When Backpacker magazine’s readers voted Glacier National Park the best in America a few years ago, they were only telling half the story. More than just a backpacker’s paradise, Glacier is also prime real estate for whitewater rafting enthusiasts, day hikers, even casual travelers with a few calories to burn. And even if you only have a weekend, Glacier’s mountain scenery and its many affordable activities add up to a pretty good value.
“All ahead!” yells my Wild River Adventures rafting guide, a big burly fellow who spends his summers rafting and his winters at nearby Big Mountain Ski Resort. “High side left! Left!” And then, mercifully, the words everyone in my raft longs to hear: “All right, rest.”
We’ve just survived a river rapid called “Pinball”—or maybe it’s “Jaws” or “Screaming Right Turn.” To be honest, it’s hard to keep track when you’re holding on for dear life on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. I’ve signed up for a “Wild Side” rafting trip, a Wild River exclusive that promises I’ll get “SOAKED!” It’s $65 for a half-day or $50 in your own inflatable kayak, and true to its word, nearly the entire river finds its way into my clothes at one point or another after an afternoon on (and sometimes in) the Flathead.
Wild River is one of four whitewater outfitters within a mile or two of the park’s West Glacier entrance. The others are the Montana Raft Company, Great Northern Whitewater Raft and Resort, and Glacier Raft Company.
It’s not that the Flathead is the greatest of whitewater challenges—really, it’s not—but it does have two things going for it: terrific views of the park on one side, and family-friendly class II and III rapids downriver. If you’re considering a half-day outing on the Flathead (which is probably all you really need), you could pick any of the four companies and get basically the same thing. They all have good safety records and identical prices at $42 a person for a three- to four-hour trip. Wild River Adventures offers a five-percent discount if you mention their “Web special,” however.
Where they differentiate themselves is the multi-activity and multi-day outings. I tried Wild River’s full day “Saddle ‘n’ Paddle” trip, which ranges from $99 to $101 per person. It starts outside the nearby Rawhide Trading Post with a four-hour horse ride into the Flathead National Forest and ends with the rafting trip. The Flathead forest ride doesn’t offer nearly the same views that the official park concessionaire—Mule Shoe Outfitters—can deliver with its trips inside the park. Wild River Adventures works with both companies, so I’d steer you toward the three-hour Mule Shoe option through Paradise Valley. It’s $101 as part of the “Paddle ‘n’ Saddle” package, or $68 by itself. You’d save $32 by combining the two activities with Wild River, but bring aspirin—eight hours of horseback riding and whitewater rafting is a lot to ask of your body.
Other rafting companies offer different variations on the combination trips. The Montana Raft Company does a $78 full-day “Hike and Raft” combo, for example, while Great Northern does a variation of the paddle and saddle trip with the rafting early in the day and the horseback ride after lunch. Glacier Raft Company rents inflatable kayaks for self-guided day trips costing $95 for a two-person inflatable, plus a $25 pickup if you can’t return the boat on your own. The self-guided option isn’t a bad idea in August and September, when the Flathead more closely resembles a mild river than a wild one.
Choose your own adventure
While Glacier looks good from the river, it’s really meant to be explored by foot. There are three good options for day hikers. If you’re the do-it-yourself type, pick up a trail guide such as Eric Molvar’s Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks for $14.95 or his Best Easy Day Hikes variation for $6.95. Then, either drive to the trailhead or use the hiker shuttle, which goes for about $8 a trip, for one-way hikes that don’t loop back to your car. Most of the park lodges have brochures with the shuttle times and prices.
I found the best day hikes in the Many Glacier area on the east side of the park, and at Logan’s Pass at the top of Going-to-the-Sun-Road, where you can hike all or part of the 15-mile round-trip Highline trail—particularly good if you like high alpine trail walking. The trailhead isn’t far from the Logan’s Pass Visitor Center and parking lot.
Glacier Wilderness Guides, which also operates the Montana Raft Company, is the only hiking outfitter authorized by the National Park Service to lead backcountry excursions inside the park. It’s a good option if you prefer to hike with a guide. Hikes with Glacier Guides cost $65 a person for a full-day guided hike; there’s a five-person minimum group size. The price includes lunch, transportation, and a resourceful guide who will have a good sense of the park, its history, and its wildlife—not to mention a can of pepper spray if you should happen to run into a grizzly on the trail.
You don’t have to dish out any cash for a guided hike, though. Check the park newspaper (it comes with your $20 weeklong admission at any of the entrances) to see which hikes are being led by the park rangers when you’re there. These hikes are free and range from the easy hour-long variety to real strenuous full-day excursions on the harder trails. The downside: The park rangers take up to 30 people per hike—not necessarily the best way to get away from it all in the wilderness. Still, it’s a good option if your budget is a consideration and you’re not confident enough to set out on your own.
There are ways to see the park without breaking a sweat, too. Glacier Park is split in half by 50 miles of twists and turns called Going-to-the-Sun Road, which connects the West Glacier entrance to St. Mary on the east side and provides eye-level views of snowfields and glaciers along the way. Going-to-the-Sun Road is an adventure in the best sense of the word, and again there are some guided and do-it-yourself options to consider.
If you’re the do-it-yourself type, start at either end of the road, put the engine in low gear, and enjoy. This also gives you the option to pull over and take a few of the easy hikes along the way, most notably the six-mile round-trip Hidden Lake walk, which has a big payoff at the 1.5-mile lookout mark. Mountain goats seemed to like this trail when I hiked it, so it’s probably a good spot to see some wildlife, too. Not many people make the full round-trip, which means the crowd thins significantly if you stick it out to the end. It’s worth it, and can be hiked to the lake and back in about three to four hours.
If you’d prefer to let others do the driving (and don’t mind operating on someone else’s schedule), there are two options. The red “jammer” bus tours, from $25 to $80 a person, pick up riders at the historic lodges. These offer guided tours and roll-back canvas roofs that add to the view. The indigenous Blackfeet run interpretive Sun Tours from $35 that include native guides, tribal stories, and another way of looking at the wilderness territory.
Major repair work is underway on Going-to-the-Sun Road, and is expected to last another five or six years. On my trip, that amounted to about a half hour of delays from start to finish. I didn’t mind much, and I don’t think you will either. Just sit back and take in the scenery while you wait.
Staying near Glacier National Park
Visitors arriving from the airport in Kalispell, which is about 25 miles southwest of the park, generally start at the West Glacier entrance on Route 2. The other major gateway is the St. Mary entrance on the east side, accessible from Route 89. The Great Falls, Montana, airport is 200 miles from West Glacier. Car rentals are available at both airports. You can save about $10 a day on your rental by booking with an off-airport company such as the Thrifty location about five minutes from the Kalispell airport. If you book in advance, a rental car shuttle will be waiting for you when your flight arrives.
In West Glacier, the recently renovated Belton Chalet, with standard rooms from $130, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000 and has comfortable accommodations, a throwback feel, and the best food in the West Glacier area. Its bar has six beers on tap, cold Moose Drool brown ale by the bottle, and a killer bacon-wrapped buffalo meatloaf sandwich. This is the place to go for a nice dinner or night out after a long day in the wilderness. A cheaper alternative for overnight accommodations in West Glacier is the modest West Glacier Motel with rooms from $75.
Glacier Park, Inc., runs many of the other properties in and around the park—most notably, the historic Many Glacier Hotel on the east side. Standard rooms run from $140; suites go for $299. Those prices will get you considerable historic charm, “amenities” such as running water, and not much else. If you’re looking for a more reasonable price, try the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, with rooms from $43. The Many Glacier hiking trails start right at its doorstep.
One of the park rangers at Logan’s Pass reminded me of a startling fact: Glacier Park is melting. By the year 2030, none of the park’s 37 glaciers will be left. That means you only have another quarter century before the last few remnants of the modern Ice Age are gone from the park forever. What are you waiting for?