National Parks are the go-to summer vacation destination for 2021. At the top of many bucket lists is one park in particular: Glacier. With sweeping vistas, incredible hiking, abundant wildlife, and cool alpine lakes, it’s no wonder this particular slice of the great outdoors has seen an increase in visitation this summer. In fact, to mitigate the crowds, there is a reservation system currently in place for much of the park.
It’s provel useful. But more than a little frustrating.
I’ve visited Glacier three times now and just got back from my latest solo visit. I’m not great at pre-planning and, in dealing with the reservation system, I learned a lot. I didn’t quite figure it all out quickly enough for me to have a perfectly smooth visit, but I can help you have one.
Because you definitely should still visit. The crowds are there for a reason.
Know before you go:
The most crucial thing to know before a trip to Glacier NP this summer is that you will need a reservation to access most of it. The jaw-dropping (and crowded) Going-to-the-Sun Road is reservation-only between 6 am and 5 pm every day. Sure, it’s just one road in a park of nearly 1,600 square miles, but it’s not to be missed.
One, because it looks like this:
And two, because it’s the only road to access anything between the West Glacier and St. Mary’s entrances — the two most popular. The 50-mile road winds through some of the most amazing scenery in North America. From lakes to mountain passes, lodges, hikes, and boat tours.
Let me be crystal clear: you want to drive this road at least once in your life.
Not surprisingly, reservations are extremely hard to come by. About ¾ of the entry tickets are released 60 days in advance here. The rest are distributed on a rolling basis two days before your park entry date at 8 am MST sharp.
The tickets go fast. Really fast. I’ve talked to several people who were never able to secure one and I had to try for several days before I did. Some tips:
- Start trying to secure a reservation earlier than your estimated arrival date. The entry tickets are valid for 7 days and you can enter at any time during that period. So, for example, if you wanted to be on the road July 23 and 24, you could start trying for a reservation on July 16 for a reservation that would be valid July 18-24.
- Have an account set up on recreation.gov in advance, be logged in, and have your payment info saved. Then you’re ready right at 8 am.
- Refresh, refresh, refresh. I got the error message “too many people are attempting to make this reservation” over and over, but I just kept refreshing and trying again. It took until the 4th day of trying that I finally somehow went from an error message to a ticket in my cart. It was stressful but worth it.
If you get that reservation:
Even with an entry ticket, you’ll still need to pay the vehicle fee or present your America the Beautiful pass in addition to the $2 entry reservation. Have the pdf saved on your device and a screenshot that clearly shows your name and entry date.
The rangers have a pretty organized system when you arrive, so you won’t be able to work your way in without it. I’d say at least half of the cars in line each time I entered were turned around because they didn’t have the reservation.
If you don’t get a reservation:
Bummer. But all is not lost. There are some workarounds and other options.
If you have accommodations or a guided tour somewhere along the road you don’t need an entry ticket. This includes camping, lodging, boat tours, etc. Although, as you might imagine, many of these are fully booked for at least a month out.
If you are on foot or bike you don’t need a reservation. I wouldn’t recommend walking in, as the road is 50 miles, but biking is a great option. Some parts of the road are closed to biking between 11 am and 4 pm though — so make sure you have a plan.
Another option is to just enter the park before 6 am or after 5 pm. The sun rises before 6 am in West Glacier and after 9 pm in July, so you’ll still have plenty of daylight either way.
There are also other entrances in Glacier! They don’t link up to the Going-to-the-Sun road, but they are similarly gorgeous, with plenty to do. Entrances at Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Polebridge, or along Highway 2 do not require any reservations.
How to get there:
GNP is remote. Like, “part of the park is on the Canadian border”-remote. The nearest airport is in Kalispell (just over 30 miles from the West Glacier entrance) but many people opt for a road trip or train ride. Amtrak is incredibly convenient in Glacier. It stops in West Glacier, Whitefish, and East Glacier. In fact, the Amtrak station was directly outside of my hotel, Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier. I’d love to ride the rails next time.
And of course, a long road trip across the west to an iconic National Park is about as quintessentially “American summer” as you can get. You will need a car in Glacier so driving is a great option if you are anywhere near. It’s about 10 hours from Seattle, 14 from Denver, and just under 20 from San Francisco.
While there are more boutique accommodations opening up all the time around Glacier, it can still be tricky to find some that are available. I camped during my previous trips to Glacier (outside of the park due to quick filling campsites). There are nine campgrounds open within the park this season, with two being reservation only. The others are first-come-first-serve, but I heard from everyone I talked to that there is a line each morning at 6 am for those.
In short: get up early or reserve one of the many private campsites outside of the park.
This year I stayed in two Pursuit Glacier Park properties during my latest stay. One in Whitefish and one in East Glacier. Pursuit runs eleven properties in and outside of the park along with other shops, restaurants, and activities. I was also super grateful to be able to snag a room at Glacier Park Lodge at the last minute, a historic lodge that was built over 100 years ago by the Great Northern Railway.
Once you’ve got a plan for entry and accommodations there is a never-ending list of things to do within the park. So many that I’ll be detailing them in another piece. But you truly cannot go wrong here. Just make sure you get in.