Glacier National Park: A User's Guide

SPEECHLESS: The park at sunset. (Photo: backpackphotography/Flickr.
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Glacier National Park in northwest Montana is a place befitting Big Sky Country. The park’s million-plus acres contain more than 1,500 miles of stream, six mountain peaks taller than 10,000 feet, 25 named glaciers and more than 745 miles of hiking trails from which to explore it all.

It’s a place big enough and wild enough for grizzly bears. It’s a place so unpredictable you can have 90-degree days and a foot of snow all within the month of August. It’s a place where a person can feel small — and sometimes that’s a good thing.


Glacier National Park — established as the country’s 10th national park on May 11, 1910, when President William Howard Taft signed the enabling legislation — borders Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. The adjoining parks were named Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park when designated as the world's first International Peace Park in 1932. The United Nations designated the parks as Biosphere Reserves in 1976 and as World Heritage sites in 1995.

Things to do

Every visitor has to take a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, 50 miles of white-knuckle driving through the heart of the park. The road — which this year wasn’t completely clear of snow until July 13 — passes through forests and alpine tundra. There are spectacular views of mountain peaks and alpine lakes — and you can get a sense of the views via the park's numerous webcams. There are scenic overlooks and trailheads. The speed limit is just 40 mph, but you won’t want to go that fast.

Grinnell Lake inside Glacier National Park

In 1983, Going-To-The-Sun Road was included in the National Register of Historic Places and in 1985 was made a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

The park’s 700+ miles of hiking trails offer dozens of day hike options. Easy hikes for families with small children include Trail of the Cedars, the Rocky Point Trail, the Oxbow Trail, Avalanche Lake and Hidden Lake Nature Trail.

Leave the road, and the trail, by seeing Glacier National Park by boat. Glacier Park Boat Company offers boat tours at Many Glacier, Lake McDonald, Rising Sun on St. Mary Lake and Two Medicine. The boat tour starting from the dock at Many Glacier Hotel, for example, includes a trip across Swiftcurrent Lake, a short walk to Lake Josephine and a cruise across the second lake.

And if you want to travel behind a boat, water skiing is permitted on Lake McDonald and St. Mary Lake.

Why you’ll want to come back

Bring a passport so next time you can drive the Chief Mountain Highway to Waterton Lakes National Park across the border in Canada.

Flora and fauna

If you want to see a grizzly bear in the wild, this is a pretty good place to look. Glacier National Park is home to 62 species of mammals, including black bears, moose, elk, mountain goat and bighorn sheep. Predators found in the park include the gray wolf, lynx, wolverine and cougar.

By the numbers:

  • Website: Glacier National Park
  • Park size: 1,013,594 acres or 1,583 square miles
  • 2010 visitation: 2,200,048
  • Funky fact: Water, water everywhere: Glacier National Park contains 762 lakes, only 131 of which are named.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. W e'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

Inset photo of Grinnell Lake, which is accessible via the Grinnell Glacier Trail: Navin75/Flickr