Head to Big Sky Country this fall and explore East Glacier National Park and two of Montana’s most scenic drives: Going-to-the-Sun Road and Looking Glass Road.
|Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park|
Disclosure: This story was written in partnership with Pursuit Glacier Park Collection. All words and opinions are my own.
Day One: Exploring East Glacier and Two Medicine
As we head south on Montana 89, the Rockies get irresistibly closer and soon we are cruising past Lower St. Mary Lake. I had forgotten how close Glacier is; in only three hours we are at St. Mary Village, the eastern gateway to the park. We continue south and take Highway 49 (aka Looking Glass Road) at Kiowa Junction. Many say this narrow and winding road is one of the most scenic drives in Montana, second only to Going-to-the-Sun Road. We take our time, enjoying the fall colors, slowing down for vertiginous hairpin turns and cow crossings, and stop at roadside pullouts with sweeping vistas. Grassland extends eastward and mountains rise in the west. While you may feel as if you’re in some sort of Wonderland, Looking Glass Road is named after a Nez Perce leader who was born in Montana in 18321.
|Rising Wolf Mountain (at left) and Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park
Image Credit: Katy Emanuel
With daylight to spare, we make a detour to Two Medicine Lake, the former hub of the park before Going-to-the-Sun Road was built. Two Medicine boasts a lake cruise in the summer months, historic chalet (which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stayed at in 19342; the chalet now serves as a store), and several beautiful hiking trails. Two of the most popular short hikes include the following:
- Aster Falls is a family-friendly trail that ends at a pretty waterfall. Start from the South Shore Trailhead. Distance: 1.9 km (1.2 mi) one way, Elevation gain: 30 m (100 ft)
- Twin Falls is a popular trail that begins on the opposite side of the lake. Take the North Shore Trail for a 5.6 km (3.5 mi) hike with 23 m (75 ft) elevation gain; or take the boat across the lake for a 1.4 km (0.9 mi) hike. Distances are one way; boat ride and tour fees apply. Visit Glacier Park Boats or the Two Medicine Store for details.
For more great hiking trails, visit National Park Service – Hiking Two Medicine. Scenic Point is a highly recommended trail we hope to try next time.
|Aster Falls, Glacier National Park
Image Credit: Katy Emanuel
Dark clouds threaten rain, so we forego the lakeshore trail and stop at Running Eagle Falls (0.5 km / 0.3 mi one way) on the way back to Hwy 49. The spectacular falls, setting, and colorful rocks make for a perfect picture spot. It’s easy to see how the celebrated Pikuni warrior, Running Eagle, discovered her calling above the falls during a four-day Vision Quest. Read her story at the trailhead and be inspired by this trailblazer of the 1700s.
|My girls at Running Eagle Falls, Glacier National Park|
|Running Eagle Falls, Glacier National Park|
|Colorful stones in Two Medicine Creek near Running Eagle Falls
Image credit: Katy Emanuel
First Night: Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier Village
|Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier, Montana|
Our home for the night is Glacier Park Lodge, an historic lodge built in 1913 by the Great Northern Railway. Massive Douglas Fir columns – said to be 500 to 800 years old – support the three-storey building and give the lodge its nickname: Big Tree Lodge. We warm up by the fire in the lobby, enjoy a delicious dinner in the Great Northern Dining Room, pick up souvenirs at the gift shop, and play tic tac toe in the breezeway (games are put out for lodge guests) before turning in. The kids don’t even notice there isn’t a TV in our room! (If you really need to watch Netflix or check your email, there is free wifi.)
For more information, visit Pursuit Glacier Park Collection | Glacier Park Lodge.
|Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier|
In the morning, we visit East Glacier Park Train Station across the street, grab breakfast at Two Medicine Grill, and get groceries from Glacier Park Trading before heading up to St. Mary.
Day Two: Going-to-the-Sun Road
A bustling hub of activity in summer, fall finds St. Mary Village a lot quieter. There’s no lineup at the gas station or park gate, so we are rolling down Going-to-the-Sun Road within minutes. While Logan Pass is our destination, this legendary drive is all about the journey, so we have planned to spend all day exploring the eastern side of the pass. It is 28.5 km (17.7 mi) from St Mary Visitor Centre to Logan Pass Visitor Centre.
|Wild Goose Island, Glacier National Park|
Golden aspens greet us where plains meet the mountains and St. Mary Lake sparkles in the sunlight. We stop at Wild Goose Island lookout, one of the park’s iconic viewpoints. During the summer, you can take a boat cruise from Rising Sun past the tiny island, then hike to St. Mary Falls and Baring Falls.
|View from St. Mary Lake Boat Tour
Image credit: Katy Emanuel
As we approach Logan Pass (2026 m / 6646 ft), the road’s highest point, the scenery becomes more dramatic – and the dropoff on the left side gets a lot bigger. Waterfalls tumble down cliffs while sculpted peaks reach for the sky. After the hairpin turn that is Siyeh Bend, we climb a steep slope to East Tunnel, a 408-foot long tunnel built in Piegan Mountain in 1931. See the Glacier National Park video on how it was constructed here.
|Going-to-the-Sun Road, east of East Tunnel (tunnel at far right)|
At Logan Pass, clouds form before our eyes, then drift away as fast as they appeared. Inside the Visitor Centre, I notice a fitting quote by Morton J. Elrod, Glacier’s first naturalist (1911) on the wall:
“Here is the place where clouds are made…a fairy land, where dreams of fantastic things come true, and where interest and wonder never cease.”
|Moody skies above Hidden Lake Trail, Glacier National Park;
Clements Mountain at top
We venture into the alpine meadows above the Visitor Centre to explore this stark, yet stunning landscape. Hidden Lake Overlook – reached by boardwalk, stairs, and a rocky trail – is only 1.4 kilometres (1.5 mi) away. Rain begins to fall and I am reminded that we are perched on the Continental Divide which determines which ocean a drop of rain will end up in. Typically, you can see mountain goats and marmots here, but today, they are hiding out somewhere dry. Nevertheless, we enjoy the hike and spectacular vantage point.
|Waterfall along Hidden Lake Trail, Glacier National Park|
|Family photo at Hidden Lake Overlook, Glacier National Park|
|Hidden Lake Overlook, Glacier National Park;
Bearhat Mountain at centre
On the way back to the Tiny Home Village in St. Mary Village, we stop at Lunch Creek, Jackson Glacier Overlook, and Sunrift Gorge (23 m / 75 foot long walk). See photos below.
|Lunch Creek, Glacier National Park|
|Jackson Glacier, Glacier National Park is visible from the side of the road.|
|Bridge along Sunrift Gorge Trail, Glacier National Park|
Second Night: Tiny Home Village at St. Mary Village
|Tiny Home Village at St. Mary Village, Montana|
If you ask my kids, the best part of our trip to Glacier was hanging out in our adorable Tiny Home in St. Mary Village. The home was bigger than we expected and kitted out with a kitchenette, dining area, trundle bed, and bedroom with a queen-sized bed. We had plenty of space and the kids were stoked to have their own beds. Our private spa-style bath house next door, boasted a large, jetted tub (as well as the essentials like toilet and two sinks). It was the perfect place to relax after hiking!
|Tiny Home Trundle Bed, St. Mary Village|
|Each kid had her own bed!|
|Tiny Home Kitchen and Dining Area. St. Mary Village|
|Tiny Home Bedroom, St. Mary Village|
|The private bath house was like our very own spa!|
Located just half a mile from the eastern terminus of the of Going-to-the-Sun Road / Glacier National Park gates, each tiny home offers incredible mountain views. After a day of driving, it was wonderful to watch the sunset from our patio.
|Tiny Home at St. Mary Village at Sunset|
Amenities available from St. Mary Lodge & Resort (across the street) include concierge and activity booking desk, Snowgoose Grille, gift shop, and Glacier Perk Espresso Shop. There is also a gear shop and grocery store near the gas station. Although there is a two-burner stove in your home, I highly recommend dining at Snowgoose Grille. Their menu includes deliciousness such as bison meatloaf, smoked trout cakes, portabello ravioli, and huckleberry soda.
|Delicious Rainbow Trout at Snowgoose Grille, St. Mary Village|
For more information, visit Pursuit Glacier Park Collection | St. Mary Tiny Homes.
Day Three: St. Mary Falls
|St. Mary Falls, Glacier National Park|
St. Mary Falls is a short, easy hike that takes you through burned forest (from the 2015 Reynolds Fire) to a gorgeous waterfall. Colorful shrubs contrast the burnt tree trunks. The last time I hiked here, my eldest was 13 months old and I was pregnant with baby #2. Now that the kids are bigger, we cover the 1.7 kilometres (1.1 miles) quickly, but I can’t convince them to go just a bit further (1.1 km / 0.7 mi) to Virginia Falls. They are mesmerized by trout in the turquoise pool just downstream from the falls, and want a snack.
|St. Mary Falls Trail, Glacier National Park|
|Downstream from St. Mary Falls, Glacier National Park|
When approaching hikers excitedly tell us there’s a moose on the sandbar on the way back, we take that as our cue to leave. True to their word, a large bull moose is basking in the sun. We point out the moose to some hikers from New York and their faces light up as if we have given them a gift. These shared moments of wonder will stay with us – and keep bringing us back to beautiful Glacier National Park.
|Bull moose near St. Mary Falls, Glacier National Park|
Know Before You Go
|St. Mary Visitor Centre, Glacier National Park|
A park pass is required to visit all national parks. Visit National Park Service | Passes for more information. We purchased a 7-day pass for $35 USD at the park gates. An annual pass is $80 USD.
Tours & Lodging
East side Red Bus Tours run from June 8 to September 22. West side tours operate from May 18 to October 20. For more information, please visit Red Bus Tours.
The boat cruises shut down in early September.
Glacier Park Lodge and the St. Mary Tiny Home Village close in late September. Book now for June-September 2020!
Traveling from St. Mary Village to East Glacier Village
Most pullouts on Hwy 89 & 49 south are on the right hand side, so it’s easiest to get photos on the drive down.
Scenic Highway 49 / Looking Glass Road has lots of tight turns, large drop offs, no guard rails, and has some unpaved sections. This said, the road is closed in the winter or after considerable snowfall. Check the Montana Road Report before you go. Allow one hour to travel between St. Mary and East Glacier and use the pullouts to allow faster vehicles to pass. Gravol or Dramamine is recommended for those prone to motion sickness.
Please note that there is a 21-foot length restriction on MT 49 from Kiowa Junction to the Two Medicine turn off. If you have a trailer, or the Montana 49 is closed at Kiowa, you can get to East Glacier via Browning.
Going-to-the-Sun Road from St. Mary Village to Logan Pass
|“Red Jammer” Tour Bus, Glacier National Park|
Most pullouts on westbound Going-to-the-Sun Road are on the left, so if it’s busy, plan to stop at them on the way back. We didn’t experience much traffic in mid September though and had no trouble getting parking at Logan Pass mid day on a Saturday.
For a unique experience, take a Red Bus Tour. The “Red Jammer” buses are the oldest touring fleet in the world and seat only 17 people. Staff are well versed in local geography and history, so you can sit back, relax, and learn a lot about Glacier National Park. For more information, visit Red Bus Tours.
We took Highway 2 (which becomes Hwy 89 in Montana) all the way to St. Mary Village. Allow 3 hours from Calgary. It is another hour to East Glacier on the 89 & 49.
Or arrive at Glacier Park Lodge like they did in the olden days – by train! The East Glacier Park Amtrak station is across the street, and a car rental shop is located next to the train station for your convenience.
Where are your favorite things to do in East Glacier National Park?
2. Two Medicine Chalet. (n.d.). Retrieved October 1, 2019, from http://www.nplas.org/twomedicine.html.