Planning a trip to Glacier National Park in Montana? We visited this spectacular park in 2019, and Going-to-the-Sun Road was one of our top priorities.
Riding this scenic road is one of the most popular things to do in Glacier, and it's the only road through the park.
You can drive your own car, but we chose to use the free Glacier National Park shuttle. It's a hop-on-hop-off bus that runs between Apgar Visitor Center on the west side and St. Mary Visitor Center on the east side.
We had a lot of questions and concerns about shuttle schedules, crowds, amenities, and more before our trip. We spent a full day on Going-to-the-Sun Road, and can now answer those questions. Most of my experience is still current, but the park started requiring reservations in 2022. I haven't personally used this new system, but I have a few tips for how to make it work for you – especially if all the advance reservations are already gone!
Here are my tips for a good experience on the Glacier National Park shuttle on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The famous Going-to-the-Sun Road is 50 miles long, and only open from about July-September, due to heavy and long-lasting winter snow. The most scenic section of this narrow and winding two-lane road is carved into the side of a steep mountain.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road is spectacular. Many visitors want to savor it, stopping at trails and viewpoints along the way. However, it is often crowded because Glacier is a popular park and the season is so short.
Do you have a reservation?
As of 2022, you need a reservation to drive in through the west entrance to the park and board the shuttle at the Apgar Visitor Center. A reservation is not required to visit the St. Mary Visitor Center/shuttle stop on the east side of the park, so you should be able to park there and use the shuttle with or without a reservation.
I'm basing this on these two pages on the official Glacier National Park website.
- Vehicle Reservations: https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/gtsrticketedentry.htm
- Shuttle Service: https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/shuttles.htm
But if you are staying on the west side of the park, getting a reservation is the easiest way to access the shuttle or drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Advance reservations go fast (they are already gone for Summer 2022), but more reservations will be available one day in advance at 8 AM Mountain Time. You'll already be on your trip by then, so it's risky to wait.
If you need a reservation to access the shuttle on the west side for Summer 2022, here's what I'd do…
- Call Glacier National Park at 406-888-7800. Ask if there is a way to access the shuttle from the west side without a reservation. A local expert should give you the very best info. Call back at another time or ask to be transferred if the person who picks up the phone doesn't seem knowledgeable or helpful enough.
- If that doesn't solve your problem, consider one of the exceptions listed on the reservation page at recreation.gov. Consider booking a tour that will get you in (if you can). When you book, call and ask how long the service pass is good for. Make sure that it will actually work for you.
- If that doesn't solve your problem, get online before 8 AM on the day before you need the reservation. Be ready to claim a reservation the moment they become available, using the fastest internet connection you can find. I'm sure they'll go fast.
- If you don't get a reservation, consider getting up very early and driving to the east side of the park via the highway. Use the shuttle from the east side, where reservations don't seem to be required (double check when you call). It's a 2.5 hour drive from Kalispell to St. Mary Visitor Center via Highway 2.
- Make a backup plan. There are so many beautiful places on the west side of Glacier to visit!
Have you used the new reservation system? If so, please share what you learned and what worked for you! Use the comment section below.
Shuttle vs. Driving
Shuttles are available from July 1 through Labor Day, with limited service before and after those dates. Learn more at the official Glacier website at https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/shuttles.htm. You can drive your own car any time the road is open.
Here are the reasons we chose to use the shuttle:
- It's free. The Going-to-the-Sun shuttle is a complimentary park service.
- Everybody gets the views. My husband and I both wanted to look at the scenery instead of the road, so we let a professional drive for us.
- No parking hassles. Expect parking lots and pull outs to be full by 8 or 9 AM. We hate hunting for parking, so this was reason enough to use the shuttle.
- Environmentally Friendly. Glacier's glaciers are shrinking rapidly due to climate change. Shuttles use bio-diesel fuel and modern low emissions engines. Using the shuttle reduces emissions and traffic congestion.
- ADA Accessible. All the Going-to-the-Sun shuttles are ADA accessible. This was not a factor for my family, but I'm glad that it's available.
Using the shuttle was the best option for us, but it's not hassle-free. Crowds are the biggest problem, and we've heard of visitors waiting 1-2 hours in line for a shuttle with empty seats. Keep reading to find out how we planned our day, and avoided most crowding problems.
In our experience, driving the road was not nearly as challenging as finding places to park. There are a few pullouts along the way and parking lots at Logan Pass, Avalanche Creek, Rising Sun and St. Mary. The Logan Pass parking lot was completely full by 8:30 AM on the day we visited.
It's Really Two Shuttles
You cannot ride the same bus all the way from one end of Going-to-the-Sun Road to the other. The shuttle service is really two shuttles that meet in the middle at Logan Pass, then turn around and go back the way they came.
If you want to want to keep going beyond Logan Pass (and you should), get off at Logan Pass. Walk a few steps to the other shuttle stop and board that shuttle to continue your journey.
The two shuttles have somewhat different buses and schedules. The buses from St. Mary on the east side are larger, and may allow passengers to stand. Shuttles between St. Mary and Logan Pass come by every 30-40 minutes. Service from St. Mary is available from 7 AM.
Express service from Apgar Visitor Center to Logan Pass begins at 7 AM. I strongly recommend that you arrive at 7 AM or soon afterward to avoid large crowds and long waits. Our Express driver made stops upon request, but otherwise drove straight to Logan Pass.
Regular service from Apgar Visitor Center begins at 9 AM. These shuttles stop at every station and require you to transfer to a smaller 12-passenger bus at Avalanche Creek. The road between Avalanche Creek and Logan Pass is very narrow, and not built for large buses.
The last buses in both directions leave Logan Pass at 7 PM.
Arriving early is the best way to avoid crowds. Shuttle service begins at Apgar and St. Mary Visitor Centers at 7 AM. We arrived at Apgar at 7:15 and climbed on an Express shuttle almost immediately. We arrived at Logan Pass by 8:30, switched to the St. Mary shuttle and had little trouble with overcrowding all day.
I recommend that you get on a shuttle early, guess what most other people will be doing, and then do something different.
What to Pack
It will probably take a full day to ride the shuttle from one end to the other and back, and enjoy a few hikes and viewpoints along the way. Here's what I recommend that you bring with you. Each member of my family carried their own small day pack.
- Water Bottles
- Picnic lunch
- Insect repellent
- Hand sanitizer
- Jacket or hoodie
We found water bottle filling stations at Apgar, Logan Pass and St. Mary visitors centers. Bathrooms with modern plumbing can be found at these visitor centers as well. There are a few other primitive bathrooms along the way. Hand sanitizer is usually provided, but pack your own just in case.
We found a sparse selection of snacks for sale in the Logan Pass gift shop. Otherwise, you will not find any food between Apgar Village on the west side and Rising Sun on the east side.
You may wait 30 minutes or more between shuttles. Bring card games, books, electronics or whatever will keep your kids happy while you wait.
Temperatures ranged between 50 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit on the day we rode Going-to-the-Sun Road. Morning temperatures were cool, and Logan Pass is high elevation. There were still patches of snow during our July visit.
Car seats are not required on shuttles. You may bring a stroller if you can get it onto the shuttle. We saw plenty of families with young children, but none that attempted to board a shuttle with a stroller. Most used child packs or carriers.
Divide and Conquer
Shuttle space is limited, and large families may want to consider splitting into smaller groups when necessary. My family of four never needed to do this, but we did experience full shuttles and we saw visitors who were not allowed on because there was not enough space.
Logan Pass and the shuttle stops nearest to Logan Pass are the most likely places that you will need to consider this option.
Don't plan on having mobile phone or text service on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Apgar and St. Mary on the far ends have WiFi. Otherwise, we had no service at all in this area.
Get the Front Seat
The 12-passenger vans between Avalanche Creek and Logan Pass have a front passenger seat. This was my seat on our ride from Apgar to Logan Pass. I was able to roll down the side window and see the scenery through the front window. The driver was friendly and gave me advice that helped me plan our day.
We are glad that we chose to use the Glacier National Park shuttle on Going-to-the-Sun Road. We are really glad that we started our day early and beat the crowds most of the time.
I hope that your family will also have a great day on Going-to-the-Sun Road, whether you choose to use the shuttle or drive your own car. Do you have Glacier National Park shuttle tips to share? Or questions? Please share in the comments or contact me at [email protected].