An Outsider's Guide to
Glacier National Park
The roads of northwestern Montana bend and weave through the Rockies, offering ample opportunities to round a curve, shout an uncreative expletive, and pull over to ogle at the view. Since Glacier National Park straddles the Continental Divide, just a few miles in one direction can send you into a different climate. Case in point: A sudden snowstorm sent our four-wheel-drive SUV spinning in East Glacier, but within a couple hours we were safely back west, peeling off layers on an uphill hike.
Few places feel as open and untouched as Glacier National Park, which was established as America’s tenth national park in 1910. With over a million protected acres, Glacier is home to animals that have otherwise left the lower 48 states, including grizzly bears and wolverines. Thanks to both the wildlife and the limited number of entrances, it can be challenging for the casual visitor to access — especially when you factor in raging wildfires (like the Sprague Fire that recently took down the iconic Sperry Chalet) and average snowpacks of 16 feet. If you’re not deterred by road closures, unpredictable weather, and frequent reminders that you’re in bear country, here’s how to explore this impossibly stunning park and the towns around it. Trust us: It’s 110% worth braving.
A 50 mile, trans-mountain highway that slices through the park, complete with the kind of views that compel you to pull off and snap a photo at every (hairpin) turn. This serpentine road is scraped out of glacier-carved mountains and vulnerable to partial closures — clearing winter snowfalls from the alpine side can take until July and has become something of a spectator sport. But even within just a few mile stretch, you’re sure to see sprawling mountain scenes, serenely clear lakes, and plunging waterfalls.
The very literal high point: Logan’s Pass, which sits at over 6,000 feet elevation and straddles the Continental Divide. Expect the temps here to drop at least ten degrees and keep your eyes peeled for mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and grizzlies (have that bear spray handy).
Apgar Lookout Trail
The kind of slog-uphill hike that prompts everyone heading back down to shout “It’s worth it!” as you cross paths. The payoff: panoramic views of the Rockies, all while peering over the park’s largest glacial lake, Lake McDonald. We did this seven mile up-and-back in early October and got to watch the trail transition from autumn to winter as the trees slowly changed from orange leaves to snow-capped evergreens.
Disclaimer: Glacier boasts 700 hikeable miles (including its famous 38 mile Highline Trail) so it’s hard to go wrong, but Apgar Lookout is one of the more reliably accessible, snow-free summits thanks to its location on the west side of the park.
Last Chair Kitchen & Bar
A something-for-everyone spot in the neighboring resort town of Whitefish. Both the menu and draft list are stacked with local products, including a burger with huckleberry goat cheese (huckleberries are a delicious point of state pride) and a bevvy of Montana-made beers. We felt so welcome that we wound up throwing an impromptu holiday party there
Great Northern Brewing Company
On tap at almost every Glacier restaurant, and for good reason: This well-balanced local brewery borrows heavily from the park for inspiration. While it’s best known for the Wheatfish Ale (named for the brewery’s Whitefish address), there’s no better reward after a long day of hiking than a subtly hopped swig of Going to the Sun IPA.
...Don’t Make Us Pick
We’d recommend Montana Coffee Traders for locally roasted beans, Red Caboose in Whitefish for a hand-pulled espresso shot, and the Hungry Horse Espresso Hut for pre- and post-park pick-me-ups.