MONTANA, Glacier National Park with Kids – One does not arrive at Glacier National Park by chance, a side trip on the way to another destination. For most visitors the park is a multi-day drive or rail trip, or- at the minimum- a few hours’ flight followed by a few more hours of driving from all but the very closest airport.
Sitting atop the contiguous United States like a crown, its mountain peaks rising above the fir trees, snow and glaciers sparkling like jewels, Glacier National Park has been a bucket-list destination from the moment it became a National Park in 1910. Covering over a million acres of land, its mountainous surroundings and remote location are both a draw and a deterrent.
The most important factor to your vacation success is to begin planning early (6 months to a year depending on your lodging preferences) and have, at least, a general itinerary to make the most of your vacation to Glacier National park with kids. Here’s how I recommend you begin.
Activity 1: Take a Ride in Red Bus with a Jammer
These iconic red buses have been driving tourists along Going to the Sun Road since 1936 — and yes, these are the original buses, refurbished, of course! Choose the Western Alpine Tour for a relaxing ride up Going to the Sun Road with plenty of photo stops and intriguing storytelling from your Jammer. Be sure to bring a jacket because only the coldest, rainiest weather will cause the roll-back top on the bus to be closed.
Are you wondering why your guide is called a Jammer? It goes way back to when the buses had manual transmissions and the drivers had to ‘jam’ the gears as the bus made its way up the mountains. Find out more: Glacier National Park Red Bus Tours
Tip: Book your Red Bus Tour at least 4 weeks in advance during the busy summer months, and plan the tour for your first day so you have those ‘insider tips’ on places to visit during the rest of your stay.
Activity 2: Spend Time On or In Lake McDonald
Walk to the edge of Lake McDonald and look down. The water is so pure and clean that the colored stones in the bottom shine like jewels. Slipping off your shoes you step in, gasping as the frigid water covers your feet and ankles. Carved by glaciers, and filled with glacier water, Lake McDonald never truly gets warm. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying the largest lake in Glacier National Park. At 10 miles long – and nearly 500 feet deep- there is plenty of space for everyone. In Apgar Village, on the lake shore, you’ll find kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes for rent. If you want to get out on the lake without the fear of capsizing take a tour on one of the historic wooden boats that leave from Lake McDonald Lodge. Find out more: Glacier Park Boat Company
Tip: The farther you go from Apgar Village and Lake McDonald Lodge the lighter the crowds. Follow the less-traveled road on the west side of the lake.
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Activity 3: Take a Hike
Glacier National Park has over 700 miles of trail of varying distance and difficulty. Trail of the Cedars, an accessible trail, is one of the most popular. Combine it with the Avalanche Lake Trail for a 2-3 hour hike.
For a more challenging hike, use the east entrance of the park to access the Grinnell Glacier Trail. This steep hike does get narrow in spots, but the views overlooking the impossibly blue water of Grinnell Lake are worth every step (see the view in the lead photo for this feature). Find out more: Glacier National Park Hiking Trails
Tip: Be sure to prepare for your hikes. Take water, snacks, and bear spray. Wear sturdy shoes and consider a walking stick for steep terrain. Study the trail maps online to choose the best routes for your family and be sure to check trail status before setting out.
Activity 4: Attend a Ranger-Led Program
No one knows more about the parks than the Park Rangers! During the summer months you’ll find everything from guided walks and boat tours to Native American cultural activities and night time star parties.
And don’t forget about earning your Junior Ranger Badge! This free program (available at all National Park Service sites) is available for kids up to 13 years of age. Pick up an activity book when you arrive at the park, and return it, completed, before you leave. After raising your right hand and taking the official park oath you are awarded with an official Glacier Junior Ranger Badge. Ranger led activity schedules are available about 2 weeks before the start of the following month, so don’t forget to check the website prior to your visit. Find out more: Glacier NP’s Ranger-Led Activities a and (scroll down page) Glacier National Park Junior Ranger Program
1 Great Place to Stay: West Glacier KOA
You don’t have to be a camper to love this place! This huge campground is just a couple of miles from the West Glacier entrance and has everything you need for a fabulous stay in Glacier National Park with kids.
Campers will like the spacious, well maintained pull-through sites while non-campers will love the deluxe cabins with kitchen and bathroom. Two pools (one is adults only) are available and free evening entertainment includes birds of prey demonstrations and magic shows.
Don’t want to cook? Both breakfast and dinner are available at the campground. You can even get an afternoon treat at Scoops Ice Cream Shop or a little pick-me-up at Lazy Bear Espresso.
Tip: Book campsites 4-6 months in advance. Cabins should be booked at least 6 months in advance, more if possible.
1 Great Place to Eat: Eddie’s Cafe
For such a popular destination there really aren’t a lot of dining options in and around Glacier National Park, and those that are there are, overall, quite forgettable. But what you won’t forget are the huckleberries. You’ll find everything huckleberry, from candy to beverages to desserts. And the best place to go for these is Eddie’s Café in Apgar Village. You may have to wait for a table at this popular spot, but it is worth it for the warm huckleberry cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. Get a few spoons and share.
Tip: If you don’t want to wait for a table, line up outside at the ice cream shop for a scoop of Huckleberry Ice Cream and enjoy it as you wander down to Lake McDonald.