I just returned from a two-day journey on Amtrak to Glacier National Park in Montana followed by two days of hiking in the park. My trip report has already been written, so stay tuned for that. As tourist season approaches for Glacier, though, let me offer these observations—
Much of the Park Was Still Closed in Mid-May
Most of the iconic “Going to the Sun” Road was still closed due to snow. From the West Glacier entrance it was possible to drive about 14 of the 48-mile journey that winds through the Park. The situation was not better using other entrances like East Glacier or St. Mary.
You can check on snow plow progress here.
We also wanted to eat in Lake McDonald Lodge but we were just one day too early. It re-opened to the public today, May 20th.
Shoulder Season was actually a pleasant time to visit
The park was lightly filled, which was wonderful. During the peak season the park can be so full that the trails seems like busy sidewalks and parking spots are just not sufficient to accommodate demand.
We had no trouble finding parking wherever we wanted to stop and the trails, while not empty, were nowhere near crowded.
This time of year – mid to late May – seems like an ideal time with generally pleasant weather.
Hiking to Mt. Brown Lookout is not for the Faint of Heart
Yesterday my wife and I decided to hike to Mt. Brown Lookout, a ~6 mile (one-way) trail which begins about nine miles into the park from the West Glacier entrance. We climbed about 4,000 miles. Despite gloomy weather that often enshrouded us in clouds (I appreciated the coolness and protection from the sun), the views were still fabulous.
This was a very steep trail – we crossed 7,000 feet in crisscrossing trails and hit snow around 5,500 feet. By the time we reached the top, we were knee-deep in snow. But it was an invigorating hike. We did not run into any bears.
Avalanche Lake is a Pleasant and Easy Hike
Contrasted to Mt. Brown Lookout was the much tamer hike to Avalanche Lake. Start at the Avalanche Creek campground (14 miles from the West Glacier entrance) and you can enjoy a roughly two-miles journey almost completely in shaded forest to the beautiful Avalanche Lake. Take a picnic lunch along or go for a swim – the water was not cold.
Kalispell is not Exactly Close to Glacier National Park
I booked a hotel in Kalispell because we had a 5:45a flight out of Glacier International (FCA) this morning, thinking that the park would be a short distance from the town, which bills itself as the gateway to Glacier. It wasn’t.
There was never much traffic (always best to have your own vehicle – in fact, it is essential) but it was a 35-mile drive (40 minutes at all times of day) from the hotel in central Kalispell to the West Glacier gate.
Kalispell, however, is quite a charming city. Surely it is geared toward tourists and pricing at restaurants rivals Los Angeles, but we enjoyed good food and would not hesitate to return again. That said, there is a reason why Kalispell or Whitefish hotels are so much cheaper than staying closer to the park or inside the park – you’ll spend 90-minutes each day going back and forth.
The park is huge (both on the U.S. and Canadian side) and we could have spent days here. Honestly, though, I think two days of hiking was enough – after climbing a mountain yesterday I am happy to sit on an airplane and relax in airport lounges today. But it was a great trip that I highly recommend – I do hope to return again and will likely go in off-season once again.