Growing up, I knew about national parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but for some reason Glacier National Park wasn’t on my radar until adulthood. Once we started traveling full-time, stunning photos from fellow nomads became impossible to ignore.
Established in 1910, Glacier National Park is located in Montana on the Canadian border. In fact, it continues right into Canada, where it becomes Waterton Lakes National Park.
This amazing stop was on our itinerary for 2016, but we had to cancel when I became pregnant and plans changed. Life happened again this year when we detoured from our Glacier route for an emergency trip to Seattle.
We stayed in the Glacier National Park area from July 27-August 4, 2018.
Hotel Parking Lot in Kalispell
It was a long drive from Coeur d’Alene to the Glacier area. The 200 miles felt exceptionally long because we drove them on a Friday, after a long work week.
We pulled in for diesel in Lakeside (beautiful little town on Flathead Lake), and I asked the front counter whether there was a place we could park the RV while we ate dinner. The gentleman mentioned we could drive up to the Best Western Plus outside Kalispell, and they would let us park there.
Sure enough, we arrived at the hotel and Eric talked to the front desk. They were cool with us staying the night in their gated side lot for free! This is the second time in four years we’ve parked overnight at a hotel. While it isn’t something we want to take advantage of, we were whole-heartedly grateful for the convenience on our quick overnight stop.
We had dinner at The DeSoto Grill in Kalispell, a popular restaurant and bar with a lot of character. I loved everything I ate (and drank) there.
Dry Camping off North Fork Road
There’s something equally thrilling and nerve-wracking about dry camping, when you’ve never been there and you’re not sure what you’ll find. Having never been to the Glacier area, we weren’t even sure which side of the park to stay on–east or west.
After poring over Campendium reviews and getting feedback from friends, we decided to shoot for North Fork Road, located 11 miles outside Columbia Falls, MT. Getting there, the road is paved and big-rig friendly. Once you turn into the camping area, the roads are dirt.
As far as access to Glacier National Park, North Fork Road is 26 miles from the Polebridge entrance and 24 miles from the Camas Creek entrance, which will take you to Apgar Visitor Center and the rest of the park.
The mileage is deceiving because the pavement goes away. Google Maps says it takes an hour to get to Polebridge and 40 minutes to get to Camas Creek. You could probably make up some time in a capable 4×4 vehicle…not that we would know.
All the RV Friends
We were delighted to have our friends @ritaroams and @valgameiro as neighbors. @theadventureswithsheep also pulled in, a family of four new to full-timing. We all had a fun and low-key get-together around the fire one night.
@pookiesmash reached out to us and we ended up meeting at Glacier Sun Winery in Kalispell. While there, Caspian met a U.S. WWII veteran for the first time.
Since all that RV friend love wasn’t enough, Melinda helped coordinate a meetup at Bonsai Brewing Project in Whitefish (a town we enjoyed wandering around, by the way). We had a huge group of 30 people, including eight nomadic kids! Seriously so much fun.
What We Ate Around Glacier National Park
It should come as no surprise to most of you that I struggle with cooking. I’m not bad at cooking. And I semi-enjoy the actual cooking part. But the sum total of meal-planning, grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning up afterwards is not my favorite.
So we eat out a lot.
And I get mad at myself because we spend way too much money that could be going somewhere else. So I’m currently trying harder to cook at home. But when we were at Glacier, I wasn’t trying. So…back to that list of where we ate around Glacier…
North Fork Pizza – delicious local joint in the heart of Columbia Falls.
Gunsight Bar and Grill – New restaurant and bar with an outdoor stage, huge grassy area, covered patio, and indoor seating. We stopped in for live music on the Saturday we arrived, and went back later for a huge meal. Everything was good, especially the onion rings.
MudMan Burgers – Eric was more impressed with this burger than I was. I was irritable because it was hot inside and outside (dry camping = no air conditioning). But that’s just selfish because this place is a nonprofit restaurant serving impoverished children around the world.
Montana Coffee Traders – Now for coffee! Montana Coffee Traders has locations around the state and you might see their roasts at other coffee shops. This location has tons of seating and serves food, as well.
Uptown Hearth – “This is good coffee” is the basic response I need a coffee shop to elicit from me. That done, I’m looking for exceptional pastries to pair with my coffee. Uptown Hearth doesn’t look like anything from the outside, which is why it took me a couple of days to find it. But once I got in the door, I didn’t go back to Montana Coffee Traders. The artisan baked goods here are phenomenal. Note: Uptown Hearth is the bakery itself, but it’s co-located with Azul Coffee Bar, which is also hiding in plain sight.
Exploring Glacier National Park
We intended to stay in the Glacier area for two weeks. The national park is huge and we wanted to do it justice. However, we were able to see the highlights in one full day, and return two other times for more relaxed visits. Because of our mouse fight and the heat, we decided to call it after one week. There’s so much more to see, but that’s what return trips are for.
On our 7th wedding anniversary, we took the front doors off the Jeep and headed out to Polebridge Mercantile. The weather could not have been more sublime. We sat outside in the sunshine with our huckleberry bear claw and cookies, and felt grateful for our life and our love.
Inside the Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park, we took the long, dusty road to Kintla Lake. There wasn’t any parking when we got there, so we made our own spot for just a few minutes while we skipped rocks and gazed at the beauty in front of us. You’ll need to budget time for this drive, but don’t doubt that it’s worth seeing.
There isn’t any way to get from the Polebridge area to the rest of the park right now. So we exited at Polebridge and headed to the Camas Creek entrance. We drove all of Going to the Sun Road (so fun with the doors off), thought Saint Mary Lake was gorgeous, saw a black bear crossing the road, ate at Two Dog Flats restaurant near Rising Sun, stopped at the marina to wade in the lake, and saw mountain goats both times we went over Logan Pass.
We didn’t do any hiking, so you’ll have to comment with your favorite spots for next time.
Our whirlwind tour complete, we slowed our roll. Back at Polebridge, we made another dirt road drive to Bowman Lake (not quite as long as the drive to Kintla Lake).
Caspian took his first glacial swim, though we cut it short because it was insanely cold. We saw another black bear on the drive. It crossed the road right after we passed.
Our third and final visit to Glacier National Park was my favorite. We spent a sublime afternoon at Lake McDonald, at the beach closest to Apgar Village. The water temperature wasn’t as unbearable as Bowman Lake, especially with floaties.
Alternating between our blanket and the water, we had ice cream and coffee from the village merchants, and Caspian toddled around the beach with his bucket and shovel.
Closing Notes About Our Visit
As far as Columbia Falls groceries go, Super 1 Foods was better than Smith’s. Smith’s was closer to our camping site, so I usually ran in there when I needed something quick.
Even during the summer, this part of the country has a really hard time getting good produce in. Even when something looks good on the shelf (which it often doesn’t), you have to use it in a day or two before it goes bad. I’ve had this issue through Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and even into Colorado. Something to keep in mind!
I did laundry at Falls Coin Wash & Laundromat in Columbia Falls. It’s a bit of a dive, but the coolest man was working there. He was gruff at first and didn’t seem interested in conversation. But he opened up by the time I was drying our clothes, and I found out he is a Vietnam veteran who has done a ton of traveling and scuba diving.
The fact I was so young and traveling with a child was “different” to him, but he still encouraged me in my travels. We talked about history, life, the world. I could’ve talked to him for hours.
I left that old laundromat feeling grateful for the gift of travel. Glacier National Park is stunning. The wildlife there is precious–to be treasured and protected. But the people who cross our paths have stories and souls. Since our travels gift us with context, perspective into what’s Good and worth saving, aren’t we obligated to open our arms to share?