Adventures Inside and Outside Glacier National Park Away from the Crowds
- by Sherry Ott of Ottsworld
This summer is so exciting because we get to travel again around the US; however, you will find out pretty quickly that summer and fall travel must be planned well in advance. Especially if your trips are outdoor trips. One would think that there’s plenty of room outdoors, right? There is if you are willing to go to the lesser-known areas, but if you want to go to the popular National Parks, it’s another story.
One day early this summer I found myself setting an alarm - not to get up and go to work - but to get online and try to get a Glacier National Park reservation! The reservation system opens 60 days in advance of the entry date and normally sells out immediately as if it were a Rolling Stones concert. This is the reality of national park travel this year – and likely beyond.
I had planned a trip to Western Montana in July and decided to roll the dice at the reservation system. Luckily, after continuously re-hitting refresh on my browser, I got in and was able to get a coveted reservation to the Going to the Sun Road. However, many people aren’t that lucky. But don’t despair, there are other ways to get into Glacier.
6 Tips for how to beat the National Park Reservation Systems
- If you can't get a reservation at a national park - you can still get into these parks...just go before or after the times the reservations are required. For example, you can get into Going to the Sun road without a reservation if you enter before 6AM or after 5PM.
- Guests with campground or lodging booked within the park (any parks) will not be required to purchase a reservation slot. However, finding lodging inside these parks is also challenging so reserve early.
- Consider booking a park trip with a local tour company as they have time slots to get into parks allotted already! This is one of the ways to beat the crowds as tour companies often have special access to the parks, you skip lines, and get to see hidden areas the crowds don't know about.
- There are no reservations required for bikers or walkers!
- Glacier is only running the reservation system until September 6th. As long as there is no bad weather the road will remain open until the 3rd week in October with no reservation required.
- Go to other areas of the park. In Glacier – the reservation is only required for the Sun Road. There are other entrances to the park, like the Many Glaciers area, that just require a park pass – and it’s just as beautiful.
Note: Be sure to double check the other parks with reservation requirements on their entry times and rules: Rocky Mountain National Park, Acadia, Zion, Yosemite, and Haleakalā.
Even though I got a reservation, it wasn’t that important to me because I was determined to spend the majority of my vacation road tripping around the lesser-known parts of Western Montana in order to get away from the crowds.
Other Gems of Western Montana
I used Missoula as my starting point for this adventure filled road trip. Missoula is a cute mid-sized city with plenty of hiking and water activities just a few miles from the city center, so it was a great place to start.
White Water Rafting on the Clark Fork River
The Clark Fork and Flathead Rivers flow through Western Montana and provide a plethora of adventures in this mountainous region. Plus, they provide ample areas to cool down during the hot summer days. In fact, dipping my neck gaiter or headband in the cold mountain streams and reapplying was a lifesaver!
I went white water rafting on the Clark Fork River with Montana River Guides expertly leading us through the Class II and III rapids. The views in Alberton Gorge were lovely as we rocked and rolled through the waves. We even had a chance to do a little rock jumping in the gorge where we stopped for lunch.
High above the western side of Flathead Lake you’ll find a hidden gem, Purple Mountain Lavender Farm. Deb walked out with a canning jar full of lavender lemonade for our visit welcoming us with a grin and smiling eyes.
Deb and Uri are retired educators who wanted to make the world more beautiful. Even though she knew nothing about farming or lavender, she decided that she was going to grow lavender. They now have over 1,500 plants and 35 varieties of lavender. I went there to see the incredible views and scents coming from their beautiful farm.
Deb does tours by appointment in the summer taking you through the farm and educating about lavender. It’s a lovely outdoor low-key activity, and a nice chance to get to know some locals. She also has a gift shop and themed events throughout the summer during the growing season. The events look like so much fun and if one coincides with your visit, it’s a wonderfully unique experience to have in Western Montana!
Hike Around an Off the Beaten Path Cedar Grove
You may have heard of the Cedar Grove in Glacier National Park – it’s an uber popular stop. In fact, it’s a bit too popular as there is often no parking and none of the peace and quiet you are looking for when soaking in a forest of ancient trees.
We stopped at an alternative that a local recommended saying that it was better than the one in the park with fewer people. The Ross Creek Cedar Grove in Kootenai National Forest only has one little sign off of Highway 56 near Libby Montana, if you blink you’ll miss it! The narrow road winded us way back through the forest of ponderosa pines and deposited us in a small parking lot.
The cedar grove provided the perfect short hike, but most of all it provided a stillness that only 1,000-year-old trees can do for me. Some of the trees stretched up to a dizzying 175 feet tall! There were even a few that you could crawl inside of!
After a day of hiking around the mountains of Western Montana, nothing is better than a dip in the hot springs! Quinn’s Hot Springs are laid out in inviting oval pools descending like theater seating so that everyone can have an incredible view of the mountains as they soak.
We waited until the evening when the mountain temps dipped down into “boy does that hot water look inviting” range and soaked in the mineral rich pools as the sun went behind the mountains. We not only took a dip there, but it’s also a resort and restaurant right along the river and a wonderful place to stay.
Indigenous Cooking Experience
I think I was most excited about this unique experience on the East side of the National Park – an indigenous cooking experience. Mariah Gladstone, a native of Blackfeet and Cherokee Nation, has been speaking about the pre-contact foods that her ancestors used in their diet on stages for TEDx.
She formed Indigikitchen, a way of cooking by fostering an appreciation and love of traditional Native foods. We met her near Babb Montana in order to get a better grasp on this impressive landscape that we had been visiting for the last week and get a deeper sense of place through native food.
We walked around the area learning about foraging and uses for things like serviceberries, colorful fireweed, and cedar; all things that we had come in contact with over the week in Montana, but knew very little about. However, having an understanding of the history and many uses of these items does make you look at hiking in the area in a different way.
Mariah cooked up an indigenous feast of elk and wild rice stuffed peppers with fireweed garnish as well as sunflower cookies with serviceberries that we had just picked in the wild an hour earlier. It was an enlightening and scrumptious experience on the east side of the park where few people go.
Many Glaciers and the East Side of Glacier National Park
While spending the evening with Mariah, we also had the opportunity to get a ton of great advice from her on where to go in the park that wasn’t as crowded – her hidden gems. She pointed us in the direction of Many Glaciers.
This entrance on the east side in Babb was much less busy and didn’t require a reservation. But it did seem to require a sturdy car there as the entrance road was all torn up and under construction! But once we made it through that, we were treated to a view that I only thought was possible in the Swiss Alps!
There is great hiking in the Many Glacier area as well as horseback riding and you can rent kayaks and canoes and get out on Swiftcurrent Lake to explore the lakeside.
Don’t leave this area without a visit to the unique Many Glacier Lodge. Its Swiss influenced architecture makes it look like a chalet in the mountains of Europe. But it’s that chalet style that allows this large lodge to fit into its environment.
The outside is stunning but be sure to set foot inside (masks are required inside all National Park structures so don’t forget to pull up that neck gaiter as a quick mask!) and see the architecture of the great room/lobby made entirely with logs from the area.
My trip to Western Montana was memorable not because of the crowds, but because of the incredible landscapes, adventures, and locals we met along the way. It is possible to have a trip to Montana without driving the Going to the Sun Road and not feel like you’ve missed out on a thing. In fact, I bet you’ll have a better time discovering and exploring new places in Western Montana blazing your own trail!
Sherry is a traveler, blogger, and photographer with one goal in mind - to make you wish you were somewhere else. In her 11 years of living nomadically and traveling solo, she’s circled the globe multiple times visiting all 7 continents. She shares her epic adventures to intriguing places on Ottsworld.com and her social channels @Ottsworld.