Often referred to as the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park offers visitors incredible views, 762 amazing lakes, 2,865 miles of streams, 175 mountains, 700 hiking trails, and a variety of wildlife freely traversing across more than one million acres that make up the park. It’s a spectacular mountain landscape, and despite its name, to me the park is more about the landscape created by 25 monumental glaciers, rather than the glaciers themselves. In fact, those glaciers are vanishing; in 1850, there were an estimated 150 in the park.
Camping in Glacier National Park
The park’s thirteen campgrounds are mostly geared to tent camping, but offer a limited amount of dry camping for RVs. Rising Sun takes RVs up to 25 feet, Avalanche up to 26 feet long, and Two Medicine up to 32 feet. Fish Creek, St. Mary, and Many Glacier Campgrounds all accept RVs up to 35 feet. Apgar has twenty-five spaces that will accommodate RVs up to 40 feet long. Some areas accept advance reservations; others are only available on a first come, first served basis. More information can be found on the National Park Service website. There are a number of private parks more geared for larger rigs at both the West Glacier and East Glacier Park entrances and also St. Mary’s. And this being Montana, most are only open during the summer season.
Pets are permitted in campgrounds, along the roads, and in parking areas. They must be leashed and are not allowed on the hiking trails or in the backcountry. There’s a seven-day pass to Glacier available for $30 per carload, $25 for motorcycles, and $15 for bicyclists or hikers. And that $10 America the Beautiful Senior pass works here! Trailered motorized boats must undergo a free inspection and obtain a permit before they can be launched due to the Park’s efforts to prevent the spread of invasive aquatic species.
Visiting Glacier National Park
In 1910, President Taft established Glacier as the country’s tenth National Park. By the time President Wilson established the National Park Service in 1916, Glacier was accommodating about 12,800 visitors each season – now, 100 years later, this is about the same number of people visiting during one July day! Most visitors arrived by train – a two-day trip from Chicago. The Great Northern Railway built hotels and chalets, hired Blackfeet Indians to greet arrivals with traditional dances at East Glacier’s train station, and conducted automobile and stage coach tours into the Park. In fact, Glacier was the first national park in the country to offer automobile tours.
Today, the highlight of any visit to Glacier National Park is traveling the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Completed in 1933, it’s 50 miles of unparalleled scenery and masterful engineering, even by today’s standards. Drivers can cross the park either heading east from the West entrance, or west from St. Mary on the east side of the park. We did both. The road is very narrow and winding in parts, crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. There are parking areas with kiosks along the road, and it’s worth stopping if only to see the views. We were fortunate to discover some bighorn sheep munching away on one of the cliffs. You can expect road construction delays throughout the summer.
There are very specific vehicle restrictions for driving Going-to-the-Sun Road – and although we saw a couple of small motorhomes, we would not recommend it for towing. The Park Service requirements are that all vehicles and/or vehicle combinations must be less than 21 feet, no wider than eight feet (we had to move our mirrors in) and less than 10 feet tall due to rock overhangs.
However, you can leave the driving to someone else. The Park has a free daily shuttle system which covers the road during the summer months. Visitors can hop on and off at designated shuttle stops and transfer stations. In addition, the famous Red Buses serve as an ideal way to see and learn more about Glacier National Park. These vintage 1930s buses have roll-back tops which are perfect for providing full views of the stunning mountains and the area’s signature Big Sky. The drivers act as guides and enjoy sharing the park with visitors.
The road officially received its name, “The Going-to-the-Sun Road,” during its 1933 dedication. Legend tells the story of Sour Spirit, who came down from the sun to teach Blackfeet braves the rudiments of the hunt. On his way back to the sun, Sour Spirit had his image reproduced on the top of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain for inspiration. An alternate story suggests a white explorer in the 1880s concocted the name and the legend. No matter which version is accurate, the road named Going-to-the-Sun still inspires all who travel it.
Until next time…
About the Author: A familiar name to many RVers, Sue Bray has worked in the RV industry for 35+ years. Over the summers, Sue, her husband Mel, and their boxer Harley take off to tour the country in their 31’ fifth wheel, with no exact plans except to have an adventure. She chronicles their travels as well as lessons learned along the way in an ongoing blog series at RV Repair Club called On the Road with Sue.