Glacier National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is considered one of the prettiest places in the United States. However, it is in a remote part of Montana, one of the most remote states in the US. The greater region, called the Flathead Valley, has an airport, but flights used to be over $500 roundtrip and required a stop. The cheaper alternate airports were 3-5 hours away and also required connecting flights from Los Angeles. Additionally, the park is only open during a 3–4-month window during the summer. In short, Glacier National Park was impossible to visit on a weekend trip for both cost and logistical reasons.
However, during the summer of 2021, everything changed. Due to coronavirus, Americans developed a newfound appreciation for the national parks. The airlines noticed this trend and drastically increased flight capacity to Glacier. The result of this trend was 5 airlines flying nonstop from Los Angeles to Glacier Park Airport during the summer of 2021. The market was so saturated that Glacier Park was the single cheapest destination to fly from Los Angeles (even cheaper than Las Vegas or Phoenix). My roundtrip flight was $90 in peak summer.
This may all sound too good to be true and it is. The catch is what that happens on the ground. Also due to COVID, there has been a major shortage of computer chips, which has created a massive shortage of cars in the US. The problem was exacerbated when rental cars sold their fleets to stay afloat in early 2020. The cheapest car rental I could find at FCA was $250 per DAY. However, I was in luck: my good family friends Bob and Karen lived near Glacier! They said they could show me around the area and had a spare car in case I wanted to go off on my own.
The final piece of the puzzle was getting into Glacier National Park. The Park requires advanced reservations to enter the main part of the park and, unfortunately, all the reservations have been taken for months. There are a few loopholes. One loophole is to book a guided red bus tour, which allows entry into the park the day of the tour. The tours were mostly sold out, but I was able to nab the final spot on a tour at 3pm of the day I fly in. The 4-hour tour was $70 and does not include the $30 park entrance fee, but my alternatives were slim.
All in all, the logistics were difficult by US standards, but I think I did as well as I could.
August 5, 2021: Going to the Sun
My flight from Los Angeles to Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) took off at 6AM. The flight took 2.5 uneventful hours plus a one-hour time change. I knew I was not in California when most of the people in the Montana airport were not wearing facemasks.
Karen picked me up in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. After living in Europe for two years, I was shocked by the size of the car. However, I would soon learn that her car is small by Montana standards. There is a culture for having large cars and trucks, but large cars with good tires are better equipped to handle the freezing cold winters on steep or unpaved roads.
We drove north into the town of Whitefish. Whitefish is a small town of 7,000 people that has turned into a real destination. In Whitefish you are as likely to see an out-of-state license plate than a Montana plate. The town is full of top-notch restaurants and quality nightlife. At a local coffee shop, I ordered a kombucha and vegan sandwich- not typical food for Montana.
We then drove up to the Bob and Karen´s condo at Whitefish Mountain aka Big Mountain. This is the main ski resort in the area. During the summer, the mountain is quite busy too! The main chairlift is open for scenic rides to the top. Additionally, you can transport a mountain bike to the top and ride down along a number of bike trails.
Unfortunately for us, the visibility was low due to smoke from the fires in Oregon. But I would guess on a normal day, the views would be amazing.
It was now time to head out to Glacier for my tour. The drive took 45 minutes from Whitefish Mountain. Once at the park entrance, I was checked twice for my entrance ticket (in this case the email confirmation of my red bus tour). I then drove to the Apgar visitor center.
Here, I got picked for my red bus tour. The open-top red busses are from the 1930´s and are considered to be the oldest fleet of touring vehicles anywhere in the world. They have been renovated a few times over the years, so they apparently drive as well as a modern vehicle.
The bus was full of older couples and families from around the United States. Our guide, Mike, was a retired schoolteacher from California and does this as a summer hobby.
The bus tour took us up the famed Going-To-The-Sun Road, the most famous attraction in the park. The road, which traverses the park east to west is named for the Going-To-The-Sun Mountain, which is part of a local Native American myth. The road was built the 1930´s and is considered to be an engineering marvel.
One benefit of the open-air bus was that we could stop quickly at viewpoints and block traffic briefly. During these moments, Mike would instruct us to “prairie dog” out of the open-air roof to take pictures.
Our first stop was the Lake McDonald Lodge, one of the many turn-of-the-century lodges built in the national parks. These lodges all seem to have a similar style: Swiss chalets mixed with the romanticism of the American West. The lobbies are always grand, lofty, and full of large logs. This architecture style actually has a name: Parkitecture.
As we wound up the mountain, we caught glimpses of the steep glacial-carved territory. There are no glaciers in this part of the park anymore, but their legacy remains in the form of the unmistakable U-shaped valleys of the park.
Eventually, we reached the top of the park: the 6,646 ft. Logan Pass located on the Continental Divide, which separates the watersheds of the Pacific and Arctic Oceans (Hudson Bay). The triple divide of the watersheds of Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans is also in Glacier National Park, but located slightly south of the Going to the Sun Road on the aptly named Triple Divide Peak.
Logan Pass is a major hiking destination in Glacier National Park as it contains two very popular trails. The first trail is called the Highline Trail and winds for 8 miles along a steep cliff face. The second trail is called Hidden Lake and goes to…a hidden lake in 1.5 miles.
Unfortunately, the bus tour only gave me 30 minutes at Logan Pass so I could only really walk around the visitor center. I did get to see some mountain goats!
On the way back, we stopped at a few of the lesser viewpoints before reaching Apgar again.
Overall, the red bus tour was very pleasant. I loved being able to cruise around and not worry about the driving. The tour gives a good overview of the area but is not optimal if you want to go hiking.
I then drove back to Whitefish to meet up with Bob and Karen for dinner at the local golf club which has delicious food. The sun sets around 21:30 and it doesn’t´ get dark until at least 22:00.
August 6, 2021: Avalanche and a Night Out on the Town
Bob and Karen had entry passes to Glacier National Park (due to a smart relative who I will not name here who was able to purchase the passes using a bot).
Bob was working today, so Karen took me on her favorite hike: Avalanche Lake. We drove into the park and then along the Going to the Sun Road to the trailhead. As this is the most popular hike in the park, a lot of people were trying to park here. After looming around the parking lot for 20-30 stressful minutes, we finally were able to nab a spot. The parking lot here is truly a mess.
While parking, I constantly noticed the empty park shuttle buses stopping at the trailhead. The shuttle buses are a great idea, but in order to ride them you need both the elusive pass to drive into the park and a separate shuttle reservation ticket (which much be purchased in advance). Shuttles only run inside the park. If you can already bring your car into the park, why would you ride the shuttle? It makes little sense unless you are doing a one-way hike. If I were running the park, I would extend the shuttle program to terminate in Whitefish and Kalispell where 90% of visitors are coming from. That way, visitors do not need a car to visit Glacier. This would reduce traffic and unclog parking lots in the park, while also being more environmentally friendly.
There is a reason why Avalanche is such a popular trail, its pristine beauty. We started walking up through the stunning forest along a picturesque creek. After 2 miles through the forest, we reached a pristine lake ringed by waterfalls. Wow!!!
On the way back to Whitefish, we stopped at the Huckleberry Patch, a famous restaurant/gift shop. The Huckleberry Patch serves many items with…you guessed it…huckleberries. Huckleberries are a wild berry that grows in the northwestern US and western Canada. They look very similar to a blueberry but are slightly tarter and tangier. The locals are very proud of these berries and are quick to tell you that huckleberries are not blueberries. In fact, there is a law in Montana that items can only be labeled as huckleberry if there are no other fruits mixed in. Additionally, the product must say “Montana Huckleberries”. I got a slice of huckleberry pie and a burger. It was delicious.
We then drove back to Whitefish Mountain where Bob took me out for a mountain bike. As mentioned earlier, Whitefish has become a major center for mountain biking. Bob purchased two electric mountain bikes which can climb up terrain with ease. We biked over to the mountain and along a “blue” rated path. I thought the path was difficult. The other bikers on the mountain are maniacs and went down the same path seemingly without breaking!
It was now about 5pm and Bob and Karen wanted to take me on a bar crawl of Whitefish. We started at the ski resort´s beer hall called the Bierstube.
Then we drove into the outskirts of town to visit a brewery called Bonsai Brewing Project. This was the place to be; there were maybe 100 people outside enjoying the warm evening.
Next, we tried to get dinner, but every place seemed to be full. We settled on a Latin fusion place in town that is adjacent to a club. The food was okay, but it is still impressive that a small town like Whitefish even has a Latin fusion restaurant.
Finally, we visited the town´s beloved bar: the Great Northern. This bar collects old signs from shops that have gone out of business. It is basically a museum of Whitefish´s history. A grunge cover band played to a packed house. This is definitely a unique bar and a must-see in Whitefish.
August 7, 2021: Parts South
This was my final day in Whitefish. Our original plan was to hike to the top of the mountain. However, the smoke was still too bad to see anything. Instead Bob took me for a drive to Kalispell, the main town in the Flathead Valley.
Kalispell has 25,000 residents, making it 3 times as large as Whitefish. It has all the chain stores in the outskirts. But the downtown is very local and feels very Western. We visited a vintage car shop and a Western wear store.
Then, Bob drove me to Flathead Lake, which is the largest natural freshwater lake (aka not a dammed reservoir) in the Western US. It is 2 square kilometers larger than Lake Tahoe. We didn´t have much time to do anything at the lake, but the scenery was very nice. It was then time to drive to the airport and head home.
The airport was packed beyond belief. It is the most crowded I have ever seen an airport.
The secret is out. Glacier National Park used to be one of the least visited parks in the system. Now it is bursting at the seams with visitors.
The terrain is stunning, as good as any mountain scenery in North America.
However, the park is terribly mismanaged which creates major headaches for visitors both inside and outside the park. The reservation system is unfair and has been taken over by bot programs or people who plan their trip 6 months in advance. The average person therefore has to either pay extra for a tour or enter the park at annoying hours (before 6am or after 5pm). There is such a rush of people entering the park before 6 that all the major trailheads are full before the park officially opens. Something must change!
My recommendation would be to keep the reservation system for those who want to drive in, but at the same time greatly expand the shuttle system to include areas outside the park. At a minimum, the shuttle should run to the town of West Glacier but ideally the shuttles would run to Whitefish and Kalispell to allow visitors to see the park car-free. Reducing cars traffic by funneling guests to the shuttle system is the only way to increase capacity while maintaining guest satisfaction. This system has already been implemented at other national parks both in the US and around the world.
If you really want to visit Glacier National Park, but don’t want to deal with the headache of the Going-To-The-Sun Road, the eastern half of the park is far less visited and actually has glaciers! Many Glacier and its famous lodge are about 2 hours from Whitefish and Kalispell. This can either be done as a day trip or overnight.
The Flathead Valley is a very nice place to both live and vacation. The region, despite the influx of people, still feels unspoiled and authentic.
The flashy money has not come here yet, but still the region is starting to come to grips that their small community is no longer small. The prices for lodging and car rentals in the summer season are absurd and restaurants are overcrowded, at least during the summer. Many new apartments, houses, and shopping centers are being built. Despite all of this, the locals, on the surface, seem to be blissfully unaware of the reality of their changing community and continue to act like welcoming small-town folks to the tourists. I am sure that behind people´s backs or on the radio they are telling tourists and out-of-staters to go home, but they won´t say it to your face. I am sure that in the near future, the residents of the Flathead Valley will not be as hospitable.
I would not recommend coming to the Flathead Valley during the summer at this point in time unless you have local connections in town or can plan months in advance. The beauty of Glacier and the Flathead Valley does not justify the insane pricing and difficult logistics of getting into the park. For the same prices and less effort, you could go to Colorado, Wyoming or even other parts of Montana and visit similar scenery without the headache. Another option is to fly to Calgary, Canada and visit the adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park just over the border.
If you are thinking of visiting, try to come in the shoulder season in late August/September after the kids go back to school but before the snow closes the park. Also consider flying to Missoula or Spokane to get your rental car and staying near Kalispell or East Glacier instead of Whitefish. This is your best chance to find the space you come for when visiting Montana.