So, you’re planning a trip to the crown jewel of the US National Park system! I’m excited for you, because Glacier National Park really lives up to the hype. I’ve been to a good number of beautiful places, but Glacier might be the most spectacular place I’ve ever been.
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When to visit Glacier National Park
Reserving Entry to the Going-to-Sun Road
Reservable Campgrounds within Glacier National Park, and Getting Reservations
Fish Creek and Many Glacier Campgrounds
What to Bring Camping in Glacier National Park
Ultimate 5 Day Itinerary
Visiting Glacier actually requires substantial planning. Because it is so popular, reservations sell out months in advance for accommodations within the park. In fact, if you are trying to reserve coveted campsites within the park, you will need to do it the moment reservations open and you still might not get them. If you’re hoping to visit in the summer, I’d suggest planning everything out by January/February of the year you’re hoping to visit so you have the best chance of getting accommodations. If you’re looking for hotels, some of them can be booked and will fill up a full year in advance.
First things first – you’ll need to decide which areas of the park you’d like to visit, and when. The park is quite large, over 1,500 square miles, and you won’t be able to see it all in one visit, so do your research on what attractions seem most exciting to you. The main regions are shown below. I’d recommend checking AllTrails to determine which hikes are the main priorities for you to help narrow down where you’d like to go.
When to Visit Glacier National Park
The most popular time of year for visiting Glacier National Park is summer, and specifically, August. With popularity comes lots of crowds; know that the days of exploring certain areas of the park in peace and quiet are long gone.
August is when you’ll have the best chance of all trails being available (not snowy) and sunny skies. The window of when much of Glacier is easily accessible is pretty short, generally from some point in mid or late June until late September or early October. We went in early July because that is when I had a week off work.
I think early July was a fantastic time to go; the weather was pretty great and we had no wild fire smoke issues. With the increasing wildfires in the western US, it is likely that we will continue to see some very smokey days in the park. A friend of mine was going to go in late July and ended up cancelling due to terrible air quality and smoke obscuring views. One thing to remember about going in early July is that some trails will likely still be inaccessible due to snow (like Grinnell Glacier; I had wanted to do this hike but we weren’t able to do so).
Reserving Entry to the Going-to-Sun Road
Due to the popularity of this portion of the park, you’ll need to have a ticket to enter the road if you are traveling between late May and mid September between 6 am and 4 pm if you are not staying in accommodations beyond the road entrance. You can find more information about what this looks like here: Ticketed Entry to Going-to-Sun Road. Reservations themselves can be made here starting in March. Note: within our specific itinerary, I forgot to reserve a ticket to leave the park (from Many Glacier back through the park to get home) and we had to do a 3:00 am wake up to make sure we made it to the entrance long before 6 am. Think through your itinerary carefully!
Reservable Campgrounds within Glacier National Park & Getting Campsite Reservations
The way I decided where we were going was mainly based on campground reservation availability. There are only three campgrounds that accept reservations; the rest are all first come, first served. I’m pretty risk averse and we were driving all the way from Seattle (9-12 hours away), so I wanted to be sure we had accommodations and not try to get a first-come site. The options were therefore Fish Creek Campground, St. Mary’s Campground, and Many Glacier Campground.
I wanted to see two areas of the park for our 6-day trip, and it was a pretty easy decision for me to go with Fish Creek and Many Glacier. There seemed to be the most amount of hiking and activities I was interested in in those areas as opposed to St. Mary’s, so that’s what we did.
A note: the moment availability was released for my dates, I first reserved my site at Many Glacier and then at Fish Creek. Many Glacier is the most sought-after campground, every second counts when making reservations. In fact the ranger at Many Glacier told us we should play the lottery, that’s how lucky we were to get a site.
Now, if you’re struggling to get a campsite at Glacier or any other highly popular park (it’s getting harder and harder these days) I highly recommend checking out CampNab. They scan for cancellations at many amazing campgrounds across the country, and they’re how I scored a Labor Day weekend campsite at one of the most popular campgrounds in Mt. Rainier National Park just 2 months beforehand.
Fish Creek Campground and Many Glacier Campground
We started our trip with 3 nights in Fish Creek Campground followed by 3 nights in Many Glacier. Both campgrounds were fantastic, but Fish Creek had better amenities (ie, showers!) in loop A where we happened to be staying. We also had intermittent cell phone service in the Fish Creek area, if that is important to you. Many Glacier is more rugged: zero cell service for miles and no showers. However, both had flush toilets and the sites themselves were fantastic in both areas.
In terms of hiking, I’ll share a detailed list of each of the hikes we did in the itinerary below, but I do want to note that in terms of ease of access, Many Glacier was much better for hiking than Fish Creek, simply because you could walk to several trailheads or drive a very short distance to them. For all hiking we did while staying at Fish Creek, we drove 30 minutes to an hour.
What to Bring Camping in Glacier National Park
Here is a list of my essentials for camping and adventuring in Glacier National Park. Note: contains affiliate links.
On the trail
- Bear spray: absolutely critical, you should not hike in the park without it. The park has grizzly bears in addition to black bears, and you will see signs directing you to carry it. Both my husband and myself carried it on a hip holster for easy access on every hike we completed
- Deet bug spray: the best at preventing bites, I generally opt for high concentration deet. If you’re pregnant or otherwise concerned about the deet chemicals, I recommend picaridin bug spray
- Sunscreen to keep your skin safe on hikes
- A hydration pack for your hikes. I prefer 2.5 or 3 liter packs because I never want to end up thirsty on the trail. This is a high quality pack my husband has; I bought a cheap one and would not recommend doing that, mine broke within a few uses. It’s so much easier than hiking with water bottles that you have to stop to take out, open, and close each time.
- A sun hat with UV protection
- A hiking backpack. I got my Gregory pack about a year ago and absolutely love it. Here’s a men’s option. Note about cost: these make life more comfortable on the trail, but you certainly don’t have to have one. I hiked for years with a $20 backpack I had bought to tote my work laptop around
- Wool hiking socks. They will help prevent blisters and keep your feet comfortable. I’ve tried a few brands and nothing comes close to Smartwool. Men’s here
- Goretex hiking boots. I prefer breathable (non-leather) options for warmer weather hiking. I’ve loved my Vasque boots and they’ve held up fantastically well. My whole family has this brand and swears by it. My husband loves his goretex Solomon hiking boots as well.
- A quality goretex rain jacket. Men’s here
- Hiking poles. I got mine at Costco, but these are really similar. I can’t tell you how much of a difference they make — I was a doubter, but would never hike on incline without them again! My husband, who has bad knees, was able to hike so much longer and further with these than he could without them. They really are amazing
At the campground
- A tent. While I’ve been tempted to upgrade to a swanky, expensive REI tent, I’ve done just fine with my Coleman. It’s kept me dry in the rain and fits everything comfortably. This is an item I think you can skip getting the expensive one if you’re on a budget. We like the four person so we can fit our air mattress in comfortably, even though only 2 of us sleep in it
- Sleeping bags. Before heading out, double check the temperatures for where you are going. You’ll want to make sure you have a bag that will keep you warm; this particular bag is protective down to 20 degrees F. I also bring wool blankets along for extra warmth even if I don’t think I’ll need them, just as added protection
- An air mattress. As a kid we never had these, but as an adult I couldn’t believe the difference it made. It’s worth the cost and space to bring one, plus you can get them very affordably. Make sure you get one that has a pump you can plug into your car (the linked one does)
- Camp stove for cooking meals beyond just over the fire pit and fuel; I bought this six pack and it lasted me all summer through multiple camping trips. Don’t forget matches!
- A grill for your campfire. The pits in the campgrounds didn’t have grates! These are super affordable and lightweight
- A cooler
- A bin to wash dishes in, plus biodegradable soap and a sponge
- External battery charger for your electronics. This is a game changer. You can charge it in the wall at home and/or purchase solar panels to charge on your trips. I simply charged it before we left home and it still had power by the end of our 6-day trip. We used it for our phones and camera
- A picnic blanket!
5 days in Glacier National Park Detailed Itinerary
This itinerary is exactly what we did except when otherwise noted.
Day one: drive to Fish Creek Campground and picnic at Lake McDonald
Most of day one is driving (if you’re coming from Seattle), so the only plan we had for arrival was a picnic dinner at Lake McDonald, which was right by our campsite. We thoroughly enjoyed sitting at the waterside after a long day on the road.
Day two: Avalanche Lake hike (5.9 miles) in the morning, and white water rafting in the afternoon
Note: this day is packed. We got up at 5:30 am to get to the Avalanche Lake trail, which is about 30 minutes from the Fish Creek campground. The parking was already full by the time we arrived around 6:30 am. Thankfully we were able to circle and snag someone’s spot as they left, but truly, the crowding in this area is no joke. You WILL want to wake up early to have an easier time of parking. The hike is beautiful and worth the crowds; it’s not very difficult and it’s stunning. Don’t miss it!
Take a lunch break back at camp before your afternoon adventure: white water rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
We did the half day white water excursion with Glacier Rafting Company at the last time slot of the day (4 pm in peak season). The drive to the launch is maybe 25 minutes and then you’re cruising down the river. You’ll have the chance to jump in if you dare. The rapids are family friendly and appropriate for all ages.
Day 3: The Going-to-Sun Road, Logan Pass & the Highline Trail + Lake McDonald swim
An even earlier wake up of 5 am is in order for today, because you’re headed to Logan Pass! The common wisdom online is that the parking lot at the pass fills by 7 am. The day we were there, I’d say it filled a bit later than that, but not by much. We arrived right around 6:30 am and got to watch as the sun rose during our drive. It was PHENOMENAL. People visit this area simply to make the drive as it’s one of the most beautiful in the country. It lives up to the hype; check out some of our photos from the drive along the Going-to-Sun road (from the second time we crossed it going east, later in the day).
Logan Pass is fantastic. There are a couple hikes directly in the area, mainly Hidden Lake and the Highline Trail. I was initially hoping to do Hidden Lake, but the trail was closed due to grizzly bear activity. This is a common occurrence on various trails throughout the park, so it’s a good idea to always have a backup hike or two in case your first choice is not available on the day you plan to go. So we went with the Highline Trail and were not disappointed at all. In fact, it was probably even better than Hidden Lake.
In normal times, you can hike the whole length of the Highline trail, and take a shuttle from where you end it back to your vehicle. This wasn’t an option when we were visiting, and also, the entire length of the trail is nearly 12 miles, which was more than we were ready to do. We hiked almost to the “Haystack”, making for about 6.5 miles of hiking for us. The entire hike is views on views of the mountains. We got to see mountain goats and bighorn sheep which made the day so special.
I would recommend hiking first thing in the morning, because the sun got pretty hot on our return hike and tired us out fast.
After enjoying a morning exploring the Logan Pass and Highline Trail area, head back to your campsite and enjoy some time on the southwest shores of Lake McDonald.
We simply chilled the rest of the afternoon in the water and on the shoreline. It was very cold but a nice opportunity to just relax after a busy, active early morning
Day 4: Morning drive to Many Glacier campground, afternoon boat tour
Pack up your campsite because today is moving day. The drive to Many Glacier campground from Fish Creek takes about 2.5 hours over the Going-to-Sun road. We took a leisurely pace in the morning because we had no plans until 2 pm, and were able to enjoy the drive.
Arriving at camp around 12:30 pm, you can set up your tent and your belongings and then get ready to head to the afternoon excursion: a boat tour and small hike. Glacier Park Boat Company runs tours in various areas of the park, and you need to make reservations several months in advance to ensure you are able to get the tour you want. By the time we booked in May for our July trip, they were sold out of the morning tours. It worked out okay since we wouldn’t have been able to do the Grinnell Glacier hike anyhow due to lingering snow, but the morning tour is the one that allows you to hike Grinnell Glacier more easily (it becomes a 7.6 mile hike instead of an 11.2 mile hike). If you go later in the summer and want to hike Grinnell Glacier, I’d recommend the 9 am tour + hike option.
The boat tour takes you across two small lakes in the Many Glacier area, and you’re able to then take an optional guided hike/walk to Grinnell Lake, which is about 4 miles or so round trip. The guides are knowledgable and will share interesting tidbits with you about the nature and the park. You’ll also be able to visit a small waterfall along the way to the lake. It is unbelievably beautiful and such a high pay off for the limited amount of work it takes to get there.
You’ll return to your campground in the late afternoon or early evening to relax.
Day 5: Redrock Falls Hike (3.6 miles) & Evening Ranger Led Program
You might be ready to take it a little easier on day 5 after so much action in the first few days. Sleep in, because your hike today is right near the campground and it’s an easy one to Redrock Falls. Be sure to stop at Fishercap Lake to look for moose! It’s right off the trail, and they are commonly seen in and around this lake in the mornings. We got to see several when we arrived at the lake around 9:45 am. It was magical.
After appreciating the lake and hopefully spotting some moose, you can continue along the trail until you reach Redrock Falls. This trail is a bit exposed so be sure you’re wearing good sun protection.
Take the afternoon to chill after your hike, maybe set yourself up in a hammock with a book to lounge in the shadow of the mountains. Consider grabbing a soft serve ice cream at the Swiftcurrent Inn store.
In the evening, check out a ranger led program. We went to one of the series in Native America Speaks. They’re free and close to the campground and offer a change of pace from hiking and other physical activities.
Day 6: Hike to Iceberg Lake (9.3 miles)
On your final day, you’ll take on your longest mileage to visit Iceberg Lake! It’s not too tough in terms of elevation gain, but it’s definitely a longer one. You’ll see Ptarmigan Falls along the way, but don’t stop there, because the lake is much more impressive. There are panoramic views of the mountains at various points throughout the hike and the lake itself is filled with icebergs (if you go before they all melt!) which is really cool to see. It’s a great way to finish out your time in the park.
Day 7: Drive home!
Pack up camp and head home after a marvelous week in Glacier National Park! You’ll almost certainly want to return.