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More Training Info > Plan Your Family Adventure to Glacier National Park, Montana

Grinnell Glacier Hike

Plan Your Family Adventure to Glacier National Park, Montana
C. W. Schurman Fall, 2011

In August 2011 we took a 10-day trip to Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks in Montana and Alberta, Canada. If you missed our article last summer on road trip travel with youngsters, see Yellowstone Trip for travel tips and highlights from our Yellowstone experience. If you are considering a trip to Glacier with your family, below are some fun experiences we had this summer with our own 7-year-old daughter that might be things you would enjoy with your own family. These are NOT in order of priority, but rather the order that we experienced them.

1. Stay at a KOA Campground with Pool Access / St. Mary (ph sunrise 1454)

Sunrise at camp

We made reservations ahead of time to stay 4 nights at the St. Mary KOA campground, about a mile outside of the eastern entrance to Glacier National Park. Our daughter loved the hot tub, and--though it was decidedly chilly in late August--also took a few dips in the pool. The KOA also had such amenities as meals (we liked their on-the-go breakfast sandwiches,) pizza delivered right to our camp site, miniature golf, trails with access to the lake (and kayaks), hot showers with no time limits, and visits to the gift shop. We saw a stunning sunrise and even caught a glimpse of a wild fox raiding a cyclist's pizza box! (BE SURE TO STORE YOUR FOOD SAFELY in the Rockies, even outside the park!)

Many Glacier Hotel

2. Take a Boat Ride and Ranger-led Hike to Grinnell Glacier

To reach Grinnell Glacier, the lowest accessible glacier in the park with approach out of Many Glacier on the east side of the park (see hike description), we made reservations to go on a ranger-led hike that involved not one, but two, boat rides with .25 miles hiking between them. This took several miles off an already-record length trip for our daughter and made the glacier more accessible for her.

beginning of Grinnell Glacier Hike

The ranger, Ginny West, was wonderful at setting a good pace for everyone. Our daughter was easily the youngest on the hike by at least 12-15 years, but that didn't stop her. Ms. West included educational discussions and food rest stops periodically along the way, and after the group completed the longest and steepest portion early into the hike, the ranger thankfully pointed out that the hardest part was done (in case anyone was considering turning around). That gave us all confidence that by taking her time, B. could indeed make it 8.2 miles and 1700' gain. She did.

White-tailed Ptarmigan

Once we got up to the terminus of Grinnell Glacier, we could see the chain of alpine lakes extending behind us -- Grinnell Lake, Lake Josephine, Swiftcurrent Lake, Duck Lake -- as well as up-close and personal an icy glacier and frigid blue waters that B couldn't help but dip her hands into in order to see just how cold it was. Wildflowers were blooming everywhere, mountain goats and bighorn sheep frolicked in the distance, white-tailed ptarmigan danced around near the lakes and picnicking hikers, and the weather cooperated fully. Even B remarked that this was a truly amazing hike.

3. "Collect" License Plates

Car License Plates

Glacier National Park draws visitors from all around the country, as was evident during our daughter's rapt and eager study of license plates. Every time we pulled into a parking lot for a hike or photo stop, she wanted to look at the cars and see where they were from. By the 8th and final day of our stay at the park, we had identified cars with license plates from all 50 states, 6 Canadian provinces, a license plate claiming "Antarctica" as its native land, DC, and US Government / Marines. For dinner the evening following our Grinnell Glacier hike, we stopped at a delightful restaurant, Two Sisters Cafe where the food was delicious and the decor fit in with our license plate theme: they had created a US Map out of all 50 state license plates and had plates from all around the world, from every continent except Africa.

Ranger Led Hike for Junior Ranger Program

4. Participate in the Junior Ranger program

Another activity that B really enjoys at national parks are the Junior Ranger programs. Each park has its own booklet or brochure of activities kids can do to learn more about the park's animals, culture, geography, and geology. Some parks (including Glacier) have portions of their program online as a good way for kids to preview what they'll see on their upcoming trip. The booklet is also fun to work on in the car. One of the junior ranger activities we all enjoyed was listening to a delightful evening ranger program by a woman named Adrian, who spoke about the differences between various hoofed animals in the park (ungulates) and how each adaptation helps the animal survive.

Black Bear

5. Visit Waterton Lakes National Park

On our only rainy day during the entire trip, we decided to drive from St. Mary northward to Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and spend the day exploring. We could tell even in clouds and rain that the scenery is quite dramatic and spectacular. Be sure to take the scenic hike along Red Rock Canyon for wonderful photographs with your kids. On the drive back out, we had to carefully maneuver around two bighorn sheep trotting dead center along the highway, to the delight (or annoyance?) of oncoming traffic in both lanes. Finally, late in the day as the mists returned, we spent roughly an hour watching a drenched grizzly bear foraging for his huckleberry supper 40-50 yards off the main road.


6. Have a History Lesson (or Several) from People in the Know

At the tender age of 7, B probably could not appreciate the wonderful Oxbow Lake (2 miles) tour we took with 85-year-old Doug Follett, a history teacher for 35 years and GNP ranger for 53. He wowed us with stories of all sorts of things he'd seen over the past half-century, forever changing the way we view the common tree, bush, flower or evacuated homestead. I only hope when B has her first real history class that her teacher wows her with living history like Mr. Follett did. We highly recommend including as many ranger-led outings or evenings as you can make time to enrich your understanding of the national park and its role in our lives, minds, and hearts. I can't say enough positive things about the impressive dedication and important educational service the National Park Service rangers across the United States provide for the citizens of this country.

Skipping rocks

7. Take It Easy: Include Down Time

Be sure to include some "down time" to spark your kids' creativity and imagination. Any time the driving gets to be tiresome, stop at a lake or stream and take a rock throwing break or simply ask your child (ren) what they would like to do. St. Mary Lake is perfect for skipping stones, and at sunrise or sunset you have an ideal photographic opportunity as well. Rocky Point nature trail .2 miles north of Fish Creek Campground on Lake McDonald was another perfect place for us to dip our toes in the icy waters, build a "fairy house" and even photograph a 3-toed woodpecker along the trail.

Avalanche Lake

8. Shoot photos

Whenever possible, let kids in on some camera fun. Our daughter surprised us with several quite nice photographs including one of the two of us during a hike to Avalanche Lake. This was a 4.5 mile round-trip, 500' gain ranger-led hike to a beautiful glacier-fed alpine lake with numerous waterfalls cascading into the cirque. This is a good one to include with a hike along Trail of the Cedars north of Lake McDonald.

Deer and Sheep at dusk

9. Enjoy Wild Animals at Sunset

On our last evening in the park, we took a sunset drive from Apgar in West Glacier up to Logan Pass one final time. As the sun was setting we came upon a mountain goat with a broken horn; a few minutes later at a nearly deserted Logan Pass parking lot, we watched a white-tailed deer licking something off the pavement. It ended up squaring off against a bighorn sheep, showing its might and dominance against the sheep who wisely chose to move away. As a ranger put it, such animal encounters to us are rare since we seldom get a chance to observe such wild animals up close, but to the animals, it's all in a day's foraging.

Crystal Gold Mine

10. Include a Visit to a Mine

To make the long drive home more enjoyable, we planned several "stretch-the-legs" excursions along the way, including a few hours at the National Bison Range and, the next morning, an hour at the Crystal Gold Mine in Kellogg, Idaho. There we took a tour of an honest-to-goodness mine, with gold and rare native wire silver still preserved intact in the walls. B. especially liked wearing a hard hat of her own and panning for gold following the tour. This was our final fun stop, just one of many on this delightful trip to visit one of America's jewels. Happy trip planning!


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