We went to Montana for our summer 2017 vacation. It was a fantastic experience. Montana is a huge surprise – it’s a huge unexplored state, full of natural beauty and more to do than you can easily do in a single trip. Careful planning is a must because drive distances easily eat up precious vacation time and you’ll want to maximize what you do.
Here are our suggestions, based on what we researched, did and didn’t have time to do.
Going to the Sun Road
We made this a whole day activity: Going-to-the-Sun Road. You can drive this road yourself, hop on a Red Bus (Jammer) Tours ($50-100/person depending on ½ or full day tour) or catch the free shuttle service that runs both ways along the Going-to-the-Sun-Road (it stops at multiple locations). The road is about 50 miles long and without stopping will take around 2 hours to drive, depending on traffic. We made stops to take photos. Fill up your gas tank and your water bottles (there’s a bottle filling station at the Apgar Visitors Center right inside the park on the west side). Take food too, because there isn’t any on the road. Things to see going West to East:
Lake McDonald, a beautiful lake, which hugs the highway for 10 miles. Just like many other sites, there are awesome plants and animals scattered in this area. It used to be much more wooded, but after forest fires in 2003, many of the trees no longer exist. We had a late start on the road (10:30 am) and stopped to picnic here.
After Lake McDonald, stop by McDonald Falls for a stunning view of the cascade. Just beyond lays a marshy area where you can often see moose roaming the area.
Continue 3 miles until you reach the Trail of the Cedars. This half-mile (wheelchair accessible) boardwalk winds through an ancient forest of massive cedar trees. At the end of the trail you can find a viewing of Avalanche Creek. We saved this hike for another day, because we did it along with the Avalanche Lake Trail.
Avalanche Lake Trail is a continuation from the Trail of the Cedars. The trail follows the Avalanche Creek gorge until it reaches Avalanche Lake. The end of the trail offers a stunning view of the lake and numerous waterfalls that storm down over 2,000 feet. This trail is a total of 2.9 miles long (starting at the Trail of the Cedars and ending at the Avalanche Lake) and you should allow 2.5 hours.
In the shadow of the Garden Wall, a sheer ridge cresting thousands of feet above you that is part of the Continental Divide, the road will meander along the “Loop”, which is a lengthy zigzag. By the way, this section is TERRIFYING – you have cliff on one side and drop-off on the other. The driver will not have any opportunity to enjoy scenery, so make sure you stop frequently at pull-offs to admire the view and rebuild your driving courage. The road will finally arrive at a wonderful view of waterfalls, peaks, and valleys all shaped by glaciers. At this viewpoint you will be able to locate Bird Woman Falls, which plummets down almost 500 feet. When we were there, snow was still really close to the road so we stopped and enjoyed touching (and throwing snowballs) from a 48” drift.
Just before you reach Logan Pass, there’s a pull-off where you can almost always see mountain goats.
Once you reach Logan Pass, you have arrived at a good bathroom stop (no sinks to wash hands though – only hand sanitizer) at the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center. This is also the Continental Divide.
About 1.5-2 miles down there’s a place called something like Lunch Creek. It’s a great little stop to walk up next to a creek, stretch your legs and maybe have a picnic lunch.
About 4.5 miles further along the road you’ll reach Jackson Glacier Overlook. This is a viewpoint for the grey-blue enormous Jackson Glacier. This is one of about 50 glaciers at this National Forest, which has helped shape the park into the beautiful wonder it is today.
Make sure to admire of St. Mary’s Lake which is along the east side of the park.
Continue your drive along St. Mary’s Lake until you reach Wild Goose Island Overlook, famous for its fine vista of Wild Goose Island, the lake and St. Mary Valley.
From there, you hit East Glacier. You can go north to drive on up to the Many Glacier area or south where you can eventually connect to Rt. 2 which will take you back to West Glacier and on over to Big Fork. The above – just driving the Going to the Sun – felt like a really full and exhausting day. It will take you nearly 3 hours to drive back to Big Fork from East Glacier – more if you go to Many Glacier – even driving on the outside of the park.
Trail of the Cedars. This is on the west side of the park – it’s 30 min of driving in. It’s a great hike for families and kids. It’s a half-mile (wheelchair accessible) boardwalk winds through an ancient forest of massive cedar trees. At the end of the trail you can find a viewing of Avalanche Creek.
We combined Trail of the Cedars with the Avalanche Lake Trail. It’s a continuation from the Trail of the Cedars and it’s not so difficult you can’t do it with kids. The trail follows the Avalanche Creek gorge until it reaches Avalanche Lake. The end of the trail offers a stunning view of the lake and numerous waterfalls that storm down over 2,000 feet. This trail is a total of 2.9 miles long (starting at the Trail of the Cedars and ending at the Avalanche Lake) and you should allow 2.5 hours. Watch for bears and do not do this hike without bear spray.
Located at Logan Pass, the Hidden Lake Nature Trail is a 3-mile round trip trail that takes you to a viewpoint of Hidden Lake and the surrounding valleys and peaks. Allow 1.5 hours. Also doable with kids.
As you reach the start of St. Mary’s Lake look for the 1.2 mile Sun Point Nature Trail that will lead you to St. Mary’s Falls a double-stranded cascade that pours through a narrow chasm. If you walk a half-mile longer, you will be able to see Virginia Falls which drops a 100 ft. through the forest. Allow 1.5 hours. Relatively doable with kids.
The Highline Trail wasn’t open when we were there because of snow. It’s not one that’s easy for kids either. However…this is a daylong hike and offers stunning views of glaciers, mountains and lakes. It starts at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and takes you to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. The trail begins near the Logan Visitor Center just off the Going-to-the-Sun Road and takes you on an easy hike to exposed ledges and open hillsides where you will find magnificent views of mountain peaks and opportunities to see wildlife. Where Highline Trail meets the Garden Wall Trail at mile 6.9, you will have to do some steep and strenuous climbing of around 900 ft in 0.6 miles. But at the end of it all is the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, which will give you spectacular views of the Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in Glacier National Park. If you backtrack, the total hike will be about 15 miles long, but if you want to explore more scenery, continue hiking toward Granite Chalet, the trail will eventually end at The Loop at mile 13.5. At that point, a shuttle waits to take you back to where you began, at Logan Pass. It takes the best part of a day to hike the Highline Trail. You can also get to the Chalet via the Loop Trail, which was open. We didn’t do this hike though because we want to do all or nothing.
Many Glacier Area
This is really an all-day affair – it’s on the far east side of the park and north of where the Going to the Sun road ends. It’s a wonderful area to hike and a great location for wildlife watching. This is one of the most popular areas in the park to see black bears, grizzly bears, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. As you reach the Altyn Peak, the road tops a band of cliffs and leaves you staring in the face of stunning and massive mountain peaks. From there you can see Swiftcurrent Lake.
Hiking at Many Glacier:
Take the moderate Grinnell Glacier Trail that starts near Many Glacier Hotel. This is an 11 mile round trip that takes you past Josephine Lake to Grinnell Glacier and offer spectacular mountain views and the chance to hike on a glacier. Allow 4 hours minimum. You can shorten the hike by 3.4 miles by taking the Many Glacier Boat Tour.
Take the Iceberg Lake Trail that starts near the Swiftcurrent Lake Motor Inn. It’s a 5 hour hike. I think it would be tough for little kids. It’s a moderate hike, but it’s very long and the first ½ mile (and thus the last ½ mile) are very strenuous.
In addition to the Many Glacier Boat Tours, canoe and kayak rentals are available at several lakes in the area.
From Big Fork, going to Many Glacier is an all-day activity. Plan on a 3 hour drive over and a 3 hour drive back. A fun thing to do on the way back is to swing through Browning, Montana and stop at the Nation’s Burger Station. It’s totally a dive, but it has the best Southwest Burger (on Indian Fry Bread)!
Two Medicine Valley
Check out the Two Medicine Valley, which is on the east side of the park and south of the East Glacier park entrance. Many, many years ago, after glaciers made their way through this area, several lakes and waterfalls were created. Check out the Running Eagle Falls – a double-channeled waterfall that pours over a limestone cliff, hike the easy 0.3-mile Running Eagle Falls Trail to reach it. Kids can do this.
Twin Falls – Twin Falls is where two strands of cascading water fall into a pool lined with red mudstone. Take the Two Medicine Lake boat tour and hike the easy 0.9 mile (1.8 miles round trip) Twin Falls Walk through forests and alpine meadow to reach the falls. This is a kid-friendly trail.
To finish off your trip, consider doing the Scenic Point Trail which is about 6.2 miles roundtrip and offers a great view of Medicine Valley or if you have had enough hiking for one trip, go fishing on Two Medicine Lake. Be mindful of the rules and regulations, as they are set by the Blackfeet Nation. Here are the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Regulations and the Glacier National Park Fishing Regulations.
Explore Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, so you’ll need to remember your passport. First hike the easy 0.9 mile Bear’s Hump Trail to a beautiful scenic overlook. The trails starts behind the Waterton Information Centre.
Next drive up to the historic Prince of Wales Hotel to enjoy the view.
Take a cruise on Upper Waterton Lake.
Drive the 10-mile Red Rock Canyon Parkway and hike the 0.5 mile Red Rock Canyon Loop trail that provides a great view of the red rock canyon and some waterfalls. The red makes a great contrast with the surrounding green of the trees and offers great photo opportunities.
If you make this drive, make sure to tell your rental car company when you pick up your car. They have special paperwork to give you that you’ll need to drive across the border.
This is such an easy drive and takes about 2 hours, depending on how many times you stop for photos, to skip rocks, to eat, etc. You can start at Big Fork, head north and circle the entire lake. You can pull off and down to the lake anywhere you see a road sign with a fish and a fishing hook – these are free public lake access points.
We ate the best hamburger of our lives in Polson at Richwine’s Burgerville. You drive through to order but they have a great grassy picnic area for you to eat. Perfect to let kids run off some energy. Further around the lake you’ll find great local brews at Flathead Lake Brewing Company.
This is totally off the beaten path and totally worth doing if you want to see something unusual where most tourists go. Head to Columbia Falls and go north on the North Fork Road. It’s about 2/3 pavement and 1/3 gravel but it’s in good condition. You’ll still need to go slow – it takes about an hour to get there from Columbia Falls.
Why Polebridge? It’s an old trading post, looks like something from a western movie and still operates off the grid. They sell the yummiest treats and good souvenirs at the Polebridge Mercantile. There’s a playground for the kids (a little divey, but tons of kids were having a great time).
If you go later in the afternoon, the Northern Lights Saloon starts serving dinner at 4 pm. The food is great.
Make Sure You…
Eat some huckleberry while you’re there. It’s a local berry (kind of blueberry-meets-blackberry) and they use it in everything. Huckleberry shakes, lemonade, ice cream, pie, jam, jelly, taffy, chocolate…you name it, they make it. We shopped fairly often at the Huckleberry Patch, located on Route 2 as you head to West Glacier and into the park. They had the best selection, plus tons of souvenirs.
The Reviews Are In
Here’s a Yelp list of everywhere we ate and visited.