This month’s Throwback Thursday travel story is from three years ago, when I stopped in Montana for a 48 hour tour of Glacier National Park. As nice as it is to take a week or two for vacation, that’s not always an option. But just because you can’t take an extended period of time off, doesn’t mean you can’t explore and appreciate a place over a 2 or 3 day period!
So how did I end up here? Every time I powered up my computer I would see a stunning desktop picture of impressive mountains with a serene lake in the foreground. On one particularly stressful day I remember staring off at my desktop and really seeing the image – thinking to myself, “I have got to experience this place in person.” I like to think the desktop picture subliminally drove me to visit Glacier National Park, as the photo was of Wild Goose Island at Saint Mary Lake.
If you live west of the Mississipi River, there is really no reason for you NOT to go to Glacier National Park, even if it is for a few days. Low-cost airlines such as Allegiant and Frontier have routes that will put you within a few hours of the majestic mountain setting. I flew into Missoula, MT and rented a car for the scenic two-hour drive north.
You can also fly into Bozeman or nearby Kalispell. In my opinion, the drive merely added to the experience as it gave me a chance to appreciate the wide-open spaces, snow-capped peaks in the distance, and dreamy lake views along the way.
Where to Stay
With limited time, my recommendation is to stay in a location that is convenient to the park. There are several lodges within the park such as Lake McDonald Lodge or Many Glacier Hotel. Keep in mind, lodging in the park is seasonal and popular summer dates tend to fill-up quickly.
I opted for an AirBnB stay in Columbia Falls with close access to the West side of the park. This was the first time I used AirBnB and I really enjoyed my stay where I rented a room in a guest house. The owner lit a roaring fire every night (yep even in May) and I woke up to this surprising view after my first night!
If you have never registered with AirBnB click here to sign up and start planning your next trip away.
48 hours of Bliss
With over 1500 square miles of wilderness and 700+ trails, Glacier National Park is expansive and impressive to say the least. While you can’t cover it all in two days, you can certainly hit the highlights! Hiking a few trails and taking in the sights was my priority while I visited the East and West sides of the park.
My first day in the park I went to the West entrance, as it was closest to my lodging and I only had the afternoon and early evening to explore. The highlights I hit that afternoon included stopping at the Apgar visitor center, then enjoying views of Lake McDonald and walking the grounds of the lodge.
The road from the West entrance had been cleared about 35 miles in, so I drove as far into the park as I could and walked the Trail of the Cedars to Avalanche Lake.
A light rain had settled in, but hiking through the damp alpine forest was still incredible. I passed a couple who stated they saw bear cubs playing on the mountainside across the lake. When I made it to the lake it was misty and to my dismay (also a little to my relief) I did not spot any playful bear cubs – or threatened momma bears. Let’s be honest, when you are exploring the last thing you want is to cross paths with any wildlife predators.
After a day of flights, driving, and park exploring I happily fell asleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof of the guest lodge. I was really surprised to awake on my second day to a whole new world blanketed in snow! Since the main road through the park had not yet been cleared of all of the winter snow, I had to take the two hour roundabout drive to access the East entrance of the park near St. Mary. Seriously though, with views like this along the way you really don’t mind the drive.
I planned for a full day in the park, and the East side did not disappoint. Starting off near Swiftcurrent Lake, I was able to soak in these views with the place virtually to myself. The morning clouds quickly parted and I couldn’t have asked for a better day!
My choice of a hike for the day was along Lake Jospehine. I will never forget this hike. In the hours that I spent walking around and past the lake, I never passed another person. It is one of the most peaceful and beautiful travel experiences I have had to date.
As I traveled further down to Grinnell Lake, the trail became covered by snow and I decided not to purse the last mile. It just wasn’t worth it for me to be drudging through the snow without knowing if I could follow the trail on my own. I’m not an experienced hiker and would caution anyone to take hiking through the park very seriously.
When I made it back to the parking lot from my hike, I had my craziest wildlife encounter! As I neared my car I was reaching for my keys in the side pocket of my backpack when a juvenile moose came charging from the woods. I had so many thoughts at once… “Oh my God, it’s a moose! — seriously, is that a moose?! I need to take a picture! No, it is running at me and this is terrifying — I need to get in my car. Shit, keys are still in my bag — HIDE!” As I ducked down I must have scared him because he darted back into the woods. “Whoa – that was intense… wish I had a picture!”
As I continued deeper into the park, I was able to capture several jaw-dropping mountain views as I traveled along the Going-to-the-Sun road. Not to mention there were many easy walking trails near the main road to enjoy the sounds of rushing water.
My personal favorite stopping points were along Saint Mary Lake. It is simply stunning and I couldn’t help but get out and enjoy the sights and sounds at every viewpoint.
A warm wave of satisfaction overcame me as I soaked in the view of Wild Goose Island firsthand. It was after all, that very desktop picture that drove me here.
One final stop led me to the quiet lakeside of Lower Two Medicine Lake. It was an action packed day full of adventuring, fresh air, and a revived sense of spirit. This park truly breathes life into you with its raw scents, vibrant colors, and natural acoustics.
When to go
I went on a whim at the end of May which is considered a shoulder season. There are positives and negatives to visiting in the shoulder season. It was easy for me to find local lodging and very affordable given it was not a popular time to travel. I am the type of person that likes to be in nature and feel as though I am a world away (even if I’m only a few miles from the main road), so I enjoyed the quietness of the park. I imagine the trails and roads would be very busy during the high season, which could detract from the overall experience.
That being said, visiting during the high season likely has its benefits. The snow is usually cleared by then, so you can drive the full Going-To-The-Sun road and see the park in its entirety. While I was there, the middle portion was still closed and several trails were covered in snow. There are really no guarantees as to what kind of weather you will experience – so come prepared. There is a bus that also runs through the park, which would have been a nice option for me instead of driving. Finally, I have to admit I was REALLY wanting to try some huckleberries after seeing all of the signs and empty stands. Town is really booming during the summer, which would be a lot of fun to experience!
I say, go when you can — you can always come back at another time!
Play it Safe
While I was by myself, I always let people know where I was along the way in the event of an emergency. You can complete a Voluntary Day Trip Plan Form to leave with a friend, at your lodging, or at a place rescuers can find. It may seem morbid, but you truly can never be too safe.
I was hoping to purchase some bear spray while I was there, but most of the shops were closed. At the very least, you should be sure to make noise while you are hiking to alert any animals nearby. I’m a quiet person and felt really silly, but passed the time on my hikes singing or at times hitting sticks together to make a loud clicking sound. Guess it works, since I didn’t have any issues!
Moral of the Story
So often we find excuses not to travel or see the places we dream off.
I don’t have enough time.
I don’t have enough money.
While long vacations are nice, you shouldn’t underestimate how much you can see and do in just two days. In the end, the time on the plane and the car is worth the new experience and memories you create that will last a lifetime.