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Ask anyone who’s been: there’s nowhere on earth like Glacier National Park in Montana. Towering Rocky Mountains have been carved over millions of years by the powerful forces of ice and water; today, the vistas along Going-to-the-Sun Road and in the Many Glacier and Two Medicine areas look as much like the paintings of the American Masters as the real here-and-now we’re lucky to live in.
I’ve seen many of the most beautiful national parks in the United States from the stunning landscapes of Canyonlands to the breathtaking wilderness of Denali. It’s hard to choose favorites – though I have – and thought my list was pretty well set. That was until I laid eyes on Glacier National Park during my first trip to the area in June 2023. Glacier (like all parks) is a really special place, and I can see why people come from around the world to have their jaws drop open in awe of nature at its most grand.
Unfortunately, visiting Glacier National Park can be tricky; the reservation system is mind-boggling and the season when the park is fully open to visitors is short. You may find yourself with a day or two extra in your Glacier National Park itinerary and wonder: what is there to do near Glacier National Park, while I wait for my reservation to activate?
You’re in luck! During my trip, I purposely spent most of my trip outside Glacier so that I could put together a list of ideas to help you take full advantage of the natural playground both inside and outside the park. Exploring from east to west, here are some incredible things to do near Glacier National Park, whether you’re waiting for your reservation to kick in or if you missed out on getting one.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Ktunaxa ɁamakɁis and Niitsítpiis-stahkoii ᖹᐟᒧᐧᐨᑯᐧ ᓴᐦᖾᐟ (Blackfoot / Niitsítapi ᖹᐟᒧᐧᒣᑯ) peoples, among others. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
1. Explore Blackfeet Culture on the East Side
As I hope you’re aware at least from reading this article so far, the lands of and surrounding Glacier National Park are the traditional lands of several Native American groups (as is all of America, but that’s a rant for another post!). The Blackfeet people still live on their land east of the park, and there are several great opportunities to experience Blackfeet culture and learn the long history of this incredible landscape.
The two activities I enjoyed during my trip were an uncolonized dinner of Blackfeet foods cooked by the incredible Mariah from Indigikitchen, and a hike with cultural storytelling on Blackfeet reservation lands with Lailani and Joe from Iron Shield Creative. Both of these activities gave me an incredible experience connecting with the land, from the stories it tells to the food it produces.
Given that supporting Native Rights is one of my values here at V&V, you can see why this was the perfect set of activities for me to learn more first-hand while visiting the Glacier National Park area.
2. Stand on the Continental Divide
As you make your way westward along U.S. Highway 2, you might notice a huge obelisk standing on the side of the highway; there’s a large parking area and a few other statues/memorials/plaques that are well worth stopping to see: this is Marias Pass (pronounced “Mariah’s”), the lowest elevation pass across the Rocky Mountains at just 5,213 feet.
Marias Pass has a storied history primarily tied to the development of the railroad connecting the east and west; as you might imagine, less elevation change than other passes made this a coveted place to run trains.
Today, you can stand and admire the stunning scenery of the Rocky Mountains, watch a train roll by (they do so frequently!), and admire the Roosevelt Memorial Obelisk that was erected in 1930 to mark the spot. There’s also a statue of John Frank Stevens, principal engineer of the Great Northern Railway who explored and charted the pass in December 1889, which had been “discovered” in 1854 by European-descended surveyors with the help of local Blackfeet guides.
3. Raft Whitewater on the Flathead River
One of the main reasons that brought me to Glacier Country in June 2023 was the chance to go white water rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River; as you know, I’ve become a big fan of rafting over the past few years.
(As an aside, the Flathead River is fascinating: its headwaters begin in the Canadian Rockies, and it flows south to join the Clark Fork of the Columbia River, which then flows north, south, and west before reaching the Pacific.)
Rafting is a fantastic activity to fill a day or half-day while you’re waiting for your Glacier National Park reservations to kick in; most operators set out from West Glacier (near the western end of Going-to-the-Sun Road) and head either 8 or 16 miles up the Middle Fork to float back to the town.
During my trip, I had the chance to take both a half-day and full-day on the Flathead with Glacier Raft Company. The half-day (and second half of the full-day) are the whitewater portions of the river, and include class II-III rapids that are a real thrill if you like that sort of thing. Hands down, my favorite rapid was “Jaws” which we hit full-on the first time down the river – it’s a wet day (or half-day), but a whole lotta fun!
4. Go Hiking or Boating on Hungry Horse Reservoir
While the stunning mountain vistas get all the glory, there are some truly beautiful natural wonders in the surrounding areas of Glacier National Park; one that many locals love and take advantage of is Hungry Horse Reservoir. (Non-locals know and use this too; it’s a fantastic spot if you’ve got an RV or adventure gear with you and want to escape the crowds.)
Hungry Horse Reservoir is located between West Glacier and Kalispell/Whitefish; it was created in 1953 with the construction of the Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork Flathead River (more on that below).
The reservoir measures 34 miles long and has 170 miles of shoreline; there are roads around the entire reservoir that provide access to the water for boating and fishing, as well as campsites if you want to stay a night or two, and trailheads if you want to hike the many mountains of the area.
Basically, if you’re looking for things to do in (near) Glacier National Park without crowds and you love the outdoors, Hungry Horse Reservoir should be on your list.
5. Walk Across Hungry Horse Dam
Focusing specifically on the Hungry Horse Dam, this engineering marvel is well worth a visit even if you don’t have a boat, camping gear, or hiking boots to explore the reservoir.
Hungry Horse Dam is the 10th largest dam in the U.S., at 564 feet in height; while I generally don’t support damming natural rivers due to the environmental damage and ecosystem disruption they produce, I can still appreciate that Hungry Horse Dam is a feat of 20th-century science and technology.
You can appreciate it too by making the walk out onto the 2,115-foot-long dam; there’s a visitor center at the northwest end of the dam where you can learn about it before walking out to gaze down over the dizzying concrete wall toward the power plant and South Fork below. There are also some tours offered on occasion, if you want to learn even more.
6. Explore Downtown Whitefish
Going a little bit further beyond the park boundaries, Whitefish, Montana is a great base to spend a night or two if you’re looking for other fun things to do near Glacier National Park. Whitefish is home about 8,500 people and has a lot to offer – both culturally and for those with an outdoor inclination (which I’m guessing is what brings you to this part of the world in the first place!).
First up, you can spend time in Whitefish proper; there are a number of great restaurants, bars, and shops, as well as art classes, yoga and fitness activities, and a farmers market in the summer months. (I’ve got a whole list of things to do in Whitefish coming soon!)
While Whitefish’s best-known outdoor activity is skiing at the town’s namesake resort during the winter months, I’m guessing that won’t apply to you as you’re trying to also visit Glacier National Park (which is usually done during the summer months). Summer outdoor activities in Whitefish include hiking on the Whitefish Trail system (I loved Lion Mountain Trail north of town!), boating on Whitefish Lake, horseback riding, fly fishing, and more. Whitefish is an outdoor paradise, and you’ll find many people who live in the area spend their time out enjoying it – if you need more ideas, just ask your server or bartender what their favorite activities are!
7. Go Stargazing
Last but not least, you can explore a different type of natural wonder near Glacier National Park. As you know, I love stargazing – though admittedly Montana’s summer nights were very short during my visit near the solstice in June. (Actually, true “night” was only from 1:00-2:10am when the skies were clear during my trip!)
If you also encounter clear skies during your visit to the Glacier National Park area, you should take advantage of it: this area is relatively less developed than other parts of the country, and you can enjoy some really great stargazing even when staying in one of the communities that line US-2 (Columbia Falls, Coram, West Glacier, etc.).
Hopefully, this helps inspire you with ideas of things to do near Glacier National Park for how to spend your time before heading into the park. Have any questions about these things to do near Glacier, or other things you’re considering? Let me know in the comments below!