Heading to Glacier National Park with kids? This 3-Day Itinerary for exploring Glacier National Park as a family includes the Going-to-the-Sun-Road, West Glacier, Many Glacier, and the Two Medicine areas. This is a fantastic park for families with a combination of hiking and driving. We visited as part of our American Northwest family road trip in the fall of 2021.
Glacier National Park is known for its pristine lakes, many glaciers, and abundant wildlife. This is the park for hiking into solitude and keeping your eyes peeled for wildlife! There are many short hikes and viewpoints that make Glacier National Park with kids a great family vacation.
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What is Glacier National Park Famous For?
Glacier National Park is known for snow-capped mountains, hiking in alpine terrain, glaciers and glacial lakes, and clear, pristine waterways, as well as abundant wildlife.
When the park was established in 1910 there were over 100 glaciers in the park. All of the glaciers have since receded and shrunk- in 2015 only 26 of the original glaciers could still be considered active glaciers.
It has been called the “crown of the continent”, as water from here flows into the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay. This is one of the few places where all the carnivores native to the area still thrive- including black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves. Glacier is an official Biosphere Reserve, and the world’s first International Dark Sky Park.
Getting to Glacier National Park with Kids
Glacier National Park is located in northern Montana. It actually touches the Canadian border, where it joins with Waterton Lakes Park in Alberta, Canada as the world’s first International Peace Park. This peace park was designated a World Heritage Site in 1995.
The closest airport to Glacier is the Glacier Park International Airport (FCA), in Kalispell, MT. You can also fly into Spokane, which is a 4-hour drive away.
If you are driving into the park, you’ll come from either Great Falls, MT in the southeast, Missoula, Mt in the southwest, or from Kalispell or Whitefish, MT in the west.
When is the Best Time to Visit Glacier National Park with Kids?
The best time to visit Glacier National Park is mid-July to mid-September. Roads will be clear of snow and fully open. By mid-September, services start to close down and sections of roads may close. Because the season is short, Glacier can be quite crowded, so plan to start your days early to avoid the crowds.
How Much Do I Need to Plan Ahead?
We advise booking lodging well in advance. Some popular lodging options in Glacier book up when released, 13 months in advance, so the sooner you can make reservations in this park, the better. Many campgrounds release dates six months in advance. If you would like to have dinner at one of the nicer lodges in the park, you should make reservations as soon as possible as well, though dining-in is not an option for 2021.
Download maps and apps ahead of time. Do not expect wifi or cell service throughout the park.
Planning ahead is one of our top family travel tips- you can check out the other tips at 21 Family Travel Tips for 2021: Best Tips for Travel with Kids.
How Much Does Glacier National Park Cost?
The fee to enter Glacier National Park is $35- that is good for your full car and lasts for seven days (as of 2021). If you will be combining this visit with other National Parks, be sure to get an America the Beautiful Pass. This annual pass costs $80 and gets you unlimited access to National Parks for one year. This pass covers entrance fees, it does not cover tour fees or lodging fees.
4th graders (and 5th Graders in 2021) also get a free annual park pass for their families.
If you are visiting before September 6, 2021, you must also have a reservation for the Going-to-the-Sun Road, in addition to your entrance fee or park pass!
Look for Junior Ranger packets in the visitor centers throughout the Park. Kids fill out the packets, and return them to be sworn in as Junior Rangers, complete with a wooden badge! You may also want to get a family National Park Passport Book to stamp at each park you visit.
How to Get Around Glacier National Park
There are several ways to move about the park once you have arrived.
This is the most straightforward option- you drive yourself and pull over whenever you feel like it. The downside is dealing with traffic. As there are few main roads, finding parking in busy lots can be challenging.
Park shuttles run from July 1, through labor day. In 2021, a ticket-to-ride reservation system was implemented to reduce lines. These shuttles run the full length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Apgar to St. Mary, from 7 am to 7 pm.
Assuming a similar system will be in place for future seasons, you will need to plan ahead to get a reservation. 75% of all available tickets for the season were released June 1st, with additional tickets released on a two-day rolling basis.
Check details on the NPS site, and read the restrictions and validation details carefully.
Vintage Red Buses
Tour the park in vintage 1930s red buses with roll-back tops. Each bus seats 17 people on bench seating, with very limited legroom.
These are considered the oldest touring fleet of vehicles anywhere in the world and are part of the heritage of the park. These often sell out and are ideal for those squeamish about driving the cliff edge portions of the Going-to-the-Sun-Road on their own.
Red Bus Tours depart from both the east and west sides of the park.
How Many Days Should I Spend in Glacier National Park with Kids?
We planned for three nights with our 4 and 6-year-olds in Glacier National Park, however, some families may prefer to have more time. You could easily spend a week here if you wanted to slow down. We have seen adults lounging by the lakeside with a book, and families checking out the mini-golf in West Glacier Village.
The Regions of Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is split into several regions, with quite some distance between them. There is only one road that cuts through the park- the Going-to-the-Sun Road connects Apgar and West Glacier on the west to Logan Pass in the middle, and finally to St. Mary on the eastern edge of the park. All other sections must be accessed by driving around the park.
Apgar and Lake McDonald
Apgar and Lake McDonald are on the west side of Glacier National Park. Apgar Village has a visitors center, gift shop, and Cafe, and is the first area of the park for visitors entering from the west along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
This is the middle area of the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the highest point on this road. Here you’ll find Logan Pass Vistors Center and the Hidden Lake Nature Trailhead.
St. Mary is at the end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road if driving from the west, or where you enter the park from the east. Saint Mary Lake runs along the first stretch of road here, in a similar fashion to Lake McDonald in the west.
The Many Glacier area of the park is only accessed from the Many Glacier entrance along Rt. 89, north of St Mary. This area is known for glaciers, glacial lakes, and is a great place to try to spot moose.
This is one of the most popular areas in the park for hikers. When we visited this area was closed for the season- due to road construction, weather, and moose rutting season.
The Two Medicine area is in the southeast of the park. It is accessed only from the Two Medicine entrance on Rt. 2. This is one of the least visited areas of the park that are accessible by car, but some families find it is their favorite! Look for bighorn sheep and mountain goats in this section of the park.
Goat Haunt is only accessible via ferry from Waterton Park, Alberta, Canada, or through backcountry hiking. There are no roads that go to this section of the park.
This is the sister park to Glacier, which is across the Canadian border. Prior to the border closing in 2020, tours often included sections of both parks.
The North Fork area consists of several areas only accessible from the Polebridge entrance to the park. These areas include Kintla Lake, Bowman Lake, Quartz Lake, and Logging Lake. They are remote areas with few services.
What to Bring to Glacier National Park
Warm Jackets and Rain Gear: Plan for changeable weather. Bring jackets and rain gear. Snowstorms can blow in unexpectedly even in June or later. We visited in mid-September and wore layers of sweaters, jackets, and warm hats. In the sun it can be quite warm, even in the fall, but the breeze is cold.
Bear Spray: Stay back from wildlife, and don’t let the kids run too far ahead on a trail. If you won’t need it for other parts of your trip, donate it to the park rangers on your way out of the park. Use your judgment- if you are sticking to heavily trafficked trails and doing a lot of driving, this may not be necessary.
A Full Tank of Gas: You’ll be driving long distances, and don’t want to run out of gas. There are no gas stations within Glacier.
Binoculars: You don’t want to miss seeing wildlife, and you need to give them their distance.
Glacier National Park with Kids: 3-Day Itinerary
You could spend a week exploring this park. Here are our suggestions for what to do when you only have 3 days and 3 nights. This assumes you are driving in and will have a half-day to explore on the first day, then two full days followed by driving out the morning of the third day. You can easily extend this itinerary if you have more time.
Day 1: West Glacier and Lake McDonald
You’ll be arriving at the park on this day, so we’ll assume a half-day to explore. Enter the park from the West Side, then stop at the Apgar Visitor Center to get any updates on the park, grab maps, and get your Junior Ranger Packets. This is a small visitors center, so you won’t need much time here.
It’s important to start on the west side of the park, as you’ll get the best view driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road driving west to east.
Lunch in West Glacier or Apgar
We stayed in the West Glacier Motel just outside the park, so the West Glacier Cafe was very convenient for a quick lunch. Their menu is limited to mostly burgers and fries, but the food is good. There is a bar next door if you need a beer to go with lunch. There are plenty of outside picnic tables out front.
Alternately, drive into Apgar and have lunch at Eddies Cafe before exploring further. Sit on their patio and enjoy the views over the lake. Overall the food here is fine, but don’t miss their delicious huckleberry and peach pie! There is an outdoor patio as well as inside booths. The kids can get ice cream cones from the gift shop next door while the adults enjoy warm pie a la mode.
As you drive into the park there are a few pull-offs that give you access to the edge of Lake Mcdonald. Go touch the water, take a picture with a snow-capped mountain peak in the distance and explore the colored rocks in the lake. The water here is very cold, and thus, very clear.
Lake McDonald Lodge
Stop at the Lake McDonald Lodge to view the traditional natural wood post and beam lobby with an enormous fireplace (and lots of stuffed wildlife heads on the walls). Head out to the back deck to take in views of the lake. You can also book cruises of Lake McDonald from here. There is a small gift shop in the lodge you may want to check out.
Stop at the McDonald Falls pull-off to see a lovely, wide set of falls crashing through McDonald Creek.
A bit farther up the road, you’ll see another pull-off on your left with a white railing and a set of stairs descending a few steps towards the water. This is a lovely view of the McDonald Cascade. You can get much closer to the water here than at the McDonald Falls pull-off.
Trail of the Cedars
Approximately 5 miles from McDonald Lodge along the Going-to-the-Sun Road is the Trail of the Cedars trailhead. There are two sets of parking spots here, and it can get quite crowded.
The Trail of the Cedars is an easy 1-mile loop on a boardwalk or flat path. It is wheelchair and stroller accessible. You’ll wind through Western Red Cedar, Black Cottonwood, and Western Hemlock trees, some of which are quite large. This is a quiet, shaded trail that winds around and over Avalanche Creek.
If you have more time or want to make this hike more challenging, take the turn off for the Avalanche Lake trail. This trail splits from Trail of the Cedars about 1/2 mile in from the trailhead. It is 2 miles out to Avalanche Lake, and another 2 miles back. You’ll see hundreds of downed trees that are the result of a recent avalanche. When you reach Avalanche Lake, you’ll also have views of Bearhat Mountain.
Dinner and Relax
Return to West Glacier, check into your lodging and explore the area. Have dinner close to your lodging- for a more upscale dinner try the Glacier Highland or have a casual meal at whichever cafe you didn’t choose for lunch!
Day 2: Going-to-the-Sun Road
Start this day early, as you’ll want to complete the road and then drive around the park to return to your base in West Glacier. Alternately, you could choose to spend your second night in St. Mary or Many Glacier to reduce drive times. We decided to choose extra driving over packing and unpacking additional times. Next time we visit, we’ll base ourselves in St. Mary and focus on the Many Glacier and Two Medicine sections of the park.
Drive the meandering 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun-Road that cuts through the park. This road is generally open July through late September and is the only road that crosses the park. You can zip past the areas that you saw the day before, and head towards Logan’s Pass.
There are many overlooks and stopping points, so take your time. Take a picnic lunch with you so that you can stop and eat whenever you are ready.
The Loop is a hairpin turn that has parking in the middle. There are also bathrooms here. The Loop has the best view of Heaven’s Peak- when we visited it was covered in fresh snow from the night before and looked like a layered French pastry covered in powdered sugar.
When you get to Logan’s Pass, park here. This is the highest elevation on the road (6,646 feet). You can explore the visitor center (with bathrooms) then head out on Hidden Lake Nature Trail.
We got to Logan’s Pass a few minutes after 9 am, in mid-September, and had to circle for over 20 minutes before finding a parking spot. We almost gave up, but we’re glad we stayed! Just up from the visitors center, we got to watch a grizzly bear scratching, stretching, and digging in the grass. We were on a boardwalk with several park rangers and a ton of people taking pictures. It was fantastic to see this magnificent animal in a safe way!
Hidden Lake Nature Trail
Hidden Lake Nature Trail is 3 miles round trip, it includes steps and has amazing views at the top. The base of the trail is a boardwalk, then a gravel path with some streams crossing and a few wet spots. The trail gently heads uphill most of the way, often with built-in steps, which makes for an easy downhill return.
This trail has terrific views all the way up. It is one of our favorite hikes from all the national parks we have visited. The sun was out, the air was cool, and we were surrounded by snow-dusted mountain peaks.
We saw Rock Ptarmigans (a bird that sort of resembles a peahen), and several people spotted bighorn sheep on the mountainside, though we didn’t have the right binoculars to really see them. As we got higher in elevation, the kids loved throwing snowballs!
Most people take the trail to the Hidden Lake Overlook. You can continue another 1.5 miles down to the lake itself, though the park rates this section of the hike “strenuous”. When we visited this part of the trail was closed due to bear activity.
Continue along the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Jackson Glacier Overlook. This is the one glacier you can see from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Sun Point Nature Trail
This is a great place to stop for lunch or a snack. There is a road that splits off from the main road and heads towards St. Mary Lake. There is a large terraced parking lot and several picnic tables. From the bottom of the parking lot, you can walk a loop that takes you to Sun Point. Marked as 0.2 miles, this trail has lovely views looking down at St. Mary Lake. It was quite windy when we were there.
From this trailhead, you can also hike to three waterfalls: Bering, St. Mary, and Virginia Falls, for a round trip of just under 6 miles.
Wild Goose Island
Continuing along the road, just before you reach the Rising Sun area, you’ll see the pull-off for Wild Goose Island. This is a tiny island rising out of the lake. This view was used in the opening shot for the movie The Shining and is one of the most photographed areas along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
You finish in St. Mary. If you are ready to swear in a new Junior Ranger you can stop by the visitors center here to find a ranger.
There are several dining options in town here including Johnson’s Cafe or continue along route 2 to East Glacier. Serrano’s Mexican restaurant in East Glacier gets good reviews- they don’t take reservations, so get there close to their 5 pm opening, or plan to wait.
Day 3: Many Glacier Area
Many Glacier, accessed from the park’s east side, has some of the park’s most loved trails, including Grinnell Glacier and Iceberg Lake. Here’s a detailed map of the area. This area was closed for the season when we visited in mid-September, we’ll have to return when it’s open and our girls can handle some longer hikes!
In its entirety, this is a 7-mile hike. You can shorten it by taking ferries from Many Glacier Hotel across two lakes, cutting off several miles. Book ferry tickets ahead of time, and be aware there can be a long wait for a ride back. You’ll be rewarded at the end of the hike with a magnificent view of a glacier with icebergs floating in the lake.
This is the other “not-to-miss” hike often cited as a reason to explore Many Glaciers. However, at 9.7 miles, roundtrip it’s more than our kids could handle. The trailhead is behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. We’re hoping to return in a few years when we can tackle this hike!
This trail is 2 miles round trip with some elevation gain. Take the Poia Lake trailhead, you’ll find a waterfall at the end of this trail. This is a very easy hike for most families.
Alternate Day 3: Two Medicine Area
Two Medicine is one of the least visited sections of the park, and some families report it is their favorite! You can also explore Two Medicine Lake via boat, or by kayak or canoe. There are bathrooms at the Two Medicine Camp Store. Here’s a detailed map of the area.
Dawson/Pitamakan Pass Loop
This is the most famous of the Two Medicine trails and includes some of the best views in Glacier. Topping off at 17 miles, it is not a great option for families with young kids.
Boat Across Two Medicine Lake
Take a boat ride across Medicine Lake to the West shore, then hike from there. A one-way ride lasts approximately 45 minutes. After leaving the boat, hike to Twin Falls (1.2 miles out). From here you can keep going along the Upper Two Medicine Lake Trail (4.8 miles roundtrip in total), before taking a return boat trip across the lake. Boats run until mid-September.
At 2.8 miles round trip with some elevation gain. If you like, you can continue uphill to Aster Park Overlook. This starts from the end of the paved road, by the Two Medicine Camp Store.
Running Eagle Falls
This trail is a one-mile, easy walk along a boardwalk. This is a great short hike for an afternoon after you’ve already tacked a longer hike. The double waterfall is worth the visit.
Which Side of Glacier National Park is Better for Families?
The west side of Glacier is where most tours and activities depart. Whitewater rafting and helicopter tours for example leave from here. This is the best place to start the Going-to-the-Sun-Road so that you’ll have the best views from the car. The west side also gives you access to the North Fork area via Polebridge and unpaved roads.
The east side of Glacier has the easiest access to some of the best trailheads in the park. You can only access Many Glaciers and Two Medicine from the east. The east side tends to be windier, and get more snow than the west side.
What Can I Do at Glacier National Park with Kids Other than Hike?
There are plenty of things to do at Glacier other than hiking, depending on the ages in your family.
There are several tour companies that offer whitewater rafting trips along the Flathead River. The minimum age is generally 3 for float trips, and 5 for whitewater trips.
Canoe or Kayak
You can rent paddleboats, canoes, kayaks, or even motorboats to explore the lakes in many areas of the park. Glacier Park Boat Company handles rentals in the Apgar, Lake McDonald, Two Medicine, and Many Glaciers areas of the park.
Visitors have been exploring the park via horseback since the very early days of the park. In fact, at the Jackson Glacier overlook, you can see a tunnel under the road built specifically for horses.
Swan Mountain Outfitters runs tours on horseback within Glacier, with a minimum age of 7 years old.
Fly Over Glacier National Park
You can view the glaciers of Glacier National Park from a helicopter or a small airplane. There are several companies that run these flights.
Where to Eat in Glacier National Park with Kids
National Parks are often known for their historic lodges with grand dining rooms. Unfortunately, for the 2021 season, all in-park dining facilities are take-out only, and several are completely closed. The Two Dog Flats Grill at Rising Sun Motor Inn is serving inn guests only. Plan to bring food into the park, get take out from the lodges or eat at the villages just outside the park.
We enjoyed lunch at the West Glacier Cafe just outside the west entrance, as well as dinner at Eddies’s Cafe in Apgar Village. Eddie’s has table service, for both inside and outside tables.
Lodging in Glacier National Park
We stayed just outside the park at the West Glacier Motel in West Glacier Village. This complex includes an RV park with a small playground. The rooms were simple but fine, though they were lacking a refrigerator. The village includes a camp store, grocery, gift store, cafe, post office, and more.
There are seven lodgings within the park, ranging from motels to upscale lodges. The most famous lodge in the park is the Lake McDonald Lodge, which is built in a Swiss chalet style. The largest is the remote Many Glacier Hotel built by the railroad in 1914.
There You Have It!
Glacier is a wonderful park to explore with kids. There are lots of family-friendly hikes, and the views are stunning throughout the park.
We were lucky to have crystal clear days to explore Glacier National Park as a family. While we didn’t see a moose (doh!), we were thrilled to see a grizzly bear from a safe distance. We are already making plans to return!