Glacier National Park Vacation

I just got home after a quick 5-day trip out west to Montana exploring Glacier National Park with my parents and I’m already missing the crisp, fresh air, incredible views, and all the wildlife! It was such an incredible trip and I was quite proud of myself for still being able to hike (albeit with more hydrating and a lot more breaks!) at almost 30 weeks pregnant.

This trip started as an idea back in March. My Dad was planning his upcoming sabbatical from work and wanted to take each of my sisters and I on a 1:1 trip where we could explore a new place together. (If you remember, my Dad and I have done this before! We went hiking in the Pacific NW back in 2018 during his first sabbatical! You can read that blog post here!). So we decided that we would go to Montana because Glacier was on the top of both of our lists for hiking! And soon he’ll be taking my older sister to the Bahamas to go scuba diving with tiger sharks and later this summer he’ll go with my little sister to Iceland.

We decided to plan my trip at the beginning of his sabbatical knowing I was at the veryyy end of when my doctor was allowing me to fly. I was a little worried about how I might be feeling in the third trimester, but decided to go ahead and book it anyways and cross my fingers for the best. THANKFULLY I’ve had a great pregnancy so far and felt confident I would be able to go as the trip approached. And while I love 1:1 time with my Dad, my Mom has also always wanted to go to Glacier National Park so we extended the invite to her and I was so happy she joined us! What a gift to get 5 full days alone with both of my parents in the great outdoors!

Let me just say first and foremost- Montana is INCREDIBLE. What a beautifully serene and remote part of the country filled with some of the most incredible landscape I’ve ever seen. The wildlife was also beyond breathtaking! We saw 1 moose, 3 black bears, 4 grizzly bears, 3 bald eagles, and lots of mountain goats, bison, and deer. I kept joking that we were on a North American safari!

Here are some of my favorite moments and itinerary breakdown of our trip… if you’re ever even thinking about going to Montana, GO! You won’t regret it. 🙂

Day One

Our first day was mostly a travel day but I flew out of Atlanta and had a quick layover in Minneapolis, Minnesota where I met up with my parents who flew in from Washington DC. Then, we boarded a flight together to Kalispell/Glacier International Airport (a beautiful and tiny airport about 15 minutes outside the park). One thing I didn’t quite realize is how far NW Montana is from Atlanta! Between the two 2.5 hour flights to get there + the layover, it was basically the same amount of time it takes to get to certain parts of Europe! (Note: There are non-stop flights from Atlanta, but they only run during the peak season which is July-August).

After landing in Kalispell we made it to the (tiny) airport parking lot and picked up our Turo rental. We opted to use Turo (basically an Airbnb of car rentals) vs. a traditional rental car company because there is currently a rental car shortage and all the cars were booked! Thankfully, the Turo rental (a cute little Ford Bronco) worked out PERFECTLY.

As we do with all national park trips, our first stop was Wal-Mart. There we picked up a cheap cooler, bear spray (this is a MUST for hiking in Glacier and because you can’t fly with it you need to buy it upon arrival), snacks, drinks, and easy to-go granola bars and sandwich stuff. We prefer eating from the cooler for lunch when in the parks because park food is either non-existent or just not great.

Afterwards we checked into our hotel (TownPlace Suites by Marriott) in downtown Whitefish. While there are a few smaller towns closer to the park, Whitefish was so cute and I’m SO glad we decided to stay there. About 30 minutes from the park entrance, Whitefish had a lot to offer! Amazing restaurants, cute shopping, nice hotels, coffee shops, and all just a few minutes from Whitefish Mountain with lots of year-round activities.

One of my best friends from high school grew up visiting Whitefish every year because she had extended family who lived there. Well her parents officially moved from Northern VA to Whitefish recently so we stopped by their gorgeous new home for a visit. It was so fun to see them and their home was breathtaking with expansive views of Whitefish Lake and the surrounding mountains! They mentioned that Whitefish had been rapidly growing with people moving there from all over the country… and I can see why! It was beautiful!

We ended the first night exploring downtown Whitefish. We had dinner at Abruzzo (it was incredible!!!! they make all their pasta in-house from scratch daily!) and had Huckleberry ice-cream at Sweat Peaks.

Day Two

Our second day was our first official day in the park! We woke up early so we could arrive at the first hike pre-7am. This ended up being a very good idea because the parking situation was already an issue that early. We did the Trail of the Cedars to Avalanche Lake Hike (6 miles) and it was absolutely breathtaking! We were purposely looking for hikes under 6 miles that didn’t have crazy elevation gain (because ya know… very pregnant lol) so this one fit the bill!

After that hike we drove around the west side of the park, stopping to see waterfalls, Lake McDonald (+ the historic lodge), and hiked a little bit of the John’s Lake Loop (another easy 2 miles). We made it back to the hotel in the late afternoon to freshen up before heading back downtown for a little shopping and a delicious dinner at Tupelo Grille.

Day Three

The next day, we headed to the east side of the park. Now because the Going-to-the-Sun Road wasn’t fully open, we had to drive all the way around the park through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to get there (about 2.5 hours from Whitefish). We had been recommended by so many people to try Montana Coffee Traders so we stopped by there on the way out of town for some delicious huckleberry coffee! (We had huckleberry EVERYTHING on this trip! So good!)

Our first stop was the Many Glaciers area of the park. Due to construction there was a 40 minute road closure entering this portion of the park which at first we were bummed about but the views from our car were so beautiful we didn’t even care! That’s when we saw the first 3 bears!!! We eventually made it to the Swiftcurrent Lodge and did the Redrock Falls via Swiftcurrent Pass trail (4 miles) where we saw SO much wildlife! A moose right off trail snacking on trees, multiple mountain goats in the distance, lots of bald eagles, deer, and then a nice woman let me look through her binoculars to see a grizzly bear mama and her 2 cubs way off in the distance (the best way to see a grizzly!). This was probably my favorite hike of the trip just because of all the animals and the trail wasn’t crowded at all.

Afterwards we headed towards the St. Mary portion of the park where we took one of the boat tours on St. Mary Lake that is offered by the park. While it was nice to get off our feet for a bit, I actually wouldn’t recommend the boat tour is you’re able-bodied. It’s a great way to see the park if hiking isn’t your thing, but I’m not sure it was worth it over hiking.

We ended the day at Two Sisters Café (one of the few places to eat on the east side) where we had the most delicious huckleberry pie and ice cream! While paying the bill we started chatting with the owner who told us we should go check out the US/Canadian border about 12 miles north to see a big family of bison who live up there. So off we went! The bison were cool, but it was SO eerie to see the border completely closed and barricaded. I’ve heard borders will be opening up soon post-COVID but dang, what a surreal sight.

That night we stayed at St. Mary Lodge right outside of the park. Upon arrival they apologized that they overbooked the lodge and upgraded us to their biggest/nicest cabin instead. It ended up being such a nice treat!

Day Four

We got up nice and early the next day with every intention on hiking the St. Mary and Virginia Falls trail (3-5 miles depending on where you start). However, this is when things got a little scary…

We started out on the trail around 7:30am. There were probably 10 other cars in the parking lot but it felt like we had the trail to ourselves. My parents and I were chatting and enjoying the lake views when we hear another hiker yell “BEAR!!!!”. I looked up (I was leading our little group) and saw a freaking GRIZZLY BEAR standing in the path about 40-50 feet away from me. I froze. My parents grabbed their bear spray and we started to slowly walk backwards. There was a group of hikers on the other side of the bear that were stuck trying to get back up the trail from the parking lot. We quickly realized the bear wasn’t interested in us (he was digging for food) so we slowly walked backwards up the trail until he was out of our sight. It was a terrifying and amazing moment. But it was SO cool to see a grizzly bear in the wild!

We ended up attempting the trail again using a different approach trail but we passed a few hikers who said the bear kept appearing on the trail at different points and we ultimately decided to call it on the trail. It just wasn’t worth it for something dangerous to happen (especaillyyyyyy being so pregnant).

We drove around the St. Mary area of the park and stopped along beautiful overlooks (including Jackson Glacier to see one of the 25 remaining glaciers in the park) before heading back towards Whitefish.

We checked into The Lodge at Whitefish Lake for our last night and spent the afternoon laying by the pool, sipping drinks (mocktails for me) and telling every person we encountered about the grizzly bear experience! We enjoyed some of the lodge activities and had dinner at the lodge (the Boat Club) where we had one of the best huckleberry desserts to date!

Day Five

We had to fly out in the afternoon on our last day, so after enjoying a Father’s Day breakfast at the lodge with my dad (so special because I normally don’t get to be with him on Father’s Day!) we headed over to Whitefish Mountain to ride the ski lift to the top and take in the views! It was gorgeous up there (and cold… if you go, bring a coat!) and we enjoyed a hot coco before heading back down.

Then it was back to the airport and back home! I was trying to savor every moment of this trip knowing this would be my last 1:1 trip with my parents before baby girl is born!

General Tips/Tricks for Glacier National Park / NW Montana

  1. The west side and the east side of the park are both beautiful but VERY different. The west side has beautiful deep woods and even a rainforest. While it is beautiful, I personally liked the breathtaking views on the east side better. The west side is also much more crowded because it is easier to get to from Whitefish/the airport. We saw about 10% of the people on the east side!
  2. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is only open at Logan’s Pass typically from July 4-Labor Day. This means to get from the east to the west side outside of that window, you have to drive 2.5 hours around the park to get there. While we were bummed that the Going-to-the-Sun Road wasn’t fully open while we were there, only a couple of miles of it was closed so we still got to experience MOST of it besides the famous Logan’s Pass.
  3. There is absolutely zero cell phone service in the park. Download your maps or any relevant information you need before you enter!
  4. This year, Glacier introduced a ticketing system to control the surge of crowds/visitors. Make sure to get your tickets early!! They are required to access most of the park from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
  5. Bring bear spray!!!! While you more than likely will not need to use it, it could ultimately save your life. All rangers and park signs remind you to carry it on you in an easy to reach position at all times. Also do a little research on what to do if you encounter a bear. We saw 7 bears while only spending 3 days in the park… so chances are high.
  6. While I preferred the hikes and views on the east side, lodging/dining on that side is sparse. Make sure to book your accommodations early if you plan on visiting the east side! For the west side, stay in Whitefish for great restaurant and lodging options.
  7. If I weren’t pregnant I would’ve 100% done the Grinnell Glacier Hike- one of the top spots in the park! It looks incredible but the 11 miles / 2.5k elevation gain just wasn’t a good idea for me right now. But someone else do it and tell me how it is! Already on the top of my list for when I go back!

 

Until next time, Montana!

xoxo,

Marybeth

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marybeth marlow  photography

ATLANTA BASED DESTINATION WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER