View of Glacier National Park from shores of McDonald Lake

Visiting Glacier National Park

An amazing experience and sights abound when visiting Glacier National Park…too bad I cannot attest to much of it.

If you have plans to visit Glacier National Park and really, really want to see and/or walk on glaciers then heed this warning: Don’t bother visiting during the off-season. Nearby, Whitefish, Montana certainly rocks a visit year-round but the same cannot be said for hitting up Glacier National Park.

Despite this, my wife and I managed to make an adventure out of the limitations and come away with tips for visiting Glacier National Park in the off-season. The park has multiple entrances and all require a fee except one.

Visiting at the end of March, we learned all Glacier National Park roads remained closed except two: The West Entrance about 40 minutes from Whitefish offers an approximately 11 mile drive to Lake McDonald Lodge, or a longer 2.5 hour drive to the St. Mary Entrance provides a mile long stretch into the park ending at the Foot of St. Mary Lake. We knew all of this prior to visiting but took a chance anyway, and in our defense, we were told the $35 entry fee was still worth it.

But we first tried the free route.

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I found out about the free entrance into Glacier National Park from a local. It was a distance away and I never would have found it without the instructions. Out of respect for the full time residents I won’t divulge the information on how to get there, but others were in the area so it’s hardly a big secret and using this route is perfectly fine and legal.

At any rate, the free entrance was closed.

Getting there was quite the task as pavement gave way to a dirt road that more often than not resembled target practice for small bombing runs. Let’s just say I gave the car a run for its suspension money. Glaciers hid from view but that didn’t mean the surrounding area didn’t offer plenty of eye popping landscape and pictures worth taking.

Flathead River just outside Glacier National park
A river runs through it – Flathead River

This road, clearly less traveled, forks one way into Glacier National Park and the other way eventually crosses into Canada. A posted sign indicated the border was closed, not that I would have made the trip, but after a few miles of traversing along the backcountry towards the Great White North a rather large sign warned of pending private property and not to trespass.

Hmmm, probably should not continue

I did not know if the warning meant residents only beyond this point or for drivers to simply stay on the road and don’t get off the unbeaten path.  I turned around and headed back despite seeing multiple other vehicles carry on and/or return.

Mountain range near Glacier National park
Looking north this mountain range is likely in Canada

Though I struck out entering Glacier National Park on this day and entering for free, the mountain range views proved exceptional (probably Canada) and the Flathead River flows through this rarely chartered area proving those TV shows and movies taking place in the remote wilderness of God’s Country indeed do exist.

Glacier National Park West Entrance

Entry sign for Glacier National Park

You want the West Entrance to Glacier National Park when traveling from Whitefish or Kalispell. Turning off US Highway 2 towards the way in feels almost like entering an amusement park. It was dead. Buildings locked and no one around. But you can easily visualize the crowds in a few months and seeing as multiple lanes guide you into the park I can only imagine the long lines and wait times during the busy season.

The guard gates were unattended so entry was more or less on the honor system using a QR code and paying by phone. We pay taxes. We own this place! We drove right in. Suckers! OK, just kidding. Actually, we ended up foregoing the $35 entry fee and paid for the $80 “America the Beautiful Pass” that gets us into all national parks for a year. (The wife has plans.) A call to the visitor center (someone answered!) assured us that our online receipt sufficed as proof of purchase.

We traveled along Lake McDonald for about 11 miles which offered a number of sensational mountain views (see top photo) but little else in terms of glaciers. As expected, at the turnoff for the Lake McDonald Lodge, the road further in to the park was gated and filled with snow.

Road closed and filled with snow inside Glacier National Park
The road farther into Glacier National Park was closed and not plowed.

We turned around and ventured onto a few other short open roads before leaving and heading to Essex, MT. Blink and you pass right on by but stop at the Izaak Walton Inn and take a short walk up the footbridge for stunning overhead views of the train tracks.

View of train tracks from footbridge at Izaak Walton Inn
No trains but a great view from the footbridge at Izaak Walton Inn

Tips to Visiting Glacier National Park

  1. Visit when the park fully opens
  2. Don’t like crowds? Take your chance during the off-season and see just a small section
  3. Bring a camera
  4. Bring bear spray
  5. Be cautious for deer
  6. Fill your car with gas prior to entering. A fuel station is located just short of the park’s entrance but expect long lines and probably higher costs than just 10 miles away
  7. Fees vary but automobiles cost $35

5 thoughts on “Visiting Glacier National Park

  1. Cool adventure by the sounds of it. You should write a book with all your shortcuts and savings on the backroads of America.

  2. I have some friends that live close to Niagra Falls which is a huge tourist trap. You have to pay to go anywhere. They knew all of the tricks and we got to see everything for free. Free parking, free admittance into museums, free tickets to a show. All we paid for was food. I was floored.

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