Montana’s Glacier National Park is breathtaking in the scale of its dramatic landscapes. The rugged Rocky Mountains loom over lush meadows and a dozen large alpine lakes as well as serving as the backdrop for hundreds of smaller lakes, glacial tarns, and the unspoiled Flathead River.
Within the park lies a section of the largest intact ecosystem in the United States: The rugged Crown of the Continent. The region remains largely as Lewis and Clark saw it in 1806—incredibly, all of its plant and animal species have survived intact, including grizzly and black bears, grey wolves, wolverines, Canadian lynxes, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and moose. The million-plus acre park is also home to Triple Divide Peak along the Continental Divide, where all the water that falls from the peak will eventually flow either into the Pacific, Atlantic, or Arctic Ocean.
Glacier National Park maintains close ties with the land beyond its borders—in 1932, the national park and the adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada formed Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, the first-ever International Peace Park. Both parks are designated United Nations Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites.
Take note, though: If you want to see any of the park’s namesake glaciers, visit sooner rather than later. Of the 150 or so glaciers known to have existed in the mid-19th century, only about 25 remain. Global warming models predict that by 2030—or even sooner—none of the park’s glaciers will remain.
Why August Is the Perfect Time to Go
Summertime is the most popular time at Glacier for good reason: The days are warm and long, which means all of the roads and trails are accessible (even in June, Logan’s Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road can be closed by snow). August is a dependably good month to enjoy the myriad outdoor activities and adventures Glacier offers, including fishing, boating, hiking, horseback riding, and floating down the Flathead. Toward the end of the month, schools are back in session, which means you can enjoy the best of the summer weather with considerably smaller crowds.
Why It’s Great at Other Times of Year
Fall brings a hush to Glacier once the tourists have departed, but it’s one of the best time to see wildlife, which can often be spotted grazing near the roadsides in preparation for the long winter. It’s also a particularly active time for bears as they get ready to hibernate, so use common sense and don’t try to get near them. By late September, many of the seasonal accommodations and activities shut down, so you’ll need to be a little more self-reliant. (After Labor Day, all camping in the park is first come, first served). Winter brings abundant snow to the park, making it popular for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. On Saturdays and Sundays in winter, rangers lead snowshoe walks in the park. Spring comes late to these parts, and the snow hangs around until well into June—but if you’re adequately self-sufficient, it can be a lovely, quiet time to visit.
If You Go, Don’t Miss
One of the most popular ways to see the park is by driving the scenic 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which spans the park from east to west and was the first to be designated a National Historic Place, National Historic Landmark, and Historic Engineering Landmark. However, the road is undergoing extensive work that could make the going even slower than usual, so you might want to consider taking one of the free shuttles instead. Or, discover Glacier National Park history aboard one of the famous Red Bus Tours. The park still operates 33 of these striking 1930s-era vehicles, designed with a roll-back canvas roof that allows passengers to view the park in all of its vertical majesty.
June Bonus Pick: Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake, Oregon’s only national park, is a tranquil, sapphire-colored jewel born of a violent eruption about 7,700 years ago. The now dormant volcano, Mount Mazama (part of a chain that includes Mount St. Helens), eventually filled with rain and snowmelt, creating one the most pristine lakes in the world, and—at a depth of more than 1,900 feet—the deepest in the United States. By July and August, snowfall is rare, making it one of the best times to visit. Swimming is allowed, but there are no roads that access the lake; the only way to reach the shore is by hiking the steep Cleetwood trail. Once there, you can take a two-hour narrated boat excursion that stops at Wizard Island, a cinder cone in the volcano named for its resemblance to a sorcerer’s hat. (If time permits, you can depart the boat to explore the island and catch a later boat back. By car, you can circle the caldera on the 33-mile Rim Drive, which typically closes by October due to snow, and tends not to reopen until late June or early July.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Wrangell-St. Elias: Our July National Park of the Month
- Yellowstone National Park: Our June National Park of the Month
- Olympic National Park: Our May National Park of the Month
- Great Smoky Mountains: Our April National Park of the Month
- Hot Springs: Our March National Park of the Month
- Death Valley: Our February National Park of the Month
- Everglades: Our January National Park of the Month
Deb Hopewell is a longtime journalist and the former editor of Yahoo Travel. She writes for Outside, Fodor’s, Architectural Digest, Travel+Leisure, and others. Follow her on Instagram @debhopewell and Twitter @dhopewell.