We know there are several feelings around the vehicle reservation system for Glacier National Park, especially as it includes four different areas of the park. (In case you missed it, the National Park Service is continuing the vehicle reservation system – with some changes and additions from previous years – for the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Many Glacier, the North Fork and Two Medicine.)
And believe us when we tell you that we have answered many phone calls, emails and DMs regarding the vehicle reservation system. But the truth of the matter is that whether you like it or not, vehicle reservations will continue to be required for 2023. And since we’re here to help you have the best vacation in Montana possible, we’re sharing how you can still enjoy Glacier National Park without a vehicle reservation.
1. Get up with the birds.
We know 6 a.m. is early, but 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. We say seize the day and drive into the park (be sure you have your park pass, which is different from vehicle reservation) just before 6 a.m. to take full advantage of the day. Reservations are required from 6 a.m. – 3 p.m., so plan to get up pre-dawn and soak up the majesty that is the Crown of the Continent.
Sidenote: And while we give that advice, you also need to know that there will be a construction project along the Going-to-the-Sun Road by Lake McDonald, which complicates this early-bird advice if you are looking to enter the park via the West entrance. However, this advice applies to the east side and the GTSR’s checkpoint at Rising Sun, the North Fork, Many Glacier and Two Medicine.
Grab breakfast and coffee on the way and enjoy the sunrise from the shore of Lake McDonald, or stop into the Polebridge Mercantile for one of their famous huckleberry bear claws before heading into Bowman Lake. Plan to spend the full day in the park or head back early and go soak up the afternoon sun on Flathead Lake.
2. Make an afternoon out of it.
While the park may seem like a place you want to spend all day – and we totally get it if you do – the crowds clear out in the afternoon. So much, in fact, that after 3 p.m., no vehicle reservation is needed for anywhere in the park. Plus, you’ll still have plenty of daylight hours to see glacial-carved terrain. As an added bonus, wildlife are more active when the weather gets cooler, so you have an even better chance of spotting our year-round residents, from bears to bighorn sheep.
3. Make it a loop tour and hit the road right after 3 p.m.
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 Rising Sun checkpoint just after 3 p.m., which will give you time to hike, take photos and simply soak it all up. The best part: you’ll be able to see the whole park 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 include 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.
You can also head into Two Medicine, Many Glacier and the North Fork (be prepared for a wait) after 3 p.m. If you stay on the west side of the Continental Divide, you can participate in a slew of activities in the morning – like kayaking on Flathead Lake, hitting up the local farmers market, mountain biking at Herron Park or walking it out along the Parkline Trail – before heading into the park in mid-afternoon.
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 varying date requirements for the vehicle reservation system.
The cold hard facts are that you need a vehicle reservation for the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the North Fork, Two Medicine and Many Glacier. However, it’s important to note that the dates vary for when a reservation is needed for each area.
- May 26 – September 10, 2023: a vehicle reservation is needed for the Going-to-the-Sun Road, but only at the West entrance and Camas entrance. In addition, a reservation is required for the North Fork (which is accessed via the Polebridge Ranger Station). Reservations are needed from 6 a.m. – 3 p.m.
- July 1 – September 10, 2023: a vehicle reservation is needed for the Going-to-the-Sun Road at the West entrance, Camas entrance and Rising Sun checkpoint (6 miles up the road from the St. Mary entrance). Additionally, a reservation is required for Many Glacier and Two Medicine. Reservations are needed from 6 a.m. – 3 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. Take in the views of the park on a red “jammer” bus with Glacier National Park Lodges. Or see the Many Glacier Valley on a horseback trail ride with Swan Mountain Outfitters.
Bonus: if you have a booked activity inside the park, that activity confirmation serves as your vehicle reservation (but keep in mind that a park pass is still needed). 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.
6. Come during hiker/biker season.
If you’ve never biked the Going-to-the-Sun Road, spring is the time to do it before it opens to vehicular traffic. While specific access dates to ride the road have not been released (stay tuned for more info here), cyclists do need a park pass but do not need a vehicle reservation, no matter when they visit.
7. Take the park’s free shuttle from the St. Mary Visitor Center.
With the checkpoint on the east side of the park located 6 miles up from St. Mary, all visitors can easily access the St. Mary Visitor Center (just be sure you have your park pass, which is different from a vehicle reservation). From the St. Mary Visitor Center, you can take advantage of the park’s shuttle system, as a vehicle reservation is not needed.
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.