Nestled on the Montana and Canadian border lies Glacier National Park. Growing up, I lived in Wyoming, and my family drove to Glacier Park nearly every summer to visit extended family. My great-uncle worked for the Park Service, and he and his family lived in government housing in Glacier—giving us unique access to the park that left me with many great memories.
Now, I live only a few hours from Glacier Park, and we make the trip once or twice a year with our kids: once in July, and if we’re able, another trip in the shoulder season—May or September. Glacier Park is a tourist area, so the summer lodging costs tend to be higher. You might find better rates if you visit during the shoulder season, but the weather can be hit or miss. And depending on what activities you want to do, not everything is open in the off-season—and nothing beats a hot day at the lake in July.
My kids are 7, 5, and 2, so most of my recommendations are for places to go with young kids. Over the coming years, I’m excited to see more of Glacier Park and the surrounding area with them, giving my kids some of the experiences I had growing up.
Places to Stay
There are plenty of things to do in Glacier Park alone, but the surrounding area, known as the Flathead Valley, offers a wide range of activities for families and places to stay in the nearby towns. Whitefish is 35 miles from the West Entrance of Glacier and is a ski resort town at the base of Whitefish Mountain. Their downtown is delightful, with stores selling Montana clothing, souvenirs, and great local places to eat. Columbia Falls is the closest town to Glacier, located 18 miles from the West Entrance. This is a logging town with a small-town Montana feel that offers local eateries (we love North Fork Pizza) and several fast-food chain restaurants. Kalispell is the biggest city in the area, located 32 miles from the park entrance. If you’re flying in, this is the closest airport to Glacier. Kalispell also happens to be the home of the only Chick-fil-A in the whole state (as of July 2022); they also have a Target, Walmart, Costco, Cabela’s Outpost, and more.
Between Whitefish, Columbia Falls, and Kalispell (all within 30 miles of Glacier Park), you’ll have plenty of activities for your family and options for places to stay, including hotels, Airbnbs, and camping.
Glacier Park is a national park, so the outdoor options are endless. But depending on the age of your kids, you might need to explain what Glacier National Park is. Last year, when I told our kids, “We’re going to Glacier Park!” they responded upon arrival, “Where are the swings? This is a park?”. Although they had been several times before, they didn’t remember their previous visits.
When our kids were 6, 4, and a few months old, we took them on the Trail of the Cedars. We hadn’t attempted a hike during past visits, but we decided we were ready! The trail is a one-mile loop—the perfect length for young kids to walk on their own. Trail of the Cedars trailhead is located right off the Going-to-the-Sun Road and is a popular hike—so plan accordingly for parking during peak travel seasons.
There are countless hikes in Glacier Park, depending on how advanced a hike you’re looking for. Be safe and smart when hiking—this is bear country. Do your research and know what to do if you encounter a bear.
As a kid, my favorite place in Glacier Park was Lake McDonald, right inside the West Entrance. The lake is 10 miles long and one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. And now, as an adult, it’s one of my favorite places to take my kids. The water is crystal clear, with beautiful colored rocks lining the shore. Usually, we sit on the beach and let the kids throw rocks while eating ice cream cones from one of the shops in Apgar Village. There are also kayaks, paddleboards, and boats to rent and take out on Lake McDonald. My sister and I took kayaks out growing up, but I haven’t taken my kids out on this lake yet.
If you’re in the area for a few days and want to spend some time outside Glacier Park, Big Sky Waterpark in Columbia Falls is a great place to go as a family. It’s Montana’s biggest waterpark, and the views of Glacier from the waterslides can’t be beaten. There is a kiddie pool, but because of the height requirement for most of the slides (48″ tall), this adventure would be best when kids are a little older. The waterpark was another place we visited every summer as kids. Since having my kids, I’ve only been once. It was when we had just one child, and my mom was also with us. We spent the day splashing in the kiddie pool, and the adults took turns going down the waterslides while one of us stayed with the toddler.
If the many lakes of the Flathead Valley are too chilly for swimming and your kids aren’t old enough for the waterpark, Columbia Falls also has an outdoor aquatic center. Pine trees shade the outdoor pool, and they have picnic tables and a small climbing wall.
Whitefish Mountain Resort is known for its skiing, but during the summer, the mountain is also a great place for families. You can hike the mountain or ride one of the chairlifts to see the views from the top. They also have alpine slides, ziplines, and summer tubing.
Outside Glacier Park are many other activities, including ziplining, horseback riding, go-cart racing, mazes, helicopter tours, and more.
Best Spot For Grownups
If you can swing a night away from the kids, make your way to Whitefish Lake Lodge. The views from the lodge are gorgeous, especially on a summer evening. One year, we were there on the 4th of July and watched the fireworks over the lake. I suggest dinner and drinks at their Tiki Bar & Grill. During the summer, they also have live music on the weekends. But even on the nights without music, you won’t regret a cool summer evening overlooking Whitefish Lake with a fancy drink in your hand.
In the Flathead Valley, there are several breweries to enjoy local craft beers. While many are family-friendly, if you’re looking for a beer sans children, you’ll find several options! Or grab a growler of local beer to take back to your Airbnb.
Before you head out on your morning hike or a day at the lake, grab a cup of coffee at Montana Coffee Traders. They roast the beans outside Whitefish, and they have storefronts in Whitefish, Columbia Falls, and Kalispell. The food is great too if you’re looking for breakfast (or lunch!), in addition to your coffee. During the summer, they are busy during the week and weekends. They offer an option on their website to order online, so if you don’t feel like waiting with rambunctious vacation-mode kids—order ahead and grab it to go. Don’t forget to pick up a bag of their freshly roasted coffee beans too. After your vacation, you can close your eyes and dream you’re back in the mountains of Montana with a steaming mug of MCT coffee.
You won’t run out of things to do when you visit Glacier National Park and the Flathead Valley. From low-key days skipping rocks across Lake McDonald to an advanced hike, there’s something for each family in each stage. The locals are friendly—don’t be afraid to ask for advice on places to eat or must-see spots.
Lastly, be prepared to take lots of photos—Montana is nicknamed Big Sky Country for a good reason!
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