Imagine growing up 30 miles from one of the most stunning places in the world — a place known as the Crown of the Continent. For kids in Kalispell, Montana, Glacier National Park is literally out their backdoors. And yes, you can say that San Francisco is pretty awesome, but Glacier is a playground with more than 1 million acres of land, 762 lakes, 745 miles of trail, 563 streams, 175 mountains and 26 glaciers. And that doesn’t even begin to count the diverse animals that call this area home — or all the plant species. There’s simply too much to recount, either by the numbers or in photographs.
For many, a trip to Glacier National Park is a lifelong bucket list item. But with so many incredible vistas and breathtakingly beautiful natural features, it’s impossible to see everything in one visit. Kalispell locals will attest: You can send a lifetime exploring this vast, unspoiled park and still find something new each time. So we’ve asked the experts for their advice on the best spots in the park — the must-see places, the popular (and sometimes busy) items that aren’t overrated and the secrets they usually only share with their own visiting friends and family.
1. Get even more off the beaten path.
Located in Northwest Montana, 30 minutes from Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, the park is already considered off the beaten path by many visitors. But there are sections of Glacier tucked away from the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road that take you further “away” and farther into some of the most pristine wilderness in the country. One such area is known as the North Fork, which is basically the northwest area of the park all the way from the Camas Creek Entrance to the Canadian Border.
We recommend taking the North Fork Road, which is unpaved gravel, to Polebridge, Montana, to stop for an ice-cold beer at the Northern Lights Saloon or a huckleberry bear claw at the Polebridge Mercantile before continuing 6.5 miles to Bowman Lake. A glacial lake cradled into a valley, Bowman Lake’s crystal clear waters often mirror the captivating peaks to create scenery that’s twice as captivating. Enjoy a picnic along its shores, jump onto your paddleboard or kayak rented in Polebridge or hike the Numa Ridge Lookout Trail for an unforgettable day in this remote part of Glacier.
2. Change your mode of transportation to vintage.
One of the most common activities in Glacier is to take a tour aboard one of the vintage red “Jammer” buses that have been a staple in the park since the 1930s. While this guided drive comes highly recommended, even from locals, a boat ride in the park takes the win. With mesmerizing glacial lakes at frigid temperatures that tend to dissuade swimmers, cruising across a lake on an old-school wooden vessel is the preferred form of transport. You’ll be able to see parts of the park that aren’t visible from the road, access more secluded hikes and learn more about Glacier’s history from knowledgeable guides.
There are numerous places to take a guided boat tour, but one of our favorites is St. Mary Lake at Rising Sun. Located on the east side of the park, five miles from Glacier’s east entrance in the town of St. Mary, this lake cruise is a less-visited destination with standout landscapes and history. You’ll sail by the famed Wild Goose Island (we won’t give away its tribal tale here), see Sexton Glacier, discover the remnants of a Great Northern Railway president’s private cabin and of course take in epic, 360-degree views of the surrounding peaks. Not to mention an optional, easy hike to Baring Falls to stretch your legs.
3. Meet Glacier’s official mascot.
Locals will be the first to tell you — don’t get close to wildlife, even if you’re trying to get that once-in-a-lifetime photograph. That’s what a good zoom is for. Even so, you’re likely to see and enjoy various wildlife in the park, including mountain goats, one of the rarest mammals in the lower 48 states. With two layers of wool and a dense undercoat, these big white mammals are well-suited for mountain survival. Their specialized hooves have traction-creating inner pads and dewclaws to provide sure footing on steep, rocky slopes. Keep your eyes open for them throughout your Glacier explorations — you’ll be amazed at the vertical cliffs they can jump between.
You can often spot this official park symbol near the Visitor’s Center at Logan Pass, but during Glacier’s peak season, the entire parking lot may be full and you may not be able to get out and explore on foot. And, it’s very possible you’ll see some of these amazing creatures from Going-to-the-Sun Road as you travel near the pass (especially if let a Jammer driver worry about the road traffic). But if you’d like to get away from the crowds, we recommend visiting the south entrance to the park at Walton Ranger Station. There’s a sheer cliff face nearby — rangers can help you look — where mountain goats can often be seen in action, jumping up the mountainside and socializing with one another. Early morning and evening hours are your best bets for seeing them frolic.
4. You’ve entered the land of #nofilter.
Every corner you turn offers another chance for that amazing photo to treasure when you get home — landscape, soaring bird of prey, wildflower, cool old tree. Whether you’re shooting with a traditional camera or prefer mobile shots for Instagram, every photographer will be thrilled with the myriad photo opps in the park. There are a few photos our local photographers really stress working for.
The first are the glaciers you can access via hike. This task isn’t always an easy undertaking, but it’s worth it. The actions of glaciers during hundreds of thousands of years shaped Glacier National Park into the beauty that it is. We recommend Grinnell, Sexton and Sperry glacier hikes to get up close and personal with these geologic wonders.
The next you’ve likely already heard as photography advice: sunrise. Getting up early may not be your forte, but it should be at least one morning in the park. Incredible sunrise shots from the east side of the park are easily accessibly by road — head to Many Glacier Hotel, Two Medicine Lake, St, Mary Lake or Lake Shelburne to capture the views. And remember, sunrise comes early to the mountains during the summer.
Lastly, May through October presents a photographer’s dream: the Northern Lights and the Milky Way. From the head of Lake McDonald, the foot of St. Mary Lake or the top of Logan Pass, this combination is extraordinary. Photographers spend years searching for their best shots of the Aurora Borealis — your shot is during a visit to Glacier.
5. Ancient cultures and tribal traditions come to life.
This year marks the 33rd season of the park’s Native America Speaks program. Each summer, Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribal members share their knowledge of the history and culture of their tribes with park visitors. On just about any evening through Labor Day, you can find tribal leaders and entertainers sharing their songs, dances and stories across the park — in campgrounds, lodges and at St. Mary Visitor Center. Rarely do these events have an entrance fee, but those that do benefit the Glacier National Park Conservancy’s support of the Native America Speaks program. This seasonal offering is your chance to hear from the descendants of the people who traveled Glacier’s peaks and valleys more than 10,000 years ago.
If you manage to check all five of these local suggestions in one trip, you’ll find you have a lifetime of memories from your trip to Kalispell and Glacier. And if you have time to squeeze in that extra day (or find you have more energy than you thought after your early morning photo jaunt), your local server, hotel receptionist or boutique clerk is sure to have another item for your Glacier to-dos. After all, the best travel advice comes from the people who live here.