After we got back from our second trip to Glacier National Park with our kids, I was flooded with questions about what we did, where we were and how to navigate planning this kind of trip with kids in tow. So, I decided to pull out all the stops and share with you how we make big trips like this happen and share a few of my go-to ideas for what to do in Glacier…on a budget…with kids! That means kid friendly hike ideas, low cost adventures and simple plans that won’t turn everyone against each other.
Mapping out the park
I tend to get really overwhelmed whenever we go to a new national park. We have a National Parks Pass that we get every year so we can explore as many new parks as possible which I absolutely love, but it can definitely be a lot when you’ve never been to a new park before.
Thankfully, I’ve had the chance to explore and get to know Glacier a little, but if you haven’t, I still highly suggest giving a map of the park a once over. Don’t worry, I’ll try to include everything on a map here for you too!
Doing your research
Because conditions at Glacier can change no matter what time of year you go, it’s a good idea to always check the National Parks website before hand to be aware of any closures. During our first trip to Glacier we found ourselves half-way up a snowy hike only to hear the rangers announcing over the loud speaker that we needed to leave immediately because they would be closing the roads! YIKES! If my kids were dragging their feet before, they sure stopped after that!
Before we went to Glacier the first time, I had done some research on kid friendly hikes and sort of had an idea of what I knew we wanted to see. However, I didn’t take the time to consider where everything was in proximity to one another.
Driving from one spot to another in Glacier can take a long time and you might end up catching a lot of traffic (we learned this the hard way). That’s why I recommend sticking to one location per day and checking off all of the site seeing things you want to do in that area, so you aren’t forced out of the park! Don’t stress, I’ll help you out with this!
Building a backup plan
Again, it’s important to have a backup plan (which is why I’ll let you steal mine). Both times we have gone to Glacier we have had our plans go awry and have had to find alternate solutions for what we wanted to do. During our first trip this meant we wound up leaving the park and hanging out in the river nearby. Still gorgeous, but not ideal.
During our second go I was more prepared and sort of knew the ropes and what we could do. Below I have shared 3 total itineraries for your day with kids that hopefully will help you jump any hurdles you might need to should things not go according to plan.
Where to stay
Both times we have stayed at the West Glacier KOA both in tent and in a cabin. The views from the KOA are gorgeous, we’re close to most things on the west side of Glacier and they have 2 pools! One for families one for adults (we have yet to enjoy that one).
The West Glacier KOA has events for kids and adults (I love me some live music), an ice cream shop, an amazing restaurant and places to walk or lounge.
We like opting for this resort mostly because it allows us to spend all morning and afternoon out and about hiking and getting dirty and then feel like we have a place we can come back to and relax.
Our early-rise strategy
Like I said, we are big fans of tackling the day right away in order to beat traffic and crowds. (I think our entire family is mostly introverted.) Waking up at 5am isn’t always ideal for parents or kids, but we pre-pack easy to make meals that we can take on the road as well as hiking snacks in our backpack.
What I pack in my backpack:
- Granola bars
- Bear spray
- *Leave room for layers to come off
Because the morning hours are chilly, we always dress warm and plan to shed some layers throughout the day as we go. This usually means hats, mittens and pullovers. Like you’ll see in our photo above taken in early September, you never know what the weather might be like in Glacier National Park!
- 5am: Wake up
- 5:30am: In the car
- 6am: Enter park (if you enter before 6am or after 4pm, you do not need a parking pass!)
- 6:30am: Hit up our first hike
- 7am: We don’t organize our days too much because we love to allow for fun, play, exploration and changes in the plan should we stumble upon something interesting. For example, during our last trip back from Lake Avalanche, we lounged behind a grazing deer and gradually followed him back to the beginning of the trail.
- 1-3pm: Lunch. We are usually late to lunch, but don’t mind too much because we’ve pre-packed snacks
- 4pm: Back to the KOA (usually before everyone else) for some pool time and R&R
- 6pm: Dinner on our camp grill
- 8pm: S’mores and stories around the fire
- 10pm: Bedtime
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- Enter the West Entrance
- Take the Going to the Sun Road
- Stop at Logan’s Pass
- Hike Hidden Lake
- Continue on to St. Mary’s Shuttle Stop
- Hike St. Mary’s Falls and Virginia Falls
Potential Bonus Day/Continuation
- Stop at Two Medicine Lake
- Enjoy Goat Lick Overlook
- (See additional options below)
Going to the Sun Road
You can get to both of these main stops from the East Entrance to Glacier, however, Going to the Sun Road is an attraction in and of itself.
If you start on the road around 6am you will get early morning views of Lake McDonald and should be able to see the sunrise as you drive! It is absolutely amazing to see with the gorgeous views! Should you be a super early bird, you just might be able to enjoy the sunrise from the top.
We actually made it to Logan’s Pass in time for the sunrise and were able to snuggle in with some other early rise hikers. A group of us made cocoa, coffee and breakfast as we waited for the sun to greet us. Our kiddos snuggled under blankets and in their hats and it is still one of my favorite memories from Glacier.
As we snuggled we were also able to see some long horned sheep grazing on the mountain to our left!
There is also a visitor center here that you should be able to stop in and visit after the hike to Hidden Lake.
Hidden Lake Overlook
From Logan’s Pass you can access the trailhead to the Hidden Lake Overlook (Tom’s favorite hike in Glacier because of the wide open views all around.) The entire 2.9 mile round trip hike to the overlook you will be surrounded by constantly beauty and most likely catch a glimpse of some wild life.
If you are able to, you can continue on the trail to see the Hidden Lake itself. During our first stay, we were forced to stay off the trail due to bears and the second time we visited the Going to the Sun Road was closed altogether due to flooding!
This might be long for younger kids and it is up hill, but as you can see below, it is all planked in so it is relatively easy versus climbing rough terrain.
St. Mary’s Falls
There are 3 waterfalls in this area. St. Mary’s Falls, Virginia Falls and Browning Falls. For the sake of simplicity, I have only marked down St. Mary’s and Virginia Falls as they are (in my opinion) the more breathtaking views and will offer a shorter hike. If you park at the St. Mary’s Shuttle Stop (pinned on the map), your hike will be between 1.7 and 3.6 miles depending on whether or not you decide to do both hikes. (Which I highly recommend you do at some point in your life.)
St. Mary’s Falls is beautiful, of course, and didn’t disappoint. As per usual, we went a little off trail so we could get a view from the top as well.
If you continue on past St. Mary’s you will be able to access Virginia Falls. I know it might not be your cup of tea, especially depending on your kids’s age(s), however I definitely recommend finishing the trail so you find yourself face to face with the waterfall itself.
Here is a video of my 12 year old daughter and I getting totally soaked from the falls! It’s really magnificent and was so much fun to see and get splashed by!
Browning Falls (should you choose to continue)
There is a location to park where you can start at Browning Falls and hit up St. Mary and Virginia. We wound up back tracking past where we parked so we could get a glimpse of Browning. While the waterfall was pretty, it paled in comparison to the other two. However, the views along the way were breathtaking, and that is where we were able to enjoy this floating dock on St. Mary Lake.
- Two Medicine Lake and Goat Lick Overlook – Since you’ve already driven almost completely across the park, it might be worth it at this point to finish off your day with a picnic at Two Medicine Lake and a quick stop at Goat Lick Overlook on your way back to camp! (These are the stops I have marked on the map.)
- Going to the Sun Road – You also have the option to turn around and enjoy some views on your way back down Going to the Sun Road.
- Many Glacier – Lastly, (since you’re in the area) you could continue up to Many Glacier and partake in a boat tour! There are also hikes here you could plan for another day, and/or schedule your boat tours for a different day.
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- Enter West Glacier Entrance
- Park at Avalanche Lake Entrance
- Hike Trail of the Cedars
- Hike Avalanche Lake
- Stop in Apgar Village for lunch/kayaking/boating
- Hike Rocky Point Trail
Trail of the Cedars
You can park your car right outside the entrance to Avalanche Lake (this is just before the Going to the Sun Road officially starts) and enjoy walking through the Trail of the Cedars. This could be a very small trail should you choose to skip Avalanche Lake, but oh, my friend, I recommend you give it a shot!
You will get a view of Avalanche Creek from the Trail of the Cedars, but if you continue on to the Avalanche Lake hike the views are so much more beautiful. To this day, the views of this creek are my happy place. The red rock combined with the blue water and greenery all around is enough to make your heart skip a beat.
The trail to the lake itself truly feels like it is all uphill and I would be lying if I said that every child I have ever passed on this trail is less-than-enthused at some point. HOWEVER, big however here, they are always happy once they arrive at the lake. Plus it’s all downhill (mostly) on the way back and who says you have to book it on the way there?
During our last trip to the lake we stopped and gathered some fresh Glacier water that was flowing next to the trail, the kids attempted to race up some rocks and play on some fallen trees. Allowing ourselves to go slow and enjoy the ride rather than b-lining it to our destination allows our kids (and us) to have a more enjoyable time.
Apgar Village is one of my favorite little places to stop after a day of hiking. There is food, ice cream, little shops to browse and a gorgeous lake to overlook. (Lake McDonald)
During previous visits we have simply stopped to take in the view and grab some ice cream. During our latest adventure to Glacier, however, we decided to opt for a $31 per hour boat rental so we could slowly cruise the beautiful Lake McDonal. All of the kayaks and paddle boards were rented out, which was totally fine since we had already gone kayaking earlier in our trip (I’ll get to that later.)
As you can see from the photos, the view and experience can be totally different depending on when you happen to visit Glacier. Either way, you are bound to take in some breathtaking views.
Rocky Point Trail at Fish Creek Campground
This was our first hike of the morning, but it would be a great substitute if you can’t quite do Avalanche or if you have enough steam at the end of the day. It’s a very quick 1.9 miles with a little bit of an uphill climb. The trail ends at a quiet part of Lake McDonald where it might be nice to just let the kids play, have lunch and all around take a load off.
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- Enter West Entrance
- Polebridge Mercantile
- Bowman Lake
Ok, I made this a super low-key day for 3 reasons:
- I definitely crammed in options for additional days up above, so you should have plenty of variety.
- Hiking and traveling with kids can be tiring and I think it is crucial that you combine slow travel days where you are simply relaxed and enjoying life. I mean, I hope you do that throughout the entire trip, but just to make sure you do.
- Polebridge Mercantile is a really fun Glacier stop that isn’t centered around nature and I wanted to find a way to fit it in
Remember, mix and match as you choose. My hope is to give you some basic guidelines and ideas!
Technically this isn’t within Glacier National Parks limits, but you can’t tell…like at all. In other words, don’t stress getting lost, just keep following signs for Polebridge.
The Mercantile Shop has some of the yummiest varieties of baked goods your heart could ever want. Including Montana’s famous huckleberry filling! My personal favorite is the Huckleberry Bear Claw!
You can head here for breakfast, leisurely enjoy the tables outside and some of the many little pit stops surrounding the area.
Full disclosure, I have not been to Bowman Lake. However, they offer kayak and canoe rentals which could easily make for that chill day we talked about earlier.
After a full day of enjoying the lake, you could easily loop back to Polebridge for a late lunch/dinner as they have food trucks available and a local saloon and live music playing throughout the summer. This is all conveniently located side by side like a mini oasis of yummy food in the middle of the wilderness and is definitely something to take advantage of.
*Also, random side note: if you are not a big fan of bar food (like me), you’ll be happy to hear that the saloon offers higher quality eats than deep fryers have to offer.
Exploring outside Glacier
Now, let’s talk about branching a little outside of Glacier since there is much to be enjoyed elsewhere. This year was our first time going outside the gates of the National Park to explore nearby Flathead Lake in Somers, Montana.
This is something you could easily tack onto your Polebridge visit, or make a day of on it’s own (which is what we did). Because it takes a good hour or so to get to most places in Glacier National Park anyway, the 60+ minute hike over to Flathead Lake really wasn’t that big of a deal to us.
Our little family of 4 went kayaking on Flathead Lake and rented kayaks through Sea Me Paddle rental shop. The only downfall was having to haul our own kayak across traffic with our 2 kids. Not the worst, but not the greatest either.
We pushed them in right on the edge of the local park that was across the street from the location where we rented our kayaks from and pushed off for 2 hours of early morning quiet on the lake. By the time we got back the park was packed and there were kayaks and paddle boards everywhere. I’m telling you, if you love the idea of a serene morning with nature all to yourself, I definitely recommend being an early bird traveler. (Man, I’m a geek.)
Call me old fashioned, but one of my favorite things to do after a long hike, or 2 ours on the kayak is most definitely a cold beer (and or hot coffee and pie depending on the time of day). I’m a foodie, what can I say. Wait…that’s not food. Anyway.
We stumbled upon the Tamarack Brewery which is was voted Best Local Brewery! Lucky us! Again the atmosphere was amazing and the food was beyond fantastic! This was definitely a bigger splurge than we were planning on (since we normally make as much food as possible), but it was our anniversary and a hot day.
After cooling down with a beer and filling up on good food, we thought it best to jump back in the lake for a refresher. I should probably add that we did this at the end of June, so the water was no doubt still warming from winter and the local kids thought it was hysterical how cold we thought it was.
These are the types of moments I wish I could document (can you tell I love capturing moments?) because they are the ones that truly make a person feel alive. Jumping off a dock with your kids into freezing cold water and swimming over onto a floating platform only to continue jumping in again and again, screaming and laughing the whole time like a kid. Those are the moments I wish I could freeze in time, my only hope is that they stay locked in my memory.
Well, that’s all folks!
Hopefully this gave you some great ideas for how to spend your time in Glacier National Park no matter how old your kiddos might be!
Stay tuned, because we are definitely hoping to add an all grown up agenda at some point. Like this 3 day chalet hike. (Although it says kids 10 and over and welcome!)