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Travel Glacier National Park - Spring

Updated: Mar 14

A real-honest travel guide to visiting Glacier National Park in the Spring

 

Glacier National Park averages almost 3 million visitors annually with the majority of those visiting during the peak months of June, July and August. Some might not realize that the park is available to visit year round but during the winter and spring months, most operations within and near the park have closed - typically reopening mid-May.

 

Still, the ever changing weather during the spring months can provide a very unique way to explore the area that most visitors do not get the chance to experience.


west entrance to Glacier National Park

 

Visiting in March and April

 

Starting sometime in October, the National Park Service will close access to the Going-to-the-Sun-Road (the main road that takes you through the heart of the park) from the west entrance at Avalanche Lake Trailhead/Campground and from the St. Mary entrance on the east side at Jackson Glacier Overlook. When the weather turns even more into winter and the snow begins to fall, access to the GTTSR is restricted even further with closures happening at Lake McDonald Lodge on the west side and St. Mary Campground on the east side. 

 

The Going-to-the-Sun Road (or GTTSR) is a 50-mile stretch of paved road that navigates through the heart of Glacier National Park, connects the east and west entrances, crosses the continental divide and peaks at Logan Pass at an elevation of over 6,600 feet. During the winter months, this area can see over 80 feet of dense snowpack, wind gusts over 100 mph, avalanches and  many other unpredictable occurrences making it impossible to travel.

 

Just because vehicle access is restricted, does not mean you can't still enjoy the beauty of the park.

 

The west entrance via Highway 2 is the most popular way to access the park during the winter and spring seasons. Most visitors will be lodging in or near the ski resort town of Whitefish - about 45 minutes west. The east entrance is still accessible but not as easy to navigate to. There are no major towns with amenities available and unpredictable weather can make traveling there dangerous. Always best to do your research and plan ahead if you venture this way during the winter and spring months.

 

About a mile through the west entrance at the south end of Lake McDonald is Apgar Village. During the summer months you can expect all of the outfitters, shops, food and lodging in Apgar to be bustling but that is not the case in early spring. There are no amenities or facilities open here during this time.

 

The beauty of the landscape in winter and spring here is unmatched. While at Apgar Village, stand on the southern shoreline of Lake McDonald and take in the stunning snow-capped mountains across the 10-mile long lake - you will not be disappointed.


view of mountains on Lake McDonald from Apgar Village

 Continue north on the Going-to-the-Sun-Road, you will edge along the eastern shoreline of the lake - around 9 miles - until you reach Lake McDonald Lodge.

 

Lake McDonald Lodge is a stunning 3 1/2 story foundation built in 1913 - just 3 years after the park was formed. Even though it has been renovated over the last 100 years, the character on which it was built still lives on. Like most everything else in Glacier, the Lodge closes up for the winter and reopens in mid-May. But when you turn into the parking lot, there are pit toilets that should be open and available for use. Even though the Lodge itself is closed, I still recommend walking around the property to the lake to take in even more epic mountain views.

 

While standing on the shoreline and looking across the lake, you will see damage from the 2018 Howe Ridge fire. Ignited by lightning during a summer storm, the Howe Ridge fire destroyed almost 15,000 acres over the 3 months it burned.

 

In March and April, this is as far as you can go - in your vehicle at least.

 

Right across from the parking lot, you have access to 8 different trail heads (I recommend using All Trails for details and trail conditions). Most of these will be best suited for hikers and snowshoers depending on how fresh and deep the snow is.

 

If there is still snow covering this portion of the Going-to-the-Sun-Road, this is a perfect opportunity to strap on some cross country skis and get a few good miles in. You will follow the McDonald River to McDonald Falls and Sacred Dancing Cascade - two very popular picture taking locations. During the summer months it is almost impossible to find parking at these heavily visited areas so take advantage of it while you can.


 

I recently put on close to 8 miles (out and back) on GTTSR with my cross country skis but the tracks went even further than I was wanting to go. It is yours to explore! This is a great opportunity to take in views of Stanton Mountain, McPartland Mountain and Mount Brown while getting a good cardio workout in.




 

Venturing over to the east side of the park - it is much like entering it through the west entrance. The Going-to-the-Sun-Road will be closed at St. Mary campground during this time and facilities and amenities are extremely limited and/or closed. As the same with the west side - hiking, snowshoeing and cross country skiing are great ways to experience this area of GNP with little to no crowds but make sure you check out the weather ahead of time and be prepared with enough food and water. This area is known for high winds and unpredictable weather patterns making travel difficult.

 

How about the month of May

 

Early to mid-May, things change quickly and drastically as the temperatures increase and operations reopen.

 

During this time, West Glacier, Apgar Village and Lake McDonald Lodge turn on the lights and dust off the winter cobwebs and reopen their doors to guests and visitors. In this area you will find nearby lodging, RV parks and campgrounds, cafés, restaurants and bars, mercantile and gift shops, etc.

 

The outfitters in these areas have also reopened renting out kayaks, paddleboards, and taking visitors on river rafting trips.

 


view of lake mcdonald from apgar lookout - glacier national park

The east side of Glacier National Park is a different story. Late snow, high winds and colder temperatures make it so that this area cannot fully reopen their amenities as early in the spring as the west side can.

 

East Glacier Lodge is shaking out the rugs, St. Mary Village convenience store is starting to restock their shelves and Kips is dusting off the mics for karaoke night. You can expect most facilities on the east side to reopen mid to end of May - only a week or two behind everywhere else.

 

At this time the Going-to-the-Sun-Road will still be closed to vehicle traffic and you will not be able to travel this road from end to end. It has more than likely reopened to Avalanche Creek Trailhead from the west entrance and Jackson Glacier Overlook - about 13 miles from the St. Mary entrance. Without the road being fully open yet, this is your chance to see one of the last remaining 25 glaciers in the park (in the year 1850 there were over 150 in the area). The drive along St. Mary Lake is quite stunning as well.

 

To access the east side of the park take Highway 2 from the west, down and around the southern part of the park and up to the east entrance. Even though you are outside of GNP boundaries, this is still a beautiful and scenic drive. Flathead National Forest borders the other side of Highway 2 and boasts over 2.4 million acres of protected,  pristine wilderness - about double the size of Glacier National Park. As temperatures rise in mid-to-late May, this drive becomes a lot more doable than in the winter and early spring months so it is definitely worth checking out.

 

What else is around?

 

Bad Rock Canyon is the area you will drive through if entering the park from the west entrance via Highway 2. The area is lined with shops, bars and restaurants, hotels, campgrounds and RV parks - some of which closed for the winter season and others that stay open year round. 

 

Here are some of my favorite spots:

 

  • Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse - open year round - great for fudge, gifts/souvenirs and everything huckleberry - recently remodeled!

  • Great Bear Café - also located in Hungry Horse - excellent breakfast and one of my favorite burgers in the valley

  • Hungry Horse Dam/Reservoir - amazing views and history - check out the link here

  • Carolyn's Café - another amazing greasy spoon breakfast joint - reopens in the spring

  • Packers Roost and Stonefly Lounge - also open year round - visit for food, drinks, pool and darts - same offerings at each place but they are completely different from one another. Definitely check them both out

  • Glacier Distilling - take a tour and a tasting at the only distillery in the area known for their Bearproof Huckleberry Whiskey - open year round

  • Sunflower Café - my FAVORITE hidden gem. Must be chill to enter (reopens late spring/early summer)

  • Glacier Highland Restaurant and Lodging - the pizzas hit the spot here (reopens late spring/early summer)

 

Many people take advantage of the lower off-peak rates this time of year and fewer crowds but are expecting all amenities to be open and operational. Unfortunately, Glacier National Park will never be one of those destinations that is so predictable as everything is very weather dependent. Do your research before booking any travel arrangements so you can make the most of your time at The Crown of the Continent.

 

Happy travels

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