Best Time to Visit Glacier National Park, MT
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Everyone should experience the grandeur of Glacier National Park in northern Montana at least once in their life. The rugged Rocky Mountain peaks, the glistening alpine lakes, and the enormous landscapes stand out like no other wild places in the country. The park is aptly dubbed the Crown of the Continent, and the best time to experience Glacier is as soon as you can.
For a vast majority of visitors, the best time to visit Glacier National Park is during the summer season between mid-June and late September. The months of July and August in particular are a great time to visit. The iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road that spans the entire park is snow-free during these summer months, and other high-mountain hiking trails are accessible throughout the season. The summer season does come with some crowds, but there's plenty of scenery to share in the 1,500-square-mile national park.
The shoulder seasons are also great times to travel to Glacier to avoid the worst of the crowds. The Going-to-the-Sun Road typically remains open until the third Monday of October and has less traffic to contend with during the fall. The road doesn't reopen until late June and sometimes early July, but the east and west sides of the park are both accessible in the spring.
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Best Time of Year to Visit Glacier National Park
The snow-free months between mid-June and late September are the best time to travel to Glacier National Park. Logan Pass and other iconic park attractions like the Going-to-the-Sun Road are fully accessible in the summer. And other park amenities like lodging and visitor centers are also fully operational throughout the season.
Summer is the best time to go to Glacier National Park for hiking, too, as trails that traverse over high mountain passes are also free of snow. Summer temperatures reach into the 80s during the day and remain above freezing throughout the night. Boat tours and restaurants are also fully operational during July and August.
The summer brings vibrant color to the park with wildflowers like bear grass at full bloom. And the full range of wildlife in Glacier is often seen in the summer including elk, bighorn sheep, moose, and the occasional black or grizzly bear.
The summer also brings big crowds to places like Logan Pass, Lake McDonald, and Many Glacier. Approximately two-thirds of the park's roughly three million visitors each year come during the summer. July and August are the peak season for visiting Glacier National Park. The park has hosted over 1.5 million visitors between these two months every year for the last five years.
These crowded conditions make logistics like parking and lodging something to plan for in the summer. Visitors will want to make reservations ahead of time for summer visits. The park's free Going-to-the-Sun Road Shuttle can help reduce some driving concerns.
With fewer crowds, the shoulder seasons are also great times to go to Glacier. Visitors in the spring and fall enjoy the changing colors of the season but may not be able to access all the park's facilities. Glacier's typical full operating season extends from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Variable conditions, including rain and snow, exist throughout the shoulder seasons, and the west side of Glacier usually receives more rainfall than the east.
Seasons in Glacier National Park
Things to do at Glacier National Park change with the seasons. Places to stay also fluctuate with the changing temperatures. Each season also brings its own challenges, like crowds in the summer and variable road conditions throughout the rest of the year. With the right preparation and planning, though, every season in Glacier offers reasons to visit.
Spring: Spring in Glacier typically begins in May and extends through mid-June and early July in the highest regions of the park. Alongside fewer crowds to contend with, wildflowers start to give Glacier some color later in the season, and many of the park's waterfalls are at their highest flow during the spring. Wildlife in the park also tends to become more active as things start to warm up.
Spring is a good time to visit for fewer crowds, but many facilities, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road, don't open until late June at the earliest. Campgrounds and other facilities like restaurants and lodging also don't generally open until Memorial Day Weekend.
Summer (Best Time to Visit): Glacier National Park is in full operation during the summer, particularly in July and August. Summer is the peak visiting season in Glacier. Popular activities in the summer include camping, backpacking, day hiking, fishing, and boating. Cooler temperatures in the evening also allows guests to enjoy Glacier's starry night sky. The free Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle operates on a full-time schedule in the summer.
Fall: Fall brings variable weather throughout the region, but Glacier National Park in September is a particularly good time to visit. Crowds typically diminish after Labor Day, and daytime highs stick around the 60s and 50s throughout the season. Autumn is quite colorful in Glacier, particularly between late September and mid-October when golden larches dot the mountainsides. Many of the park's iconic hiking trails also have fewer crowds this time of year.
Several of the park's facilities close during the fall, with resources like lodging and restaurants becoming less available throughout the season. Many campgrounds within the park also close in September, except St. Mary and Apgar Campground, which operate year-round. The Going-to-the-Sun Road typically becomes impassable by the third Monday in October.
Winter: Encompassing both sides of the Continental Divide, winter weather in Glacier National Park is variable from one region to the other. Glacier in November and December features road closures, avalanche conditions, and cold temperatures throughout the park. Despite the difficulties, winter in Glacier has many rewards that make it worth a visit.
While few facilities are open within the park during the winter, the surrounding communities are often happy to host visitors with reduced overnight rates. Free winter camping in Glacier is available at the St. Mary Campground and Apgar Campground for those equipped to handle the conditions. Popular activities for winter visitors include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Best Time to Visit Glacier National Park to Avoid Crowds
While the summer months of July and August provide spectacular conditions throughout the park, this peak visiting season also produces quite the crowds. Parking at Logan's Pass is a genuine challenge in the summer, and popular hiking trails like the Highline Trail become inundated with foot traffic.
For those looking to avoid the summer traffic completely, the winter is the best season to go to Glacier National Park to avoid crowds.With cold temperatures and sudden road closures deterring other guests, winter visitors almost have Glacier to themselves.
For warmer weather, the fall is an easier time to travel to Glacier while still avoiding the worst of the crowds. Crowds tend to thin out after Labor Day in Glacier National Park, and visitors can expect cool but pleasurable temperatures through October.
Spring is also a good time to travel to Glacier to avoid the biggest crowds. Variable snow and rain conditions linger throughout May and into June, which makes planning a long-distance trip harder to time. Visitors can bike the Going-to-the-Sun Road with no vehicles on the road until late June as snowplows work their way up the road.
The Best Way to Avoid Crowds in Glacier National Park during the Summer
The best way to avoid summer crowds in Glacier National Park is to arrive before 7am at the trailhead or parking area. For extremely popular areas like Logan Pass, 7am might not be early enough to find a parking spot. Starting activities in the late afternoon (after 4pm) can also avoid the rush of daytime visitors.
The bulk of visitors to Glacier spend most of their time on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. To avoid this traffic, consider exploring other equally gorgeous areas of the park. On the east side, the Many Glacier and Two Medicine regions offer alternative landscapes to explore. On the west, the North Fork area, including Bowman Lake, is another option away from the main tourist route.
Another option to avoid the crowds in Glacier is to obtain a backcountry permit. These permits are available via a lottery system beginning in March. A limited number of walk-up permits are also available throughout the summer. These permits allow visitors to camp in the backcountry of the park, where the general public doesn't often tread.
Best Time for Hiking in Glacier National Park
Many of thebest hiking trails in Glacier National Park traverse high elevation mountain passes. These routes are only snow-free in a shortened summer season between mid-July and early September. The full accessibility of trails makes summer the best time for hiking in Glacier National Park. Summer temperatures are also near perfect for hiking in Glacier's high country.
Iconic backpacking destinations like the Ptarmigan Tunnel and Stoney Indian Pass still have snow blocking their route well into July. Logan Pass, the highest point along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, is also not accessible by vehicles until late June or early July. With iconic trails, including the Highline Trail and Hidden Lake, Logan Pass is a signature hiking area of the park.
Don't discount the shoulder seasons for hiking, though. With cooler temperatures and fewer crowds, the spring and fall are popular times to explore less elevated routes that are usually very busy in the summer. Spots like Hidden Lake near Logan Pass offer much more accessibility in the shoulder seasons.
Best Time to Visit for Photography
Glacier National Park looks good in front of a lens any time of year. The best time to visit for photography depends on the picture you're trying to capture. With photo opportunities like iceberg lakes, wildflower valleys, and gushing waterfalls, it can be hard to take a bad photo in Glacier when the conditions are right.
Spring: Glacier National Park begins to wake up from winter during May and June. This time of year ushers in fresh colors, with new vegetation on the mountain slopes and blooming wildflowers beginning in June. Waterfalls are at their heaviest flow during late spring, and wildlife tends to make more of an appearance throughout the season.
Summer: The high elevation hiking trails and backpacking routes of Glacier National Park are snow-free usually by July. This allows photographers to channel their inner Ansel Adams and pack a camera into the backcountry. The entire Going-to-the-Sun Road and Logan Pass are also accessible throughout the summer months. Postcard-perfect pictures of Glacier can be snapped at places like Hidden Lake and the Highline Trail near Logan Pass.
Fall: Fall foliage adds new layers to photography at Glacier National Park. Crowds also tend to thin out after Labor Day and provide less crowded landscapes to focus on. While sunsets at Glacier can be stellar any time of the year, the contrast of fall colors with the falling sun makes for a stunning photograph.
Winter: Winter photography is a challenge in Glacier, with variable weather conditions and limited vehicle access. Watch the forecast and pack extra gloves, though, and the winter can be a rewarding time to photograph the quiet landscape covered in snow.
Where to Stay When Visiting Glacier National Park
It often requires some significant travel to visit Glacier National Park in northern Montana. The expansive nature of the national park also invites extended travel, with distinct regions of the park offering many days of things to do. All these regions also offer beautiful lodging options and places to stay.
The Saint Mary Campground and Apgar Campground are the two largest campgrounds in Glacier and are on the east and west side of the park. Other best campgrounds in Glacier National Park lend access to areas like Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Bowman Lake. Many campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-served basis and can be very competitive to book during the summer.
Lodges, hotels, and motor inns at Glacier National Park offer historic places to stay with big mountain views. Stunning lodging options in Glacier include the Lake McDonald Lodge, the Many Glacier Hotel, and the Rising Sun Motor Inn. Hotel rates go up during the summer season, and availability goes down. Several of these indoor lodging options are also unavailable after Labor Day.
The park also offers unique lodging options in the form of high-mountain chalets. Both the Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet have unique lodge rooms that require a hike to access. The Granite Park Chalet is accessible via the Highline Trail and Logan Pass, while the Sperry Chalet Trail, also known as Gunsight Pass Trail, begins near Lake McDonald. Both lodges offer meals alongside basic rooms and bedding, and reservations for both fill up almost immediately.
Other lodging options exist in the communities surrounding the national park. Places like West Glacier, Hungry Horse, and Columbia Falls provide affordable lodging near the West Entrance. Communities including St. Mary and Baab have places to stay on the east side. A 30-minute drive from the West Entrance, the resort city of Whitefish offers nightlife and more things to do outside of Glacier.
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Exploring Glacier National Park: The many attractions and things to do in Glacier National Park keep visitors busy throughout the year. A mecca for day hikes and backpacking adventures, the best hiking trails in Glacier exemplify the wild and wondrous world encompassed by the national park. For a place to pitch a tent or park an RV, campgrounds in Glacier provide access to the many different regions of the park.
More to Explore in Montana: Glacier National Park might be the Crown of the Continent, but it's not Montana's only place to explore. The rugged and wild western half of the state is home to many of the best hiking trails in Montana. Adding to the adventure, the top-rated campgrounds in Montana deliver with beautiful places to pitch a tent or park an RV. If you are visiting in winter, be sure to check out Montana's best ski resorts.