The beautiful Glacier National Park in the state of Montana in the U.S.A. shares a border with Waterton Lakes National Parks on the Canadian side of the Rocky Mountains. Many people visiting Waterton take the opportunity to cross the border and visit the neighbouring park and vice versa. We highly recommend visiting both places, they each have something different to offer.
In 1932 the two parks were designated as the world’s first International Peace Park known as Waterton Glacier International Peace Park. The two parks also form a UNESCO World Hertiage Site. See our post on Waterton Lakes National Parks for more information on things to see and do there.
Glacier National Park is a hikers paradise with over 1100 km’s of trails. There’s historic lodges, incredible scenic mountain views and over 200 lakes with some of the clearest water you will ever see. The park has an abundance of wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, cougars, mountain goats and bighorn sheep. If hiking is not your thing you can try whitewater rafting, fishing or horseback riding.
Glacier National Park is much larger than Waterton. You can get a taste of it in a day but ideally you would want to spend a couple of days or longer if you are an avid hiker.
Going To The Sun Road
You may have heard of the spectacular Icefields Parkway Drive in the Candian Rockies. If it was going to have a rival it would be the Going To The Sun Road. It’s certainly the highlight of Glacier National Park.
The road is a 83 km/52 mile route that bisects the park offering some of the most incredible mountain scenery. It passes by several waterfalls, you can see one of them coming right down onto the pavement as you drive past.
The building of the road was considered an engineering mastery when it was constructed in 1932. Parts of it had to be blasted into solid rock walls.
It’s not a drive for the faint of heart, the road is narrow with blind corners and tight hairpin turns. It has been called the “don’t look down road.” Sections of the road skirt along the cliffside where there are sharp drop offs to the valley far below, it’s enough to make even the most confident driver a bit nervous.
The drive is less nerve wracking if you travel from east to west, this way you are in the lane hugging the mountainside. We drove the route in this direction and still found it quite intense at times. We couldn’t imagine driving east and being in the outer lane along the cliff edges, there are a few spots where people on the passenger side of the vehicle can look down over the edge of the road.
The beautiful scenery can be admired from several pullouts and view points along the way.
Make a stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Center located at the highest point of the road along where it crosses the continental divide. The center is usually open by mid-June and closes in mid-September. There are washrooms and a small gift shop. Almost everyone driving the road stops here and even though the parking lot is very large it can become full by 10am on a summer day.
The same parking is also used for two popular hikes that start here, arrive early in the morning or later in the afternoon to ensure you can find a spot.
We recommend the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail, it offers spectacular views, lots of opportunities to see wildlife and meadows full of wildflowers. It can be quite crowded in the summer months, but it’s not surprising with so much to offer. The photo below is a view along the hike. To get a perspective of how big the mountains are look for the people sitting in the bottom left hand corner of the photo. The other hiking option starting near the Logan Pass center is the much longer Garden Wall (Highline) Trail.
Some sections of the Going To The Sun Road are open year round to allow for activities, such as skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. The full opening of the road for vehicle traffic is seasonal. There is no set date, but it generally opens in late June or early July depending on the plowing conditions. Each year it is a huge undertaking to clear the massive amount of snow. One section of the road referred to as the “big drift” can receive over a hundred feet. Once the plowing begins in April, it can take up to ten weeks to clear the entire road.
If the Going To The Sun Road is your main priority for visiting the park it’s always best to check the road status before you go to make sure it’s fully open. Heavier than usual snowfall can cause opening delays and road construction projects can cause partial closures. Glacier National Park Going To The Sun Road Status And Plowing Progress
If you are traveling in an RV or pulling a trailer check the driving restrictions. The western section of the Going To The Sun Road does not allow vehicles over a certain length or width. There are also sections where taller vehicles can have difficulties navigating due to rock overhangs.
Allow a minimum of two hours to drive the full length of the road, but that doesn’t account for any stopping to enjoy the points of interest or to do any hikes along the way.
Glacier Park Shuttles
There’s two shuttle services in the park, a free one operated by the park itself and a shuttle with a fee operated by Glacier Park Inc.
The Glacier National Park free shuttle on the Going To The Sun Road operates from July 1st through Labour Day, weather permitting. It provides two way service running at regular intervals to the Logan Pass Visitor Center from the St. Mary Visitor Center at the east entrance and from the west gate at Apgar. The seating on each bus is limited so you may have to wait for the next shuttle.
The shuttle stops at trailheads and points of interest, making it easy to hike in through one trail and hike out another without worrying about getting back to your car. Glacier National Park Shuttle Service
Operated by Glacier Park, Inc., the East Side Shuttle travels the East side of Glacier National Park between the various lodges from Glacier Park Lodge to the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. From the East Side Shuttle you can connect with the National Park shuttle that runs along the Going To The Sun Road. This allows you to see a good portion of the park without having to drive a vehicle.
The East Side Shuttle opereates from early June to approximately September 20th. Reservations are recommended. Passengers may pay the driver in cash at the time of departure on a space-available basis.
Take note that shuttles to and from the Chief Mountain customs and the Prince of Wales must have reservations. One way trips are not permitted due to border crossing restrictions. Glacier Park Inc. Shuttle Information
Red Bus Jammer Tours In Glacier and Waterton National Park
The Red Bus Jammer Tours are a great way to see the Going to the Sun Road. They stop where the best photo opportunities are and the drivers are great at spotting wildlife. You don’t need anyone in your group concentrating on the road, everyone can relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
There are a variety of tours available varying in duration from 2.5 to 9.5 hours that take in the Going To the Sun Road and/or other parts of the park. They will even pick you up at your lodge. If the weather is nice the top on the jammer bus is rolled back allowing for even better views. Red Bus Tour Information
Enjoy A Boat Tour Or Rent A Canoe, Kayak Or Paddle Board
Scenic boat tours are offered on many of the lakes in the park such as Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake, Many Glacier, Rising Sun and Two Medicine Lake. Tours operate from the end of May to early September. Some of the boating tours can be combined with optional guided hikes.
Lake McDonald has some of the calmest and warmest water temperatures in the park that are perfect for renting a canoe, kayak or paddle board.
Tours and rental available through Glacier Park Boats.
Chief Mountain Highway
The Chief Mountain Highway is a scenic route that connects Glacier National Park and Waterton National Park in Canada. It has beautiful mountain views and valleys, with the unique Chief Mountain being a star of the drive. It’s a 77 km/48 mile long road that leads from St Mary in Glacier National Park and crosses over the border into Cananda just 30 km’s/18.5 miles from Waterton.
Chief Mountain has been sacred to the Native Americans for centuries. The Plains still hold traditional ceremonies on the mountain at the northeast border of the park. It stands as a huge mass in solitude.
Getting Between Glacier National Park And Waterton Lakes National Park
Even though the two parks share a border, there is no direct route to drive between them. You must exit Waterton and drive along the Chief Mountain Highway #6 to the U.S. border, it’s approximately 30 minutes. Once you’ve cleared customs at the border you continue on the Chief Mountain Hwy (#17 S. on that side of the border) and then take US 89 S. to St. Mary where you can enter Glacier National Park. Allow for another 30 to 35 minutes to reach the gates for Glacier from the border. This doesn’t account for wait times at the border, which are usually only a few minutes.
Crossing The Canada or U.S.A. Border
There’s several things you need to know before crossing the border into either country.
- Make sure you have the proper documentation that is required to cross the border whether that’s a passport, enhanced driver’s license, NEXUS card or possibly a visa depending on your citizenship.
- There’s restrictions about bringing meat, produce and other food items across the border for each country, check before you go.
- Dogs are allowed in Glacier National Park, but unlike Waterton they are not allowed on any of the hiking trails.
- Canada has strict gun and weapon laws, don’t try to bring your firearms across the border and check to see what else is classified as a weapon.
- If you are bringing bear spray into Canada the container must be a commercially made product designated for use on animals and clearly marked as such. Any other kind of pepper spray for use against humans is illegal in Canada.
For more information see the customs and border links for each country below.
Glacier National Park Accommodation
There are thirteen campgrounds in the park, including five along the Going To The Sun Road. There’s a variety of accommodation in the park, including a couple of historic lodges. The Glacier Park Lodge was built in 1912 and the McDonald Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel were built in 1914.
Food and lodging can be found at Rising Sun, Lake McDonald Lodge and Apgar Village along the road. Picnic areas are available at Rising Sun, Avalanche Creek, Sprague Creek and Apgar.
If you are trying to save money, don’t feel you have to stay in the park or in accommodation right near the park gates. You’re most likely going to be driving your car in the park anyways, so a few minutes drive is not going to make any difference. If you look at the accommodations about 10 to 15 minutes outside of the park they are going to be cheaper. There are many other lodging options in Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispel.
It’s worth stopping at Lake McDonald Lodge even if you are not staying there. It has a rustic and cozy atmoshperhere. We sat and enjoyed a cup of tea on the wooden chairs looking out at the lake. It’s a very relaxing place that would be enjoyable to spend a few nights at.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Glacier National Park
If you visit the park before summer there are pros and cons. The crowds will not have started yet, but some of the park trails will still be closed due to snow or be wet and muddy. The Going to the Sun Road doesn’t fully open until late June or early July. This is the reason that July and August are the most popular months in the park.
Fall can be a wonderful time to visit with the beautiful autumn colours in the park. Some lodges and campgrounds will be closed by early to mid September but others remain open to accommodate visitors later into the fall season.