Fall is a great time to visit many parks, and Glacier National Park in Montana is no exception. Summer crowds are gone, the weather is often great, and although it's not New England, there's also some fine fall color to enjoy from aspen, cottonwood, and birch. Larch also provides magnificent shades of yellow, and this conifer is unusual because it loses its needles after they change color.
An off-season visit to Glacier does require a little planning, since some visitor facilities in the Northern Rockies begin to close for the season in September, and weather can be a factor at these latitudes almost any month of the year.
Here are a few tips to make an autumn trip to this park more enjoyable:
One of the park's premier attractions is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile, world-class scenic drive that crosses the width of the park. The road celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, and a much-needed rehabilitation project is under way. Although the road is open during the summer season, portions of the route are closed in the fall during the current construction work. For an update on road closures in the park, click here.
In addition to lower elevation portions of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, other good options for scenic fall drives are the short drives into Two Medicine and Many Glacier on the east side of the park. Carry a picnic lunch, water and other essentials, since many visitor facilities in the park closed for the season in September.
Weather can change quickly, and snow can fall at higher elevations almost any time of the year, so be prepared with adequate clothing. If you plan to hike, be sure to carry essential emergency supplies.
Although in-park lodges are now closed for the year, a variety of lodging is available in the area, especially on the west side of the park and in the nearby town of Kalispell. It's quite feasible to stay in communities just west of the park and make a pleasant day trip into either the western side of Glacier, or to the east side via U.S. 2, which runs along the park's southern boundary.
Another option for lodging, or a meal in an attractive setting, is the Isaac Walton Inn, an historic railroad hotel located just off U. S. Highway 2 about half-way between the villages of West Glacier and East Glacier. Another nice option is the Belton Chalet, another railroad hotel, this one found in West Glacier. If you plan to spend the night at either inn, just be aware that the nearby railroad line is still in active use and the frequent passage of freight trains, and the occasional Amtrak liner, can disturb a good night's sleep.
Glacier is famous for bears, and the animals are still actively feeding to store up reserves for the coming winter. That's certainly no reason to avoid a visit, but be sure to follow good bear safety protocol, not only in Glacier, but anywhere in bear country.
After spending three decades with the National Park Service, I'm often asked for some "insider tips" for park visits. A fall visit to Glacier would definitely be high on my list!