Glacier National Park itinerary - how to see the best of Glacier NP in 1 to 5 days

Glacier National Park Itinerary Ideas from 1 to 5 Days

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Traveling to Glacier National Park and wondering what are the main highlights, how much time you need to visit the park, and what’s the best itinerary to follow? In this post, you can find our experience-based suggestions and Glacier National Park itinerary ideas for one to five days.

Our guest writer Jessica from Bring The Kids spends a lot of time in Glacier National Park with her family and knows the park really well. In this article, she shares suggested itineraries for 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 days in Glacier National Park.

You can also find some practical information for visiting the park, learn how much time you need in Glacier NP, what kind of weather to expect, and what to know about the wildlife… And of course, we also cover the best hikes in Glacier National Park. Find out!

To make your travel planning easier, I also included detailed maps for each itinerary, indicating all the places mentioned in this article. Of course, you don’t have to follow these itineraries precisely, but it gives you a good idea of the main things to do in Glacier National Park and the time you need to see them.

Before we continue with the Glacier NP itinerary suggestions, we share some information and things to consider when planning your trip to Glacier NP. I encourage you to read this first!

Glacier NP Itinerary and Travel Tips – Overview:

 

How many days do you need in Glacier National Park?

While you can see some of the main landmarks on Glacier NP in just a day or two, I suggest staying for at least 3 to 5 days to really make a Glacier National Park trip worth it.

You need to consider that if you’re driving there, Glacier NP is really far from just about anything. It’s located in northern Montana and the closest airport is in Kalispell, MT. In fact, the park borders Canada and is actually linked to Waterton National Park there. It’s closer to drive here from Calgary (6 hours drive) than from Seattle (10 hours drive).

I’m saying this not to discourage you from visiting, but to encourage you to spend more time in Glacier National Park. You won’t be disappointed!  In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that Glacier is one of the most spectacular of all the National Parks in the United States. It’s well worth the far trip and your precious vacation time.

Avalanche Lake in Glacier NP Montana
Avalanche Lake
 

Best time to visit Glacier NP

Please note that these Glacier NP itinerary suggestions are valid for the summer months only – roughly from mid-June to mid-September.

The main thoroughfare, The Going To The Sun Road, is only open for a few months in the summer, so plan your trip accordingly. Please check the official website for more information on when the road is open. To give you an idea, at the moment of writing, the entire Going To The Sun Road is only expected to open on June 22.

You can visit the park even if the road is not open. In that case it’s probably best to base yourself on the west side and explore that part of the park, based on what’s open at the time of your visit.

Because it is so cold here, very little of Glacier NP is open in spring, autumn, or winter. But it’s also the time when you can have the most amazing natural wonders all to yourself. Please check the official website for more practical information if planning to visit Glacier NP in the low season.

Meadow near the Pole Bridge Area in Glacier National Park Montana
Pole Bridge area in summer
 

What to consider before you take a trip to Glacier National Park 

Like all the best National Parks, Glacier is very popular and can get very crowded in summer.  That means that you need to book your accommodation at least several months in advance. Both sides of the park have lodging and camping options, but there is much more choice at the Western Entrance. Here you can find the best deals for hotels near Glacier NP.

If you are thinking of camping in Glacier NP, you should know that most areas inside the park have several first come, first served campground options. This means that you must arrive early in the morning and it also helps to have a good backup plan in case the campgrounds are full.

Glacier National Park borders Canada and is at a pretty high elevation, so plan for really cold temperatures, even in summer.  Last July when we visited, there were a few days when all my kids were wearing their winter down jackets and we even got snow at Logan Pass. That being said, we’ve also had scorching hot weather on other trips where we were jumping into every possible body of water. 

So when visiting Glacier National Park, you really have to be prepared for all kinds of weather!

TIP: Besides looking for the best deals for accommodation for your trip, you should also consider the right credit card when traveling. A good card has so many benefits, also for domestic travel. Here you can find the very best credit cards for American travelers. Check it out and save money on your next trip already!

Glacier National Park itinerary and practical tips for your trip
You can find snow even in the summer
 

What is the best way to see Glacier National Park?

The best way to see Glacier is by driving + hiking.  Unlike other parks like Yellowstone where you can see a lot of the park just by driving, that isn’t the case here, so you’ll have to walk. But it sure is easier to get to the hiking trails if you have your own car and are not reliant on the shuttle bus availability and schedule.

Alternatively, you can opt to take Glacier’s shuttle, but I would only advise this option if you have at least several days to spend in the park.

Make sure that you have sturdy hiking shoes that are well broken in before your trip and are in good enough shape to hike several miles a day to get maximum enjoyment.  

If you’re coming from a much lower altitude, remember to take it easy the first few days and to drink lots of water to avoid altitude sickness. Pack a good reusable water bottle and fill it up at every occasion.

Hiking along Lake Josephine towards Grinnell Glacier
Hiking along Lake Josephine towards Grinnell Glacier
 

What are the main areas of Glacier National Park?

When you are considering driving through Glacier National Park, your one real option is the Going To The Sun Road.  Only open for a few months a year, this is the main way to connect the East and West Entrances of the park where a majority of the sites and amenities are.  

The East Entrance is made popular by St Mary Lake and the Western Entrance is right next to Lake McDonald

The other main areas of Glacier NP are Many Glacier and Two Medicine on the East side, as well as Pole Bridge on the northwestern side.     

Going to the Sun Road is not to be missed in Glacier National Park
Going to the Sun Road – West Glacier
 

Do I need to be worried about bears in Glacier National Park?

Bears are very active in and around Glacier National Park.  While you are out hiking and camping, it’s important to exercise caution.  I always carry bear spray with me and make sure that it’s easily accessible in the water bottle holder of my backpack, in case of an emergency.  

We also make sure that we are making enough noise so that animals know we are coming and we don’t startle them.  Truthfully, with 5 kids we make plenty of noise everywhere we go. We’ve never encountered a bear while we are out hiking in Glacier NP, but we’ve met many people hiking just a little ahead or behind us who have seen bears.

On our last trip to Glacier NP, we saw 11 bears from the car and one bear walked through our campground during dinner time. So you always have to be alert and aware.  

Black bear in the wild
Black bear
 

Glacier NP entrance fee and passes

Just as most American National Parks, Glacier also offers several ticket options. You can get a single day ticket, a 7-day pass, or a yearly pass.

Alternatively, get America the Beautiful yearly pass. It is by far the best option if you are visiting several National Parks in the same year. You can buy it at the entrance of any National Park in the U.S.

TIP: If you are looking for ideas for other great National Parks to visit not too far from Glacier, please check our suggestions for Yellowstone itinerary, as well as things to do in Grand Teton NP in one day.

Glacier National Park itinerary for 1 to 5 days
 

1 Day in Glacier National Park

If you only have one day in Glacier National Park, you are going to need to pack as much in as you possibly can.  Expect this to be a VERY LONG DAY with lots of time in transit, so that you can see as much of the park as possible.

The best way to do one day in Glacier is to start at the East Entrance and work your way over the Going To The Sun Road towards the West Entrance. However, accommodation options are really limited on that side of the park. You could also stay on the west side; it just means you’ll have to do a bit more driving in the morning.

During the summer months, Going To The Sun Road is packed and parking is very limited up at the top of Logan Pass. It’s horrible to get all the way up there to then find out that you can’t find a place to park. To avoid this, I recommend starting your day in Glacier NP very early. 

Logan Pass

Plan on starting your day at no later than 7 am.  While you will see lots of beautiful sights along the Going To The Sun Road, your goal is to make it to the top of Logan Pass first. I suggest to try and limit your stops and just drive to Logan Pass. Afterwards, you will come back and see a few things along the road, but trust me on this one – start at the top first.

Once you get up to the top of Logan Pass, head into the visitors center and learn a bit about the local plants and animals, as well as the park history.

Mountain goats in Glacier National Park
Mountain goats near Logan Pass
 

Hidden Lake Overlook

From there, you have a couple of options.  The best thing to do is to head west on the trail up the mountain to the Hidden Lake Overlook for a 2.7-mile round trip hike. Along the way, you’ll find spectacular views, a few small waterfalls, plenty of wildflowers and almost always some mountain goats.

Hidden Lake view from the Hidden Lake Overlook in Glacier National Park
Hidden Lake view from the Hidden Lake Overlook
 

St Mary Falls

After you are done at Logan Pass, head back east (yes, where you came from) to the pullout for St Mary Falls. It’s located about 6.5 miles back down the mountain. Parking can occasionally fill up here as well, but it’s not nearly as crazy as Logan Pass, which is why we recommend visiting them in this order. 

From here, you can take a short 1.7-mile hike to see St Mary Falls.  The highlight of this hike is a raging double waterfall.  Sadly, due to fires in recent years, a good portion of this hike is through former burn areas.  Luckily, this usually means good wildflower spotting along the trail. 

St Mary’s Falls in Glacier National Park
St Mary’s Falls
 

Going To The Sun Road

Next in your whirlwind day, you’ll keep heading west over Going To The Sun Road. As you cross over the summit of Logan Pass, you’ll have jaw-dropping views of the west side of Glacier National Park.  

From the road, you’ll see several waterfalls that have observation pullouts near them. Plan on pulling out at several of these and taking in the views. Once you get down into the valley, you won’t be able to see as much because you’ll be surrounded by vegetation.  

Going to the Sun Road is a must in every Glacier National Park itinerary
Going To The Sun Road
 

Avalanche Lake and Trail of the Cedars

As you head west, 15.5 miles from Logan Pass, you will reach the pullout for Avalanche Lake and Trail of the Cedars.  Trail of the Cedars is a scenic trail that’s mostly on a boardwalk and is suitable for anyone, including wheelchairs and strollers.  Along this 1 mile hike, you’ll be surrounded by giant cedars, with some as tall as 100 feet.

The trail crosses over Avalanche Creek with great views of the gorge above and then loops around in the direction of the Avalanche Creek campground.

Avalanche Lake should be in every Glacier NP itinerary
Avalanche Lake
 

Lake McDonald

Finish off your day at Glacier NP watching the sunset over Lake McDonald. This is something you should do at least once, no matter how long your Glacier vacation is.

Accommodation. Stay in West Glacier.

Lake McDonald sunset - must see in Glacier National Park
Lake McDonald at sunset

Below you can see the map indicating all the places mentioned in this one day Glacier NP itinerary.

 

2 Days in Glacier National Park

If you have two days in Glacier National Park, plan on spending one day on each side of the park. Below is our suggested itinerary for the best way to see Glacier NP in two days.

Day 1:  East Glacier

Start your day by heading up to Logan Pass and hiking to the Hidden Lake Overlook, as described in the one day itinerary above. After you finish your hike, walk north of the visitors center and cross the Going To The Sun Road and stroll around looking for bighorn sheep. There are a few small herds that hang out in this area right at the top of the summit. 

Head back down east and hike to St. Marys Falls and Virginia Falls.  The trail is almost 1.5 miles to St Mary’s Falls and then an additional mile to Virginia Falls.   

Travel all the way over to the west side of the park, watch the sunset over Lake McDonald. and stay the night there.

Accommodation. If you are booking long in advance, try Lake McDonald Lodge, if you are camping – Avalanche Creek Campground (first come, first served). Alternatively, you’ll find a somewhat bigger choice of accommodation at West Glacier or Coram, just outside the park.

Day 2: West Glacier

Start your day with a hike through the Trail of the Cedars and then on up to Avalanche Lake.  The trail is about 4.5 miles and a good portion of it is right along Avalanche Creek, which makes the scenery absolutely amazing.  This trail is very well traveled, so the earlier you come here, the less crowded it will be.  

Next, head towards John’s Lake Loop where you’ll get some great river and waterfall/cascade views. It’s an easy short hike – perect for families with kids as well.

Finish off your day by heading into the town of West Glacier for any- and everything huckleberry (pies, shakes, ice cream, candy…they’ve got it all!)

Accommodation. Same as the previous night.

Avalanche Creek - Glacier National Park
Avalanche Creek

Here is a map indicating things to do in Glacier NP in two days.

 

3 Days in Glacier National Park

Spending three days in Glacier National Park will give you time to get a bit off the beaten path and discover some of the hidden gems that make this park so spectacular.

If you have three days in Glacier NP, I suggest you follow our 2-day itinerary as described above, but start with West Glacier first. Below is our suggested three-day Glacier NP itinerary.

Day 1:  West Glacier

John’s Lake Loop, Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake. Watch the sunset over Lake McDonald. See the second day in the 2-day itinerary for more details.

Accommodation. Stay in West Glacier.

Day 2: East Glacier

Start out early in the day so you can make it up to Logan Pass and still find parking. You should try to start your day by 7 am.  

Hike to Hidden Lake Overlook. Alternatively, if you want more challenge, you can hike all the way down to Hidden Lake (5.5 miles round trip).

Head east to Rising Sun and take a boat ride out on Saint Mary Lake.  The boat will dock at the end of the lake so you can quickly hike up to St Mary’s Falls and Baring Falls, and/or Virginia Falls.

Accommodation. Stay 2 nights at the east side of Glacier NP. Keep in mind, that accommodation options at this side of the park are very limited. St. Mary is one of the better options. You can also try East Glacier.

Day 3: Many Glacier

Many Glacier is also located at the east side of Glacier NP, but getting there will take some time. Count about 45 minutes driving time from St. Mary or 1,5 hrs from East Glacier.  Once you turn off the highway towards Many Glacier, the road is often very bad with lots of ruts and potholes. 4×4 hasn’t been necessary when we traveled there, but you’ll have to drive really slow here.

From Many Glacier, the two best hikes you can choose from are Iceberg Lake (9.7 miles RT) and Grinnell Glacier (7.6 miles RT).

Iceberg is the more strenuous of the two hikes. The hike to Grinnell Glacier can be significantly shortened by taking the ferry across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. The Hike to Grinnell Glacier is alongside water most of the time, so make sure to take bug spray as the mosquitoes can get really bad.  

Once you get back, head in the general store at the Many Glacier base area and grab some Huckleberry soft serve ice cream.  

Swiftcurrent Lake - Glacier National Park
Swiftcurrent Lake

Below you can see the map, indicating things to do in Glacier National Park in three days.

 

4 Days in Glacier National Park

If you have 4 days to spend in Glacier National Park, you can see so many of the different parts of the park and understand what makes this park so amazing. Since Glacier is so spread out, 4 days is really the minimum that you need in order to see all four major areas.  

3 days of this itinerary are the same as the three-day Glacier NP itinerary described above, but I suggest a bit different order. Find out!

Day 1:  West Glacier

John’s Lake Loop, Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake. Lake McDonald. See the second day in the 2-day itinerary for more details.

Accommodation. Stay in West Glacier.

Day 2: East Glacier

Logan Pass, Hike Hidden Lake Overlook or all the way down to Hidden Lake for more of a challenge. St Mary’s Falls by either hiking or taking the boat from Rising Sun. Baring Falls. See the second day in the 3-day itinerary above for more info.

Accommodation. Stay in St. Mary or East Glacier for 3 nights. There are campgrounds available on this side of the park as well.

Day 3: Two Medicine Lake

Hike to Aster Falls for a simple easy hike to see the waterfalls (3 miles roundtrip).

Rent a boat at Two Medicine Lake and paddle around.  Canoes, rowboats, and small motorboats are all available to rent.  

End your day at Two Medicine with huckleberry ice cream at the general store.  

Day 4: Many Glacier

At Many Glacier, consider hiking up to Iceberg Lake or to Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Lake.  Both of these hikes will take a good portion of your day. 

If you have extra time or are looking for a break from hiking, rent boats at Swiftcurrent Lake and paddle around.  Canoes, kayaks, and rowboats are all available to rent.

Grinnell Lake in Many Glacier area in Glacier NP Montana
Grinnell Lake – Many Glacier

Below you can find a map indicating what to see and do in Glacier in four days.

 

5 Days in Glacier National Park

If you have five days in Glacier National Park, you can see all the major areas mentioned above. In addition, you also have time to tackle one of the most spectacular hikes in the park – the Highline trail.

Now, I’ll be honest – this trail is not for the faint of heart.  It’s narrow and is carved into the edge of a cliff for the first half mile or so. If you have a fear of heights like I do, it will feel like ten miles.  It scared me to death, but my kids and husband have all declared it one of the coolest hikes that they’ve ever done.

Since most of these places have already been described above, here is just a short itinerary on how you could spend five days in Glacier National Park.

Day 1: Many Glacier

Iceberg Lake or Grinnell Glacier/Grinnell Lake.

Accommodation. Stay in East Glacier area for 3 nights. Try St. Mary or East Glacier. There are several campgrounds available on this side of the park as well.

Day 2: Two Medicine

Hike to Aster Falls or up to No Name Lake. Paddle around Two Medicine Lake on a rented boat or take a guided boat tour across the lake.  

Day 3: East Glacier

Head up the Going To The Sun Road to Logan Pass (leave early or plan on taking the shuttle) and hike to Hidden Lake or the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail. Hike to St Mary’s Falls and Virginia Falls. See 2-day itinerary for more information.

Day 4: The Highline Trail

Pack up early from East Glacier and head towards Logan Pass by 7 am. Park at Logan Pass or continue down the west side to the parking area for The Loop and take the free shuttle back up to the pass and hike the Highline Trail. The hike ends at the Loop, so it’s easy if your car is already there. Otherwise, you’ll have to take the shuttle back to Logan Pass.

As I mentioned above, this trail is not for the faint of heart, as the cliffside trail drops off over 100 feet.  However, despite the crazy path, this trail will undoubtedly give you some of the best views in all of Glacier National Park. The trail is highly traveled and is over 13 miles long, ending down at The Loop pullout in West Glacier.

After a long day of hiking, spend the night in West Glacier.

Accommodation. Stay in West Glacier for 2 nights.

Day 5: West Glacier

Hike Trail of Cedars to Avalanche Lake and John’s Lake Loop. Head over to Lake McDonald Lodge and rent a paddle board to paddle around the lake for a couple of hours. Watch sunset from Lake McDonald Lodge over the lake.  

The Highline Trail is one of the best hikes in Glacier NP
The Highline Trail

Below you can see the map of this suggested 5-day Glacier National Park itinerary.

 

Glacier NP itinerary – a final word

So, these are our itinerary suggestions for how to see the best of Glacier National Park in 1 to 5 days. As you can tell, there is really a lot to see and do in Glacier National Park.

Obviously, there is so much more to this park than I have covered in this post. But after several trips to Glacier NP with our family, these are the areas and hikes that we keep being drawn to do over and over again.

If you can stay in Glacier longer, do it! The park is really big and every area has so much to offer. The more time you have, the more you can experience, and you can also take more time to really enjoy each place. Rent a boat, watch a sunset, and enjoy your vacation in Glacier NP!

***Read also: 15 Lesser Known National Parks in the United States***

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Glacier National Park itinerary
 
Things to do in Glacier NP in one to five days

Image credits: Jessica from Bring The Kids + Pixabay & Unsplash

Comments

  1. I plan on going for about 4 days 3 nights, out of all the places you mentioned are there absolute most places you were recommend out of all 5 days?

    1. Author

      Hi Steve, the way these itineraries are made, we already listed the best places for every duration of the trip. So take a look at the 4-day suggested itinerary and see if it appeals to you or if you’d rather change something (just keep in mind driving distances between different areas).
      Enjoy your trip!

  2. This is an incredible post. I have taken copious notes and so look forward to the trip and following your recommendations. I will write back later after the trip for any updates and potential edits for you. Thanks!!!!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Steve. It would be great to hear any tips or observations you have after your trip. I’m sure it would help other readers tremendously.
      Enjoy your time in Glacier NP!

  3. your post are very comprehensive and enjoyable to read you do such a great job of pointing out all the small details that add to the trip I have a question if you get the time I have a fear of heights that affects my driving can the shuttle be utilized effectively to see most things on your four day itinerary ? thanks for the info and happy travelling

    1. Author

      Hi Harry, yes, from what I see, you should be able to see most of those places by taking the shuttle as well. Here you can find a map with all the shuttle stops – it should help you plan your time in the park.
      Hope this helps.

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