As we’ve traveled across North America, visiting wilderness areas and National Parks, one park consistently came up at the top of the list of must-visit places suggested by fellow RVers: Glacier National Park in far northwestern Montana.
Now that we’ve been there and spent most of a week exploring this dramatic and spectacular park, we know why.
But our adventure here didn’t start out well. We visited in mid-August, after school had started in much of the country. We thought the crowds would be way down.
But as we entered the park from West Glacier, we immediately encountered a multilane traffic jam of vehicles at the welcome gate. For ten minutes we slowly crept forward. Then, just a couple vehicles from the front, a ranger came out and started motioning traffic through, without collecting entrance few or checking for passes. “Move on, move on,” she said, urging us forward.
We were surprised.
“Hurry please, traffic is backed up to the the intersection (in town a half mile back) and we have to clear this congestion.”
It was a Monday. And the place was that busy. We checked two campgrounds at the entrance: Apgar and Fish Creek. Apgar was filled. Fish Creek had two openings. But as we drove through it, we decided to pass on it. Small, uneven campsites close to each other just didn’t appeal to us.
We moved into the interior, following the east shoreline of Lake McDonald. Sprague Creek, located right on the lake, sounded good. It too, by noon on a Monday, was filled.
Traffic was extremely heavy. Further north we traveled, finally finding a spot at Avalanche Creek. Not bad. Crowded, but somewhat spacious sites. An hour after we got our site, it filled. The parking lot leading to the campground was filled. So was a parking lot and picnic area along the creek, across the highway.
We boarded a shuttle for the 16 mile trip up the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass. Traffic was pretty much bumper-to-bumper the entire way. Once we reached Logan Pass, a huge parking area was closed because every space was taken. I started out on a hiking trail. But after counting what had to be 500 people strung out for as far as I could see, I turned back, stopping to photograph a family of mountain goats grazing in a meadow.
This was the middle of the wilderness. But it was as congested as any urban area we have ever visited.
The shuttle vehicle we took back to Avalanche Creek was a full sized Sprinter, the same chassis of our Roadtrek Etrek. So I asked the driver if I could take mine up. No problem he said.
Now right now, let me say that I was not supposed to take my Roadtrek any further along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. If we had not been waved through the front gate of the park on Sunday, I’m sure now that the ranger would have so instructed me. Later, after I had done the deed, I learned that vehicles over 21 feet are not allowed to drive the highway.
With my StowAway2 cargo box, my Roadtrek measures nearly 24 feet.
But, thinking it was okay, bright and early the next morning, I took the Roadtrek up and down the Going-to-the-Sun Road. No one challenged me. Again, I should not have done this. So don’t try this on your own.
That said, I did. And I had absolutely no problems.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the world’s most spectacle highways. Bisecting the heart of Glacier, the 50-mile-long road follows the shores of the park’s two largest lakes and hugs the cliffs below the Continental Divide as it traverses Logan Pass. It is not for the faint of heart or those who are nervous driving narrow roads that twist and turn and are bordered with steep rock walls on the driver’s side and thousand foot drop-offs, without guard rails, on the passenger side.
Here’s a video of the drive, recorded with my GoPro:
We did it early on a Tuesday morning with little traffic. I passed numerous park rangers and none seemed to mind. A couple even gave me that friendly raise-four-fingers-from-the-steering-wheel-hello as we passed. We stopped in turnoffs along the way to take photos. We spotted a grizzly on the way down and took some long lens pictures of him as he devoured huckleberries on a far away hillside.
We took the highway all the way to the West Entrance and the town of St. Mary. We stopped at the Rising Sun Campground. Full. Almost out of the park, we stopped at the St Mary Campground. Also full. We made our way to the park’s most popular campground, Many Glacier. This one filled before 7 AM that day, and most days.
No matter, we hung around and watched the sunset.
We found a spot just out of the park at a KOA in St. Mary that was one of the nicest campgrounds we have ever visited, with very spacious sites and great views of Glacier’s craggy peaks. At $60 a night, it was also the most expensive place we’ve stayed on this trip west.
The next morning we were up early and made our way back to Rising Sun and got a great site. for $10, thanks to our National Parks Senior Pass.
Rising Sun is in the heart of Glacier’s bear country. This campground has been closed because of bear activity and a couple of incidents. It’s been reopened but is still posted to be especially alert because of bear activity.
A husband and wife who were camping in a tent were awakened one night when a bear tried to lie on their tent. The husband said it was like sitting on his head. The wife bolted upright and, through a clear vinyl widow in the tent, was literally nose-to-nose with a black bear. She hollered, he hollered, they fumbled for a flashlight and zippered out, catching sight of a black bear scampering off into the brush.
In another incident, a camper reported they a bear had stolen a pillow from their camp site.
We saw bear tracks all around our campsite and fresh bear scat not far away.
We caught a glimpse of a cinnamon colored bear crossing the road in front of the campground.
Then, a half hour later, as we rounded a bend in the Otokomi Lake Trail no further than 50 yards across a creek from our campsite, we came upon a mama bear and her cub. They had just come out of the creek. We stopped and talked so they’d know we were there. With only the briefest glance at us, the mama crossed first, no more than 25 feet in front of us. She seemed unconcerned with our presence and certainly wasn’t apprehensive, taking her time getting up the opposite side, nibbling on some service berries. Her cub followed a few feet behind. He had to stand on his hind legs to grab a few mouthfuls of the berries, finally looking at us with youthful curiosity before slowly ambling off with Mom.
By mid-week, traffic in the park was noticeably less. Same with Thursday as a change in the weather pattern and a cold front swept through the park. It felt like fall. They were even predicting snow by Saturday up at Logan Pass. We awoke to 46 degrees and, after coffee, moved over to Many Glacier campground where, thanks to the rain and cold, there were plenty of camping spots to chose from.
We hiked to Fishercap Lake where we watched a bull moose stand knee deep just off shore munching on grass.
That night, with continuing mist, it dropped to 39. We cranked up the Webasto heater in our Roadtrek Etrek, snug and dry and cocooned against the cold.
The end of the week weather had us bundled up but it kept the crowds away and we delighted in the wilderness quiet. Glacier is a photographer’s dream. Every direction is postcard pretty, even in the clouds and foggy mists.
Our mistake was in coming when folks were still on summer vacations. The next time we visit will be after Labor Day. Like Yellowstone to the south, the summer crowds are just too much for us. The more we enjoy this small motorhome lifestyle, the more we prefer going it alone, boondocking far off the beaten path. In September, they tell me, the Glacier campgrounds seldom fill. While cold weather at night guarantees you’ll be running the heater, Glacier will feel much more wild than it does with the summer crowds.
One last thing: We took Tai, our Norwegian Elkhound, with us on this trip. Dogs are not allowed on trails or in many places in the park but we had plenty of spots to walk him in campgrounds and picnic areas. When we hiked, we left him in our Roadtrek. Because of cool temperatures and the beautiful weather, we didn’t have to worry about having the air conditioning on, though our Roadtrek Etrek with its eight house batteries and solar powered trickle charger would have easily handled that for several hours.
We were glad we brought him. He seemed to greatly enjoy the park and we enjoyed his companionship.
Here are some of our photos. They show why we’ll be back.