We have written articles about Glacier National Park far more than any other national park. The reason?
Because you should get there as soon as possible. As in right now. Well, wait. Maybe not right now since you need to pack the RV and also because there is a time of the year that is best for visiting Glacier National Park.
Let me explain.
During our full-time RV adventure, and many times since, I have been asked about my list of favorite spots we experienced during that journey.
For the first year of our travels, I struggled with trying to answer this question. I wondered how it’s possible to rank these amazing locations?
But after our second visit to Glacier National Park during the fall season, a quick and easy response to the question was born. It’s official, the best time to visit Glacier National Park is absolutely in the fall.
Fall is The Best Time of Year to visit Glacier National Park
You can see some of our best tips for enjoying your trip to a National Park right here.
5 Reasons to Visit Glacier National Park in the Fall
You understand, of course, that when I say official, it’s purely my opinion based solely on my own personal experience. Pure and simple.
I share with you my reasons based on my three weeks’ experience exploring this pristine location: one week in the busy summer season (late July) and two weeks in the fall (early September).
But the truth is that we, including all readers of Trekkn (thanks so much for visiting our site!), are each wired differently. We have different preferences.
I would personally rather be freezing during an early morning hike along a quiet trail that I have entirely to myself than cozy warm yet squeezing past other folks along the way.
On the other hand, the simply fact that trails do get crowded is proof that there are plenty of outdoor enthusiasts who have preferences different than my own. You may be one of them. I understand.
Even though I will share my personal opinion, I will also try to give you the pros and cons of the seasons as we move through my reasoning.
Whatever your preferences might be, I highly recommend you find a way to make it to this outstanding, awe-inspiring Montana national park as soon as you possibly can.
I guarantee you will not regret that decision, regardless of the season.
GLACIER IS MORE THAN A “PIT STOP”
I have a bone to pick with anyone who chooses to refer to Glacier National Park as a great “pit stop” on a visit to Montana.
A very popular online travel portal used that terminology in their examination of this park, and I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes.
This put me a little on edge, because this is my place! Me and Glacier are tight, and reading that article just seemed disrespectful.
If Glacier National Park is not a true destination for you, a gem of the natural world that you intend to revel in and soak in for as long as you can, then it’s one you should skip altogether.
If you just want to take a peek and check it off your list, you’ll miss out on its purpose: to transform a small part of you so that you are called back to the wild again and again.
Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now. But seriously, I beg you not to treat Glacier National Park like a “pit stop”. It’s not. It’s a natural wonder to behold, and I hope you allow it to become a part of you just as I have.
Now we’ll dive into those five reasons for a visit to Glacier during the fall.
Reason #1: Smaller Crowds, Less Traffic
It was a few years ago in late July that we spent three nights at an RV park near the west entrance of the Glacier. Plus, we spent three nights at an RV park near the east entrance of the park.
This was our first visit to the park and we enjoyed it immensely. Here are some ideas of RV parks near Glacier National Park, based on our experience.
We spent a good bit of time hiking the trails (Highline Trail was one highlight) and just hanging out on the shores of stunning Lake McDonald, which is located near the western entrance.
Everything we saw felt like a dream; it seemed too good to be true. We had never quite experienced such a sense of being completely dwarfed and enveloped by nature.
It left a lasting mark…enough that I was determined to get us back to this location at the first possible opportunity.
VEHICLE TRAFFIC AND ROAD CONSTRUCTION
While it clearly didn’t spoil our experience, we did deal with quite a bit of vehicle traffic in the park during that initial summer visit. Much of the traffic was due to road construction on the narrow two-lane road that runs through the park.
Construction and Crowds Increase Drive Time in Summer
In at least two different locations, the road was down to one lane with traffic lights creating a long single file parking line. All the travelers were alternating the chance to be at a standstill.
The crews have to work during a small window in June, July and August because of the short summer season. It’s a big reason summer isn’t the best time travel to the park.
Couple the road construction with the higher volume of travelers in the summer, and we need to increase our drive time to our destination by at least 30 minutes or more.
Our Second Visit to Glacier was in the Fall
On our second visit during the fall of the following year, we arrived on September 1st after a mad dash from Acadia National Park in Maine (yeah, lots o’ driving).
We made a few short stops along the way, but it was an insane pace that I probably wouldn’t attempt again.
Despite the crazy long drive, it was this visit that cemented Glacier at the top of my list of favorite National Parks.
It wasn’t a perfect visit because the entire western half of the park was closed due to wildfires (no Lake McDonald to enjoy).
But we still found so much to keep us mesmerized and occupied on the east side of the park. We stayed in our RV parked at a campsite located just three minutes from the eastern entrance.
Talk about a great location!
We encountered far less vehicle traffic, no road construction, and just an overall fantastic experience.
TRAIL TRAFFIC AND CROWDS
Besides the easier flow on the roadways, we also found far less congestion on the trails we chose to hike.
Those trails included the Highline Trail that I mentioned above, with both an early morning hike of about 8 miles and a shorter evening hike that was quite chilly…but totally worth it!
We might have encountered a dozen folks or so during our entire time on that trail.
I don’t know about you, but when I hit a trail I am looking for some solitude. I am looking for an opportunity to be swallowed by nature and alone with my thoughts.
That’s exactly what we experienced during the fall visit. And that is one reason I can confidently recommend a visit to this incredible park during this beautiful season.
Reason #2: Fall Foliage
In case you were wondering, the first two weeks of September is the PERFECT time to visit Glacier National Park if you want to see the brilliant foliage and actually watch it change before your eyes.
Sure, I know that “perfect window” probably changes a bit each season depending on conditions, but I still don’t think you could be disappointed in any year with a visit in September.
You will be blown away by the deep, rich colors of the leaves with a backdrop of rapidly shifting weather patterns that leave you wondering what miracle could possibly be better than THAT one.
As I write about it, I can’t help but smile as I relive those two weeks of waking up each morning to see how much better the foliage could have possibly gotten overnight. And I was never disappointed.
Reason #3: Cooler Temperatures
You should know that I’m not a summer guy. Which makes things kind of challenging during the long central Texas summers we are currently experiencing.
When I’m in the middle of the 22nd day in a row of 100+ degree temperatures, I can close my eyes and remember the chilly breeze and light mist falling during some of our September excursions into Glacier.
It renews me just a bit to relive those exhilarating and fulfilling moments in the park.
With average highs in the low- to mid-50s and lows dipping into the 30s most nights, September ended up providing us with the ideal conditions to explore the park.
Most days were a nice mix of cloud cover and sun breaks, and as those two constantly took turns throughout the days the moments of splendor (and rainbows) were just beyond words.
(If you’re especially interested in capturing some images of that fall splendor to relive it later, check out our post on the best photography spots not to miss in Glacier National Park.)
My advice? Bring an extra couple layers of clothing, get on the trail by 7:00am while the temps are creeping up toward 40-degrees.
Note that with the breezes, it will feel quite a bit cooler than that. Then pause to breathe in one of the best experiences of your life in nearly complete solitude.
That pretty much sums up my idea of paradise.
Reason #4: Wildlife Activity
During our summer visit, we definitely spotted some wildlife.
On one of our favorite hikes, the Grinnell Glacier Trail, we spent about 5 minutes quietly watching a female moose. She grazed her way through the thick foliage down a hillside. When she reached the lake, she waded in, then continued eating the aquatic plants.
It was a magical experience. I will never forget it.
When we came back in the fall, however, we were completely overwhelmed with the wildlife activity. We saw another moose up close (accidentally too close) and personal. Again it was on the Grinnell Glacier Trail.
Just beyond that, we saw more black bear (with cubs) and grizzly bear than I could keep count of. We spotted at least eight different bears, including one large grizzly crossing the road about 100 yards in front of us.
Several other grizzlies were within 50-75 yards of the Going-to-the-Sun road that runs through the heart of the park.
We were completely thrilled with the entire fall experience. If I had to narrow it down to one thing that made fall the best time of year to visit Glacier National Park, I would have to say it is the wildlife sightings.
You know as well as I do that when it comes to experiencing nature, nothing else compares to wildlife sightings. It’s unequivocal wilderness to see those animals in their natural habitat.
It literally takes my breath away every single time and renews my gratitude for the entire opportunity.
Reason #5: Cheaper Lodging or Camping
Talking about the national park experience itself has clearly led the way here. But finances are always a consideration in my world, so I want to touch on that aspect of the experience as well.
As you would find anywhere else on the planet, the most popular times to visit Glacier National Park are also the most expensive.
Peak times demand peak money, so you will pay more for lodging (and RV parks) during the summer season than you will in the off season, such as fall.
If RVing is your travel mode of choice, I strongly suggest that you check into staying at the Heart of Glacier RV Park near the east entrance.
We spent two weeks at this location during the fall and paid $35 per night for the privilege. It was very simple and basic with no onsite bathrooms or laundry.
It does, however, have full hook-ups and it was absolutely perfect. They had plans to make several upgrades to the park, including adding bathrooms and laundry facility, so check their site for current prices.
And the Red Eagle Motel that owns that RV park (right across the road from it) is a very convenient option you should at least explore if you are searching for lodging during your visit.
I have no first-hand experience staying at the hotel, but I stopped there to pay for our site at the RV park and the staff was very helpful and friendly.
Is There a Downside to Visiting Glacier National Park in the Fall?
In my humble opinion, the downside of a visit to Glacier in the Fall is very minor compared to all of the advantages I’ve covered.
But some of these points could make a big difference for you so let’s touch on them to ensure you have the information to make the best decision possible.
SLIGHTLY HIGHER CHANCE OF ROAD AND TRAIL CLOSURE
During our September stay, we got to watch the highest peaks get dusted with snow on more than one occasion, which just added to the awe.
However, there is a slight chance that snow could hit the higher roads this early and cause road closures or more challenging travel conditions.
I don’t believe Going-to-the-Sun road has ever been closed in early September due to weather, but double-checking on it is a good idea.
Also, due to the higher level of wildlife activity during this period, we did experience some trail closures. A couple of the closures were due to bear activity in the area.
Some areas were closed due to native birds nesting and the rangers did not want the birds disturbed. The few trails that were closed didn’t keep us from doing anything we were planning on doing, but it’s worth mentioning.
It’s not uncommon to see trail closures during the summer season due to wildlife activity of various sorts, so don’t let this point dissuade you too much.
LOCAL BUSINESSES BEGIN TO CLOSE IN SEPTEMBER
Because of the mild start to the cold season during our stay, almost everything in the town of St. Mary was still open.
We stopped at a local restaurant that is well-known for their pies. It was surprising, however, that the place was completely out of pies for the season.
They were getting ready to wrap things up. We ended up with fries, not pies. That was a sad day.
Another local restaurant, the famous Johnson’s of St. Mary Restaurant, normally closes at some point during the first half September.
If I remember correctly, their last day of operation that year was September 12th. But, their closing date varies each year based on several factors.
If you get out there and it’s open, I highly recommend a visit to Johnson’s. You’ll enjoy an authentic homemade dining experience offered by a family who has been at it for almost 70 years!
It’s a must-do for us each visit.
The gift shops and grocery store in St. Mary were still open when we left on the 15th, so no worries there. I would imagine that the grocery store, at least, does stay open year-round…but don’t quote me on that!
Yes, Fall is the Best Time to Visit Glacier National Park
If you have enjoyed any fall visits to Glacier, I would love to hear your feedback and experience as well…good or bad. Feel free to clue us in on a factor we might have missed or didn’t experience during our visits.
But above all, find a way to get yourself to Glacier National Park in the fall. You will thank me.
Todd loves a competitive game of table tennis, a breathtaking hike, and exploring new places. He lived and traveled in an RV with his family as they traveled throughout much of the US and parts of Canada. Todd has extensive knowledge about RV travel, safety, and accessories and has shared many of his stories here on TREKKN. When he’s not busy launching and building small businesses, you may find him staring at pictures of Glacier National Park (probably his favorite spot on earth).