Glacier National Park has become immensely popular even though it's tucked away in a remote corner of Montana.
It's probably because it's tucked away in a remote corner of Montana. And, of course, also because it's arguably one of the most beautiful National Parks in the Lower 48.
I have visited 42 US national parks and numerous national monuments to date. My kids have the junior ranger badges to prove that. Glacier National Park is one of our all-time favorites so much so that we have visited the park three times by now.
When we visited the park in 2011 and 2013, things were easy. We got there and drove in. Simple.
These days, it's different. Park authorities regulate vehicle entrances to avoid overcrowding. Which means you need a vehicle pass to get into the park. This holds for the peak season and peak hours. Exactly where and when can change from year to year.
We found that out the hard way when we visited in 2023. I was too preoccupied to plan ahead of time, so only found out about the reservation system a couple of weeks before our trip. Talk about stress.
That's how I got to research this in depth. Based on our visit to the park, I want to share my insights with you in this post, along with a few other tips.
Note that this is based on my experiences in the summer of 2023. In 2024, you would only need that if you want to enter from the Western side of the road.
Whenever you plan to visit, check the park website's page when planning your trip to ensure you have the most up-to-date information.
Here are some additional tips to remember when pre-booking your vehicle entry and planning your Glacier National Park trip.
1. Make your vehicle reservations ahead of time
You can make the reservations online 120 days before your entry date.
If you failed to secure an entry then, don't fret. You can also make next-day reservations when you arrive.
2. Keep your eyes on the prize, err, permit
Reservations run out FAST.
Create your account ahead of time, and log in to make sure you're all set the second the system opens up the registration for that day.
Be ready with your dates, credit card, and laptop or phone. Refresh the page when the time comes, to be among the first people to make the reservation.
Consider using more than one device to increase your chances of securing a reservation.
3. Have a plan B
Trying to secure entry to Mani Glacier? What happens if you can't? We found that the Going To The Sun passes were valid for three days, so we also got those. We planned to hike and tour the eastern side of the GTTS, in case we couldn't secure a pass for Mani Glacier.
In 2024, you can just enter the Going To The Sun road from St. Mary's without a vehicle reservation. This makes for a great plan B!
Saint Mary Falls is a beautiful hike from that entrance.
4. Early Birds don't need a pass
If you can't get an entry pass, you can always enter earlier in the day.
Reservations are only required for entry between 6 AM and 3 PM. Be at the gates at 5:30 AM, and you're likely to enter without one. So yeah, you could potentially sleep in and get into the park in the afternoon, but who wants to miss so many daytime hours when you're in Glacier National Park?
We arrived at the Mani Glacier area around 2 PM so could enter the park an hour later that day without reservation. We had plenty of sunlight hours to hike in the late afternoon.
5. The activity reservation hack
You don't want to rely on those "next day" reservations, but you failed to secure your reservation during the 120-day window.
You can use a hack to arrive with the added peace of mind of having a reservation in hand.
The trick is to book an activity in the park. Whether it's a horse riding experience, kayaking, or a boat tour, anything inside the park constitutes an entry permit for that entire day.
So, you can book the boat tour to Mani Glacier and arrive knowing you can visit the Mani Glacier area that day.
6. Make a screenshot of your reservation
You don't have to print out your reservation. Showing it on your phone is enough. However, remember that reception is spotty at best, so you want to keep a screenshot you can pull up offline.
For an even more detailed stay plan, here's a 3-day itinerary to maximize your experience in this majestic park.
7. Get to Parking Spots Early
One of the most important things to remember when planning your trip across the Going To The Sun Road in Glacier National Park is that parking spots in popular stops fill up early.
The worst place to look for parking is probably Logan Visitors Center. Hikers typically arrive early in the day, leave their cars, and go on a day hike. The rest of us have to scramble for the few remaining spots.
Honestly, Logan's is a zoo in the middle of the day. I was so glad we had already visited the center in previous years. In 2023, I had to keep going in circles in the parking lot while my husband hopped inside to use the bathroom. Let me tell you, there were ZERO available spots, and one poor ranger was standing there, motioning at the drivers to keep going.
What can you do? If you have your heart set on visiting Logan Visitors Center, arrive as early as possible in the day, then turn back to see the stops you missed on your way there. Otherwise, pray. You may get very lucky. Leave me a comment if you have any other creative ideas for parking at the Logan Visitors Center lot.
The silly mountain goats still hang around, by the way. Though they kept their distance from the mayhem, we could see them as we drove past that point.
As for other parking spots, it's a hit-and-miss. In most places, people keep on parking along the road, where possible. With such a notoriously narrow and curving road, that's not always an option.
We kept driving and stopped when we could find a place to pull over. It wasn't too bad. But if you are looking to stop at a particular trailhead, I suggest trying to get there early. Or follow my next tip -
8. Use the Shuttle on Going to the Sun Road
You can take the shuttle service on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to avoid parking issues and ensure you visit Logan's. It's an easy and convenient way to see the park's beauty without worrying about driving or parking.
It's also an excellent opportunity to learn more about the park's history, geology, and wildlife.
This fare-free shuttle is available on a first-come, first-served basis and is wheelchair-accessible. The service starts on July 1st and continues through Labor Day.
Shuttles run from 8 am to 7 pm every day on both the west and east sides of the park, covering all active stops on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
9. Aim to Visit During the Spring and Fall
Glacier's high season is from the 4th of July until the end of August. That's when the park is busiest. Traffic begins to wind down during the last weeks of August as the school year begins across the United States.
If you can visit during the "shoulder seasons," in June or September, you'll find the park far less crowded. Keep an eye on the weather and be prepared.
Snow is common during June and September, and the opening dates of the Going To The Sun Road vary yearly, depending on the weather.
And there's a bonus to visiting "off-season."
Visiting Glacier National Park in spring and fall will increase your chances of spotting grizzly bears in their natural habitat.
During these seasons, the chances of spotting grizzly bears are higher than in the summer, when they tend to stay in more remote areas, or during the winter, when they hibernate.
From mid-August till mid-September, you have the best shot of seeing bears munching away in the park's numerous berry patches.
Speaking of bears -
10. Be bear aware
Glacier National Park is home to both black bears and Grizzly. Bears have attacked people in the park - more than once. It's a severe issue.
We've never failed to see bears - in the plural - on a visit to Glacier, including a close encounter with a Grizzly feeding on berries 10 yards away from the trail.
In Glacier NP, keep a safe distance, carry bear spray, and make noise while hiking to avoid surprising them.
If this is your first time in Bear Country, I highly recommend attending a ranger talk about bear safety. Remember - carrying bear spray is not enough. You need to know when and how to use it.
And keep your wits about you when it comes to other animals, too. Moose roam the park, and while beautiful to behold, you should also keep a distance from them.
11. Bring Your Passport for the Canadian Side
Visiting Glacier National Park is a fantastic adventure, and the experience gets even better if you plan to explore the Canadian side of the park — the Waterton Lakes National Park. It's another beautiful area that is well worth a day's visit.
There is an international border to cross, so don't forget to bring your passport!
There are several key border crossings near Glacier National Park that you should know about:
- The Piegan/Carway Port of Entry is located on U.S. Hwy 89, just north of Babb, MT. This crossing is your direct route if you're aiming to visit Waterton Lakes.
- The Chief Mountain Border Crossing operates on a seasonal basis. Its hours are from 7-10 pm MDT starting June 1 until September 4, and then from 9-6 pm from September 5 to September 30.
- Another option is the Roosville Port of Entry on U.S. Hwy 93, north of Eureka, MT.
Bonus tip: Stay in Babb if Other Places are Full
If you find accommodations in the famous St. Mary or Many Glacier areas completely booked, don't worry!
A tiny town called Babb is located twenty minutes from the park's entrance and can be a great alternative. Babb is small and straightforward. A gas station, a grocery store, a couple of cafes, and an old-fashioned motel surrounded by a few farms.
The motel - Thronson's - is where we stay when we visit that side of Glacier NP. It's off the beaten path, clean, and friendly, and you can't book it online. Which means it's more likely to have open spots.
To make your reservations at Thronson's, visit their Facebook page to see the dates they open. And yes, you'll have to call them and talk to them. Isn't that a novel concept?
Enjoy the adventure that is Glacier National Park
Don't let the planning and organizing keep you from enjoying the park! It's still a wild and wonderful place, I promise!
Do you have additional tips for visiting the park? Leave a comment and let others know about them! I'd love to get more ideas for our next trip to Glacier.