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Glacier National Park, fall or spring visit

baf99

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I’m trying to decide where to use some of my RCI TPUs and since I have never been to Glacier NP I thought I would see what I could find. I usually like to avoid the largest crowds, but I am concerned that at Glacier I could miss out on part of the experience if I don’t go during peak season. I had been considering late May or June (I’ve seen some amazing photos taken at this time), or else September through mid October. I know that part of that time Going to the Sun Road will be closed. I like gentle to moderate day hiking (up to 1000’/300m elevation gain) and photography is an important part of most of my vacations. I like sunrise and sunset photography so I don’t want to have a couple of hours drive to get to sunrise places. Right now I could get a reservation in Columbia Falls for the last week of September or the first week of October.

So, I guess these are my questions:
  • Should I suck it up and deal with the July and August crowds or is shoulder season likely to meet my interests?
  • Are the Columbia Falls resorts within an hour drive to some scenic and photogenic locations? Or should I just plan to spend the bucks to stay in the park (probably requires me to plan for next year because everything inside the park is booked for this year)?
  • Would a two week stay in Columbia Falls be too much or should I just add a few days in Waterton before going to CF? If I did two weeks I might still go to Waterton for a couple of days. I have the TPUs, and I am in a situation that even if I book two weeks I will have to extend or combine early next year.
Also, feel free to mention hikes or photographic locations I shouldn’t miss. I’m always willing to listen and learn.
 

DaveNV

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We were there the first week of June several years ago. Driving was easy, temps were cooler, crowds were down. Going to the Sun road was closed, which limited sightseeing in the Park. It was otherwise pleasant, but we had to drive around the perimeter highway to see the Park from both sides. We spent a lot of time in Whitefish.

Dave
 

jancurious

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Going to the Sun Road is one of the highlights of the park. They typically get so much snow that it remains closed until July 4th or so. Skip going in the spring for your first trip. My advice would be to go in late August (it seems that many schools are starting in August these days), or early September. The later in the fall you wait, the greater the chance of snow again.
 

bbodb1

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This is one of our bucket list locations. I'm going to tag along in this thread to read the ideas surely flowing here.
We've been to Rocky Mountain NP and want to see both GN and Yosemite as well.

The only advice I can offer is a spin on the "bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" line of thinking. Even if the trip is not at the best time, being able to see the sights you can that Glacier National holds at least once is better than never going at all...
 

CanuckTravlr

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My recommendation would mirror that of jancurious. July and August would be my first choice, despite the crowds. Early September would be my second choice and late June my third choice. We visited Glacier NP in August several years ago and the Going to the Sun Road was one of the highlights of the visit. If this will likely be your only visit to Glacier, then I can't imagine doing it and not being able to experience such an iconic route. But then again, I love driving iconic roads, so maybe that is just me.

It is very different from the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper, which is equally spectacular but runs along the bottom of the valley. The route in Glacier is about halfway up the mountain so you get a completely unique vantage point. You get to look both down into the valley and also up to the top of the mountains, while snaking along a narrow winding road and through multiple tunnels.

Due to the elevation, together with the moisture and prevailing winds off the Pacific Ocean, any of the parks in the coastal ranges and Rocky Mountains have a relatively short season. We have been in Banff, Jasper and Waterton NPs in Canada in June and September and encountered snow. Early September would be better than late June, if you can't do July or August. In September the snow is just beginning and has not had a chance to accumulate, so you should still be able to do the road. Even late June can be much more problematic.

As DaveNW experienced, it can still be closed with snow as late as July. We experienced this once in Crater Lake NP in Oregon in late June on a trip from San Francisco to Sisters. We were lucky. The road to the top had just opened three days before. As we drove to the top, the snow on the mountain got deeper, to the point where there was still 6 or more feet of snow on each side of the road. We could only visit the west side of the crater, since the road that circles it was still 75% closed.
 

baf99

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... Skip going in the spring for your first trip...
I more or less came to this conclusion after I posted. For the first visit I should at least have a chance to drive GTTS road. I'll get the snowy scenery pics on a later trip. I ran into snow on two of my national park visits last year (Yosemite and Rocky Mountain). In Yosemite in mid-May, Glacier Point Road closed the day I arrived and didn't reopen until after I left. I saw a sign as I entered the park and drove right up so I did get there, although there was a lot of fog across the mountains. In RMNP in early October, about half way through my visit snow closed Trail Ridge Road until after I left. Fortunately I had driven over the divide before then. Both "should" have been OK, but shoulder season can be iffy and I knew the chances I took.

... We experienced this once in Crater Lake NP in Oregon in late June on a trip from San Francisco to Sisters. We were lucky. The road to the top had just opened three days before. As we drove to the top, the snow on the mountain got deeper, to the point where there was still 6 or more feet of snow on each side of the road. We could only visit the west side of the crater, since the road that circles it was still 75% closed.
I had a similar experience in Crater Lake years ago. I went in mid June and none of the trails were completely open and only the west side of the crater rim road was open. The mosquitos had just arrived though, and boy were they hungry. One of my photos from that trip, taken two days before the first of summer, was featured on a now defunct photo sharing site in a gallery called "The Beauty of Winter". I stood in snow when taking it. When I arrived I completely understood why that week was completely open for lodging and nothing later was available. I do enjoy iconic drives, having done CA 1 along the Big Sur a couple of times, Trail Ridge Road, and parts of the Blue Ridge Highway. And thanks for mentioning the Icefields Parkway. I just did a virtual drive on Google Maps and I have now added it to my list of places to go. It looks like a great drive. Since Banff and Lake Louise was already on the list this was a great addition.

Something else to think about. I can get an RCI Extra Vacation for half of my Carlsbad Inn maintenance fee, or just a little over twice the exchange fee. I would only be using about half the TPUs I get so the MF vs. extra vacation is about a wash, but with the exchange fee on top it might be a better deal to just do the extra vacation. Of course, if I exchange I could do an ongoing search for a week in summer, or earlier in September. But if I decide to go with the later weeks the extra vacations could be the way to go. With the available weeks I would be there from 9/20 through either 9/27 (or 10/4 if I go for two weeks). GTTS road should be open for at least part of that time. I could then save the TPUs for places I want to go during peak season. Always working the angles...

But at this point I'm leaning toward setting up an ongoing search for late August or early September. There's a hike I want to take that starts at Logan Pass. I checked All Trails and some of the descriptions for a late September hike said weather was in the 27 degree F range with wind. I've hiked in snow, but I'll avoid it on steep trails if I can. Thanks for all the comments. TUGgers are the best!
 
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sue1947

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You want the first 2 weeks of Sept. Crowds will be less than full on summer, but still crowded. The National Parks have become so popular that you just have to accept the crowds. The weather will be good, the bugs gone and the colors starting to change. If you want to hike at Logan Pass, you need the road to be open but also the snow melted enough to hike so that means mid-July or later for most years. By mid-Sept, the snowstorms are more likely.
Are you talking about 2020 or 2021? https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/manyglacier.htm
The places to put on your must do list: Lake McDonald, Logan Pass and St Mary Lake are the iconic photos you have seen. For the latter, you want to take your photos in the morning so staying on the east side of the park for at least part of your trip would be a good idea. Add in Many Glaciers and Two Medicine areas as well. They are off the main road but definitely worth the side trips. Many Glacier is also worth dealing with the construction mentioned in the link above. The scenery is spectacular and there is a boat ride across the lake that is well worth it; especially if you get the ranger led ones early in the morning. This area is the best for seeing critters.
Lodging: Columbia Falls or even Whitefish is fine for the west side of the park and up to Logan Pass (get an early start but still doable). If you are going to stay at one of the lodges, I'd go for either Many Glaciers or East Glacier (close to Two Medicine) or probably both. They are both old, but the location is ideal. Especially Many Glaciers where you can get up early and watch for grizzlies on the hill above or moose in the lake, bighorn sheep near the parking lot, etc.
Check the opening/closing dates for the lodges. They mirror the best times for a visit. I've stayed at Many Glaciers both in June when they opened and mid-Sept when closing. The weather was closing in for the mid-Sept trip and Going to the Sun closed for the season. They hope to keep it open through the end of Sept, but by the last half of the month, it's getting risky. On the other hand, the early June dates when they first opened was great for critter watching and photos. We started that trip with a stay in Canmore, then Waterton before ending at Many Glaciers and we saw more critters of varying types with their babies. We saw a moose and calf swim across the lake while eating dinner in the lodge and there were grizzlies galore on the hillsides feeding on the new growth. By the fall, they are further away from people and harder to see. We took the morning boat/walk tour and watched grizzlies feeding in the bushes above/below the trail to Grinnel glacier with hikers seemingly unaware of their proximity. At the upper lake, we watched a bull moose mosey along the lakeshore. The ranger knew something was up and spotted the female across the lake. She alerted us to run if she gave the order; she did and we did, as the bull charged the female with us in the middle. The elk and moose during the rut are not something you want to mess around with.
For hiking, you want early sept. But early to mid-June also has it's advantages. In addition to more animals, the hillsides are still green with new growth and there is lots of snow around for great photos. We stayed in Whitefish the second week of June on another trip and the Flathead Valley was spectacular. We drove into Two Medicine at the end of the week and there was still some snow on the ground, but it was mostly melted to the lake shore; but it was really cold. Great photos, but not much for hiking.
If you have lots of points, maybe 2 trips? one early and one later? You may be too late to get any lodging in the park for this year, so that might be for next year and use up some points on an early trip? Maybe a week in Columbia Falls and then up to Canmore or eastern BC for the Canadian Rockies? We have been to the latter multiple times in May/early June and love it.
It's all beautiful. Go when you can and plan to go again to see what it looks like in another season.
Sue
 

DaveNV

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To add on to my earlier post: When we were there, because there was still so much snow, we saw "everything" in the Park within a couple of days. What we couldn't see were the areas closed due to snowfall. We started venturing out of the Park to try and find other things to do, which is how we ended up spending so much time in Whitefish. We were committed to staying a week at Glacier Wilderness Resort, outside of West Glacier, and we kind of ran out of things to do inside the Park.

If we were going to Glacier again, I'd shoot for late July. Failing that, then up till mid-September would likely work. But I wouldn't recommend going too early or late in the season. Snow is too much a factor there.

Dave
 

baf99

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Wow, Sue. Great information. And Dave, thanks for the additional info. I was thinking of doing two weeks in a timeshare, but maybe I'll just get a single week and add some hotel time on the east side. I checked the in park lodging and there is nothing significant available through the end of the year. Just a day here and there. So for this year, I am probably going to look for and exchange for late August or early September. I prefer early September to August for the chance of a bit of fall color in my photos. I will try to add some east side in-park lodging onto the timeshare week if I luck into some cancellations. It can happen. Somebody must have lucked into 5 days in a Yosemite Lodge room last fall when I cancelled a month before I was due to arrive. Or I will look at hotels on the east side. For my first visit I do want the opportunity to see as many of the iconic scenes as possible so I think I will leave the spring visit for another time. I did check a list of closing dates for GTTS road. It looks like there were only five years it closed in September between 1952 and 2016. So even if it's too cold for me to feel like hiking at Logan Pass (I'm a wimp) I should still be able to drive the road.

Does anyone have any strong preference for the timeshares in Columbia Falls? I can also include West Glacier if that is worthwhile. I just thought the ones in CF would more likely have availability.
 

DaveNV

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Does anyone have any strong preference for the timeshares in Columbia Falls? I can also include West Glacier if that is worthwhile. I just thought the ones in CF would more likely have availability.
I can’t recommend the West Glacier timeshare we stayed in as more than a cabin in the woods. It was ten miles to the west entrance to the Park, and even further to a grocery store. I’d suggest staying in CF or other places near there, and drive to West Glacier when you want to enter the Park.

Dave
 

sue1947

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The timeshares in Columbia Falls are all in the same complex so take any that are available. There are a couple in Whitefish, which isn't that much further, but the timeshares are further out of town so not a great option. The Crestwood, which RCI still lists, isn't a timeshare anymore. It was a great option.
Sue
 

baf99

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Thanks again. I think I will just limit my search to the Columbia Falls resorts. I hope to be spending most of my time outside, but having a comfortable place to go back to is always nice. And these seem more available than the one in West Glacier. According to Google maps CF is only about a 25 minutes longer drive from the park, so that is manageable. I just have to get up a little earlier for those sunrise photos. I am SO not a morning person, but for a good sunrise I can usually manage.
 

Greg G

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Barbara

If I left early in the morning, it usually took me around 35 minutes from the Crestwood resort (no longer available as a timeshare) in Whitefish to the West Entrance of GNP and Whitefish is further away than Columbia Falls. Both Whitefish and Columbia falls have lots of restaurants and grocery stores so they make a good base of operation in regards to that. I agree with all the other posts on when to go depending on what hiking you want to do and if you want to see the entire GTTS road. If you want to go hiking in Many Glacier then go Mid/late July or later to guarantee most trails will be fully open.
I would suggest if you stay 2 weeks, stay one week on the west side and one week on the east side to get the flavor of both sides. Driving from one side to the other ( 2 to 2.5 hours) for a day trip can get very tiresome.
Based on my experience IMHO Many Glacier has the most wildlife.
Logan Pass parking lot usually fills up by 8:30 to 9am so if you are driving and not taking a shuttle then leave early enough to get a parking spot (pretty much a general rule for any place you want to park at for hiking).
The Rocky Point Trail and Avalanche Lake trail on the west side are moderate hikes providing great photo opportunities Avalanche Lake trail has the spectacular 3 super long waterfalls at the end of it. Hidden Lake overview hike is a moderate hike at Logan Pass providing awesome views of Hidden Lake.
Grinnell point in Many Glacier can yield stunning photos in the morning bathed in a crimson light (as well as any mountains in that area in the early morning).
The Grinnell Glacier trail provides lots of great photo opportunities, especially of lower Grinnell lake (you can fully get the turquoise color of the lake from that trail) by traveling part of the way up that trail if you don't want to go all the way to Grinnell Glacier and the upper lake (the glacier and upper lake was probably the highlight of all my trips to GNP).
Always bring bear spray on any hikes.
Going very early in the morning or late in the evening while there is still light increases your chance of seeing wildlife.

Here are some photos I took on my trips at GNP


Greg
 

baf99

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Barbara

If I left early in the morning, it usually took me around 35 minutes from the Crestwood resort (no longer available as a timeshare) in Whitefish to the West Entrance of GNP and Whitefish is further away than Columbia Falls. Both Whitefish and Columbia falls have lots of restaurants and grocery stores so they make a good base of operation in regards to that. I agree with all the other posts on when to go depending on what hiking you want to do and if you want to see the entire GTTS road. If you want to go hiking in Many Glacier then go Mid/late July or later to guarantee most trails will be fully open.
I would suggest if you stay 2 weeks, stay one week on the west side and one week on the east side to get the flavor of both sides. Driving from one side to the other ( 2 to 2.5 hours) for a day trip can get very tiresome.
Based on my experience IMHO Many Glacier has the most wildlife.
Logan Pass parking lot usually fills up by 8:30 to 9am so if you are driving and not taking a shuttle then leave early enough to get a parking spot (pretty much a general rule for any place you want to park at for hiking).
The Rocky Point Trail and Avalanche Lake trail on the west side are moderate hikes providing great photo opportunities Avalanche Lake trail has the spectacular 3 super long waterfalls at the end of it. Hidden Lake overview hike is a moderate hike at Logan Pass providing awesome views of Hidden Lake.
Grinnell point in Many Glacier can yield stunning photos in the morning bathed in a crimson light (as well as any mountains in that area in the early morning).
The Grinnell Glacier trail provides lots of great photo opportunities, especially of lower Grinnell lake (you can fully get the turquoise color of the lake from that trail) by traveling part of the way up that trail if you don't want to go all the way to Grinnell Glacier and the upper lake (the glacier and upper lake was probably the highlight of all my trips to GNP).
Always bring bear spray on any hikes.
Going very early in the morning or late in the evening while there is still light increases your chance of seeing wildlife.

Here are some photos I took on my trips at GNP


Greg

Greg, Thanks for the info on travel times. I agree that if I can get the reservations (when I finally decide when to go) I will try to stay at least a partial week on the east side. Many Glacier is definitely on my list of must see locations, and I do want to try some sunrise shots. So staying for at least a few nights in the east would be ideal.

Hidden Lake trail is definitely on my hike list. And I was thinking about the Grinell Glacier trail as well, although with a high difficulty rating I'm not sure I would manage the entire hike.

Also, I really like your photos. With the pandemic going on, I'm thinking of delaying this trip until next year. The scenery will still be there and hopefully there will be less risk to health. So thanks for the virtual vacation. Stay safe and well.
 
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