Was it a good idea to visit Glacier National Park when I only had 2 days to spare and wasn’t legally old enough to rent a car?
But terrible ideas haven’t stopped me before (see: every decision I’ve ever made). In August, I landed in Kalispell at Glacier Park International Airport on Sunday afternoon, and was on my way out by Tuesday after lunch. Here’s a rundown of everything I did in 48 hours without a car at Glacier National Park and the surrounding area, plus what I wish I would’ve done if I had more time.
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Table of Contents
Day 1: Landing in Kalispell
Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) has direct flights from Seattle, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Denver and Las Vegas. Both of my layovers out of Kansas City were at SLC. Side note: Utah is super pretty from up in the air. It’s on my list as a must-visit destination.
I landed in FCA just before 1 p.m. and knew exactly where I wanted to go. Luckily, Kalispell and the surrounding area has Uber, so I hailed a ride to the Whitefish Mountain Resort. It’s roughly a 30-minute drive.
Don’t sweat it if you can’t find a ride that far though. If you can get into downtown Whitefish, you’ll be fine. But more on that in a bit.
Whitefish Mountain Resort is unfathomably beautiful. I’ve never been in a resort so expansive and luxurious. It’s located within Big Mountain, and you can book a condo, home or hotel room. There are so many hiking and skiing trails, and a bunch of restaurants and activities. Someday, I’d like to book a night here.
Instead, I booked a Scenic Lift ticket. You don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the ride, and it goes all the way up Big Mountain. So I, armed with my ticket and backpack full of clothing and toiletries for my stay, walked up to Chair 6 Base Lodge and began the ride.
Chair 6 will take you up to the main part of the resort. There are restaurants and places to rent equipment and whatnot. If you didn’t get your scenic chair lift ticket here, the office is right in front of where you’ll board; Chair 1 Big Mountain Express.
The view was unbelievable. Everything was green and bright. The sun was shining and the sky was clear. It felt like a scene out of a movie.
I stopped at the Summit House Restaurant and Bar for an oddly timed meal. What an incredible view.
If you wanted to, you could totally start a hike from this point, or continue on the chair lift trail. But I had been dying to explore downtown Whitefish, so down the Chair 1 Big Mountain Express I went.
Going down had the best views. You could easily see Whitefish Lake.
The S.N.O.W bus shuttle service is a FREE shuttle that goes from Whitefish Mountain Resort all the way to downtown Whitefish. It was only around a 10 or 15 minute wait before the bus arrived at the resort, and off I was.
You can track the bus live, but given the mountainous location I was in, I had trouble getting service. Just a heads up.
The S.N.O.W bus shuttle is an excellent way to get from downtown Whitefish to the Whitefish Mountain Resort. So if you can’t find an Uber that’ll take you all the way, consider the S.N.O.W bus.
The bus driver was so friendly. He asked what I was interested in downtown and I immediately said, “Art galleries!” He told me he’d drop me off by his favorite one. Just a few minutes later, I walked into the Sunti World Art Gallery. It’s absolutely worth a visit. It’s full of hyper realistic sculptures and paintings that are breathtaking to look at. It’s the kind of thing that my dad, who collects art like this, would love.
Downtown Whitefish is full of fun, touristy things to do. I had an absolute blast. There are a bunch of art galleries with stunning displays. Some cute souvenir shops dotted the main road and I left several with a few gifts for friends. There were a couple fun antique shops that made me wish I had an apartment here so I could furnish it with solely antique finds.
And… there were huckleberries. It was huckleberry season in Montana, lucky me. If you’re unfamiliar, huckleberries taste like a somewhat more tart version of a blueberry. They can be used in just about any dish, as I soon found out. In summation I had the following huckleberry infused foods; ice cream, BBQ sauce, italian soda, pie, creme brulee, jam, French toast and fudge.
I don’t mess around when it comes to food, folks.
My first taste of this came at Sweet Peaks ice cream. Don’t mind the line, (it nearly went out the door) it moves fast. It’s the sweetest, freshest ice cream I’ve had in awhile.
At this point, it was time for me to check into my hotel. I was staying at the Belton Chalet, the first Great Northern Railway hotel in the area. It’s surprisingly affordable given its location. It’s also a pickup and dropoff point for the Red Bus tours, but we’ll get to that later.
There are essentially two ways to get to the Belton Chalet. There’s an Amtrak that leaves from downtown Whitefish twice a day, once in the a.m., and once in the p.m. It’ll take you into West Glacier, and from there it’s less than 5 minutes walking distance to the hotel.
Of course, I booked this trip last minute, so all of the train tickets were sold out. So… I called an Uber.
There are also a few shuttle services in case you’d rather not rely on a ride share app or the train schedule. The most reasonably priced one is Momentum Transport.
About 30 minutes later I arrived at the Belton Chalet. It’s so beautiful. It’s clear that there’s been a serious effort to maintain the historic charm.
The view is really something, isn’t it?
Belton also has an attached restaurant. It’s equal parts rustic and high end. Also, the first place I’ve ever had bison. If you’re a party of more than two, I would suggest getting a reservation. It’s a small space and crowds up fast.
I tucked in for an early night since Day Two would be an all day adventure. The room was just… so dang cozy. I wanna live there.
Day 2: Red Bus Tours
Day Two was just unbelievable. I saw so much of Glacier in just 8 hours.
Everyone and their mother told me to take a Red Bus tour when they found out I was going to Glacier. The hotel manager. My Uber driver. They all raved about it. And now? So am I.
Red Bus tours are historic in Glacier. These giant buses have been taking visitors through the park since 1914. Amazingly, the fleet of buses (33 total) from the 1930’s is still running.
The red color comes from the park’s Ripe Mountain Ash Berry. The hood of the bus is a tarp that can be pulled back so you can see everything around you. You driver is lovingly referred to as a “Jammer” because back when the buses had standard transmissions, you could hear them jamming the gears while going up to Going-to-the-Sun Road.
In addition to the Belton, West Side Red Bus tours will pick up from West Glacier KOA, Apgar Visitor Center and Lake McDonald Lodge. You select your hotel when you book the ticket.
The most comprehensive Red Bus tour from the West Side of Glacier is the Crown of the Continent. It’s about 8 hours, starting in the early a.m. It begins with a stop at Lake McDonald. Then you’ll go up the Going-to-the-Sun Road and make a stop at the Crown of the Continent at Logan Pass. Then you’ll go down to Swiftcurrent Valley where you can grab lunch at Many Glacier Hotel. On the way back you’ll go past St. Mary Lake and a glacier spot before being returned to your hotel.
It is quite the itinerary and I was spent by the time all was said and done. That being said, I’d do it all over again.
I was picked up at 8 a.m., ready to go. I had on a cotton tee, jeans and a jacket with gloves. Nothing fancy, but bring layers. Even in August, the weather changes dramatically during the day.
During our first drive it was chilly. I was so glad I remembered gloves. I needed them. We quickly picked up the rest of the group, I’d estimate about 10 in total, and we made our way to Lake McDonald.
We pulled into the parking lot outside of Lake McDonald Lodge, which is a site on its own.
And then… Lake McDonald in the early hours. It was so quiet and peaceful. I could hear the brook bubbling behind me as I walked around. It was simply lovely.
Then we began driving up the Going-to-the-Sun Road, where our Jammer pointed out our first big point of interest… Heaven’s Peak. It’s a beautiful mountain that, due to its makeup, is not climber-friendly at all. Your gear wouldn’t be able to latch on, and you’d just… slide. So, pretty to look at, not pretty to climb.
Our next stop was the Highline Loop. It’s on the only switchback along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and provides a beautiful view.
We took a lot of photos, and I had some fun with it.
You’ll pass through a scenic road full of mountain peaks before arriving at Logan Pass. There’s a visitor center with info on the park, as well as a nature trail. I had a few minutes to myself to walk around and take it all in.
Our Jammer actually spotted a few mountain goats alongside one of the mountains. He even let me borrow his binoculars so I could get a better view. That would be our first, but not our last, glimpse of wildlife.
We made a quick stop so our Jammer could point out a glacier within viewing distance. The sad thing about Glacier is that it’s on track to lose all of its remaining namesakes if climate change isn’t stopped. I’m not here to debate on whether or not you believe in climate change, because there’s no debate. It’s real, and Glacier is a prominent victim.
Here, you can see what I believe is Jackson Glacier from this vantage point. This would be the only glacier we’d really see on this tour. Not a complaint, just a fact.
At this point, it was around lunch time, so we rolled into Swiftcurrent Lake at Many Glacier Hotel for lunch. I would love to stay here some day. Just look at this beautiful view.
Imagine waking up to this in the morning.
Many Glacier Hotel has a lot going on. From here, you can take a boat cruise to the Grinnell Glacier trail. They own a stable, so you could horseback ride through the park. And of course, there are Red Bus tours that take you through the East Side of Glacier.
I grabbed a quick lunch then set off exploring the area and taking photos.
Yup, I’m definitely coming back. This is heaven.
After lunch, we started the trip back via the way we came. This time, we stopped at Saint Mary Lake to take in Wild Goose Island. This entire area just felt like Glacier. Like what I had imagined when I first decided to come here.
Driving past the lake, our Jammer noticed a few cars stopped along the road, so he slowed down. Then, told us that there was a moose at the watering hole! I don’t have any photos, as the moose was a bit of a distance away, but even then, it was huge! It was so incredible to see that on our tour.
As we drove toward Logan Pass, we passed the Weeping Wall. I managed to snap a good photo. Weeping Wall is a runoff-fed waterfall that seeps out of the Garden Wall. It’s also me during finals, but that’s another story.
We made one more, quicker stop at Logan Pass…
…and a final look at the Highline Loop.
Finally, we ended our journey at Red Rock Point. The water here is a clear turquoise blue, and you can see the multicolored rocks scattered throughout. Even in August, the water looked cold.
However, at this point, the weather was nice enough for a tee shirt and jeans. It was nothing but clear skies and sunshine as I was dropped off at the Belton. What a day.
I ended it all with dinner and dessert at the Belton.
Day 3: West Glacier Village
My plans for Day Three got a bit derailed. I was going to be at the airport by 2 p.m., so there wasn’t a whole lot I could do activity-wise. I had booked a 10 a.m. float trip, but that had been cancelled, and no other boating companies could fit me in. Luckily, I was a stone’s throw away from West Glacier Village, so I decided to spend the day exploring the area before I had to leave.
I had breakfast at the Glacier Highland, next door to the Belton. It was the ultimate comfort food and a great way to start the morning.
I walked into West Glacier Village, and, first things first, got my photo next to the park welcome sign.
Then, I walked down to the banks of Middlefork Flathead River.
There’s a small trail nearby. I went for a casual stroll, and saw a deer meandering through. Again, it was a distance away, so the photo quality is garbage, but here you go.
West Glacier Village has a few shops and cafes that kept me busy. I got a few souvenirs for friends, some more huckleberry foods, and tried Flathead sour cherry soda.
All in all, it was a nice way to spend a day. I wish I could’ve done a float tour, but this was a decent substitute.
One taxi later, I was at FCA getting ready to leave Montana.
What I Wish I Would’ve Done
For someone who had no car and almost no time, I don’t think I did too bad! I had a great time and saw a lot of Glacier. I think if I had two more days, it would’ve been perfect.
I would’ve liked to take the train to the East Side and spend the night there. A Red Bus tour called Big Sky Circle departs from East Side lodges and hits more of the park that I wasn’t able to visit. I’d be down for that.
I really enjoyed the Red Bus tours. I think they’re a great option if you’re like me. Driving in Glacier is not for the faint of heart. It’s two laned and Going-to-the-Sun has some pretty scary looking drops. Knowing me, I’d have a death grip on the steering wheel the whole time, and would not even be thinking about the scenery. The Red Bus tours make it easy for you to take it all in, worry-free.
Something else to consider is Glacier has a free shuttle service that makes several stops throughout the park. It’s worth looking into if you don’t want to shell out for a Red Bus tour. My one caveat is that these buses will likely be crowded, whereas the Red Buses have a limited amount of passengers. So if you’re claustrophobic, proceed with caution.
My last day, I’d like to hike Grinnell Glacier. I think there would be something special about seeing a glacier up close. So that’s on the bucket list as well.
Overall, turns out you can visit Glacier without a car and only 48 hours to spare. You won’t be able to do it all, but it’s a great start!
Would you be willing to visit Glacier National Park if you only had 48 hours and no car? Let me know in the comments!
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