If you are thinking about visiting Montana's Glacier National Park, you might have discovered that the park is exceptionally hard to get into with a vehicle. You need to reserve a vehicle pass months in advance, and the $2.00 passes sell out almost instantly. The West Entrance to the park offers a 3-day pass, while all other entrances have 1-day passes.
For those not able to get passes or with limited time to see the park, here are a few easy-access places you can go to get the Glacier experience.
1. Lake McDonald
About four miles past Apgar Visitors Center, the Lake McDonald trailhead is right next to the Fish Creek campground. You can find parking here and hike less than a mile to a beach and designated fishing site. This is a great spot to enjoy the beautiful Lake McDonald. It's one of the iconic sights in Glacier National Park, and if you're brave, you can enjoy the water. We saw fishers, paddleboarders, and swimmers on our visit.
You will need a car to get to Lake McDonald, as the shuttle does not come up this way. However, you can drive into Glacier National Park without a vehicle pass after 3 pm. There will likely be a line to get in, so be prepared.
2. The Flathead River
The Middle Fork of the Flathead River travels west across the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. You can access it from outside the park, in the town of West Glacier, and see the park across the water. You might be lucky enough for a bear sighting or at least some birds of prey. The river is a local hang-out spot for tour guides on their off days, as we learned. If you want to get on the river, you can schedule a tour like we did. There are tons of companies offering whitewater rafting or scenic rafting on a calmer section of the river. There are fishing tours and rental companies for kayaking, canoeing, and rafting.
Whitewater rafting on the Flathead River was beautiful. I wish I had been able to take photos of the colorful rocks in the river and the interesting rock formations we rafted between. The water was crystal clear, tinged a nice turquoise color, and super cold. It was a great way to experience Glacier National Park, see the mountains from unique perspectives, and enjoy some close encounters with the water. I highly recommend considering a river float for your time in Glacier. It was one of my favorite things we did and a great way to experience the landscape while giving my hiking legs a day off.
3. McDonald Creek
McDonald Creek offers beautiful waterfalls and viewpoints as it makes its way into McDonald Lake. You can access these places either with a car or from the free park shuttle which stops at McDonald Lake Lodge and, farther north, Avalanche Creek. These viewpoints are right along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, making them ideal stops for people with limited time in the park.
Red Rock Point
My favorite stop along McDonald Creek (and frankly, one of my favorite spots in all of Glacier National Park) was Red Rock Point. Between the siena-colored rocks, the teal water, and the hunter-green trees, it was a really pretty view.