If you chose to stay in Red Lodge (or even drive straight from Yellowstone), it is a fairly long drive to get to the northern half of the Rockies and Glacier National Park. On the way out of Red Lodge, you will pass through Joliet, MT and just a mile up the road at 418 E. Front Avenue is the “Skier God Sculpture” which makes for a fun photo-op for your friends as you being your drive.
And while it is a long drive, the first few hours and last few hours are amazing – especially the last few hours where you will travel through rolling farm land (which was gold in August) with the Rockies in the background. If you are lucky and have a clear, blue day, you will fully appreciate why they call this area “Big Sky” country.
For lunch, we stopped at the Log Cabin Cafe in Choteau for sandwiches and salads. Just a bit further down the road (and a stop almost everyone misses but we highly recommend) is just past Birch Creek on Highway 89. As soon as you pass the creek, on the right you can find the two Blackfeet Metal Warriors which guard the entrance to the Blackfeet Nation. There are two metal warriors posted at each of the four entrances to the nation and they are well worth being ready to pull over and admire up close.
For lodging, there are few places to stay in or near Glacier National Park as historic as the Many Glacier Hotel. Not to be redundant, but this hotel sells out the day the rooms go on the market so plan to book the morning they go online. We also found a better selection on the website than we did by calling the reservation line. Room Tip – the lake view rooms in the main building are well worth the added price. These rooms have a shared balcony which looks out directly over the lake and the mountains in the distance. Other options for lodging include the small towns outside of the park (Babb, Kalispell, etc.) or the Lake McDonald Lodge and surrounding area.
If you stay at the Many Glacier Hotel, dining is limited to either the hotel’s Ptarmigan Dining Room or Swiss Lounge. The Dining Room does not take reservations and was worth one meal to see – but we found the Swiss Lounge had much better food and options. If you only have one night there, we recommend the latter. Please note, the Lounge is technically a bar but they allow kids at the tables and there were many there.
The next morning we wanted to stretch our legs to see the park. This meant a hard decision between hiking the Grinnell Glacier or Iceberg Lake Trail. (Another popular option is the Highline Trail as well which is much longer and more strenuous). We chose the Iceberg Lake Trail if only for the view at the end and we were not disappointed. This trail is just under 10 miles round trip (out and back) and climbs over 1,275 feet in elevation so for the average hiker it might take four hours to complete. It begins at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn around the corner from the hotel beginning with a well-defined path leading into a forest over a stream and small falls and then out onto a plain leading to the lake. In August, it was a warm, sunny day but once you reach the lake shore, the temperature drops by at least thirty or forty degrees and can be quite chilly.
Iceberg Lake was the most unique destination we have had seen on a hike so far. The lake is surrounded in bowl shaped by mountains and glaciers with aqua blue water and large icebergs floating freely. It was almost surreal to see so we recommend packing a lunch and enjoying some time on a nearby rock while watching the icebergs – and even a few “brave” visitors who jumped into the water to swim to an iceberg (quickly retreating while everyone laughed). After hiking back to the hotel, you can simply enjoy the views from the hotel while visiting with other guests (especially as this area is much less crowded than the previous stops), spend time looking for mountain goats near the entrance to the hotel or renting a kayak to explore the lake in front of the hotel for an hour or more.
The next morning we left early to being the drive over and back the Going-to-the-Sun road. A few points we’d like to pass along about this scenic drive. It is different from the Beartooth Highway in both what to do (more stops, waterfalls, etc.) and in terrain but we wouldn’t say one was better than the other as they are so different. We also used the GyPSy guide app again which helped with places to stop and the history of the road itself. And while we normally shy away from tours, the Red Bus Tours in this area do have their advantages – namely parking. These tours are the oldest, touring fleet of vehicles anywhere in the world and get preferential treatment for parking at multiple stops as well as have open roofs for viewing out the sides and above as you drive the winding path.
If you do drive, arriving early is not necessarily an advantage. The most popular stop is Logan’s Pass and it fills up in the earliest hours for hikers heading out for the day. What we recommend is stopping at a few places on the way over the mountain, having lunch and then visiting the most popular areas in the afternoon when the hikers are returning and parking is more accessible. If you use this plan, your first overlook is Wild Goose Island most well known for the opening sequence of movie, The Shining, where the camera flies over this small island and then follows a yellow VW Bug as it winds around the scenic road. (This was actually the only scene in the movie actually filmed in this area.)
After the island, you may want to stop at a few overlooks and the Weeping Wall/Garden Wall to watch the water spilling down off of the mountain and onto the road. We do recommend Logan’s Pass at this point and heading on to Lake McDonald. Along the way are numerous stops to see crystal clear glacial rivers, waterfalls, short walks and a chance to walk around the Lake McDonald Lodge area. Once in Lake McDonald, there are several shops worth visiting and it is well worth the time to walk down to the water’s edge to see just how clear McDonald Lake is – where so many iconic photos are taken of the colored rocks in the water and mountains in the distance. For lunch, Eddie’s is a mainstay and a chance to enjoy their famous Huckleberry Cobbler. And, if you are a fan of horses, one very popular activity is to take a horse ride from this area up to the Sperry Chalet which can only be reached by foot or horseback.
Heading back, you should find parking is much more accessible in the early afternoon. First, stopping at the Trail of the Cedars is worth the short walk to see the mossy, green side of the area; the large cedar trees and running water. From there, you can make your way to Logan’s Pass. There is a Visitors Center here, as well as the entrance to the trail to the Hidden Lake Overlook or the beginning of the Highline Trail. The Hidden Lake Overlook is very popular and provides views of alpine meadows, waterfalls, a view of the lake below and even some bighorn sheep grazing alongside the trail. The Highline Trail is more strenuous and you can take it as far as you would like before returning back. One last note, be sure to look for mountain goats grazing right behind the Visitors Center as they can often congregate here.
After exploring the scenic road, we spent more our remaining time enjoying the hotel and evening on the patio. What we did decide during our stay is Glacier National Park is one area we will visit again – as two days touched upon the highlights but we could easily see spending four or five days in this one park alone. However, for this trip, the next morning we were heading to Waterton Lakes, Calgary and Banff.