west glacier national park highline trail

In the US, it doesn’t get much bigger than Glacier National Park. The lakes, the mountains, the sky – it’s just way bigger up there in Montana. We were lucky enough to spend a couple days there in September 2020. The east side of the park was closed due to COVID-19 complications, so we explored the west side of Glacier National Park. Even with half the park closed, there is enough to warrant an entire blog post just dedicated to the west side, plus a subsequent blog post for the east side (once we get to visit!). This West Glacier 3 Day guide will tackle what active adventurers should do to make the most out of their chance to visit!

Disclaimer: This is not your typical relaxing, I-have-all-the-time-in-the-world travel guide. Ya it would be awesome to spend 1+ weeks at Glacier National Park but let’s be honest no American traveler has the time to do that! So this guide and all our National Park Travel Guides are written to the frugal and practical American traveler who has squeezed this adventure into a long weekend or around a holiday. It will be short on park descriptions (you’ll learn all the same fun facts about the park while you’re there) and heavy on the hiking and efficient time planning. Little to no time is set aside for restaurants. It is assumed you’ll make one stop at a grocery store to pick up everything you need to eat on the trail or at your campsite. Our goal is to help you pack as many (usually free) fun-filled things into your cherished vacation time and make the most of potentially a once in a lifetime visit to these spectacular places. If you’re looking for something more relaxed, there are plenty of other awesome travel guides out there for you!

The Itinerary

We’re just going to dive right into the itinerary. It’s assumes that you have 2.5 days to be in the park. Glacier is hard to get to you’ll probably fly out late after work or super early the next morning. Adjust the half day to where is best fits in with your flights!

First Full Day – Highline Trail / Hidden Lake

  • Wake Up 1.5 hours before sunrise
  • Arrive at Logan Pass parking lot at sunrise – if you arrive any later you will not get a spot in the parking lot! It takes just over an hour to reach the Logan Pass parking lot from the West Entrance of Glacier National Park. You’ll get to drive up the Going-To-The-Sun Road, the famous windy, narrow road you have (or will have had) read so much about.
  • Hike up to the Grinnel Glacier Viewpoint and then out pass the chalet (~10 miles total, provided that the shuttle is running) or hike the ridgeline back to the Logan Pass parking lot (~16 miles total)
  • Relax for a little bit at the car (AKA eat some Oreos for fuel!)
  • Hike to the Hidden Lake Lookout (~3 mile roundtrip). If you’re really feeling adventurous, you can hike down to the lake (~6 mile roundtrip).
  • When you’re driving down Going-To-The-Sun road after all that hiking, be sure to stop at one of the many pull-outs to watch the sunset!

Honestly, it’s worth flying out to Glacier National Park just for one day just to do this hike!

Grinnell Glacier Viewpoint highline trail
Michelle and I chilling (and a little chilly) at the Grinnell Glacier Lookout on the Highline Trail!

Second Full Day – Polebridge + Avalanche Lake

  • Wake up at sunrise and drive out to Polebridge, a tiny town run 100% by renewable energy (~40 minutes from the Glacier National Park West Entrance)
  • Grab a pastry or two at the Polebridge Mercantile & Bakery. Huckleberry bearclaw, anyone?!
  • Drive out to Bowman Lake (~30 minutes from Polebridge, all gravel, 4WD not required, just be wary of deep ruts)
  • Starting at Bowman Lake, hike the Numa Ridge Lookout Trail (~12 miles roundtrip). Be sure to sign your name in the book at the ranger station at the top while you soak in the panoramic view!
  • Drive back to main section of Glacier National Park (~1 hour) and park in the lot near the Avalanche Creek Camping Area. Plan to arrive 3-4 hours before sunset. This is a popular area of the park so it can be hard to park here. You have a better chance of finding a spot in the late afternoon instead of during the midday rush.
  • Hike out to Avalanche Lake (~5 miles roundtrip)
  • As you drive out of the park, stop at one of the many pull outs next to Lake McDonald to watch the sunset.

The trail out to Numa Ridge is somewhat less trafficked than most other trails in Glacier. With fewer hikers it is easier to accidentally sneak up a bear, so make plenty of noise as you hike and consider getting bear spray.

Numa Ridge Lookout Trail
We hiked Numa Ridge on a cloudy day so Michelle was doing her best to imagine those panoramic views from the top!

Half Day – St. Mary’s Area

  • Drive out to the St. Mary’s Area (1.5 hours from West Entrance)
  • Two Options:

We hiked out at Lower Virginia Falls and it was beautiful. BUT when we go back, we will for sure hike to Florence Falls and Gunsight Lake. We heard incredible reviews from a hiker we met along the trail that day and it made us a little jealous! Still we know you can’t go wrong with either option. This area of the park is breathtaking!

St Mary's Glacier National Park
Go get a little lost in the woods in the St. Mary’s area of Glacier National Park!

How to Get There

Although there is a Glacier National Park airport, it is usually above the budget for the frugal traveler. We recommend that you fly into Missoula, rent a car and drive 3 hours to the park. Bonus, the drive is gorgeous. You can stop for groceries in Missoula or Kalispell, Montana. Both town have REIs as well if you need some last minute gear.

You can rent a small, fuel efficient sedan and be just fine. There is only one stretch of gravel road (the gravel road from Polebridge to Bowman Lake) and it is well enough maintained. We drove a sedan down it and saw many other sedans drive it.

Deadwood Falls Glacier National Park
Deadwood Falls in the St. Mary’s area of Glacier National Park

Where To Stay

In 2020, there was only one campground in the park and it was permanently booked. Thankfully, there were multiple campgrounds and cabins just outside the West Glacier entrance. We showed up around midday on a Friday and found a tent spot about 10 minutes from the West Glacier park entrance at Sundance Campground. The campsite cost ~$30 per night and had a free shower included.

We initially tried to find a camp spot within Hungry Horse reservoir. Do not do this! Hungry Horse is massive and if you find a campsite (the closest campground was full when we drove out) you’ll be a minimum of 30 minutes from the park entrance. Also, you can expect miles of gravel roads around the reservoir.

In summary, find a campground off the main road on the way to West Glacier.

Avalanche Lake Glacier National Park
Camping is the best way to stay close or in Glacier National Park and its spectacular sites like Avalanche Lake without breaking the bank!

Where To Go Next

Yellowstone National Park

From West Glacier, you’re a long days drive from Yellowstone National Park. You’re 3 hours from Missoula and then 4 hours from the Yellowstone north entrance. Yellowstone is also a huge park so if you’re camping in the southern part you’ll need to add up to another 2 hours! Our advice, leave early. If you have the time and want to break up the drive, both Missoula and Butte, Montana are good options.

If it’s in your roadtrip and you’ve liked what you read here, check out of our Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park 4 Day Weekend American Traveler Guide!

Helpful Apps

Maps.Me

Probably our favorite travel app ever made. It has all the hiking trails clearly marked and has easy to download offline maps. Whether we are in Colombia or Glacier National park, we know we’ll never be lost with Maps.me. Plus, it’s completely free! Just be sure to zoom in and download your offline map when you have service since you’ll need them when you’re out there where there is none!

AllTrails

An app that gives you trail distances and recent reviews for hiking trails. It’s worth checking AllTrails a day or two before you do a longer hike as it is updated frequently for hikers. It’s basically Yelp for hiking. Plus, it’s free too!

Hidden Lake Glacier National Park
Hidden Lake viewpoint in Glacier National Park. It looks surprisingly similar to some hiking we did at Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley in Peru!

Conclusion

You’re good to go for West Glacier. You’ve got an itinerary broken down into power-packed yet manageable days. Plus you’ve got all our lessons learned!

So there you have it, our American Traveler West Glacier 3 Day travel guide! From us to you, happy adventuring!

Going to the Sun Road Glacier National Park 3 Day Itinerary Sunset
The sun has set on yet another Nick and Michelle travel guide. Hope you enjoyed it. We’re going to kick up our feet and relax now!

Notes

All prices are current as of September 2020.

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