Glacier National Park for the Day with Kids
Visiting Glacier National Park is a travel bucket list item for people all over the world, and my family feels so fortunate that the park is practically in our backyard. The west side of the park is an easy day trip from where we live in Missoula, MT, and we love to visit Glacier several times a year even if for only a day.
Known as the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park (GNP) offers spectacular scenery with rugged peaks, crystal clear turquoise waters and glacial-carved valleys. With over 700 miles of hiking trails, Glacier offers something for everyone. The more adventurous souls can venture into the deep back-country and not emerge for days; yet many trails are quite easy for young children with some even being wheelchair accessible!
Our kids love hiking in the park and every year we advance to more difficult and longer trails. It is such an accomplishment to hike to a waterfall where we can enjoy a picnic lunch and bask in the most jaw-dropping scenery you can ever imagine.
Lake McDonald Valley located on the west side of GNP is probably the most popular area in Glacier, and here you can find all sorts of fun family-friendly activities such as hiking, fishing, whitewater rafting, camping and even helicopter tours! This area was once occupied by massive glaciers that carved out the valley thousands of years ago and is now filled with spectacular sights, diverse species of plants and animals, historic chalets and the largest lake in the park: Lake McDonald.
Ten miles long and nearly 500 feet deep, Lake McDonald is a direct result of glacial carving. Dramatic high peaks surround the lake which is an excellent demonstration of the power of glaciers to carve even the hardest of rock. With so much to do, it can be overwhelming to decide where to begin. Just getting outside and enjoying the smell of fresh clean air is the top of my list, but here are 3 of our favorite things to do on the west side of Glacier National Park in one day. You will probably even spot an eagle, mountain goat, big horn sheep or maybe a bear!
A visit to this quaint village nestled along the southern portion of Lake McDonald is a must, and it’s one of my family’s favorite places in GNP. But first, make sure you stop at the new Visitor Center located approximately one mile north of the West Entrance Station on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This new building is recognized as LEED Gold Certified and visitors can get invaluable information about the park, pick-up and drop-off services for the park’s shuttle system and clean restroom facilities.
Next, head to Apgar Village where you can stroll through little shops, grab a bite to eat, rent a bike, boat or paddleboard, and even take a swim in Lake McDonald. Watch your time because your day will fly by quickly here! Glacier Park Boat Company is our favorite place to rent boats, kayaks and paddleboards.
Ride the Red Bus to Going-to-the-Sun Road
One of the most spectacular roads in the world lies right in Glacier National Park and shouldn’t be missed! This engineering marvel spans 50 miles through the park’s wild interior, winding around mountainsides and treating visitors to some of the best sights in northwest Montana.
Driving on Going-to-the-Sun Road is not for the faint of heart, and although you can drive your own car (there are restrictions to vehicle lengths and widths), I highly recommend the iconic Red Bus so you can sit back, relax and let someone else do the driving. For over 100 years, the Red Buses have provided transportation within GNP, and many that are in operation today have been in service since the mid-1930s! There are various tour routes and lengths, and reservations are required. Xanterra Parks and Resorts run these tours and I recommend visiting their website for the most up to date information.
Trivia: Drivers are called “jammers” because they could be heard “jamming” the gears of the red buses going up Going-to-the-Sun Road when the buses had standard transmissions.
At an elevation of 6,640 feet, Logan Pass is approximately 30 miles from Apgar Village on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and is the highest point in the park reachable by car. Here you will find the most incredible alpine flora and fauna, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and the occasional grizzly bear lumbering through the meadows.
There are walks and hikes suited to all ages and abilities with Hidden Lake trail and Highline trail being the most popular. Make sure your camera battery is charged because the vistas are stunning and Instagram-worthy!
There is a visitor center with restroom facilities but no restaurant or food available so plan accordingly. Many of the Red Bus tours stop here and I recommend a tour with Logan Pass on the itinerary. The parking lot fills up early during the summer months, and you don’t want to waste precious time circling for a place to park.
My family loves Logan Pass and we always make sure to bring our out-of-state visitors here. They are always thrilled to spot mountain goats and big horn sheep that seem to nonchalantly amble around.
Tip: More than likely you will spot wildlife in the park. Always stay a safe distance and never try to pet a wild animal no matter how cute or docile it appears. They can be quite unpredictable, and you never know when one will charge.
Glacier National Park is open year-round, and visitors can enter the park at anytime. Winter weather tends to dictate when most visitor facilities open and close. Generally from late May to early September, facilities are open to welcome summer visitors. Check out the Glacier National Park website for the most up-to-date information.
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