Glacier National Park itself isn't exactly a hidden gem-- its enchanting mountain beauty makes it one of the most popular destinations in Montana. But just because people flock to the park to take in the famously fantastic views (we're looking at you, Going-to-The-Sun Road!) doesn't mean there aren't hidden gems tucked away among the snowy mountain peaks and serene lakes. Head off-the-beaten-hiking-trail and check out some of these quirky and unique things to see and do while visiting Montana's prettiest park!
But let's start off with some trivia about Glacier -- like the fact that the park encompasses over 1 million acres. Native Americans were the first to recognize the region for its breathtaking beauty, calling it the "Backbone of the World". When it was set aside as a National Park, many people considered it to be America's answer to the Alps of Switzerland, a popular vacation destination for Europeans at the time. Glacier National Park receives about 2 million visitors per year (on average). That makes it the 10th most visited National Park in the country-- a great spot to occupy, since it's not too remote, but still less crowded than many of the most popular parks.
There are over 130 named lakes in the park (and 600+ more that aren't named). Many of those named lakes also happen to be shades of striking blue or bright teal-- this is because the water in them is made of pure glacial melt, with glacial silt that gives the lakes their vibrant color. Plus, the cold water temperatures ensure that little plankton grows in them, keeping them crystal clear. Visitors can also find tons spots in the park that are on the National Register of Historic Places. The park was established in 1910, just in time for the railroad and an increase in free time to lead many Americans to take vacations to some of the country's prettiest landscapes. Lodges and hotels, often in the Swiss chalet style commonly seen in the Alps, began popping up across the park, and many, like Belton Chalet, are still operational!
One of the most common activities in the park is to take a tour on one of the vintage red "Jammer" buses that have been a staple in Glacier since the 1930's. While the guided drive through the park is always a blast, you can head a little further off the beaten path with a ride on a different vintage form of transport: a boat. Glacier is famous for its mesmerizing glacial lakes, and since they're cold, a boat cruise across one of them on an old-school wooden vessel is the perfect way to experience them without worrying about freezing while taking a dip. You'll be able to see glaciers, islands, and more not visible form the road, take more secluded hikes, and get some insight into the fascinating history of the park.
Did you know that Glacier's official symbol is a mountain goat? It's true... and after a visit to the park, it's not hard to see why! The furry white mountain goats are all over... and they're kind of adorable. Plus, they can climb up vertical cliffs and have been known to leap as far as 12 feet in a single jump! They're especially fond of the salty minerals found on a sheer cliff face near Walton Ranger Station, and can often been seen in action, climbing up the mountain and socializing-- stop by in the morning or evening to watch them!
One of the coolest features of Glacier is that you can casually pop over the border and add a quick trip to Canada to your tour of the park! The northern edge of Glacier National Park butts up against the southern edge of Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park, and on the border of the two is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Created in 1932, it's the world's first International Peace Park, and is a symbol of Canada and America working together and committing to preserving the natural beauty and resources in the area. Of course, you'll need your passport and to go through customs, but it's worth the trip!
If you find yourself hiking through the park and feeling the need for a little snack, don't worry if you forgot to pack a granola bar-- because there are fresh berries for the picking! Huckleberries grow rampant throughout Glacier, and visitors are welcome to help themselves to the local delicacy. Montana huckleberries are slightly different from the huckleberries of the Pacific Northwest-- they're more similar to blueberries (only better, of course). They commonly grow on densely forested mountainsides and in more wooded areas of the park. They ripen in the mid- to late summer, so keep your eyes peeled for the delicious little treats. And don't forget to bring a basket, because you can even pick up to a quart to carry out of the park for yourself-- they make excellent pie! Just be warned: bears are also fond of the tasty berries-- be sure to buy and learn to use bear spray, just in case.
Suddenly craving huckleberries? Two Sisters Cafe offers up a taste of Montana with dishes like bison burgers and rainbow trout with huckleberry aioli... and you can wash it all down with a local craft beer, a huckleberry or martini, or a huckleberry milkshake. Oh, and don't forget homemade pie and fresh ice cream! As an added bonus, the decor, waitstaff and atmosphere are just as creative as their food-- feel free to ask the employees for advice on what to do in the area and in the park! Another offbeat restaurant just outside the park is Big Lodge Espresso-- they're known for making a mean latte, but they're probably just as famous for their distinctive digs as their delicious drinks. That's because they're located inside a retro concrete tipi-shaped building! It evokes old-school Americana and vintage roadside attractions, but they still brew up a cup of coffee that will make your visit well worth the stop.
The quirky personality goes beyond the restaurants in the area-- you can find some really unique accommodations as well! One of the coolest overnight experiences in the area? Spending the night in a refurbished train caboose at the Izaak Walton Inn! The rentals are outfitted with everything you could need for a cozy cabin getaway (kitchen, plumbing, decks with scenic views), except they're located in authentic railcar cabooses! The Inn was originally built to serve the railroad personnel, but they've morphed into a resort experience, complete with lodge, restaurants, and activities, that will add that extra special touch to your trip to Glacier.