A real - honest travel guide to visiting Glacier National Park in the Summer
Now were getting to the good stuff. Summer season. Yes, the summer months are the absolute best time to be in Northwestern Montana - the skies are cloudless and the heat is dry, the glacier lake and river waters are perfect for cooling off, the days seem endless with the sun not setting until late into the evening - it is the definition of perfection.
But there will always be a catch to traveling to a destination during it's most coveted time of year.
Glacier National Park continues to be in the top 10 of the most visited parks in the nation and things do not appear to be slowing down.
20 years ago, visitation to the park was a little over 1.6 million per year. Fast forward to just in the last few years when the park had it highest visitation rate of 3.3 million (2017). Numbers have stayed roughly between the 2.9 - 3.1 million range within the last 5 years minus the year 2020.
Most people want to travel to a destination when it is during the area's most ideal weather season. There is no getting away from it - you will be battling the summer crowds if you visit during these months. This is not to put you off but just to forewarn you. Hotel prices will be more expensive, tours and rentals will be booked out, last minute dinner reservations will be impossible to find, and once the Going-to-the-Sun road fully opens - traffic. Lots and lots of traffic.
Unlike Yellowstone National Park, there are really only 2 main entrances and exits in Glacier National Park (the West entrance near Apgar Village and St. Mary on the east end of the park) - and there are no real turn offs to parking lots where you can get out of your vehicle and take pictures - the Going-to-the-Sun road is the only road with minimal extra space. Even though the GTTSR should be fully open from end to end this time of year, it is a one-lane road winding through the mountains with extremely limited turn off and parking space.
I feel it is fair to warn those that have a fear of heights - you may want to find a different method of navigating the GTTSR besides driving yourself. Although the views are amazingly beautiful, the GTTSR is full of tight cliff-facing curves and switchbacks all while climbing the 3,000 feet to Logan Pass. There are free shuttles that transport passengers from one end to the other but they do fill up fast and it is never guaranteed that there will be room. If you plan your trip enough in advance, check out booking a tour with the famous and iconic Red Bus Tours. More details here.
Be prepared to encounter every kind of traveler out there with you; the family of 6 with kids in the minivan, the avid hikers looking to start a 3-day backpacking trip, the motorcyclists making their way across the country, the couple getting married wanting to get all the good mountain photo ops, the through hikers of the Continental Divide, the ones who rented an RV and think they are able to get past the Loop (not a pretty site) - the list could go on and on. Please be patient and understand that everyone is there to enjoy their park.
Moral of the story here - if you want to have a trip of a lifetime to Glacier National Park during the summer months, do your research and plan ahead. Don't try to wing it. There are so many amazing things to do that caters to all walks of life. Decide what kind of trip you want to have and then plan around that vision. If you are the person who wings it - I'm sure you will still have an amazing experience - just understand that you may not get to check everything off of your Glacier bucket list.
Again, none of this is meant to be a deterrent to traveling to Glacier in the summertime. I wanted to provide this information so you can be prepared of what to expect versus being disappointed. When I travel somewhere, I like to experience it all, so you can probably tell that I plan way ahead when I go on vacation!
Once you know the dates you want to travel to Glacier, here are the things to do almost immediately next:
Book flights and/or rental cars. Rental cars in the area are typically not cheap but it is recommended as nothing is really in walking distance.
Book lodging - campgrounds, hotels, lodges, RV parks, short term vacation rentals - all of these will fill up fast.
If you want to do a guided tour whether it's a boat tour of Lake McDonald, river rafting, fly fishing, horseback riding, BOOK IT NOW. Ask what their cancellation policy is but just get it booked. Sometimes it is easier to plan the rest of your travel around the must-dos that you are able to book ahead of time versus trying to book it last minute.
If Glacier is your destination, make sure you have all of the tools to get there and explore, and fill in the gaps later.
Be on the lookout for articles where I provide 3 and 5 day Glacier itineraries as well as more things to do outside of the Park and in the surrounding Flathead Valley.