Last month, we met my side of the family in Montana for a week of fun in and around Glacier National Park. I spent every summer in my youth visiting national parks over and over again, and I was excited to return to the Rocky Mountain West and expose our almost-three-year-old to some of my favorite parts of the United States. It was great fun, and we found lots of engaging and easy ways for William to enjoy the trip just as much as the adults.
Basic Information: Glacier National Park
In western Montana, this park is a great place for hiking and water sports. It has dozens of hiking trails, ranging from very easy (boardwalk-style one-milers through wooded areas with rushing streams) to wonderfully challenging (double digit miles round trip, gaining altitude of a thousand feet and more), making it simple to find walks that little legs can handle. There are several lakes and lodges for catching a rest, some food, and even boat tours when people are tired of moving. You might also find some really cool wildlife – we saw a black bear right on a trail, and lots and lots of wild deer!
An hour or so south is Flathead Lake, which is riddled with fun water sports, and there are many places to get a taste of local huckleberries and cherries – both in their natural state or as ice cream, coffee, pie, taffy, fudge, and candy.
Where to Stay
I highly recommend the ease of our location and accommodations. We stayed in between Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake, in Whitefish, at a great home which we found through AirBnB. We loved our location – 30 minutes to Glacier and about 30 minutes to Flathead Lake. Other options include Kalispell – a bit farther from the park, but also bigger with more amenities. You can also reserve camping spots in the park, cabins, or rooms in one of the many lodges.
We loved having a large home to share with family, as it gave us a home base and let us make our own food – eating out for every meal with a preschooler was NOT something we were interested in doing! There are lots of cabins and homes on AirBnB near the park, several motels and a few hotels. TripAdvisor recommends Glacier Guide Lodge and Lodge at Whitefish Lake if home or room renting isn’t your deal!
What to Do
In the park, there are a few activities I highly recommend:
- Spend a day at Lake McDonald Lodge: You can eat at one of the restaurants, enjoy a day hike, take a boat ride, or even go horseback riding!
- Red bus tour/Going-to-the-Sun road: While this was a bit ‘touristy,’ it was also a great way to cover the whole park in a short time, in a fun, open-top historical vehicle. Our kiddo fell asleep during the last hour of the tour (but what’s better than a little on snuggled on your lap?), and the Going-to-the-Sun road wasn’t open yet, but it was still a nice experience, and easy for anyone who isn’t into hiking but wants to see some sites.
- Avalanche Lake/hiking trail: This was our FAVORITE hike, and wasn’t too strenuous – about four and a half miles, with beautiful views along the way (gorgeous, rushing water!) and the BEST payoff at the end! (We also enjoyed the Snyder Lakes trail, though it is twice as long and gains a good deal of elevation, so not very family friendly.)
- Trail of the Cedars (easy for kids): Literally less than a mile that loops in a circle (no getting lost!), this had beautiful views of fallen trees, and had a boardwalk that making the ‘hike’ more like a leisurely walk through a forest. Great for little legs!
Outside the park, we had fun doing:
- Visit Flathead Lake. Pack a picnic, rent some jet skis, or just go swimming/wading! We spent a lovely day just hanging around and enjoying the cool, crisp water.
- Visit a tourist trap: There is no shortage of kitschy, fun ways people want to take your money, and we personally visited and had some laughs at the Montana Vortex! Will loved that he got a marble, spent time in a slanted house, and could, in general, be outside.
- Distilleries and breweries galore! We did a tasting at Whistling Andy’s Distillery (the pink peppercorn gin is legit!), and wanted to spend some time at the Great Northern Brewing Company – but we settled for just trying some of their local beer after a refreshing hike!
- Walking around Whitefish downtown: We found an adorable downtown, resplendent with local shops and eateries. An easy way to pass a few hours and find some good food after a good day at Glacier.
- Getting huckleberry ice cream and pie: There’s no shortage of options along the roads into Glacier, but we personally found the ice cream and pie here to be very delicious. Wherever you go, be prepared for very sweet berry items, and enjoy!
- It’s best to visit Glacier in later summer, to be sure that Going to the Sun road is open and snow-free – we missed it being open by about a week, which means our red bus tour didn’t involve heading to the East side of the park, which was a bummer! Many trails will also still be blocked by snow and ice in spring and early summer, which can limit your options, too.
- I also recommend not trying to do too much in a day – driving to the park, in the park, around the park, takes a lot longer than one might imagine!
- This is bear country, so educating yourself about bear safety, and hiking with a bear horn/spray is always recommended.
- Finally, it gets chilly in the shade and as night comes on, so a light jacket and pants are great things to pack, just in case.
If you’re thinking about visiting Montana/Glacier, I hope you have fun! I grew up going to Yellowstone A LOT in my youth and I find visiting our national parks to be a great option for family vacations when kids are young.
Feel free to add any other ideas or tips if you’ve been!