Traversing the borders of Canada and the United States, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is a meeting of various habitats, land forms and weather systems in this area. Because of this unique environment you will find a variety of plants, trees, wildflowers, bird life and other animals that you could not find in any one place. Glacier National Park is the United States portion of the park. As the name implies, this is a rugged place that was dramatically formed by glaciers. Wildlife is abundant and it is one of the few places in the lower states where you can see grizzly bears and wolves. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, brown bears, deer, moose and elk are the larger animals within easy reach of a long lens. Most of the park is wilderness. Only one road crosses the park and it is only open during the brief summer. A few roads just penetrate far enough to trail heads while other skirt only the perimeter. This guide covers mainly drives and some short hikes, but this is a park for the back country hiker.
The best time to visit Glacier is during the summer. Although the park is open all year, most of it is essentially closed by snow from fall through early summer. The main road through the park, Going-to-the-Sun Road, is usually not open until mid-June and all park activities are underway by the first of July. Late June and July bring in a spectacular wildflower display that follows the melting snow. The brief summer in the alpine country takes place in August when you can catch the wildflower displays at higher elevations. Summer, of course, is the most popular visiting time, and along the more accessible and popular areas of the park, it is crowded.
By September most of the people are gone but there are few park programs. This is wonderful time to visit. The weather in pleasant, changing leaves color the scenes, and wildlife is abundant and at its best.
Most of the roads are closed in winter, but cross country skiers and snowshoers will find some excellent wildlife and scenic opportunities. Probably the best destinations are the wintering areas of elk around St. Mary Lake, the North Fork area and the hills just east of West Glacier.
If You Have Only a Day
If you have only one day to spend at Glacier, spend it all on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Start early in the morning and drive to the end of the road and then return. Plan a full day, stopping at the various turnouts, and taking a few short hikes.
Start your day with sunrise at McDonald Lake at the west end. Then stop at the Moose Turnout, just beyond the end of McDonald Lake, to catch some early morning moose browsing.
The next stop would be the Avalanche Creek area and a hike along the Trail of the Cedars. From this point on stop at all the turnouts either for a photo or to evaluate the photo possibilities for later.
You will want to spend some time at Logan Pass. Definitely take the Hidden Lake Trail as far as the overlook. If you have time (or on your way back), hike the first three miles of the Highline Trail.
Stop at the turnoffs along the way down to St. Mary Lake and especially at the west end of St. Mary Lake for the short hike to Virginia Falls. You will want to photograph at other turnouts along the lake, particularly the Goose Island View, the most photographed view in the park.
If you have a second day, I would spend it in the Many Glacier area. Take the boat shuttles across Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lake and spend some time on the Grinnell Glacier Trail.
Only one road traverses Glacier National Park, and what a road it is! This is one of the most spectacular, awe-inspiring 50 miles in the country. Although it is named for the mountain, it is aptly called the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Whether you are climbing from the east or west side, your trip to Logan Pass certainly seems like you are going directly to the sun. (See Travel Notes for vehicle restrictions.)
You will probably want to drive this road several times, stopping to hike on some trails and capturing the scenery at different times of day. If you have little time, the best time to drive the road is a few hours before sunset. This is when you are more likely to see wildlife and there are fewer cars on this very popular route. If you have more time, plan both an early morning and a late afternoon trip. If you can plan a trip here in September, the road still may be open and you will find fewer people, fall color and bears foraging for snowberries.
The following provides you with detailed information on this route traveling from west to east.
Two miles after leaving West Glacier, the Going-to-the-Sun Road comes to ten-mile-long Lake McDonald and follows the lake shore for about nine miles. Lodgepole pines, hemlocks, and western larches draped with lichen and a sprinkling of aspens and cottonwoods grow along the lake. The heavy forest blocks most of the views, so you will want stop at the Lake McDonald Turnout and the access points at the north end of the lake.
Mushrooms and ferns are good subjects in the forest areas. Wildflowers are not abundant under the forest canopy, but put on a good show near where Sprague and Snyder streams empty into the lake. Nearby, a trail leads to Sperry Chalet, one of the backcountry lodges. (See “Note” below.)
For scenics of the lake and mountains, it is best to photograph from the east shore of Lake McDonald. The view of mountains is mysterious in the morning when mist rises from the lake. In late afternoon clouds build up, adding some drama that can often result in good sunsets as well.
A detour on North McDonald Road takes you to the McDonald Creek Trail and a short quarter-mile hike to McDonald Falls. A little farther along the trail is Sacred Dancing Cascade, a series of falls that can also be reached just off the road north of the lake.
Lake McDonald to The Loop
From McDonald Lake to The Loop the road follows McDonald Creek. The first two miles beyond the end of Lake McDonald is a swampy area that is an excellent moose habitat (courtesy of beavers). This is also a good place to photograph ducks, frogs and other small creatures.
The road then climbs to Avalanche Creek. At Avalanche Creek there is a campground and a lovely nature trail that takes you beneath the cedars through ferns and follows the creek as it cuts its way through dark red rock to a beautiful cascade. The trail eventually reaches Avalanche Lake, an easy 2-mile trip. Continue on the road a mile farther to the Red Rock Point Pullover. In early or late summer and early or late in the day, you might see mountain goats on the ledges. Walk through the cedar and hemlock trees to McDonald Creek where the beautiful turquoise-colored stream meanders through red mudstone. About a mile after the pullover you encounter your first view of the Garden Wall. From the next pullover you have a view of Heavens Peak to the west. The road then rounds “The Loop.”
The Loop to Logan Pass
The Loop is a portion of the road that doubles back on itself. Use the pullovers before and after The Loop for excellent panoramic views of the mountain ranges. The Loop is also where the four-mile climb to the Granite Park Chalet begins.
The road now follows the Garden Wall at a 6% grade climb to the continental divide at Logan Pass. Several waterfalls cascade down and sometimes onto the road during early summer. Just after an old maintenance area (about two miles after The Loop) the road rounds a curve and you have an excellent view of Bird Woman Falls across the valley. You can also see McDonald Creek 2,000 feet below. This is also a good viewpoint of Haystack Butte to the east. A mile farther is Weeping Wall, and during June and July, water cascades down the wall onto the road.
Just beyond the Weeping Wall is Haystack Bend and a parking area. This is an excellent location for wildlife and you can often see mountain goats and bighorn sheep above the Weeping Wall and on Haystack Butte. Marmots may scurry around the nearby rocks. Just a half mile before reaching Logan pass, you will see Alpine Meadow. Depending on when you pass, this area may be covered with yellow glacier lilies (early in the summer) and later with other colorful wildflowers.
At Logan Pass you will have climbed 3,000 feet from Lake McDonald. The valleys are low and the peaks are high and you feel you are above it all. There are magnificent views in all directions. The visitor center is right on the continental divide. Logan Pass is also the best place to photograph mountain goats and relatively tame marmots.
Two trails start at the pass. A 1.5-mile boardwalk trail from the visitor center leads to the Hidden Lake Overlook. This is a lovely trail that takes you through wildflowers meadows, groves of fir, and over rock ledges to a platform and a view of Hidden Lake. This trail is one of the few places where you can reliably see and photograph ptarmigan. The trail continues another 1.5 miles to Hidden Lake. The Hidden Lake Trail is one of the best places to encounter mountain goats close by, especially near the Hidden Lake Overlook. In July and August, you might also see grizzly bears and this is one of the safe places to view them.
The Highline Trail is one of the most popular in the park and eventually leads to Granite Park Chalet, 7.5 miles away, and then to The Loop. This trail, however, is not for those afraid of heights. Part of the trail was gouged out of the sheer cliff and has steep drop-offs. You may only want to walk the first three level miles. Along the way you’ll encounter beautifully twisted stunted pines and alpine meadows that will have yellow glacier lilies in early summer and other wildflowers later. Near Haystack Butte you will often see mountain goats and bighorn sheep. After the first three miles, the trail climbs steeply to open areas that may be covered with beargrass (if this is a year of good beargrass bloom). Bighorn sheep and deer are often seen along this section of the trail. The Granite Park Chalet (see “note” below) overlooks spectacular Bear Valley and this is also one of the safe locations to view grizzly bears.
Logan Pass to St. Mary Lake
The Going-to-the-Sun Road then starts down the east side of the continental divide. About a mile from the pass is Lunch Creek cascading off a cliff north of the road. The road passes through a tunnel and, as it emerges on the other side, there is yet another waterfall.
The road bends sharply around Siyeh Curve as it drops back into the heavy forest area. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep might be spotted in the area. In mid to late summer wildflowers can be seen along the road, including beargrass.
St. Mary Lake
The Going-to-the-Sun Road then reaches St. Mary Lake. This lake is 10 miles long but not as wide as McDonald Lake. You’ll want to stop at the turnouts at the end of the lake for a view of 100-foot Virginia Falls across the valley. From the Virginia Falls Turnout or Sun Point you can take some short hikes. One is a fork that leads to Sunrift Gorge where a steep, paved path leads to an overlook with windswept pines and views of Baring Creek cascading over slickrock. Another trail continues around to the end of St. Mary Lake and leads to St. Mary and Virginia Falls. There is an excellent view of St. Mary Lake as the trail rounds the lower end of the lake over a bluff. It then takes you to St. Mary Falls and then over a bridge at the base of Virginia Falls.
For excellent photo views of the lake, take the short spur road to Sun Point and the next turnout. Goose Island View (1.5 miles from Sun Point) is a “must stop.” This is one of the most photographed views in the park. The little Wild Goose Island adds to photographs of the lake. The next turnout, The Narrows, is where the width of the lake is just a quarter mile across. Take the short path to the lake for some outstanding views.
The area north of the lake along the road is rich in wildlife. Here you may see mule deer, skunks, ground squirrels and badgers. It is also an excellent place to find elk. In autumn near dusk you may find bull elk engaged in battles. This is an important winter range for elk and you can easily cross country ski here in winter. In spring, it is the calving area for the St. Mary elk herd. This is also a good destination in spring and early summer for wildflowers including Indian paintbrush, blanketflowers, and lupine.
Near the road to the St. Mary campground, you have a good view looking southwest of the lake. Just before the town of St. Mary, a road leads down the east of the lake a short distance to the Eagle Lake Trailhead. This trail takes you through grasslands and aspen and cottonwood groves, and is another good location to photograph St. Mary Lake. Mountain goats inhabit Red Eagle Mountain.
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