Planning a trip to Glacier National Park? Glacier is a huge park, and it's impossible to see it all in one day. My family spent three full days here in July, and still missed some sections we wanted to see.
You can still do a lot in one day at Glacier National Park. I recommend that you focus on the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road. It's the only road that goes all the way through the center of the park. It offers jaw-dropping scenery, plus a number of short hikes and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is 50 miles long and only open July-September, due to winter snow and high elevations. If you are visiting any other time of year, visit the Operating Hours and Seasons page on the official Glacier National Park website for other ideas. The park is open year-round, but services are limited in the off-season.
Here are my recommendations for one day in Glacier National Park.
Shuttle or Drive?
You can drive your own car on Going-to-the-Sun Road, or take the free shuttle. Both options have benefits and drawbacks.
We chose the shuttle because neither my husband nor I wanted to drive. We both wanted to give our full attention to the scenery instead of the steep and winding road. We hate hunting for parking, and the shuttle eliminated that problem. Finally, the shuttle is more environmentally-friendly than a private vehicle.
Shuttles can be very crowded, and only come every 30 minutes or so. If the shuttle is already full, you may need to wait for the next one. Drive your own car if you don't want to deal with those problems. In my experience, driving Going-to-the-Sun Road was not difficult, but parking along the way was a massive headache.
Use the link below to get all my tips for making the most of your day on the Going-to-the-Sun shuttle.
Related: Tips for Using the Going-to-the-Sun Shuttle
Whether you drive or use the shuttle, I recommend that you start your day early. Arrive at either Apgar (west) or St. Mary Visitor Center (east) at around 7 AM to beat the crowds.
If you drive your own car, you may want to start even earlier. The parking lot at Logan Pass (the high point in the center of Going-to-the-Sun Road) was full by 8:30 AM on the day we visited.
If you can't do early morning, consider a late start. Many visitors will finish their day by late afternoon, and it didn't get dark until 10 PM during our July visit. The last shuttles leave Logan Pass for both Apgar and St. Mary at 7 PM.
We arrived at Apgar Visitor Center by 7:15 AM, easily found a parking space and boarded a small Express bus to Logan Pass with no waiting. A few minutes later, we spotted a black bear from the shuttle!
We unloaded at Logan Pass at around 8:30 AM and got on the next bus heading east to St. Mary's. There were only 6 people on the bus. We got off briefly at Jackson Glacier Overlook and caught a shuttle at about 9 AM to the next stop for St. Mary Falls (not St. Mary Visitor Center – they are different).
We spent about 60-90 minutes hiking to St. Mary and Virginia Falls, which were both worthwhile. Then my family separated (long story). My husband and daughter got on an uncrowded bus heading east toward St. Mary Visitor Center. They didn't get off and kept their seats as the bus got more crowded on its way back to Logan Pass. They saw mama and baby grizzly bears and two black bears from the shuttle along the way.
Meanwhile, my son and I took some extra time on the trail, then boarded a very crowded shuttle heading west toward Logan Pass. We had to stand, and after two more stops, were crammed in the shuttle like sardines. I recommend that you do what my husband and daughter did, so you can ride the whole road and sit by the windows.
Related: 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees
We arrived at Logan Pass at noon and could see the shuttles and parking lot while we ate our lunch and waited for my husband and daughter to arrive. The parking lot was a nightmare, with far more cars entering than leaving.
Meanwhile, the shuttle stops were also crowded, but I didn't notice anyone having to wait for more than one shuttle. Small buses from Apgar arrived about every 10-15 minutes. Large buses from St. Mary arrived about every 30 minutes.
We didn't hike the popular Hidden Lake trail at Logan Pass, but could have in the time we were there. Put it on your to-do list.
At about 2 PM, we boarded a westbound shuttle toward Apgar. Everyone was required to unload at Avalanche Creek. Here, we walked the easy and very scenic Trail of the Cedars. We could have also hiked to Avalanche Lake, which I've heard from several sources is gorgeous.
Related: Helpful Tips for Hiking With Kids
We boarded the shuttle toward Apgar at around 4:30 PM. We hopped off at Apgar Village (not Apgar Visitor Center). Here, we explored the gift shops and services. We ate dinner at Eddie's Cafe. Finally, we walked the short bike trail to Apgar Visitor Center, where we climbed back into our van at 6:30 PM.
What to Pack
Bring everything you need for the full day in your day pack. Here's what I recommend.
- Water Bottles
- Picnic lunch
- Insect repellent
- Hand sanitizer
- Activities for kids (while you wait for shuttle)
- Jacket or hoodie
You'll find restaurants and shopping at both ends of Going-to-the-Sun Road, but almost nothing in between. Logan Pass has a small visitor center with a gift shop and a sparse selection of overpriced snacks. You can fill water bottles at all the visitor centers, including Logan Pass.
There are a few bathrooms along Going-to-the-Sun Road, but they are usually primitive toilets. Logan Pass has modern toilets, but no sinks for washing.
Temperatures ranged from 50-80 degrees F on the day we visited. I was glad to have my jacket in the early morning and as we waited at Logan Pass.
Consider a Tour
Glacier's red bus tours are another way to experience Going-to-the-Sun Road. You can take a half-day or full-day guided tour in an open-top historic red bus. We looked into this option a couple of weeks before our trip and tours were completely sold out. Be sure to book early.
Learn more at https://www.glaciernationalparklodges.com/red-bus-tours.
What Not To Do
Two days later, we stopped by Apgar Visitor Center at 9:30 AM. There were only a few parking spaces left, and the line for the shuttle was long. By this time of day, it would take twice as long to reach Logan Pass.
I know that getting up early is no fun on vacation, but this is one of those times where we were very glad we did.
Be aware that vehicles over 21 feet cannot drive Going-to-the-Sun Road. Sections of the road are too narrow, winding and crowded. If you are traveling with an RV or trailer, plan accordingly.
You haven't really seen Glacier National Park unless you've done Going-to-the-Sun Road. It's the only road through the park and it's filled with spectacular sights and great family hikes. It's the best way to spend one day in Glacier National Park – as long as you are visiting in the summer when it's all open.
Once you get a taste of Glacier, you'll most likely want to plan a return trip to see the rest of the park! I hope that our experience has helped you plan a great trip for your family.
Great tips!! Thank you!.
Very nice photos. Loved the greenery. The landscapes look amazing. So many wonderful places are there to visit on Earth, hope I can visit some day
Thank you for your articles and travel tips! Just curious as to where you stayed on your 3 day glacier visit. We are planing a 3-4 day trip to glacier in August of 2021 and would love to hear your recommendations.
Hi Kristi! We stayed in a VRBO cabin near Polebridge, on the west side of Glacier NP. It’s #452117 (affiliate link). The park has several lodges and campgrounds. There is lots of lodging in Kalispell and other towns close by. We are less familiar with the cities on the east side of the park, but the historic park lodge on that side is gorgeous.
Thank you! I went to Glacier a few weeks who with my four kids and this was all the itinerary that I needed!
Thank you for letting me know! I’m so glad to have been helpful and glad that your family had a great Glacier trip! 🙂