The closest town to Glacier National Park: your home base for adventure

Visiting Glacier National Park is one of this cat’s favorite pastimes! There is just something about the area’s expansive nature and its absence of overcrowded cities that really speaks to my love of solitude. Everyone knows cats like to be left alone and this sparsely populated area of the country is just the place for a cat to relax. So, the only question is in what town should you stay? Depending on what side of the park you’ll visit, you have several options for staying in the closest town to Glacier National Park.

This blog reviews 6 great towns near Glacier National Park, all of which are sure to leave you purring with satisfaction. 

Getting to Glacier National Park

First things first, you’ll need a plan on how to get to Glacier National Park. You have several options for traveling to this pristine and remote part of the country. Whether you prefer to travel by plane, train, or automobile, we’ve got you covered. Let’s dive in!

Flying into the closest airport: Glacier Park International Airport

For those coming from distant corners of the United States or beyond, flying is a convenient option. The closest airport to Glacier National Park is Glacier Park International Airport (FCA), located near Kalispell, Montana.

closest town to Glacier National Park - exploring the park
Glacier National Park

Once you land, you’ll be just a short drive away from the park’s west entrance. Upon arrival, you’ll find car rental services at the airport, allowing you the freedom to explore the surrounding towns and the park at your own pace. As you drive toward the park, you’ll enjoy an amazing view of the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains.

Driving: An adventure on the open road

Driving to Glacier National Park is a fantastic option for travelers who enjoy a good road trip and want to soak in the scenic beauty along the way. The park is accessible via several major highways:

  • If you’re traveling from the east, you’ll approach the park through US Route 2, which takes you to the east side of the park.
  • If you’re coming from the west, US Route 2 will lead you to the west entrance of the park.
  • For those traveling from the south, US Route 93 provides access to the west entrance.

Taking a cross-country train: Soak in the scenery

A unique way to travel to Glacier National Park is to embark on a scenic Amtrak train journey to a town nearby. The Amtrak Empire Builder route takes you through stunning landscapes, from lush forests to rugged mountains, offering breathtaking views along the way. 

Using this mode of transportation, your best bet is to arrive at Whitefish, Montana, which is just a short drive away from the park’s west entrance. While taking the train to this area of the country is certainly a slower journey, the upside is your ability to relax and soak in the natural beauty before immersing yourself in the wonders of Glacier National Park. 

A note about public transit in and around the park.

While this part of the country is not known for its efficient public transit infrastructure, those travelers who prefer to not drive still have a few options to get around. 

During the summer months, the park operates a convenient shuttle system known as the Going-to-the-Sun Road Shuttle. There are shuttle stops at all of the main gates and the system allows you to reach most of the park. Even if you drive from your home location, you may still want to park at the gate and take the shuttle due to limited parking availability at the most popular sites. 

Additionally, all the towns listed in this article offer either public or reasonably-priced private transportation to the closest park gate.  

Closest towns to the west side of the park

Glacier National Park is a truly unique park that spans the continental divide. As such, you’ll find that most attractions are divided into either the west or east side of the park. The western side of the park is the larger side and tends to act as the main entrance. If you have never visited Glacier Park, you should start here. 

One of the most popular locations on this side of the park is Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park. Its crystal-clear waters reflect the surrounding mountains, creating one of the stunning images for which this park is so well known. Additionally, you’ll find iconic hikes like Avalanche Lake and Trail of the Cedars. 

Please note that if you are visiting the park outside of the summer season (July-September) you may not be able to pass over the continental divide, due to weather conditions. For this reason, you should make sure to stay on the side of the park with the attractions that you’d most like to see. 

On the western side of the park, you’ll find four charming towns, each offering excellent accommodation options for a memorable stay.

West Glacier, MT: the closest town to Glacier National Park

Welcome to West Glacier, a town that basks in the beauty of Glacier National Park right at its doorstep. Boasting a picturesque setting and easy access to the park’s Western Entrance, West Glacier is one of the best places to stay for park enthusiasts. Located right on the border of Glacier Bay National Park, you could be as close as 1 mile from the main entrance!

The closest town to Glacier National Park - View of the Rocky Mountains in the park
Rocky Mountains

Unlike some of the other towns, West Glacier maintains a rustic mountain charm that reflects the surrounding wilderness. Visitors will find cozy lodges, charming cabins, and inviting campgrounds nestled amidst towering trees. A crowd favorite is the Belton Chalet, a historic hotel, hosting nature enthusiasts from around the world as far back as 1910. This high-end hotel features a full-service restaurant, tap room, gift shop, and stunning mountain views. 

Finally, West Glacier is filled with adventure outfitters who can expertly lead a number of adventures within the park. From exhilarating whitewater rafting to serene fishing excursions on Lake McDonald, the town caters to a wide range of energy and skill. If you are looking for proximity to the park with a dash of adventure, then staying in West Glacier is a great option. 

Hungry Horse, MT: a quiet town, with a great fishing hole

Just slightly west of West Glacier, Hungry Horse offers a plethora of activities to complement your time in the park. For travelers that are into fishing or other boating experiences, the town’s namesake reservoir provides a stunningly beautiful area for water-based activities. Aside from outdoor activities, you’ll find a charming Main St, with local shops and plenty of cafes featuring huckleberry-flavored treats.

One of the best reasons to stay in Hungry Horse is to get a little bit of distance from the crowds in West Glacier. Hungry Horse is approximately 15 miles from the Western entrance, meaning you can expect a 20-30 minute drive to get into the park.

You’ll find a few options for hotels in town, as well as, some accommodations just outside of town that will really allow you to sink into nature. If you are looking for an outdoorsy experience, with all the amenities, check out the Abbott Valley Homestead, just 3 miles from the center of town. 

Columbia Falls, MT: fun for the whole family

If you are looking to stay in a slightly larger town, but still have quick access to Glacier National Park, then Columbia Fall, MT may be the perfect spot for you. Located approximately 22 miles from the western entrance, you can expect a 30-40 minute drive to get into the park. The main reasons to stay in Columbia Falls are the higher inventory of hotels and more activities for the family. 

In the charming town of Columbia Falls, you’ll find attractions like Big Sky Waterpark and Depot Park, a historic train museum. Staying in Columbia Falls is a good choice for families because you can break up long hikes in the park with interactive activities for the kids.

For golf lovers, Columbia Falls also offers Meadow Lake Golf Course. Here travelers will enjoy the unique opportunity to play golf under the watchful gaze of the rocky mountains. Aside from vacation rentals on the golf course, there are a plethora of ranches just outside of town where you can rent a cabin with a magnificent view. Make sure to check out Glacier Acres Guest Ranch when shopping for accommodations in the area. 

Whitefish, MT: a vibrant town, within an hour of the park

The final town worth mentioning by the park’s western entrance is Whitefish, MT. About 31 miles from Glacier National Park, Whitefish makes our list of places to stay due to its vibrant culture and picturesque alpine charm. If you are looking to get a taste of day-to-day living in the Rockies, alongside a romp in the park, you’ve found your place!

Hiking on Trail of the Cedars in Glacier National Park
Trail of the Cedars

This quaint town offers a delightful blend of scenic beauty, outdoor adventures, and unique entertainment. Whitefish is renowned for its spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains, providing a picturesque backdrop for your explorations. This town also features the most lively downtown in the area. After a day in the park, who wouldn’t want to sit back and enjoy live music, alongside a hardy dinner?

No matter what time of year you are traveling, make sure to check out Whitefish Mountian Resort. During the winter months, the town transforms into a winter wonderland as the resort comes alive with skiing, snowboarding, and other snow-centric activities. In the warmer months, visitors enjoy hiking trails and scenic chairlift rides with panoramic views.

Finally, this charming town offers a wide variety of accommodations from ski cabins in Whitefish Mountain Resort, to boutique hotels and rustic lodges featuring views for miles. In Whitefish you can easily find accommodations for any style of travel. 

Closest towns to the east side of the park

Now that we have discussed your main options for staying close to the west side of the park, let’s explore the options for the east side of Glacier National Park.

Entering the park through the eastern side provides a great opportunity to see some of the park’s less explored areas. On the east of the park, you will find 3 main gates: St Mary (the only gate that connects to the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road), Two Medicine, and Many Glacier. The Two Medicine and Many Glacier areas are often overlooked since they do not connect to the rest of the park. However, these areas feature some of the most pristine waterfalls and lakes in the entire park! 

So, now that you have decided to enter the park from the east, what is the closest town to Glacier National Park?

St. Mary, MT: the closest town to the east entrance of Glacier National Park

It should come as no surprise that St. Mary, MT is nestled right next to the St. Mary entrance. If it’s your first time in the park, we recommend entering through the St. Mary gate. Here you’ll have access to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is the park’s most popular attraction.

Additionally, St. Mary is the closest town to the Many Glacier entrance to the park. This area features popular attractions like the historic Many Glacier Hotel, dating back to the early 1900s, as well as, iconic hikes like Iceberg Lake.

Much like West Glacier, St Mary seems to exist for the sole purpose of supporting park visitors. The town features basic amenities like a grocery store, a beer garden, and a pizza shop. For accommodations, there are generally a few Airbnbs in the area as well as a St. Mary Village, one of the best hotels in the area.

With that said St. Mary is a great area to find camping as you’ll be very close to the park entrance. If you are visiting the east side of the park and proximity to the main entrance is important, then St. Mary is your best option.

East Glacier Park, MT: the closest town to the Two Medicine gate on the eastern side of Glacier National Park

The final town to consider is East Glacier Park, MT. If you are looking to access the Two Medicine are then this closest town to Glacier National Park! From the center of town to the Two Medicine Gate, you can expect a 25-minute drive over approximately 14 miles.

Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park
Lake McDonald

Due to its remote nature, this area of the park tends to have lower traffic but boasts some of its greatest beauty. Two Medicine is best known for its dramatic waterfalls and the pristine Two Medicine Lake. Once you have explored the Two Medicine area to your heart’s desire, you will only be 45 minutes from the St. Mary gate, which is the main entrance on the east side of the park

While East Glacier Park is mostly filled with a variety of lodging, you’ll also find a smattering of bars, restaurants, and outdoor outfitters. One of the most popular places to stay is the Glacier Park Lodge. This large hotel features 162 guest rooms, a lounge, restaurant, and day spa. Golf enthusiasts can also check out the 9-hole golf course, where visitors can appreciate amazing views of the Rockies while swinging their clubs. 

Making the Most of Your Glacier Adventure

As you embark on your Glacier National Park adventure from the closest towns, it’s essential to prepare for a seamless experience. In this section, we’ll provide valuable tips to help you make the most of your journey. Let’s dive into the essential elements to ensure your Glacier adventure is one for the books:

  • Best Hikes and Scenic Spots: Glacier National Park is a hiker’s paradise, offering many stunning trails and scenic viewpoints. Be sure to explore some of the best hikes such as the Highline Trail, Grinnell Glacier Trail, and Hidden Lake Overlook Trail. Each offers unique landscapes and rewarding vistas.
  • Weather and Clothing: The weather in Glacier can be unpredictable, even during the summer months. Bring layers of clothing, including a warm jacket, as temperatures can drop significantly at higher elevations.
  • Wildlife Safety: While encountering wildlife is an incredible experience, it’s crucial to observe them from a safe distance. Make sure to maintain a minimum distance of 25 yards from large animals such as bears and moose. It’s also recommended to carry bear spray as a precaution.
  • Park Shuttle System: During peak seasons, the park operates a shuttle system along the Going-to-the-Sun Road to alleviate traffic congestion. Utilize the shuttle system to explore various parts of the park without the worry of parking.
  • Park Passes and Entrance Fees: To enter Glacier National Park, you’ll need a valid park pass or pay the entrance fee. Please note that in the summer months, you will need a reservation to enter the park with a vehicle. The latest requirements are listed on the NPS website as well as the release dates for reservations. 
  • Water and Snacks: Stay hydrated during your explorations by carrying plenty of water. Additionally, pack some snacks to keep your energy levels up during long hikes and outings.

By keeping these tips in mind, you can maximize your Glacier National Park adventure, making it a truly unforgettable experience.

Conclusion: A Gateway to Nature’s Marvels

Congratulations! You’re now armed with valuable insights into the nearby towns of Glacier National Park. Whether you choose the alpine charm of Whitefish, the proximity of St. Mary, or the secluded nature of East Glacier, each town offers its unique charm and convenience for exploring the wonders of Glacier National Park. 

Rushing river in June in Glacier National Park
June in Glacier National Park

Now, it’s time to lace up your hiking boots, pack your sense of wonder, and immerse yourself in the splendor of this natural treasure. As you explore beautiful landscapes, encounter diverse wildlife, and breathe in the mountain air, let Glacier National Park seep into your soul, leaving you with unforgettable memories. Happy exploring!

FAQs: Answering Your Burning Questions

Q1: Are there accommodations available within Glacier National Park itself?

A1: Yes, there are lodges such as Lake McDonald Lodge, Apgar Village Lodge, and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn available within the park. Reservations are recommended, especially during peak seasons.

Q2: Can I see glaciers up close in Glacier National Park?

A2: While the park is famous for its glaciers, their accessibility has decreased over the years due to climate change. However, visitors can still catch glimpses of glaciers at Logan Pass and take boat tours to get a closer look.

Q3: What’s the best time to visit Glacier National Park?

A3: The best time to visit is during the summer months, from July to September, when the roads are fully open, and outdoor activities are plentiful. However, be prepared for crowds during this peak season.

Q4: Are there guided tours available in the park?

A4: Yes, Glacier National Park offers ranger-led programs and boat tours that provide valuable insights into the park’s natural wonders. Check at the visitor centers for tour schedules.

Q5: Which airport is closest to Glacier National Park?

A5: The Glacier Park International Airport is the nearest airport to the park, conveniently located near Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

Q6: What are the best hikes in Glacier National Park?

A6: Some of the best hikes in the park include the Highline Trail, Grinnell Glacier Trail, and Hidden Lake Overlook Trail. Be sure to check trail conditions and weather before heading out.

Q7: Is it necessary to have a car to explore the park and its surroundings?

A7: Having a car gives you the most flexibility, but there are shuttle services available within the park during the summer. Depending on the crowds, you may opt for the shuttle to some of the more popular attractions, given the limited availability of parking.

Q8: Can I visit Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada from Glacier National Park?

A8: Yes, you can! Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park are connected. Together, they form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. However, you will need to cross the Canadian border, so it’s essential to check the requirements beforehand.

Q9: Are there any family-friendly activities in the park?

A9: Absolutely! The park offers various family-friendly activities, including ranger-led programs, boat tours, and easy nature walks suitable for all ages.

Q10: Is there a fee to enter Glacier National Park?

A10: Yes, there is an entrance fee to access Glacier National Park, which helps support its conservation and maintenance. Visitors can purchase a Glacier National Park Pass at the entrance station.

With these frequently asked questions addressed, you are now well-equipped to confidently embark on your Glacier National Park journey. As you explore the park’s wonders from the closest towns, don’t forget to embrace the splendor of nature, follow park guidelines for safety and conservation, and relish every moment in this natural treasure trove. Happy trails and enjoy your Glacier adventure!

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