A million acres of adventure: Exploring Glacier National Park

December 30, 2015                 6m read time
Nicole Wiegand


Lace up your hiking boots, grab your bear spray, and get ready for a true wilderness experience. We’ve rounded up the most awesome adventures in Glacier National Park.

It’s no wonder Glacier National Park is the most Instagrammed spot in Montana: Grizzlies, elk and cougars roam cedar forests, while jagged mountain peaks and imposing glaciers look like scenes lifted from a “Planet Earth” documentary. Here are 10 wonderful ways to embrace adventure in Glacier.

1. Clip on your skis in Upper Lake McDonald

Upper Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park in Montana Troy Smith

Upper Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park in Montana

Troy Smith

 

This is the most popular cross-country skiing spot in Glacier National Park, and for good reason: There’s usually plenty of powder, the trails are beginner-friendly and the snowy scenery is magical. Try the trail to McDonald Falls, which winds along several miles of unplowed road and across McDonald Creek. For a longer route, continue to Avalanche Picnic Area, another favorite hike and ski destination for its forested trail ways. The path is fairly gentle overall, but a few narrower sections can be tricky when it’s icy. If four wheels are more your style, access the whole trail system from Going-to-the-Sun-Road, a can’t-miss drive that lets you marvel at some of northwest Montana’s most beautiful mountain and valley views. (Don’t have a car? No worries: Glacier’s summertime shuttle ferries visitors up and down the scenic route.)

2. Churn through the Flathead River Rapids

The Flathead River with rafters on the shore in Glacier National Park in Montana Troy Smith

The Flathead River with rafters on the shore in Glacier National Park in Montana

Troy Smith

 

The rivers near the edge of the park lay claim to some of the most epic whitewater rafting in Montana. The Middle Fork of the Flathead River is the best-known rafting destination. With rapids nicknamed Bone Crusher and Jaws, prepare to hold on for dear life (and get more than a little wet). Glacier Raft Company offers excursions for all types of adventurers, whether it’s a peaceful, whitewater-free float or an adrenaline-filled challenge on the rapids. You can even take a multi-day trip downriver: Spend days fishing, floating and rafting, and camp out under the big sky in the evening.

3. Behold Grinnell Glacier in all its glacier-y glory

Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park in Montana US Geological Survey

Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park in Montana

US Geological Survey

 

A trip to Glacier isn’t complete without some quality time at an actual glacier. The route to Grinnell Glacier begins from the Many Glacier area on the park’s eastern side, where trails wind around lakes dotting the mountainous landscape. The trek is 7.6 miles round-trip, but you can cut that in half by hopping Glacier Park Boat Company’s shuttle boats across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, and hit the trailhead from there. Whichever you choose, prepare for plenty of flora and fauna sightings: Bighorn sheep, mountain goats and grizzlies roam freely, while purple asters and glacier lilies cloak the subalpine valleys. If your energy starts flagging, just remember that the big payoff comes at the 3.6-mile mark when you reach the Grinnell Glacier Overlook to admire the 152-acre hunk of ice in all its glory.

4. Take the Trail to Cracker Lake

Cracker Flats in Glacier National Park  Troy Smith

Cracker Flats in Glacier National Park 

Troy Smith

 

Want spectacular mountain views, fields of wildflowers and a gotta-see-it-to-believe-it turquoise lake? The 12-mile round-trip Cracker Lake Trail checks all the boxes. The first few miles of densely forested path are open to horseback riders as well, so be prepared to share the road and sidestep occasional, um, debris. When you emerge from the forest, the Cracker Flats area expands before you, with Lake Sherburne’s calm waters reflecting 360-degrees of towering mountains. At the 5.8-mile mark, stunning Cracker Lake comes into view, but continue just half a mile farther to find a red rock outcropping. At 100 feet above the water, it’s the perfect spot for a photo opp (or a snack break) while marveling at Cracker Lake’s vivid blue-green hue.

5. Get a dose of nature on Two Medicine Lake

Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park in Montana Don DeBold

Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park in Montana

Don DeBold

 

Spend an afternoon alone with nature at Two Medicine Lake, a secluded area of the park sometimes called the “Secret Valley.” Rent a canoe, rowboat or kayak from Glacier Park Boat Co. and head out on cobalt waters. Two Medicine may be known for its boating and spectacular mountain vistas, but locals revere it as a fantastic trout-fishing spot, with brook trout averaging 10 to 12 inches long. Fresh fish dinner? Don't mind if we do.

6. Roll around the park

Biker in Glacier National Park in Montana RLEVANS

Biker in Glacier National Park in Montana

RLEVANS

 

Biking through Glacier means winding over scenic mountain passes, pedaling through valleys and even crossing the Continental Divide. Try cycling on Two Medicine Road, a paved, intermediate route that gets steeper as it nears Two Medicine Campground. Mountain bikers will appreciate Inside North Fork Road, an unpaved, single-lane route running between Polebridge and Apgar. Outside the park, nearby Whitefish Mountain Resort offers more than 20 miles of mountain biking trails for experience levels from novice to holy cow.

7. See the sights—vintage style

Red jammer buses in Glacier National Park in Montana W & J

Red jammer buses in Glacier National Park in Montana

W & J

 

Step back in time and sightsee like they did in the olden days on a vintage Red Bus tour.  Red Buses have been serving the park since the 1930s, when the drivers were called “jammers” after repeatedly jamming the gears up the park’s rolling hills. Today, 33 of these antiques are considered the oldest functioning tour vehicles anywhere in the world, providing a bumpy yet scenic ride through Glacier. You’ll be welcomed aboard your Red Bus with a “roll call,” a tradition that’s lasted nearly 90 years. Once you’re settled in, get ready to take in the park’s spectacular scenery, from jagged mountains to rushing waterfalls. The canvas roof of the bus rolls back, providing the best possible view and lungfuls of fresh mountain air.

8. Take a peek at Bird Woman Falls

Bird Woman Falls in Glacier National Park steve estvanik

Bird Woman Falls in Glacier National Park

steve estvanik

 

Though it's named after Sacajawea, Bird Woman Falls wasn't actually one of the places visited by Lewis and Clark during their cross-continental journey. We think she might have approved of this off-the-beaten path destination, though, as she's credited with saying, "Amazing the things you find when you bother to search for them." Grab your binoculars and head to Going-to-the-Sun Road, where you can check it out from afar. With 500-foot cascades crashing down between green-and-white coated mountains and a lush valley sprawling below, it's a sight for the ages.

9. Grab your ice axe and get climbing

Ice climber in Glacier National Park in Montana Panithi Utamachant

Ice climber in Glacier National Park in Montana

Panithi Utamachant

 

As you might have guessed, Glacier has plenty of ice, making it a prime spot for ice climbers with a little experience under their belts. The routes are generally steep and complicated—crampons, ropes and an ice ax are essential for these adventures. Blackfoot Mountain is a popular choice that challenges climbers with an imposing 60-foot ice wall. For a more beginner-friendly experience, try a two-day rock-climbing course with Glacier Adventure Guides. You’ll pick up all the fundamentals of climbing, plus some hands-on experience out on the crags.

10. Snowshoe at the Apgar Visitor Center

One of the best ways to see the park’s remote acreage is to slip on a pair of snowshoes. There are plenty of backcountry trails to choose from in Glacier, but a popular place to start is the Apgar Visitor Center. There you can rent gear, and on wintry weekends, join a free two-hour ranger-led tour to search for signs of wildlife in the snowy solitude. Find other fabulous options near Lake McDonald, Two Medicine and Marias Pass, or book a day trip with Glacier Adventure Guides to learn snowshoe techniques, avalanche awareness and route-finding skills from a guide who'll handle the navigation while you enjoy the park’s frozen winter magic.

This million-acre park does everything in a big way, with 740 miles of trails, more than 760 lakes and 25 named glaciers. Hikers and backpackers often view Glacier as a proving ground of sorts, but there are myriad adventures to be found throughout this incredible expanse.

Nicole Wiegand

Nicole Wiegand is a native New Yorker who writes about everything from travel to technology. She loves exploring the city, hiking with her family, knitting, and cooking.

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