How to Spend 3 Days in Glacier National Park when Going to the Sun Road is closed
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Table of contents
- Glacier National Park
- Airports Close to Glacier National Park
- Entrances to Glacier National Park
- Where to stay when visiting Glacier National Park
- The best season to visit (from a park ranger!)
- Best Things to do in Glacier National Park
- How to Spend 3 Days in Glacier National Park
- Hiking in Glacier National Park
- Day 1 of 3: Glacier National Park
- Day 2 of 3: Glacier National Park
- Day 3 of 3: Glacier National Park
- Glacier National Park Advance Reservations
- More Montana & National Park Travel:
Glacier National Park
It’s no surprise after spending three days in Glacier National Park in northern Montana that it truly is the crown of the continent. The romantic turquoise blue glacial lakes, flanked by the rugged rocky mountain peaks capped with snow even in the summer months make it a dreamy outdoor destination that seems like it’s on another planet it looks so unreal.
Glacier National Park is located in Northern Montana and even spans into our northern neighbor, Canada. Given how north this park is situated the peak season for travel is really limited in comparison to other National Parks across the United States. It’s no wonder this park fills up when the sun is glistening and the weather is perfect.
Airports Close to Glacier National Park
Many people will road trip to National Parks during the summer no matter where you’re based out of in the United States. However, if you’re looking for a quick in and out trip and plan on flying to spend 3 days (or more) in Glacier National Park you can fly into the following airports:
Glacier Park International Airport (FCA)
This airport is located in Kalispell, Montana (near Whitefish) and is the closest to Glacier National Park. Compared to the other airports listed below, it’s definitely the most expensive but also the most convenient. You can rent a car from here, but depending on your lodging you may have an airport pickup option. Definitely all things to consider when planning to have the best 3 days in Glacier National Park.
Missoula International Airport (MSO)
Missoula airport located in Missoula, Montana is a considerable drive to Whitefish & West Glacier at just under 3 hours and around 130 miles. Depending on the time of day you’re flying in, that may not be feasible for you. So, it may be the comparison of paying a little more to fly into the closer airport and not have to spend the extra time driving. If you’re anything like me, you’ll pay a little extra for convenience (and to be able to fit in more of the things I want to do!) vs. sitting in a car in transit. Traveling is all about priorities.
Helena, Montana (HLN)
Flying into Helena, Montana is going to be a similar situation where you’ll spend even longer in the car to get to the west side of Glacier National Park.
Even if you fly to visit Glacier National Park, you will likely have to rent a car as well to get around. During peak season in Glacier, there are shuttles but that’s more so once you’re in the park. It may be doable depending on where you’re staying if they shuttle people to Glacier then take the shuttles or do one of the famous red bus tours. Especially if you plan on hiking and want to fit in the most during your time in Glacier, renting a car is your best bet!
Entrances to Glacier National Park
East Glacier (St. Mary, Many Glacier, Two Medicine)
While we visited Glacier National Park over 3 days, we were on the East side of Glacier in St. Mary. It was really remote and crazy windy. I definitely wasn’t expecting to experience a winter storm and winds up to 30 mph in June. It was so wild! Personally, I wouldn’t base myself out of this side of Glacier again. But, the areas on the east side of Glacier National Park are definitely not to be missed!
St. Mary Entrance begins the Going to the Sun Road on the east side of the park and it goes completely through the park. If the Going to the Sun Road is closed, it can drastically reduce the things you can do in central Glacier but you can easily access the Many Glacier & Two Medicine areas. (Which are absolutely stunning and shouldn’t be missed, btw!)
Many Glacier is a lot closer to St. Mary while Two Medicine is a more considerable drive taking around 40 minutes. The road to Two Medicine is really winding with some great views. It’s a narrow road with barely any shoulder and please for the safety of others, DO NOT STOP on this road! It’s really dangerous to do so while the views are amazing and enticing to stop, it’s so curvy and could cause a really bad car accident!
The West Glacier entrance to Glacier National Park is definitely more popular as it has easier access to nearby airports and is located closer to Whitefish and there are many lodging options. Personally, when we return (to actually drive on the Going to the Sun Road, we will probably opt to stay closer to this side of the park or even within Glacier National Park for at least 3 more days!) I’m definitely always scheming, but as a person who loves to travel and is always planning the next trip you probably aren’t surprised!
Where to stay when visiting Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park has many in park lodging options. Which makes it easy to maximize your 3 days in Glacier National Park. Keep in mind that booking lodging within the park books up really fast! You will want to plan about a year in advance. Especially because Glacier is such a seasonal park, planning ahead is even more important. (Now if only you could plan the weather too and order that in advance! haha)
The best part, there are many different options within the park to choose from! Honestly, depending on what hikes and plans you have in the park it would even make sense to stay at a few different ones so you’re not doubling back all the time. But, that’s your decision to make! For all of the lodging information within Glacier National Park, click here.
However, you can also choose to stay outside of the park in Whitefish, Montana or the West Glacier area just outside of the park as well. But, again depending on what your plans are how much hiking you want to do (if any!) this will greatly dictate where you decide to stay.
The best season to visit (from a park ranger!)
Visiting in early June and experiencing a winter storm warning was so wild! Especially staying on the east side of the park in St. Mary the wind REALLY gets whipping! Having this type of weather does happen in June, it’s not ALWAYS typical but it’s possible. The “high season” for Glacier National Park really is from July-August.
However, after chatting with a park ranger he said that he always tells his friends and family to visit in early to mid September. Because the weather is still nice (usually!) and there are a lot less families due to kids being back in school this time of year.
So keep that in mind while visiting. But, weather a little bit is up to luck because we experienced a winter storm in June while he said last June it was 90 degrees. Momma nature be crazy sometimes!
Best Things to do in Glacier National Park
Going to the Sun Road
Many of the really iconic views are off of the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, if there are avalanche conditions portions of what I’ve heard is a really stunning road are closed. So, definitely have your itinerary and things to you want to do in Glacier but know that you may need to pivot like we did! Continue reading to for an itinerary unlike another for 3 days in Glacier National Park, it doesn’t include GTS (Going to the Sun) Road! (Insert gasp here!)
Red Bus Tour
The red distinct “jammer” buses have been operating tours in the vintage bright red buses in Glacier National Park since 1936. It’s definitely an iconic thing to include when spending 3 days in Glacier National Park. There are many different routes and distances for these tours offered. Red bus tours were still operating even when the Going to the Sun Road was closed. (Which really surprised me!)
How to Spend 3 Days in Glacier National Park
Hiking in Glacier National Park
Three of the most popular hikes are higher in elevation and can be effected by weather as well as one of them is accessed via Going to the Sun Road. I’d be lying if I wasn’t slightly bummed we weren’t able to do the below hikes. But, definitely check trail closures to assess if you can hike the following trails (even if GTS is closed!) All trails really is the best for planning hikes and knowing what to expect!
Grinnell Glacier Hike
An epic glacier lake & glacier view hike. Harder, however, you can also shave off some distance by taking the boat from the Many Glacier Hotel across Swiftcurrent Lake then Lake Josephine. If choosing this option, it shortens the hike by about 3.5 miles.
Be sure to book your boat in advance to ensure you get a spot for the time you want to! You can do that here. If you book in advance, you can pick up your tickets once you arrive at the kiosks that look like the below picture.
Highline Trail via Logan Pass
Logan Pass is located off of GTS Road. There are many different ways that you can choose to hike this route. We were planning on hiking from Logan Pass Visitor Center to Granite Park Chalet then taking the shuttle back. But, a few caveats effected those plans the biggest one was that Going to the Sun Road was closed (insert sad face) and two, the shuttles only operate from July 1 through Labor Day in September. More information on that here. So, be sure to keep that in mind when you’re planning!
Avalanche Lake via Trail of the Cedars
Avalanche Lake Trail via Trail of the Cedars is an extremely popular hike due to the clear waters and colorful rocks glistening through. If you’ve seen that type of picture of Glacier National Park it was likely taken at Avalanche Lake, but due to the avalanche danger we had to skip it! How ironic is that? [Add it to the for later list.]
Glacier National Park is bear country. If you’re doing any type of hiking, you’ll want to be sure you have bear spray with you. Know how to use it and be prepared on how to act if you do see a bear on the trail. Don’t let this deter you from hiking though, most bears will leave you alone even if you do encounter them while hiking. But it’s just better to be prepared and aware of how to interact with a bear and what to do if you have an encounter in close proximity. Here’s a great resource to read from the National Park Service on what to do.
Day 1 of 3: Glacier National Park
Hopeful, heading into the park from the east via St. Mary’s entrance on the first day. Glacier National Park has been a bucket list park for so long so the anticipation was high. Driving to check out the following lookouts before realizing the Going to the Sun (GTS) Road was closed at Jackson Glacier: Goose Island Lookout, Sunrift Gorge, St. Mary Falls Trailhead, Gunsight Pass then seeing the signs indicating the road was closed at Jackson Glacier.
**It definitely isn’t worth it to disobey these signs as they’re for your own safety. Also, if you’re caught doing so you will be fined $5,000. Not worth it in my opinion!**
St. Mary Falls
Doubling back to St. Mary Falls and taking the hike to the falls was a great option. While this hike was on the “to do list” it got bumped higher on the list after not being able to drive the Going to the Sun Road like planned. It definitely exceeded my expectations! The milky green waterfall is what hiking dreams are made of. Absolutely stunning and it was so worth the effort. You can even choose to extend your hike to Virginia Falls past St. Mary Falls.
After this hike, proceed back to the St. Mary entrance and navigate to the Two Medicine area of Glacier National Park. (This is also on the east side of the park but doesn’t require the use of the GTS road.) You technically will exit the park and then re-enter at the Two Medicine entrance. It’s a bit of a drive (around 40 mins) to the Two Medicine area because the roads are very narrow and windy! But, there are some spectacular views. Just, please do not stop along the road as there aren’t shoulders and the roads are really narrow as it is. It’s just extremely unsafe to do this! So be courteous to your safety and kind to others.
Once in the Two Medicine area, Running eagle falls is an easily accessible hike for the whole family. Short and sweet to a cute waterfall and river area.
After leaving Running eagle Falls, head to the South Shore Trailhead where there are MANY hikes of differing lengths and difficulties that all start via the same trailhead. Since it was already afternoon we set out on the paradise point & Aster Falls trails. It was muddy in spots but really an enjoyable hike. After hiking, pop into the Two Medicine General Store where they sell souvenirs, some camping items as well as beer and food. (However, due to convenience the food items are from what I saw on the pricier side!)
Day 2 of 3: Glacier National Park
Heading back to the Two Medicine area of Glacier National Park earlier in the day to the same Trailhead at the South Shore.
Rockwell Falls Hike was a good distance & not overly challenging. However, setting out earlier in the morning the best part was not seeing anyone until well 80% done with the hike.
After spending the morning and early afternoon in the Two Medicine area, heading to Many Glacier to get a little bit of a change of scenery. Depending on what hikes you do and how long they are you could also opt to just relax or call it a day.
Day 3 of 3: Glacier National Park
On day three, head to the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. This area can also be accessed without the Going to the Sun Road. Closer to St. Mary than the Two Medicine area of the park. Many Glacier has the stunning Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes that are glacier fed so a beautiful blue green color. Even in the rain, it seemed almost unreal how vibrant they were.
In the Many Glacier area you can usually see goats roaming around and moose will hang out alongside the lakes as well. Moose can’t regulate their own temperature (like dogs pant to regulate their temperature) so you’re definitely more likely to see moose near water. Moose can even dive up to 20 feet deep! They will dive and eat vegetation because they can actually eat underwater.
Glacier National Park Advance Reservations
Visiting Glacier National Park in 2021 & 2022 advance reservations are required for Going to the Sun Road as well as other areas of Glacier National Park. This helps to alleviate the congested traffic in the most popular areas and allows a better experience for visitors.
Be sure to create an account on recreation.gov search for Going to the Sun Corridor Reservations. You’re able to make reservations in advance 120 days prior to when you’d like your three day pass to start. While some additional reservations will be available at 8 AM Mountain Time the day prior to when you want your 3 day pass to start. So, if you forget you could still get a reservation the day before but it’s definitely a gamble! For more information on vehicle reservations, visit here.