An Amazingly Fun 3-Day Glacier National Park Itinerary

Catherine Parker Avatar
Mountains and lakes abound in Glacier National Park.
Mountains and lakes abound in Glacier National Park. Photo credit: Melody Pittman

With a northern Montana location on the US border with Canada, Glacier National Park offers a short summer season to explore. You’ll need a good Glacier National Park itinerary if you hope to see the best of this iconic spot.

With more than one million acres, an itinerary is a must, especially for travelers with limited time. From hiking to boat cruises to wildflowers, here are the best things to do in Glacier in a well-structured 3-day National Park Itinerary.

Best Time to Visit Glacier National Park

Since it is located in Northern Montana and its main features are glaciers and the Rocky Mountains, the summer months are the best, and easiest, time to visit.

One of the most beautiful drives anywhere, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, opens for the season in late June or early July and closes in early fall. The summer also is the time to see the park’s wildflowers, waterfalls and animals. The campgrounds and the lodges are all open too.

For fall color trips, the autumn comes early and doesn’t stay around long. Trees begin to change colors in mid-September and the leaves last until mid-October. The lodges close for the season beginning in September, though lodging is available outside of the park.

In the spring, expect to see snow in most areas. Visitors to Glacier in the fall have to pick one side or the other; the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed from mid-October until late June.

Hardy outdoor enthusiasts visit in the winter for snowshoeing and other cold-weather pursuits. Primitive camping is available at Apgar and St Mary.

Woman overlooking lake in Glacier National Par
Woman overlooking lake in Glacier National Park. Photo credit Shutterstock

3 Day Glacier National Park Itinerary

Start your 3-day Glacier National Park Itinerary at one of the main entrances to the park. It doesn’t really matter which direction you travel, although reservations can be easier to secure on the east side of the park.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Reservations for lodging and camping are essential if you want to stay in or near the park. Additionally, if you drive into the park, a vehicle reservation is required in addition to the 7-day entrance fee.

Day 1—West Glacier: Apgar and Lake McDonald

For visitors entering from Kalispell, Columbia Falls or Whitefish, Montana, the West Entrance offers something for most from hiking trails to boat tours to the historic Lake McDonald Lodge.

Apgar Visitor Center

I always recommend stopping at the visitor centers in a national park since each offers different exhibits. A visitor center usually features the nicest, most equipped restrooms (think flushing) with water fountains and hydration stations.

Located 2 miles east of the West Glacier Entrance, the Apgar Visitor Center is housed in a 1929 log cabin. Inside, rangers offer tips and maps along with the National Park Service Junior Ranger booklet for kids. This is also the spot where the Ranger-led programs meet.

Another reason to stop at the Apgar Visitor Center: It’s one of the main stops for the Glacier National Park West Side shuttle. The shuttle runs during the summer and travels the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass. Taking the shuttle means letting someone else drive so you can spend the entire ride looking out the windows at the stunning landscapes.

Apgar also has one of the largest parking lots in Glacier.

The Apgar Visitors Center is open daily from mid-May to mid-September and weekends only in the spring from mid-April to mid-May and in the fall from mid-September until mid-October.

Top Activities Near the West Entrance

For the best experience, choose a couple of activities to explore the west side of the park, such as a morning hike followed by an afternoon boat cruise on Lake McDonald.

Lake McDonald Valley

Carved by glaciers, Lake McDonald is 10 miles long (16 km) and 500 feet deep (152 m) and is the largest lake in the park.

Located near the Apgar Visitor Center, it’s a hub of activity in the summer in the western part of Glacier National Park. It is also the location of the Lake McDonald Lodge.

Lake McDonald Lodge

As a classic Swiss chalet along the shore of Lake McDonald, the Lake McDonald Lodge was built in 1913 and is a popular place to visit. The three-story lodge building features historic furnishings and log-style design elements, a hallmark of historic National Park Service lodges.

Visitors can walk through and there are even places to eat (or grab a coffee, cocktail or quick snack) inside the lodge. Outside, snap one of the rocking chairs on the patio with rocking chairs overlooking the lake for a quick break.

Best Hiking in the Area

With more than 700 miles of hiking trails in Glacier National Park, including 110 miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, there is a trail for most hikers. Additionally, the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail traverses Glacier National Park for 52 miles.

  • Trail of the Cedars—0.7-mile accessible trail
  • Apgar Bike Path—1.5 miles and level
  • Fish Creek to Apgar Trail—2.9 miles and gains 25 feet.
  • Lake MacDonald West Shore Trail—6.3 miles and mostly level
  • Avalanche Lake—2.3 miles one way and gains 500 feet

Guided day hikes along with multi-day hikes are available from authorized NPS concessionaires at several locations in the park. Check the schedule here. And check our list of what to pack for a day hike.

canoes in Glacier Naitonal Park
Along the shores of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

How to See the Best of Glacier

Boating in Glacier

Guided boat tours in Glacier National Park are a popular activity during the summer months. Lake McDonald offers a boat cruise several times a day. Visitors will also find cruises at Many Glacier and Swift Current lakes on the east side along with Two Medicine in the southeast portion of the park.

Advance reservations and tickets are required. Kayaks are available for rent as well.

Rafting is another top activity around Glacier National Park. Authorized concessionaires operate guided rafting tours of the Flathead River near West Glacier.

Red Bus Tours

One of the iconic symbols of Glacier National Park is the Red Jammer, the restored White Motor Company touring buses from the 1930s. The Ford Motor Company rebuilt the buses putting them on a modern van chassis and converting each to use propane.

Glacier National Park offers a fleet of 33 red buses. Each bus offers a roll-top viewing roof and seats 16 passengers, with four on each row of bench seats. For west-side tours, the buses depart from Apgar Visitor Center, Village Inn at Apgar and Lake McDonald Lodge along with locations outside Glacier National Park.

Reservations are required for this highly-recommended activity. Tours range from 4 to 8 hours and are round-trip tours.

Horseback Riding in Glacier National Park

For another way to see the park known as the Crown of the Continent, visitors can take a horseback ride in Glacier National Park from Lake McDonald and Apgar. Rides range from one hour to all-day horseback rides to Sperry Chalet. Reservations are a must and weight and age restrictions apply.

Read More: Why Belton Chalet is a Great Place to Stay in Glacier National Park

Where to Eat on the West side

Lake McDonald Lodge

Jammer Joe’s Grill & Pizzeria serves a lunch buffet, soups, salads, sandwiches and create-your-own pizza. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the season.

Lucke’s Lounge offers a bar menu with burgers, sandwiches, salads and appetizers. Find a full bar along with regional wines and microbrews. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the season.

Russell’s Fireside Dining Room serves a breakfast buffet along with continental options. Find a lunch and dinner menu infused with local flavors, like elk burgers. Open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. with hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner during the season.

Apgar Village

Since 1946, Eddie’s Cafe and Mercantile has offered Glacier classics breakfast, lunch and dinner along with its iconic must-try Huckleberry ice cream. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the season.

Picnicking on the West Side

Developed picnic areas with tables are located at Apgar Village, Avalanche Creek, Sprague Creek and Fish Creek. Buy supplies at the general stores located at Apgar’s Eddie’s Mercantile and Lake McDonald’s Lodge camp store.

Where to Stay and Camp near the West Entrance

Apgar Village Lodge and Cabins

Just inside the West Entrance of Glacier National Park, Apgar Village offers motel rooms and equipped cabins for budget travelers. Each cabin is unique and some offer equipped kitchens with refrigerators, ranges and coffee makers. Motel rooms feature one or two queen beds.

Open seasonal from mid-May until early October. Reservations required.

Village Inn Motel

Located a few miles inside of the west entrance in the Apgar Village, the Village Inn Motel was built in 1956 and renovated in 2015. Find units equipped with basic kitchens as well as family units that accommodate five or six people.

Open seasonal from mid-May until late September. Reservations required.

Lake McDonald Lodge

A classic Swiss chalet along the shore of Lake McDonald, it was built in 1913 and features a three-story lodge building with lodge rooms. The interiors feature historic furnishings and log-style design elements.

Lake McDonald Lodge features cabins along with some suites in Cobb House, a separate building.

Open seasonal from early May until late September. Reservations required.

Motel Lake McDonald

Located 10 miles inside Glacier’s west entrance, Motel Lake MacDonald is along the shores of the largest lake in Glacier. It offers basic motel rooms with one or two double beds with private bathrooms.

Open seasonal from early June until mid-September. Reservations required.

Camping on the West Side of Glacier

  • Apgar Campground
  • Fish Creek Campground
  • Avalanche Campground
  • Sprague Creek Campground
Bike Going-to-the-Sun Road in spring, when it’s closed to vehicle traffic
Bike the Going-to-the-Sun Road in spring, when it’s closed to vehicle traffic. Photo credit: Glacier NPS

Day 2—Going-to-the-Sun Road

After exploring the western portion of Glacier, spend a full day driving across the park across Logan Pass to St. Mary. Then spend the night on the east side of the park.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

One of the top things to do in Glacier NP is traversing the Going-to-the-Sun Road Scenic Drive. The scenic byway travels 50 miles (80 km) from the west entrance close to the Apgar area across Glacier National Park to the St Mary entrance on the east side of the park.

Completed in 1932, this scenic drive provided better access into the wilderness that had previously been limited to the edges of the park. Many of the top features in Glacier National Park are along the Going-to-the-Sun road.

Top Sites Along Going to the Sun Road

Logan Pass

Visitors will pass the Weeping Wall, a rock face with melting snow run-off glistening in the sun. The Garden Wall area is also visible, a rock face with plants clinging to its sides.

As the highest point along the Going-to-Sun Road at 6,646 feet (2,025 m), it is a popular area. Surrounded by peaks, visitors can see Reynolds Mountain and Clements Mountain. This area offers hiking trails along with a seasonal visitor center.

Logan Pass Visitor Center

This is your destination for restrooms, a water fountain and bottle fillers. It offers a bookstore along with an interpretive area. Ranger-led activities meet at the Logan Pass Visitor Center.

Visitors will find the trail to the Hidden Lake Overlook, the opportunity to see mountain goats (a symbol of Glacier National Park) along with summertime wildflowers.

Open daily when the road clears in the summer until the end of September. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is also the home of the popular Logan Pass Star Parties.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The Logan Pass parking lot fills up quickly and stays filled during the day. Arrive early if you want a spot!

Hiking at Logan Pass

Hikers will be surrounded by wildflowers on the hike to the Hidden Lake Overlook. Mountain goats are also known to be found in this area of the park.

  • Hidden Lake Overlook—A one-way 1.4-mile hike with a 460-foot elevation gain.
  • Hidden Lake Nature Trail—A 2.6-mile hike, one-way with a 460-foot elevation gain, followed by a 780-foot drop to the lake.
  • Highline Trail—A 7.2-mile hike with a 624-foot elevation gain and a 253-foot loss.

Glacier Viewing

Most visitors want to see a glacier on their visit. The Jackson Glacier is visible from the Going-to-the-Sun overlook, 5 miles east of Logan Pass. Other glaciers are visible on the east side of the park.

Ironically, Glacier National Park is not the best place to see glaciers in the US. If that’s your goal, opt instead for an Alaskan cruise that includes a visit to a tidewater glacier. In the lower 48 U.S. states, Washington’s North Cascades National Park offers more glaciers than Glacier National Park. Even nearby Grand Teton National Park offers glaciers.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Pack a pair of binoculars for the best glacier viewing without a hike.

Rising Sun

After Logan Pass, the road heads back down to the east side of the park. This area is anchored by St. Mary Lake and the Rising Sun area.

Rising Sun is “where the mountains met the prairies” and offers a good place for a hot meal along with lodging. It also offers some signature hikes and waterfall viewing.

Hiking Trails near St. Mary Lake

  • St. Mary Falls—A 0.8-mile hike (one-way) with a 260-foot elevation loss.
  • Sun Point Nature Trail—A 0.8-mile hike (one-way) with a 250-foot elevation loss.
  • Virginia Falls—A 1.6-mile hike (one-way) with a 260-foot elevation loss followed by a 285-foot gain.

St. Mary Visitor Center

Located near the St. Mary’s east entrance, the St. Mary Visitor Center features interpretive information on the American Indian Nations along with a park film. It is open daily from late May to early October

Where to Eat and Sleep in East Glacier

Due to the amount of time to travel the Going-to-the-Sun Road, it is easier to stay on the east side of the park for the night rather than traveling back to the Apgar area.

Since there are few food options in the Logan Pass area, be prepared to picnic for lunch. Picnic tables are available at Avalanche Creek, Rising Sun and the Sun Point Nature Trail.

For a hot meal, Rising Sun Motor Inn & Cabins offers the Two Dog Flats Grill with American favorites like build-your-own burgers, soups, sandwiches and salads. Open daily at 4 p.m. for dinner during the season.

Rising Sun Motor Inn

Built in 1940 and renovated in 2015, the Rising Sun Motor Inn is West of the St. Mary Visitor Center. It offers 72 motor lodge rooms along with cabins. Guests will find a restaurant and a general store in the complex.

Open seasonally from mid-June to mid-September. Reservations required.

Camping near St. Mary

  • St. Mary Campground
  • Rising Sun Campground
two campers in front of Bowman Lake in late summer, a great time to visit Glacier National Park
You can have the park to yourself if you go a bit off the beaten path. Photo credit: Nick Kopf

Details for the Going-to-the-Sun Corridor Vehicle Permit

Driving the entire length of Going-to-the-Sun Road takes at least 2 hours without stopping, usually more due to summer construction delays and traffic along the way.

To enter Glacier National Park from the West Side, a 3-day vehicle permit is required. This permit is in addition to the park’s 7-day entrance fee. It must be secured in advance via and costs $2 per permit.

For visitors with reservations inside the park, like lodging, camping and concessionaire-led tours, a permit is not required. For campers with a first-come, first-serve campsite, a permit can be obtained after registering.

Permits are required from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the busy summer season. For the west side of the park, permits will be required from May 26, 2023, until September 10, 2023. To enter the east side of the park, permits are required from St. Mary at Rising Sun checkpoint July 1, 2023 to September 10, 2023.

Additionally, the North Fork entrance requires a one-day vehicle permit from May 26, 2023, until September 10, 2023, to enter from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Two Medicine and Many Glacier entrances all require one-day vehicle passes as well from July 1 to September 10, 2023, to enter from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Note: It is a different one-day vehicle pass for each entrance.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The cell coverage in Glacier National Park is non-existent, so make your online reservations before entering the park. Glacier National Park is not a destination that you can see without advance reservations during the summer.

Glacier’s Free Shuttle Bus

For travelers who didn’t get the required vehicle pass (or don’t want to drive over a mountain pass), there is a free shuttle between the Apgar Visitor Center and the St Mary Visitor Center. It runs daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. from the west side of the park. From the east side of the park, it runs from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Shuttles depart every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the stop. It is a first-come, first-served service and reservations aren’t accepted.

Since the route has some vehicle restrictions, transfers are required to travel to Logan Pass. Passengers will disembark from the NPS bus and travel to Logan Pass in a smaller Sprinter van.

The NPS advises shuttle riders to know the latest shuttle departures times of the day, especially when crossing the entire park.

mountains and meadows in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is abloom during the summer. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Day 3—Many Glacier Area

For your third day in Glacier National Park, I recommend the Many Glacier park entrance. It will require its own 1-day vehicle permit if you plan to day trip. Visitors with lodging or camping reservations don’t need a vehicle permit.

Many Glacier Valley

Located through a separate entrance on the eastern side of the park, this is a quieter corner of Glacier National Park with many of the same activities found at McDonald Lake and St. Mary.

This area is anchored by the historic Many Glacier Hotel along with Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. It is also the location for several popular hiking including Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier.

Many Glacier Hiking Trails

Grinnell Glacier and Swiftcurrent Pass are the main trailheads.

  • Swiftcurrent Nature Trail—A 2.5-mile loop around Swiftcurrent Lake and partially accessible
  • Bedrock Falls—A 1.8-mile hike with a 200-foot gain
  • Grinnell Lake Trail—A 4.6-mile hike with a 40-foot gain
  • Grinnell Glacier Trail (viewpoint)—A 5.3-mile hike with a 1,600-foot gain that passes Lake Josephine
  • Ptarmigan Falls—A 2.7-mile hike with a 700-foot gain
  • Iceberg Lake—A 4.8-mile hike with a 1200-foot gain

Top Activities at Many Glacier

There is a boat cruise at Many Glacier that glides along the water of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Reservations are required and the Glacier Park Boat Company offers several departures a day during the summer.

One and two-hour horseback riding trips are offered at the corral close to the Many Glacier Hotel parking lot. Reservations are required along with age and weight restrictions.

The Red Bus Tours depart from both Many Glacier Hotel and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. This Red Bus Tour visits Two Medicine Lake and Wild Goose Island before completing the loop back to Many Glacier.

Where to Eat at Many Glacier

Picnickers will find picnic tables at Swiftcurrent Lake. This area offers vault toilets as well. The Swiftcurrent area offers a camp store too.

Many Glacier Hotel

Ptarmigan Dining Room starts the day with a continental or deluxe breakfast buffet. It also serves a lunch and dinner menu stocked with local flavors, like smoked trout and bison short ribs. Open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. with hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner during the season. No reservations are accepted.

Located alongside the Ptarmigan Dining Room, the Swiss Lounge features a small plates menu with salads, sandwiches and burgers. It also serves cocktails, wine or micro-brews from its full bar. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the season.

Heidi’s Snack Shop brews up espresso drinks along with several grab-n-go items like baked goods and sandwiches. It offers snacks to pack for your hike as well. Open daily during the season.

Swiftcurrent Motor Inn & Cabins

Nell’s at Swiftcurrent Restaurant serves up American breakfast favorites, like egg dishes and cereal. Lunch and dinner menus feature burgers, wraps, pizzas and salads. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner during the season.

Where to Stay at Many Glacier

Many Glacier Hotel

Built in 1914 and 1915 by Great Northern Railway, it’s the largest property in Glacier National Park. Inside its central lobby, visitors will find rough-hewn logs and soaring ceilings of National Park Service Parkitecture.

The Many Glacier Hotel has 205 guest rooms, two suites and seven guest rooms. All rooms feature a private bathroom.

Open seasonal from early June until mid-September. Reservations required.

Swiftcurrent Motor Inn

As the more family-friendly option, the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn is located within a mile of Many Glacier Hotel. It features 95 cabins, some of which are historic, along with motel rooms. The area sports a casual restaurant and camp store.

Open seasonally from early June until mid-September. Reservations required.

Camping at Many Glacier

Campers will find the Many Glacier Campground near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.

Getting to Glacier National Park

Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) is located in Kalispell, Montana. It’s the closest airport to Glacier National Park and is serviced by Alaskan Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Visitors can also obtain rental cars in this location.

To take the Amtrak to Glacier National Park on the Empire Builder line, rail passengers can travel from Chicago, Seattle or Portland, Oregon. Amtrak stations are located at West Glacier and East Glacier and Amtrak offers vacation packages.

Glacier National Park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Admission is $35 for a 7-day pass for a private vehicle. If visiting several national parks within 12 months, consider an America the Beautiful annual pass.

Waterton Glacier International Peace Park

Sharing an international border with Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park adjoins the USA Glacier National Park. It’s home to the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel along with camping, hiking and boating. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A seasonal border crossing is located within the park. Visitors will need to exit Glacier National Park and head north on Chief Mountain Highway (MT Hwy 17/AB Hwy 6). This is a seasonal border crossing and typically opens in mid-May and closes for the season at the end of September.

Drivers must have a valid driver’s license with proper vehicle registration and vehicle insurance. Since this is a land crossing, a valid U.S. passport book isn’t required. A U.S. passport card can be used.

Bears in Glacier

Glacier National Park is home to the largest grizzly bear population in the continental U.S. (outside of Alaska). Though encounters are rare, Park Rangers offer some guidelines to reduce bear encounters:

  • Remain observant.
  • Hike in groups.
  • Keep campsites clean.
  • Make noise while hiking by wearing bear bells and talking.
  • Don’t approach bears or let bears approach you.
  • If a bear notices you, you are too close. Back away slowly and if attacked, fight back. Don’t play dead.
  • If you are comfortable, consider carrying bear spray.
Catherine Parker has a passion for travel with only one state left in her quest of seeing all 50. As a former flight attendant, she’s landed in nearly every major North American airport at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting national parks, historic sites and cultural icons. She’s a freelance writer and journalist based out of Central Texas, dividing her time between writing and restoring a 95-year-old house. She shares her life with her three kids, her husband, yardful of cats, a dog and three backyard chickens.
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