Wildlife, wildflowers, wilderness – oh, and glaciers! Here are the trails, drives, and stops that’ll deliver Montana at its most majestic.
By Sarah Mueller
If you’ve always wanted to take your kids to Glacier National Park, the time is now. Whether you’re concerned about the effects of climate change where you live or not, there is no denying that the ice is melting fast in these 7,000-year-old monuments to the area’s glacial origins. One look at National Park Service historical photos and data tells a dramatic story of receding ice in an area that’s been covered for millions of years.
There is no better way to absorb the majesty of the park’s glaciers than to spend days wandering in their footsteps. From late July to early August, alpine meadows burst into full bloom, lakes and peaks hit full-sparkle, and the wildlife is easy to see: We saw both grizzly and black bears pretty close-up, plus moose, bighorn sheep, marmots, and even a rarely-seen wolverine.
Three Best Family Hikes in Glacier National Park
Over our ten days in Glacier and neighboring Waterton National Park in Canada, we covered a lot of ground on foot. Looking back, we picked these three hikes as the best ones for families – but there are many hikes to choose from. Depending on the type of commitment you’re looking for, the following options are all guaranteed to let you commune with the mountains, glaciers, forests, and lakes the park is so famous for.
1. Grinnell Glacier
This was the toughest hike we did with the most elevation gain (1,600 feet.) After crossing Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine by boat (book these tickets far in advance!), the trail opens up with views of Angel Wing, Mt. Gould, Lake Josephine, Sherburne Lake and Grinnell Falls and the ice-blue Grinnell Lake.
We saw marmots and bighorn sheep on the way. After some steep switchbacks and a total of 3.6 miles, we got what we came for: Epic views of Grinnell Glacier, as well as the Salamander and Gem glaciers. (No walking atop the ice, though.)
We did a ranger-led hike to Grinnell Glacier and although we didn’t always keep pace with the whole group, we learned a lot more about the geology and flora and fauna of the area than we would have on our own.
2. Highline Trail to Haystack Butte
This 6-mile hike will take you along the very popular Highline Trail to Haystack Butte, located in the Logan Pass area near the legendary Going to the Sun Road. Leave early to be sure to get parking at Logan Pass or take the shuttle to the trailhead.
The Highline Trail is one of the most beloved hikes in the park – just one reason that it attracts a lot of hikers. It’s famous for access to alpine meadows, ample opportunity to see wildlife, and sweeping views the entire way, including vistas of Granite Park, the Garden Wall, Mt. Cannon, Mt. Oberlin, and Heavens Peak.
Although it’s about the same length as the Grinnell Glacier hike, it’s a much easier journey, for the most part. But beware of very steep ledges, narrow spots, and harrowing heights that can be found along the way. Kids need to be watched closely.
3. Iceberg Lake
Though this trail runs 10 miles, it is actually a happy medium of the two previously mentioned trails. It’s not as crowded as the Highline Trail but includes glorious views, abundant wildlife, and a close-up encounter with icebergs at the end.
Starting from the Ptarmigan Trail in the Many Glacier area, the walk delivers nonstop views of Glacier National Park’s most commanding mountains: Mount Grinnell, Swiftcurrent Mountain, and Mount Wilbur.
We had read that this area was prime grizzly bear habitat, and in fact, this is where we saw our first grizzly of the trip!
After this section, you’ll head straight toward the 1,500-foot Ptarmigan Wall and see waterfalls, a creek, and then more blooming meadows and wide snowfields. It will be a bit of uphill before getting views of Iceberg Lake.
The lake itself is a great spot to take a snack or lunch break. The kids cooled off their feet (and water bottles) in the chilly, iceberg-filled lake, while one brave (or crazy?) hiker jumped all the way in.
The ROAM Report: Glacier National Park
The Good Stuff
- “Going to the Sun” Road This is a seriously beautiful drive, especially if you’re not the driver and can get a look around. There are lots of places to stop, but it is best to do the drive earlier in the day, as parking areas can fill up.
- Raft the Flathead River If you’d like to try out whitewater rafting, we loved our trip with Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier.
- Great Stays We enjoyed the Xanterra Lodges. We stayed at the Village Inn at Apgar on Lake MacDonald, where we enjoyed the incredible mountain and lake views and wading in the lake. We also loved the historic Many Glacier Hotel (near the Grinnell Glacier and Iceberg Lake trailheads). Splurge for a lakeside room – the views are worth it. You can rent boats and kayaks and keep an eye out for the many moose and bears in the area. We also stayed at the St. Mary Lodge, located just outside the east end of the park and convenient to the Two Medicine area.
- Go North Consider pairing a trip to Glacier National Park with a trip to the neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada – but don’t forget your passport! Together, the neighboring parks make up the International Peace Park. Horsebackriding is great fun there.
The Not So Good
- Expect Crowds You won’t be the only one who wants to see these spectacular, disappearing views. While the trails won’t be as crowded as the car-accessible vistas, they will still have a lot of other hikers. Just happily share the trail.
- Beware Wildlife Carry bear spray, learn how to use it, learn about bear safety, and follow the advice, which means making noise all the time while you are hiking. Even if you feel like a crazy person, talking and/or singing (or having your six-year-old belt out “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”) are all encouraged. Also, moose move a lot faster than they look, so watch out!
Good to Know
- Book Really, Really Early – Aim for at least a year in advance but always check back because cancellations happen. At Xanterra’s lodges, the cancellation policy is very liberal. So don’t be afraid to book any possible rooms or activities you might want – and always check back for openings if you don’t get what you want the first time. Reservations for dinner and the famous high tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel are good to get early given there are not a lot of food options in the area.
- Hiking Season is Short – If you’re traveling with kids and want the trails to be open and relatively free of snow, you’ll be looking at a July or August visit – and so will every other family. Thus, the whole “book really early” thing.
- Arm with Cameras Each kid had a simple point-and-shoot camera, which kept them pretty entertained during our hikes.
- Talk to Rangers Take advantage of the park rangers and information centers to learn a lot more about what you are seeing. We found these professionals very friendly, helpful, and happy to tell you about all sorts of free ranger-led activities, many of which are geared towards kids.
- Flying In The closest airports to Glacier National Park is in Kalispell and Missoula, or even Spokane and Calgary if you don’t mind driving a little farther.
- Getting Around – You’ll definitely need a car (or a shuttle) to reach these trailheads.
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