Glacier National Park is one of the most stunning and beloved parks in the entire United States. This summer, we had the chance to take our kids ages 1.5, 5 and 7 along with our entire extended family for a reunion this July. We had to let go of a little FOMO – no, we didn’t get to do whitewater rafting or the 11-mile hike that our childless family members did, but we had a blast checking out kid-friendly spots around Glacier.
Here are some of our best tips on visiting the west side of Glacier with kids.
Two things you absolutely need to know before any trip to Glacier:
1. Expect crowds
Glacier has very limited road access – the vast majority of people see the park via the central thoroughfare – Going to the Sun Road. The views from Going to the Sun cannot be beat, but the road and all of the viewpoints and hikes that start from the road will be very crowded.
You can get up early (and let’s face it, with kids you’re probably up early anyway) to try and avoid the crowds, but you’ll be a lot less stressed if you can accept the fact that you’re going to be enjoying the park with lots and lots of people from around the country and around the world.
2. Know when to Go
Glacier’s very limited season also contributes to the crowds. Going-to-the-Sun is typically only open to cars mid-June through mid-October. You can visit the park earlier in the Spring, however, sections will be closed. This is the perfect time to go biking, however, as the sections of the road are opened to bikes after being plowed.
You can find road updates here. September can also be a beautiful time to visit the park, but prepared for possible winter weather.
Kid friendly activities on the West Side
Rocky Point Trail
Rocky Point trail is a 1.9 mile total mostly flat out-and-back hike along the edges of Lake McDonald. If your kids love to play along the water’s edge, this is a perfect quieter spot for some water play. (You might want to warn your kids ahead of time the water will be VERY cold. As if that would ever stop them from jumping in). Our kids had a blast throwing rocks into the water and splashing around. While I wasn’t expecting much from this hike other than being kid-friendly, the views were gorgeous. The view from Rocky Point obscured most of the 2018 fire damage, which is hard to ignore on the other side.
Renting boats at Apgar
Don’t tell my kids, but as our trip wound down we really wished we had rented some kayaks. They begged us to, but we said no assuming it would be too much hassle and too expensive.
On our way out of the park, we stopped by the gift shop at Apgar and realized A) THIS is the best view of Lake McDonald and B) renting boats would have been totally doable. It’s on our to-do list for next time, but you should add it to yours so you don’t have to listen to “Why can’t we go kayaking?” the whole trip. (Don’t worry – they ended up having plenty of fun regardless).
Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake
Trail of the Cedars is a short wheelchair and stroller accessible nature walk just past Lake McDonald. Avalanche Lake is a roughly 5 mile hike which leaves from the Trail of the Cedars that follows a creek up to an absolutely stunning mountain lake with waterfalls streaming over a mountain into it. We ended up doing the hike twice – once while my parents babysat our older kids while we got a “real” hike in, and then again the next day when our entire family decided they wanted to do it as well. We were skeptical that our 5 and 6 year old could do the hike, but they proved us wrong. The trail is a fairly steady uphill, and they might not have been able to do it without lots of cousins to distract them. The trail is one of the most popular in the park, but once you get to the lake, it’s easy to follow the trail along the lake’s edge and find a quiet spot for a snack. In the afternoon, the trail gets very busy but in the morning it was much quieter.
If your kids aren’t up for hiking Avalanche Lake, head to the other side Going to the Sun Road after doing Trail of the Cedars. There is a great spot for kids to play along the river’s edge here.
Polebridge and Bowman Lake
Mid-week on our trip, we figured our kids would need a quieter day without long hikes, and maybe even take a nap in the car (we can all dream, right?). We drove up to Polebridge to enjoy huckleberry bear claws from the Polebridge Mercantile, and the kids had a blast playing at the tiny playground outside the store. To get there, take Camas Road from Apgar. You will head out of the park and then up North Fork Road, a mostly unpaved but well-maintained road. This side of the park is definitely overlooked – the drive up offered unparalleled views of the mountain range. There are several quiet trailheads along the way that could be perfect if you’re really wanting to get away from the crowds.
If you’re lucky, you will get to head up to Bowman Lake. Unfortunately, the day we went the parking lot was full and we didn’t get to check it out. One ranger we talked to said this was very unusual, another said it was getting to be fairly common. Instead, we ended up driving farther up the North Fork Road and fishing along the North Fork. We caught a few fish, saw an incredible fight between red-tail hawks and a bald eagle, and stumbled upon some gorgeous wildflower meadows. I was disappointed not to make it to Bowman, but the north side of the park was a perfect quiet getaway for our family.
The Hidden Lake hike at the top of Logan Pass is one of the busiest trails you will ever hike, but for kids, also one of the most fun. It can be snow-covered year around, so be prepared with good shoes for everyone.
Tennis shoes will work for kids, but if you are baby-wearing, I highly recommend yak-traks and poles.The snow is icy and packed in the summer, making it pretty slippery.
I don’t think our kids cared much about the view of Hidden Lake, but they loved seeing mountain goats and their babies everywhere. They are always on the trail, making it easy and nearly-guaranteed wildlife viewing.
Floating the Middle Fork
Like I mentioned earlier, being parents of little kids, we didn’t do whitewater rafting with the rest of the family. But we didn’t want our kids to feel left out, so we floated the middle fork along with my cousin and her young daughter. It ended up being a gorgeous float, and we were so glad we decided to do it.
So let’s talk about that fear of missing out a little more. There’s so many hikes in Glacier I haven’t done, and every time my husband and I go, I find our conversations drifting towards, “So when do you think the kids will be able to do that hike?” or “Maybe if our parents babysit the kids, we could come up here and do some real hiking.” And yes, there is a lot of Glacier that simply isn’t doable with very young kids.
But there is so much we would have overlooked had we been going at an adult pace. We wouldn’t have seen the wildflower meadows in North Glacier or studied the different colors of the rocks at Lake McDonald. We wouldn’t have seen hawks and eagles fighting or watched the creeks flow over rocks for quite as long. There’s so much beauty that is only available at a child’s level, and it’s worth slowing down to not miss out on that as well.
Unfortunately, an unexpected rainstorm and a fever of 102 meant we didn’t make it to the east side on the day that we had planned. This meant we didn’t get to check out the Beaver Pond Loop which is supposed to be an easy 3.6 mile hike with great birding. And while I haven’t actually taken my kids there, I have been excited to show them Running Eagle Falls in the Two Medicine region the next time we head to that side of the park. If you’ve been to either of those with kids and think it’s worthwhile, please let me know in the comments!
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