You can run out of adjectives really fast when describing Montana’s Glacier National Park and the legendary Going-to-the-Sun road that crosses it. My first impression was that these are what mountains should look like — towering, jagged, foreboding.
So spectacular is this park that it draws over 3.3 million annual visitors despite its out-of-the-way location up near the Canadian border, far from any major metropolitan area. People love this park, and they drive long distances to get there.
Which puts us in a dilemma: How can we partake of this magnificence without facing the same type of overcrowding we come to places like this to escape?
A window on great beauty
I have the answer: Visiting during the window that’s open late September to mid-October. Over 88 percent of Glacier’s visitors come from June to Labor Day. That’s followed by a magical time when the crowds disappear, wildlife is more active, and the trees are turning colors. Because Glacier is primarily a summertime park, there’s a tradeoff in the availability of accommodations and services. I’ve never found this a hardship; I’d rather stay at a nice hotel in Kalispell or Whitefish than in one of the overpriced park lodges. The National Park Service publishes guidelines for fall visitors. Copy this URL, then paste it into your browser.
You’ll find a good choice of accommodations on the west side of the park, and at least two park campgrounds stay open through October. Gas is available on both ends of the Going-to-the-Sun Highway. The web site indicates where you can get visitor information.
This is a relatively short post, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
A fall visit to Glacier is perfect for a fly-drive trip. You can have a great time in just a few days. You can fly into Kalispell from Seattle. Denver or Salt Lake City. By flying, you’ll avoid a very long drive from major West Coast cities. Car rentals are easily arranged.
Your number one activity is to drive the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Highway from West Glacier Park to St. Mary. This is 50 miles of nonstop WOW — America’s most spectacular mountain road.
From West Glacier Park, the highway runs east, soon reaching the shore of lovely Lake McDonald. From the lake’s eastern end, we continue up McDonald Creek toward a giant mountain wall. Golden aspens abound in this valley. At Mile 16, stop to stretch your legs on the Trail of the Cedars. The highway then begins to climb in earnest, first to the north, then looping back to the south. You’ll have great views down the valley on your right. On the other side is the 492-foot cascade of Bird Woman Falls.
Skip Canada, eh?
At Mile 32, you reach Logan Pass and cross the continental divide. Even though the pass is only 6,600 feet, this far north you’re above timberline. Walk one of the short trails for expanded views. At Mile 36.1 is Jackson Glacier Overlook, which is the only place you can view a glacier from the highway.
The highway now descends to St. Mary Lake, which it follows to the junction with US 89. Look for more foliage along this section. At St. Mary you can head back the way you came, or you can follow US 2 along the park’s southern boundary.
What about Canada? I recommend against it. The closest border crossing closes September 30, necessitating a long detour to get to Waterton Park. Although Waterton is nice, I don’t think it justifies the additional time and expense. Instead, return to Kalispell, then do the same loop in different light the next morning.
NEXT WEEK: Shiloh Civil War Battlefield. Tennessee