I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this.
Last year, more than 2.9 million people visited Glacier National Park in the northwest corner of Montana, most of them between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In recent years, it’s been normal for nearly a million people to visit the park in July alone.
Of course, in a 1 million-acre park, one would think there would be enough room for everyone to stretch their legs in peace. But much of the park is wild and remote, meaning hundreds of thousands of people are crammed into a few easily accessible areas, such as the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road, a tight alpine highway that stretches 50 miles across the park. On a sunny Saturday in the middle of summer, it’s not uncommon for the line of cars at the park entrance to stretch for miles.
That’s why most locals — myself included — elect to visit the park after the hordes of summer visitors have packed up their hiking and selfie sticks and headed home. We know the best time of year to visit Glacier Park is during the quiet days of autumn, when visitation drops like a rock through clear Lake McDonald, the largest body of water in the park.
In September, visitation is cut in half to approximately 400,000. In October, it plummets even further, usually somewhere south of 100,000 visitors.
But more leg room is only one of the reasons that autumn is the perfect time to visit Glacier. Come late September and early October, the vista-obscuring haze from wildfires near and far that can occasionally affect the region during the summer has (hopefully) lifted for the year. The snowdrifts that can render some trails inaccessible early in the season have finally melted, meaning all 734 miles of hiking trail are accessible. And by late September and early October, the fireworks of autumn ignite the mountainsides.
The east side of the park is dominated by aspens, while the west side features the western larch, a conifer exclusive to the Inland Northwest. Both types of trees turn bright yellow, adding a dash of color to the cool, cloudy days that can dominate the forecast come mid-October. While the autumn color palette in Glacier isn’t as diverse as New England’s, interpretive ranger Diane Sine says she prefers the park’s golden fall. “We specialize in yellow,” she says.
Sine is a retired schoolteacher who has worked in Glacier for 40 years, mostly as a seasonal ranger in the summer. She first came to Glacier in the 1970s on annual family vacations before scoring a summer job as a waitress at the Many Glacier Hotel, a wilderness lodge that opened in on July 4, 1915. When President William Howard Taft signed the legislation turning 1 million acres of federal land into a national park in May 1910, the nearby Great Northern Railway saw it as a golden opportunity to promote the passenger trains that ran along the southern edge. But the railroad quickly ran into a problem: While people could take the train to the park, they had no place to stay once they got there. The Great Northern solved that by building nearly a dozen lodges and chalets inside the park, including the Many Glacier Hotel on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake.
When the hotel opened, it was heralded as the “Showplace of the Rockies,” and a century later, that grandeur still shines. The three-story lobby features a hooded fireplace that almost feels like a campfire and is surrounded by 20 Douglas fir pillars that give the space the look of a remote wilderness campground. Large picture windows let guests take in views of pristine Swiftcurrent Lake and the mountains that tower over it. Down the hallway, the dining room has been restored to its early-20th-century appearance, and the kitchen still serves some of the finest meals around.
Glacier’s wilderness lodges were the brainchild of Great Northern President Louis W. Hill, who during the 1910s and 1920s was obsessed with helping develop the park. According to legend, Hill was interested in the most minute details, right down to what type of soap was stocked in the hotels.
The railroad remained active in the park through much of the early 20th century, but its presence declined as the highway system improved and the rail industry started to focus more on freight. Some of the remote wilderness chalets were torn down during World War II, and those that remained were sold off in the 1950s.
It’s still possible to travel to Glacier Park by rail. Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train, which connects Chicago with Portland and Seattle, makes three stops along the park’s southern boundary. One of those stops, at Essex, is just steps from the historic Izaak Walton Inn, an old railroad lodge built in 1939 that welcomes guests year round.
Today, a half-dozen historic lodges or chalets survive in and around Glacier Park, with another being rebuilt. The Sperry Chalet, a stone lodge accessible only to those willing to hike up a steep mountain, was nearly destroyed in a wildfire in 2017. Park officials hope to have it restored by next year.
Most of the lodges stay open for a week or two after Labor Day before closing one by one. The Lake McDonald Lodge on the west side of the park usually stays open the latest. (This year, it closes Sept. 25. The Many Glacier Hotel closes Sept. 17.) Sine says that once the lodges, shops and restaurants in the park start to close, visitation drops even further and people need to be more self-reliant. It’s also important to prepare for whatever weather the mountains might throw at you.
“Pack every type of clothing you have, because it can easily go from a warm 70-degree day to a snowy night,” she says.
There are dozens of spectacular hikes in the park for visitors of all abilities. The Trail of Cedars near Avalanche Creek is a mile-long loop that goes through an old-growth cedar and hemlock forest, perfect for all ages. The Hidden Lake Overlook is a 2.8-mile round trip from Logan Pass through an Alpine meadow. It’s especially spectacular later in the day, close to sunset.
One of the most famous hikes in the park is the five-mile trek to Grinnell Glacier, one of about two dozen such ice formations that survive in the park, down from an estimated 150 glaciers in 1850. Scientists say that more will disappear in the coming years. (For a glacier to be considered active, it must be at least 25 acres in size and be moving – albeit at a speed that makes a snail look fast.)
Ironically, while the park is named for them, it’s not particularly easy to see a glacier in Glacier National Park. That’s because most of the glaciers are tucked into shadowy crevices along the Continental Divide. The easiest one to see is the Jackson Glacier, about five miles east of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, although if you want a detailed view you’re going to have to bring binoculars. But that’s not the case with Grinnell, where, with a little bit of effort, people can walk right up to the mass of ice. It’s a breathtaking experience for first-timers and Glacier veterans alike.
Sine says what she loves most about Glacier Park is that after more than 40 years of working and playing there, she still finds something new to explore every season. She often talks to visitors who say they have specific hikes or activities in mind when they arrive, but she’s quick to remind them that they can get more out of their trip if they’re flexible. Sometimes trails or roads are closed with little notice late in the season because of weather or maintenance, and visitors are encouraged to have backup plans at the ready.
“There are an incredible number of different experiences in Glacier Park,” she says. “This place has never gotten old to me.”
Ask just about any local and they’ll say the same thing: Whether you’ve lived here for five years or 50, there is always one more trail to scratch off that to-do list, one more awe-inspiring vista to drink in. And there’s perhaps no better time to work on that to-do list than during the quiet days of autumn.
But let’s just keep that between you and me.
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Where to stay
Lake McDonald Lodge
288 Lake Mcdonald Lodge Loop, West Glacier
Located about 10 miles from the park’s west entrance, the lodge traditionally stays open into late September. The Lake McDonald Lodge is unique in that it is the only lodge that was not built by the Great Northern, although it shares many of the same characteristics of the others and was later purchased by the railway in the 1920s. Open mid-May to late September. Double occupancy rooms start at $315. Rooms in Snyder Hall, a dorm that is part of the lodge complex, start at $115.
Glacier Park Lodge
499 Montana Hwy. 49, East Glacier Park
The first hotel built by the railroad is located just outside the park, not far from the train depot in East Glacier Park. Like many of the accommodations in the park, parts of the Glacier Park Lodge were built to look like a Swiss chalet, a nod to the railroad’s effort to brand the area as the “American Alps.” Usually stays open until late September. Rooms for two start at $220.
Izaak Walton Inn
290 Izaak Walton Inn Rd., Essex
The railroad-themed lodge is on the southern edge of the park and is open year round. The main lodge was built in 1939 to house railroad workers but has since been turned into a resort that is especially popular with train enthusiasts and cross-country skiers in winter. Guests can stay in the lodge or in their very own caboose or a locomotive that has been turned into a luxury room. Rooms for two start at $100 but vary depending on the time of week. Weekends are usually the most expensive, but visitors to the area in the middle of the week can find great deals.
Cedar Creek Lodge
930 Second Ave. West, Columbia Falls
Located 18 miles west of Glacier Park near downtown Columbia Falls, this lodge is a great late-season base camp for anyone wanting to explore the area after most of the in-park accommodations have closed. Rooms in late fall start at $110 but vary depending on season or time of week.
Where to eat
Two Medicine Grill
314 U.S. Hwy. 2, East Glacier Park
This small diner located just across from the East Glacier Park train station is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The breakfast menu features favorites such as pancakes and French toast, and the dinner menu includes chicken fried steak and a juicy Montana steak. Grab a seat at the counter and see what the locals are up to. Open 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Entrees start at $6.
1107 Ninth Street West, Columbia Falls
This family-friendly brewpub in Columbia Falls offers sandwiches, burgers, rice bowls and more alongside a growing roster of housemade beer. The brewery has four regular brews plus a rotating selection of seasonal beers. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Entrees start at $12.
Three Forks Grille
729 Nucleus Ave., Columbia Falls
This restaurant uses locally sourced ingredients in everything it serves. Its diverse dinner menu has something for everyone. Also open on Sunday mornings for brunch. Open 5 to 9 p.m. daily. Entrees start at $13.
What to do
Glacier National Park
West Glacier, Montana