Visiting East Glacier National Park

Here are seven simple tips for exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

By Adventurtunity Family
Explore Ambassador

We just spent two months at Glacier National Park and are already planning our next trip back. You might be thinking it’s because we loved it so much, which we did. But it’s actually because we barely explored the east side of the park. When we booked our two-month stay, we dropped stakes a few miles outside the west entrance, where we spent most of our time. We finally started to explore the east side of the park toward the end of our two months and quickly learned a few things that we wish we had known prior — things we will certainly take into consideration when we visit again! If you, too, are thinking of visiting Glacier National Park, we highly recommend this magical place, and hopefully you can learn from a few of our mistakes!


Stay On Both Sides Of The Park

There are two primary entrances to Glacier National Park: one on the west side of the park, where Lake McDonald is, and one on the east side of the park, at St. Mary Village. Depending on where you are coming from, the drive from one side to the other can take anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours! Right off the bat, your day can include three to four hours of just driving. On top of that, many of the hikes are 6-plus miles, which makes for very long days. Had we known this, we would have split up our stay, spending one month on the east side and the other on the west side. A big reason for this is because we travel with our golden retriever pup and can only leave him alone for eight to nine hours at a time. If you’re wondering why we don’t take him into the park, we wish we could, but dogs are not allowed on the trails in the park. By staying a few nights on each side of the park, you will not only reduce your travel time, but also increase your chances of securing a parking spot in the popular areas.


Start Your Day Early

Parking lots and pull-offs throughout the park are limited, and the spaces fill up so quickly that many times people are turned away at the entrance due to the park being “full.” We experienced this both during the summer season, when the Going-to-the-Sun Road permits were in place, and once after the permits had stopped (Labor Day). Your best bet is to plan to enter the park as early as you can. And when we say early, we mean before 9 a.m., especially when trying to visit popular east-side destinations such as Many Glacier, St. Mary Village and Logan Pass.


Consider Boarding Your Furry Friends

As we mentioned, Glacier National Park does not allow dogs in most areas of the park and on its trails. There are only a handful of areas where you can actually take your pup. We took ours to Bowman Lake and the Sprague Creek Campground day-use area on Lake McDonald, where he was able to stay on the shoreline and swim. After realizing our limitations with time away from our pup and the amount of time we needed to accomplish some long hikes, we started looking for some options. To our surprise, there were several dog boarding businesses in the area, some opening as early as 6:30 a.m. As with everything around Glacier during the busy season, reservations and planning ahead are needed as they fill up quickly, especially on weekends.

Unfortunately, the day we boarded our dog for an overnight stay, we were turned away at the Many Glacier entrance due to that area of the park being at max capacity. While it was a bummer, there are really no bad plan Bs in Glacier. Thankfully, we were in the park early enough that we found a parking spot at Logan Pass and accomplished 7 miles on the Highline Trail.


Enjoy The Drive

Visiting the east side of the park is absolutely worth it, even if you find that you only have time to drive through. The terrain is much different from the west side of the park but equally as beautiful. You can easily fill your day pulling off at many of the lookouts and doing some light hiking to incredible views just a few miles off the road.

On the day we drove through the east side of the park, we had about four hours of sightseeing once we took the to/from driving into account. We were able to pull off at the Baring Falls parking area and hike just over 2 miles round-trip to a very pretty waterfall. If you happen to be there, you will see a few other trails that are a bit longer and are great hiking options as well. There are several lookouts along St. Mary Lake and a few with a beautiful view of Wild Goose Island. We pulled off at one of the larger ones for a quick lunch and photo opportunity. We also made it to the St. Mary and Virginia Falls area. This parking lot is small and often full, but if you hang out a bit like we did, you will usually get a spot from returning hikers. And trust us, it’s worth it!


Don’t Skip Many Glacier

If you take nothing but this away from our mistakes, do not skip Many Glacier! It’s an absolutely breathtaking area of the park that we barely got to experience. It still stings a little that we spent two months in Glacier and didn’t make it to the Many Glacier Lodge or Grinnell Lake. Iceberg Lake was also on our bucket list and will remain there until we return. The one substantial hike we did manage to accomplish was to Bullhead Lake. This trailhead is located at a parking lot at Many Glacier just down the road from the Many Glacier Lodge. It is also home to a few other trailheads, including Iceberg Lake.

We haven’t addressed the bears yet. We did see a few bears in Glacier, and all of our sightings happened to be on the east side of the park. On every hike, we were well-prepared with bear spray. And on this particular hike to Bullhead Lake, we hiked with friends and were sure to make a lot of noise as we trekked through the parts of the trail with dense foliage. This trail was a bit different from our west-side hikes; it was narrower and at times in the thick of the forest. The trail to Bullhead Lake is about 7 miles round-trip, and by the time we got to the lake, we knew we would be fighting daylight on the way back — pretty much the last thing we wanted to do in bear country. We didn’t give ourselves too much time to enjoy the lake views, but it sure was pretty. The bonus was catching a few unexpected tiered waterfalls on the way there, but that also slowed us down for a while. When in doubt, start your hikes as early as possible to be sure you have ample time.


Prepare For Long Hikes

Out of all the national parks we have visited, Glacier is the one we have had to prepare for the most, from securing the Going-to-the-gooSun Road permit, to entering the park earlier, to being prepared to earn every view with a long drive or hike. And many of those awe-inspiring glacier views you see on Instagram or Google Search are 6-plus miles long. Add in the elevation and limited daylight depending on the season, and you definitely need to prepare for some of the longer hikes. Give yourself plenty of time to accomplish the hiking, leaving room for time to enjoy the views as well. Pack plenty of water and snacks. But remember you’re in bear country! Keep your snacks in baggies and have a spare bag for trash so you can pack it out with you. Prior to entering the park, be sure to let someone know where you will be hiking for the day and an estimated time when you should return. Just don’t forget to let them know once you’ve returned. And don’t forget the bear spray!


Talk To Rangers About The Hikes That Interest You

Thankfully, there is a lot of information available through apps and online blogs about Glacier National Park and its trail systems. However, some of the most knowledgeable folks are the rangers right there in the park. Don’t hesitate to chat with the park rangers and ask questions. You’ll definitely want to know about the bear activity on or near the trails you are looking to hike, as well as changing weather conditions. The rangers may have some inside details to share about other breathtaking views or special places to enjoy that are only known to them and a few others. Never underestimate insider knowledge and how helpful it can be!

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