s all old-school. Reservations book up far in advance so plan this a year out if you want to stay overnight.
There’s a kitchen to cook your food and a stream ¼ miles away where you can get water. The chalet will provide you with a container to fill up for each room of overnight guests. If it’s booked for overnight stays, you can hike up to it and back in one day, and bring some lunch to eat in the chalet. The common area, where there are tables and a fireplace, is open to everyone throughout the day.
There are multiple ways to get here. The most popular is to park at the Logan Pass visitor center and hike in using the Highline Trail, which is 7.5 miles one way and boasts 2,578 feet elevation gain. Then, you’ll hike down the Loop Trail which is around 4 miles one way with 2,608 feet elevation gain. This takes you down to a different part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road but there are shuttles that run from the Loop trailhead back up to Logan Pass; just make sure to take the eastbound shuttle.
Two other options include hiking in and back on either the Highline or Loop. The Highline is very scenic and one of the most popular hikes in the park, scaling along the Garden Wall. It is also significantly longer than the Loop, so in and back would be a long day hike. On the other hand, the Loop is shorter but a much larger elevation gain.
I recommend staying overnight at the chalet, if possible. It’s special getting to see the sunset from the top of the mountain and cooking your dinner up at the chalet.
Jump in Iceberg Lake
Iceberg Lake is another one of the most popular hikes in Glacier. Depending on what time of year you go and how warm of a season it is, there may be icebergs in this lake. It’s freezing regardless, and you can barely hold your hand in the water for longer than 10 seconds.
Hike the 9.3 miles roundtrip with 1,450 feet elevation gain, and take a polar plunge when you reach the lake before hiking the last half back down. Every hiker around will be cheering if you take the plunge. This stunning trail offers unbelievable views and the lake at the end is truly unmatched.
This trailhead is over in the same area as Many Glacier Lodge and Grinnell Glacier, so hiking Grinnell one day, staying overnight at the lodge and then hiking to Iceberg Lake is an ideal way to enjoy all three.
If you have the time this summer, I urge you to take a trip to Glacier. A weekend with no service and in nature will refresh and inspire you to spend as much time as you can outside while the weather is nice. It’s the perfect alternative to a huge trip out to Switzerland, as you get to see similar views right here in the West!
The park is home to some of the most epic views and stays in America. Though I am biased, I strongly stand by this sentiment, and I hope that going out there for a visit changes your life the way it did mine!