Glacier National Park Essentials

Photo: NPS

Explore the vast and spectacular landscape that straddles the Continental Divide.

The jagged, ice-carved mountains that fill the heart of Glacier National Park rival any peaks in the world for sheer alpine beauty—and that’s just the start of what this dramatic park in northwestern Montana offers. Situated on the Continental Divide at the “crown of the continent,” Glacier includes cobalt lakes, gushing waterfalls, lush valleys, and a stunning list of wildlife inhabitants that features grizzly bears, mountain goats, wolverines, bighorn sheep, and many more. 

Glacier tops many a destination life-list, and for good reason. With more than 700 lakes, 1,500 square miles, and 700-plus miles of hiking trails, you won’t run out of places to explore. Even if you did, visiting Glacier is a two-for-one experience, as it borders Waterton Lakes National Park just across the border in Canada to form Glacier International Peace Park.

The Lay of the Land

Glacier National Park owes its spectacular landscape to millions of years’ worth of mountain uplift and erosion followed by glacial sculpting. Visiting the park provides a master class in glacial terrain: Massive glaciers bulldozed and scraped the rock here, leaving behind telltale moraines, hanging valleys, aretes, and cirques. 

The park is famous for its remaining glaciers, which are receding as climate change warms the planet. There are about 26 glaciers in the park today, down from 80 at the end of the Little Ice Age in 1850. Some glaciers can be spotted from pullouts on the road (like Jackson Glacier), while others require a strenuous hike to reach (Sperry Glacier, Grinnell Glacier).

Wondrous Wildlife

Glacier’s incredible animals bring in as many visitors as the mountains and glaciers do. Perhaps the most exciting (and terrifying) species is the grizzly bear: About 300 grizzlies live in the park, and more than 1,000 populate the greater Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep frolic on the park’s steep slopes, and lynx, mountain lions, and wolverines hunt in the park. And then there are the smaller, equally fascinating animals, like pika, beavers, loons, bald eagles, and tree frogs.

Some animals are rarely spotted (like the big cats). Others are almost a guarantee (like mountain goats around Logan Pass). Even if you don’t see one of the most popular species, you can likely find evidence that they’re nearby—and simply knowing you’re sharing the trail with such impressive creatures brings a thrill.

Human History

The park and its environs are the traditional homelands of the Blackfeet, who lived on the open prairies on the east side of the Divide, and the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribes on the western side. Today, the Blackfoot Reservation borders the east side of Glacier and the Flathead Reservation (home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) is just to the southwest of the park.

By the early 1800s, French, English, and Spanish trappers came to the Glacier area to trap beaver. Over the next few decades, white settlers displaced the Indigenous tribes, and tourism began to develop by the end of the century. The arrival of the Great Northern Railway to the area made it much easier for travelers to reach the rugged Glacier mountains. Glacier became the 10th national park in 1910.

Visiting the National Park

Today, Glacier National Park is a juxtaposition of raw wilderness and civilization. Though most of the park is wild, you’ll find seven frontcountry hotels, nine restaurants, several developed villages, and roads connecting the park’s major regions. The can’t-miss thoroughfare is Going-to-the-Sun Road, a spectacular, winding road linking the park’s east and west sides over Logan Pass and providing access to many marquee trails. On the east side, you’ll also find the Two Medicine and Many Glacier areas, each with its own entrance and services. The more remote North Fork area holds a pair of gorgeous lakes on the park’s northwest side. 

Glacier runs a shuttle across Going-to-the-Sun Road during the high summer season, a great way to help alleviate traffic and parking hassles. But if you’re traveling anywhere else in the park, you’ll need a car.


Summer: Glacier positively sparkles in the summer (June through August): Snow melts from all but the highest peaks, wildflowers bloom, animals are active, and the hiking is incredible. But keep in mind that summer is also the most popular season to visit—in fact, the park implemented a ticketed entry system for the Going-to-the-Sun corridor in 2021 to help control crowds. Summer is also wildfire season in the West, and smoke from regional and local fires can cause significant air pollution.

Fall: September through October/November is a lovely time to visit, with larches turning golden, wildlife especially active as the animals prepare for winter, and fewer people. But Going-to-the-Sun Road and Many Glacier shut down early in the season, and keep in mind that snow can fall anytime and temps can get fairly cold.

Winter: Glacier is much quieter from November through March, as snows blanket much of the park and most roads and services are closed. It’s a great time to snowshoe or cross-country ski; just be prepared for cold, windy weather.

Spring: Though it may be spring on the calendar, Glacier is still a very wintry place in April and May. Snow stays put in the high country well into June, and Going-to-the-Sun Road isn’t fully plowed until the end of June in most years. Spring visitors will be treated to gushing waterfalls and longer days for snowshoeing and skiing—as long as they’re prepared for the colder weather.

Activities To Do

Ready for a Glacier adventure? Here are just a few of the many options.

Top day-hikes

Glacier is a hiker’s park. Think the scenery from the road is amazing? Just wait ‘til you see what’s out there beyond the beaten path.

Piegan Pass

Start high and get higher on this 9-mile (round-trip), view-packed hike from Going-to-the-Sun Road to an alpine pass. You’ll hike through an evergreen forest before popping out above treeline and winding across a rocky slope to 7,500-foot Piegan Pass, from which you can see Many Glacier Valley and the east side of the Garden Wall. 

Gunsight Lake

Hike to what’s widely considered one of the park’s most beautiful lakes on this 12.5-mile round-trip. From the Jackson Glacier Overlook on Going-to-the-Sun Road, you’ll hike through a lush river valley before climbing to the lake—a bright blue spot ringed by Mount Logan, Mount Jackson, and several glaciers. 

Rockwell Falls

This fairly flat trail in the Two Medicine area wanders past several viewpoints and waterfalls in 7 miles (round-trip). It starts with a bang at Two Medicine Lake, then passes the Paradise Point overlook and Aster Falls before reaching the braided, 40-foot Rockwell Falls.


The park’s many sparkling waterways make for perfect days out on the water.

Tour Lake McDonald

Lake McDonald, one of the west side’s gems, sits in a long, thin basin rimmed with mountains. See them up close—and learn about the park’s ecology, geology, and history—on an hourlong boat tour run by the park’s concessionaire. 

Paddle Bowman Lake

Bowman Lake, on the park’s remote northwest side, is a prime place to get away from it all (and most other visitors). No motorized boats are allowed, so you’ll have guaranteed quiet once you launch a kayak or canoe (boating permit required) and slip out to explore. Paddle 7 miles to the backcountry campsite on the other side of the lake for a classic overnight.


Glacier offers 13 developed campgrounds, from large camping “villages” to smaller outposts. Pitching a tent (or parking a camper) in one for a night or three is one of the best ways to soak in the essence of the park. Three of the campgrounds—Fish Creek, Many Glacier, and St. Mary—can be reserved ahead of time, while the others are first-come, first-served. Camping is very popular in the park, so arrive very early to make sure you snag a site. Tip: Check the park’s dashboard, updated in real time, for information about campground status, parking lot availability, weather, and road updates.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.