Don’t Have a Vehicle Reservation for Glacier National Park?
Here are 6 Ways to Play in the Park Without One.
*Updated April 8, 2022*
We know there’s been a lot of feelings around the vehicle reservation system (formerly known as the ticketed entry system) for Glacier National Park. (In case you missed it, the National Park Service launched a pilot program for vehicle reservations in 2021 and will continue it for 2022.)
From May 27-September 11, 2022 you need to have a vehicle reservation to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road entrances at Camas Road, West Glacier and Rising Sun (which is 5 miles past the St. Mary entrance), as well as the North Fork. More details here and here.)
And believe us when we tell you that we have answered many phone calls, emails and DMs regarding vehicle reservations and have heard all sorts of opinions. But the truth of the matter is that whether you like it or not, the vehicle reservation system will remain in place for 2022. And while that may seem like a bummer, you can still enjoy Glacier National Park without a vehicle reservation.
1. Get up with the birds.
For the Going-to-the-Sun Road, vehicle reservations are required from 6 a.m. - 4 p.m., while in the North Fork reservations are needed from 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. One way to see the park is to get up with the birds. During the summer the sun rises in northwest Montana around 5:30 a.m., which means you have lots of daylight for playing in Glacier National Park. Seize the day and drive into the park (be sure you have your park pass, which is different from your vehicle reservation) prior to 6 a.m. to take full advantage of Montana's long daylight hours. NOTE: access to the Going-to-the-Sun Road prior to 6 a.m. is available at the east side, St. Mary entrance only. The West Glacier/Apgar entrance is closed prior to 6 a.m. due to road construction (see below). Or visit other areas such as Two Medicine and Many Glacier.
Need to know: Due to a much-needed utility project starting on June 1, construction will close the Going-to-the-Sun Road from 10 p.m. - 6 a.m. from the south end of Lake McDonald (near Apgar Campground) to Sprague Creek Campground. There will be a small window at midnight each evening when cars will be piloted through construction.
What this means: if you are staying inside the park (say at Lake McDonald Lodge) and your flight lands late in the day, you will be able to head into the park and to your accommodations at midnight when the pilot car leads you through. Additionally, if you get off the trail late (or maybe if you're stargazing at Logan Pass), you will have to wait until midnight to be piloted out of the park. Please note that the Going-to-the-Sun Road will still be accessible before 6 a.m. (without a vehicle reservation) from the east side of the park at the St. Mary entrance.
2. Late afternoons are made for playing — plan to catch the evening sunset.
While the park may seem like a place you want to spend all day — and we totally get it if you do — evening hours are some of the best times to visit. Why? Well, we’ll tell ya. Wildlife are more active when the weather gets cooler, there are fewer people and you can catch sweet sunsets over the park’s Livingston Range. And since you don’t need a vehicle reservation after 4 p.m. for the Going-to-the-Sun Road, you'll have plenty of time to play in the park and soak up a beautiful evening in Montana. The sun also sets late in the day during summer in Montana; time your visit so you can enter the North Fork after 6 p.m.
3. Make it a loop tour and hit the road in late afternoon/early evening.
To drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road in its entirety, it’s a good idea to give yourself about 3 hours. Depart from Kalispell in the late morning and head over to the east side (as it’s commonly called by locals) on U.S. Highway 2. Time your trip right and enter through the St. Mary entrance around 4 p.m., which will get you back to West Glacier right around 8 p.m. and to Kalispell around 8:30 p.m. The best part: you’ll be able to drive the length of the road - and even take a short hike - with lots of daylight left (the sun sets late around here during summer) and you’ll still have time to grab a late dinner in Kalispell.
Highlights along the way: the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Goat Lick Overlook, Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier Park (be sure to pop into this impressive lodge for a cocktail or lunch), the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Looking Glass Highway and the St. Mary Visitor Center.
There are also some great hikes along this route, including Three Bear Lake Trail (2.4 miles round-trip), Elk Mountain Trail (4.8 miles round-trip), Firebrand Pass (10.7 miles round-trip) and South Boundary Trail (6.8 miles round-trip).
4. Take advantage of the places in Glacier National Park that don’t require a vehicle reservation.
The cold hard fact is that you need a vehicle reservation to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor from West Glacier/Camas/Rising Sun and the North Fork at the Polebridge Ranger Station. The other cold hard fact is that there is way more to Glacier National Park than just the Going-to-the-Sun Road and Bowman Lake. Other areas to explore: Two Medicine, Cut Bank, Many Glacier and Firebrand.
Two Medicine has great hiking trails, a boat tour and water rentals. It’s also a short drive from East Glacier Park, which is worth a visit. Located in the northeast corner of the park is Many Glacier. The area offers hiking trails, horseback trail rides and boat tours. You can also rent canoes, row boats or kayaks and paddle the waters of Swiftcurrent Lake, which will give you great views of Many Glacier Hotel. Keep in mind that these areas of the park may see additional congestion; pack your patience and give yourself plenty of time.
If you're heart is set on exploring the North Fork? Head up and spend some time at the Polebridge Mercantile and the Northern Lights Saloon and enter the park after vehicle reservations are no longer needed at 6 p.m.
5. Go with a guide.
There are experienced and knowledgeable guides who can introduce you to some of the wonders of Glacier National Park. Cruise the lakes of the park on a historic wooden boat with Glacier Park Boat Co. (tours are available on Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, St. Mary and Two Medicine). Book a guided hike with Glacier Guides and Montana Raft. Learn about the park from the perspective of the Blackfeet Tribe with Glacier Sun Tours. Or take in the views of the park on a red “jammer” bus with Glacier National Park Lodges. Bonus: if you have a booked activity inside the park, that activity confirmation serves as your vehicle reservation. Keep in mind that you will still need a park pass. Outside of the park, you can take a guided rafting trip or fly-fishing trip on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, which serves as Glacier’s southern boundary.
Continuing for 2022, the Going-to-the-Sun Road Day Program with The Glacier Institute provides a educational guided experience to four popular locations in the Park: Hidden Lake, Highline Trail, Avalanche Lake and the complete Sun Road experience.
Glacier National Park will also offer fare-free park shuttles in 2022 that will travel on the Going-to-the-Sun Road between Apgar Visitor Center and St. Mary Visitor Center. The shuttle system will not require a separate reservation and will operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.
6. Come in the spring and bike the road.
If you’ve never biked the Going-to-the-Sun Road, spring is the time to do it. Before the alpine section of the road is opened to vehicles you can ride the road without any restrictions. If you can swing it, that’s the best time to do it. After the full road is open you can still ride the road but times are limited. Cyclists do need a park pass but do not need a vehicle reservation, no matter when they visit. See more here.
Ready to explore beyond the park? Check out these Montana views that will make you think you’re in a national park, take a look at this list of things to do or take a day trip. And if you want even more information or inspiration, call us at 406-758-2811.