Welcome to our complete Glacier National Park 5 day itinerary. This one’s all about exploring the jewel of Montana state; that vast cut-out of snow-mantled peaks, pine-filled valleys, and glistening lakes that lies on the US-Canada border. It’s a true adventure that promises scenic drives, amazing hikes, and a real escape from the Rat Race.
Our plan aims to squeeze as much enjoyment from the 1,500-square-mile wilderness of the Big Sky Country as possible. It’s packed with visions of remote alpine valleys, Rocky Mountain overlooks, hardcore treks, and – of course – epic road trips along the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.
We’d say that the best time to undertake our Glacier National Park 5 day itinerary is between May and September. That’s the peak season in this reserve and when you’re likely to find all the walking trails and scenic byways open for business. Winter trips might be harder – it gets real cold up here, and snows can scupper those adventure plans.
Day 1 – Lake McDonald
No ultimate itinerary for the Glacier National Park could possibly skip out on the incredible lakes that pepper the reserve. There’s over 700 of them within! Yep, 700! That means you’ll never be short of a clear alpine pond or a vast glacier lake, but there’s one in particular that we think should take center stage when you first cruise in from the western gates, as most do.
Name: Lake McDonald. This is the largest lake in the region. It hits nearly 500 feet in depth and spans a whole valley of its own, measuring over 10 miles from tip to toe. It’s relatively easy to get to, too – simply drive north for about 10 minutes from the town of West Glacier and you’ll meet its southern banks in Apgar.
Talking of Apgar, that’s a great place to base yourself for the day. The town has a couple of rustic cabins and a boat jetty. Rent yourself a pedalo and get out on the water. That way, you can cruise north up to the Fish Creek Picnic Area and lunch with visions of the Gunsight Mountain in the distance. For land lubbers, there are also a few shoreline paths that weave through the forests on the north banks. Some culminate at the Lake McDonald Backcountry Campground, which has arguably the best views on the lakeside as a whole.
Day 2 – Grinnell Glacier
As you move eastwards and deeper into the national park, you’ll soon enter an area known as Many Glacier. It really lives up to the name, and its nickname – some call this the “Switzerland of North America”. Basically, this is home to the most majestic highland scenery in Montana, with jagged peaks lurching over crystal-clear waters.
You’re here to see the mighty Grinnell Glacier. It’s often considered to be the very heart of the park and is one of the most photographed natural wonders in Big Sky Country as a whole. There are two ways to get up close to the massive sheet of moving ice. You could opt for the four-hour The Grinnell Glacier Trail, an amazing romp through pine woods and gnarled granite peaks. Or, you can take the short-cut boat from the Many Glacier Hotel.
We really recommend plumping for the first, since it fits better with the west-east direction of travel in our Glacier National Park 5 day itinerary and means you’ll get to stand atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. That’s a eye-watering lookout that surveys the whole tongue of frozen water curving off Mount Grinnell itself. Wowza.
Day 3 – Highline Trail Loop
We’ve saved arguably the bucket-list draw of the Glacier National Park for the hump day of this itinerary. Cue the Highline Trail Loop. Often mentioned among the most awesome hikes in the whole of the USA, this 12-mile A-to-B (yep, it’s not actually a loop) is about showcasing the alpine wonders at the heart of the reserve. It usually takes six to eight hours to complete and is rated as moderately challenging.
Things begin at the Logan Pass Car Park. Get there before 8am to ensure you can bag a space. From there, the trail creeps north along the sides of Cataract Mountain, hopping between lovely meadows that bloom with wildflowers and flutter with butterflies in the spring and summer months. The hardest part of the route comes on the edge of the so-called Bishops Cap peak, when the path becomes little more than a meter-wide ledge. It’s not too hard, though, since walkers are aided by fixed wires cut into the stone.
You’ll finish the Highline Trail Loop up at The Loop to the north. A free shuttle bus runs from there back down to the starting point, taking you right back to your car. Bring more water than you think you’ll need and plenty of sun protection for day 3 – the whole hike is highly exposed.
Day 4 – Virginia falls & St. Mary Falls
The penultimate day of our Glacier National Park 5 day itinerary sees us emerge into the wild eastern portions of the preserve. This is where you’ll connect up with St. Mary Lake, another dramatic run of water that doglegs 9 miles into the mountains, all the while Goat Mountain and Otokomi Mountain keeping watch from up above.
But today is actually about ditching the Big Sky Country and going into a narrow valley that runs to the south of the lake. There, you’ll walk through groves of spear-like pine trees and wooded meadows peppered with moss-covered stone. It’s actually along a section of the famous Continental Divide Trail, and the reward for the effort is waterfalls…
Two of them to be precise. The first you’ll come to and the smaller of the duo are the St. Mary Falls. They’re a pretty little shoot of water over two tiers of dark granite, all gurgling into a turquoise plunge pool that looks more like a Jacuzzi below. Push on past those to reach the Virginia Falls. They’re surely the most impressive around, dropping straight off a stone ledge between pockets of ancient pines.
In all, the walk to and from the falls takes around two hours to complete. There’s parking at the trailhead, but be sure to get there early because it’s a popular hike in the peak season.
Day 5 – The Going-to-the-Sun Road (east-west)
Now you’ve hopped the major sights from west to east, it’s time to turn the car around and point the sat nav in the opposite direction. You’ll be following the same route you took to get here, only this time smashing the whole thing in a single day. It’s actually one of the most iconic scenic byways in the USA, known altogether as the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR).
You can do it all in two hours if you keep the pedal to the floor and don’t stop. But that shouldn’t be the plan. There’s loads to see as you drive, and the scenery looks a whole load different when you take it in this direction. Unmissable locations for us would include:
- Wild Goose Island Lookout – Start with this overlook on St. Mary Lake, which takes in the whole western haunch of the water, with mountains hanging overhead. We think it can even give Yosemite Valley a run for its money!
- The Jackson Glacier Overlook – There’s an opening in the mountains to the southwest where you can see the ice-capped top of Mount Jackson, roughly midway down the GTSR.
- Bird Woman Falls Overlook – Gaze at a huge cleft in the peaks that’s carved by a massive waterfall.
Going east to west on the Going-to-the-Sun Road is better for driving since you’ll mainly be on the mountain side of the track, not right on the edge of the precipice. Always check driving conditions ahead of time – the byway is often closed due to adverse weather and high snowfall.
The ultimate Glacier National Park 5 day itinerary – our conclusion
So, there we have it: Our ultimate Glacier National Park 5 day itinerary. In a handful of days in the most acclaimed Montana wilderness out there, we’ve managed to tick off some of the great draws of the American Rockies. You’ll see the curving tongue of the Grinnell Glacier, conquer the mighty Highline Trail Loop, one of the most famous day hikes in the country, and witness gushing waterfalls and alpine lakes. Of course, the whole thing comes to a climax with a complete traverse of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which wiggles and weaves between cataracts and lookout points and more.
How long should I spend in the Glacier National Park?
Five days is plenty to make the most of the Glacier National Park. This itinerary is packed with most of the main attractions, including the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road and the famous Highline Trail Loop hike. If you had more time, we’d recommend spending it in the Many Glacier area of the park, where there are loads more hiking paths and lookout points to explore.
When is the best time to visit Glacier National Park?
The overall best time to visit the Glacier National Park is between May and September. The winter usually has too much snow and the Going-to-the-Sun Road can be closed between November and March. Months like June and July are the warmest and driest, but also busy. Those looking to escape the crowds might prefer to plan for the shoulder seasons in spring and fall.