For the last twelve plus month of our nomad life, Zack and I have been hearing constantly about how Glacier is the most beautiful national park, so when we were finally able to plan a month here, we were so excited.
When we pulled up on August 1, though, the air was thick with smoke and the air quality was deemed “hazardous.” We were, to put it simply, devastated.
We weighed our options and decided to try our luck by staying, and I’m so glad we did. While we’ve definitely gotten some smoky days, the wind and the rain has cleared it out intermittently, which is, from what I understand, typical here. Do know that if you book for August or September (and increasingly, July), you might end up with some smoky days. It’s almost impossible to plan for, but we found that it disrupted our plans far less than we anticipated (we didn’t do hard hikes that would make us breathe heavily, but I was surprised how enjoyable the area was, even with a little smoke) and the air doesn’t tend to stay smoky for weeks on end without respite.
With all of that said, Glacier absolutely lives up to the hype. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, with plenty of hikes for pretty much every level of interest and fitness.
Know before you go
If you’re trying to decide where to stay, here’s a breakdown in a nut shell: a lot of our favorite hikes in the park were actually on the east side, which adds an hour plus to the drive from the West Glacier entrance (the one closest to Kalispell and Whitefish). That said, the towns are tiny (like, no grocery store tiny) on that end of the park, so if you’re staying for a longer period or you just want a bit more night life, I’d still recommend staying in Kalispell or Whitefish. But if you just want to stay in a hotel and hike for a quick trip, I’d definitely recommend the Many Glacier Hotel, which has the most beautiful location I’ve ever seen and is right by my favorite parts of the park.
Between Kalispell and Whitefish, the decision is likely largely financial. Whitefish is definitely more aesthetic—it has a super cute downtown area, and a beautiful lake with a beach right in town. That said, we had a really hard time finding affordable accommodation in Whitefish, which has way more of a boujis ski town vibe. Kalispell is about 15 minutes away, and we found it had way more affordable options. We loved our Airbnb (linked here), and we also loved the Natural Grocers in town. Kalispell is about 10 minutes further from Glacier, which we didn’t mind at all, and we regularly went into Whitefish for restaurants, the farmers market, etc. Also, Kalispell has some fun stuff unto itself, including a cidery I loved (linked below).
Also note that between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you’ll need a pass to drive on the Going-to-the-Sun road, the main thoroughfare of Glacier National Park. These are available 2 months in advance (which I highly recommend setting your alarm and getting), and 2 days in advance (which is a nightmare and almost impossible to procure). A lot of the main hikes and attractions are along the Going-to-the-Sun road, but if you miss out on tickets, you can still do Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier (two of my favorite hikes in the park), via the Many Glacier gate, which is un-ticketed.
The best restaurants in Whitefish, Kalispell, and Glacier National Park
The park has limited dining options, so definitely pack a lunch when you go in! For groceries, there’s a Natural Grocers in Kalispell, and a Safeway and a place called Third Street Market in Whitefish. Natural Grocers is much bigger than Third Street Market, but Third Street Market was surprisingly well stocked (it was the only place in the area, for instance, I could find Olipop sodas or my favorite tepache). Beyond that, here are a few places we loved:
Whitefish Farmers Market—a shockingly huge farmers market for such a small town! It takes place on Tuesday night and in addition to tons of fresh produce, there’s often live music and a bunch of food trucks. Definitely a fun way to spend an evening, and to get to sample local fare.
Fleur Bake Shop—with some of the best challah and sourdough I’ve tried, this bakery became a weekly must-visit. They also have quiches, prepared salads, and plenty of coffee and teas, making it a great place to pick up a picnic before heading out to Whitefish Lake.
The Wich Haus—a casual sandwich restaurant with plenty of outdoor seating (and corn hole!) that uses farm-fresh ingredients to create some of the most creative and delicious dishes I’ve had in a long time. Vegetarian options abound, but if you like fried chicken, definitely try their famous take on it.
Polebridge Mercantile—we got SO many recommendations to go to Polebridge Mercantile, which is a historic mercantile located about an hour north of Kalispell, by one of Glacier’s north entrances. We tried all of their pastries, including the famous Huckleberry Bear Claw and I’m gonna be completely honest—I was somewhat underwhelmed. I did, however, LOVE the environment, and thought it was a super fun and worthwhile day’s adventure. There’s also a food truck on site and a bar that has hot food and drinks. The historic building is really fun, the drive is beautiful (we saw a bear on the way!), so I would definitely include it if your plans permit (and try the pastries! Maybe I was there on an off day).
Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant—a hotel that’s open to the public for breakfast 7 days a week, this hidden gem has some of the most delicious, farm-to-table food in the area. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but the breakfast burrito and the hummus toast were two of my favorites.
Big Mountain Cider Works—with plenty of cider on tap and a slightly-elevated pub menu, this is a fun place to relax after a hike. The space itself is gorgeous both inside and out, and the ciders are delicious.
The best things to do in the Kalispell, Whitefish, and Glacier National Park area
While obviously hiking in Glacier is a big draw of the area (check out my favorite hikes below), there are plenty of other fun activities! I’d definitely check out the farmers market and Polebridge Mercantile (linked above), but here were my other favorite things to do:
Rent a boat and go out on Whitefish Lake—we did this on my birthday and it was so much fun! The boats all play music, so you can dance and just have fun on a gorgeous lake. There’s also a Tiki Bar that you can take the boat to and tie it up while you grab a cocktail or a quick snack.
Do a river float or raft—there are lots of rafts you can hire to do a float down the Middlefork River, but we just got our own tubes on Amazon and honestly, everyone who floated by was jealous of us. We had our kombuchas, our music, our butts in the water (they were all sweltering on the rafts on the hot days). If you want a guided float, check out Glacier Raft Company. If you want to do it yourself, these are the tubes we got (we love them!), and we put in at West Glacier and took out at the Blankenship Bridge. There are no real rapids between these two points, and there’s plenty of beautiful scenery, including a canyon that’s perfect for stopping for a swim.
Take a SUP out on Lake McDonald or one of the areas many other lakes—between Lake McDonald, Whitefish Lake, Flathead Lake, there are a ton of beautiful stand up paddle board locations (you will need a Going-to-the-Sun road ticket to do Lake McDonald). We own our own SUP (this one, which is inflatable and I highly recommend) but there are plenty of rental companies so just search for one near the lake that you ultimately choose.
The best hikes in the Kalispell, Whitefish, and Glacier National Park area
While there are other hikes in the area, the real stars of the show are in Glacier, which is simply one of the most beautiful parts of the world that I’ve ever been. There are also hikes for all skill levels and at all lengths. Do note that Montana is grizzly territory, so it’s always recommended to hike in groups and with bear spray to avoid running into issues. We never saw bears on the trail but we did see 3 from the road and heard plenty of reports of them on trail, so just be aware and act responsibly! The only area of the park that I’d say might not be worth it for day hikes is the Two Medicine area—while it’s gorgeous, the day hikes mostly just take you through forests. With time to get up and out into the back country, it’d be worthwhile, but otherwise I’d stick to the hikes on this list.
Grinnell Glacier—this was my favorite trail in the park. You wind through scenic meadows, past turquoise lakes, and under waterfalls, until you reach an iceberg-studded lake flanked by a Glacier. While it’s a hard hike, it’s not too strenuous, but do leave a full day for it, especially if you’re not staying at the Many Glacier Hotel and have to make the 2.5 hour trek from the Kalispell/Whitefish area.
Iceberg Lake—Another beautiful trail in the same area as Grinnell Glacier, this lake was stunning and has glaciers around it, although ironically no icebergs floating in it (while Grinnell actually does have icebergs). A little less difficult than Grinnell and I’d say 10% less satisfying, so if you have to choose, do Grinnell, but if you can, do both.
The Highline Trail—The best trail to get sweeping overviews of Glacier Park, this is a well-trafficked trail that leaves from Logan Pass. You can either hike it one way and do the whole thing to the Loop, but honestly, if you just leave your car at Logan Pass and do about 3.5 miles out to the saddle (7 miles roundtrip), you’ll get most of the views and the satisfying parts of the hike with way less inconvenience (if you do the whole thing one way, you either have to hitch, take 2 cars, or have a shuttle reservation to get back to your car).
Avalanche Lake—A great afternoon hike, this shortie gets you out to one of the most beautiful gorges I’ve ever seen and then up to a stunning lake, all in the span of a few hours. This would also be very doable with kids or people who are less into long hikes.
Hidden Lake Overlook—Like the Highline Trail, the Hidden Lake Overlook leaves from Logan Pass. You can go all the way down to the lake, but the hike just to the overlook is stunning and well-worth doing. You’ll get sweeping views of the pass, plenty of gorgeous meadows, and a beautiful lake at the end. Another great one for novice hikers (although experienced ones shouldn’t miss it either; you could combine it with the Highline Trail for a 11-12 mile day).
Where to stay in the Kalispell, Whitefish, and Glacier National Park
Like I mentioned at the top of the post, we chose to stay in an Airbnb in Kalispell and we absolutely loved it—it was close to the airport (which was nice because we had a lot of people visiting), near a major grocery store (the Super 1, which would not be my choice to regularly shop but actually had a great organic section and was good as a filler, pop-out-last-minute place), and far more reasonably priced than Whitefish.
If I were going to stay in Whitefish, I’d either stay at the Firebrand Hotel, which is super chic and right smack in the middle of downtown, or the Farmhouse Inn, which has delicious breakfasts and beautiful rooms. And, like I mentioned above, if I just wanted to go all in on hiking and didn’t care about a town, I’d go for the Many Glacier Hotel, which feels like it’s in the Sound of Music.
I hope you enjoyed this Kalispell, Whitefish, and Glacier National Park Healthy Travel Guide! Let me know any other recommendations in the comments below!
Check out my other travel guides!
- Tucson Healthy Travel Guide
- St. George/Zion & Bryce Canyon National Park Healthy Travel Guide
- Santa Fe Healthy Travel Guide
- Durango Healthy Travel Guide