If your family enjoys hiking and exploring the outdoors, this is a trip you will want to take! This vacation to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park was incredible! It was beautiful, peaceful, breathtaking, hard, awe inspiring and just so good.
Hopefully these tips will help you plan your trip! Included is when we went, where we stayed, and what we did at all of the parks.
As we talk about hikes and activities, it will be helpful for you to know that my kids were age 10, 8, and 5. My 5 year old was able to keep up and do everything the older 2 did, so I’d say it was the perfect age for our youngest to be. There were younger kids walking on some of the shorter trails and on the harder trails there were younger kids in hiking backpacks. But if you want your kids to be able to walk some of the more challenging hikes, 5 is probably a great baseline! For further guidance, if you’ve been to Custer State Park, last year at 4 my youngest was able to hike Sunday Gulch Trail. She has strong little legs and good endurance.
(See this post for more details about planning a trip to the Badlands and Black Hills area.)
The planning for this trip started with wanting to make a trip to see my sister in Washington. If we were going to drive that far, we figured we might as well turn it into a long road trip and see some sights along the way. A long road trip it was – we finished having driven 5,400 miles. Our first stop, Glacier National Park, is 23 hours of actually driving from our home.
(If you want tips for taking road trips with toddlers, this post will help you out!)
National Parks have been getting busier over the last years. We decided to wait and go right after Labor Day. The ticketed Going to the Sun Road entry would have ended earlier that week and we hoped maybe slightly fewer people would be there. We didn’t want to go any later because mountain weather is unpredictable and we wanted to still have pleasant temperatures.
We ended up loving the time of year we took our trip. We left our house September 10th and got home September 27th. The nights and mornings were cold but the afternoons were perfect (60s and even a few days in the 70s).
We needed to do this trip on a bit of a budget. Our nights at hotels were a travel day on the way there and home and then for 4 nights at my sister’s. Otherwise we tent camped. A huge hit with the kids!
Note: Be sure to check out the ticketed entry requirements when you are planning your trip and if you are going early or late in the season if the trails you will want to do are likely to be open!
Glacier National Park with Kids
We spent 6 nights at Glacier and I am so glad it wasn’t any shorter. If this is your only destination, I would recommend staying even longer if you can. But it’s so beautiful, that whatever you can fit in is worth it. (Even if it is just a few days.)
You have 2 options at Glacier. You either stay in one location your entire visit and do a lot of driving or else you split your trip up and stay part of the time on the West side and part on the East. We stayed only on the West side. We spent hours driving most days, but the scenery was so beautiful that none of us minded. (Do note, we left our campground between 4:30 and 6 the majority of our mornings there so we would be sure to get parking. Splitting up your lodging would mean you could sleep in slightly longer.) We were happy with our decision to stay in one location for this visit. If we return again, we will likely stay in 2 locations.
We stayed at West Glacier KOA and had a great experience and would stay there again if we return. The bathroom and shower building was nice and clean. The kids enjoyed the playground and pool.
The west side is closer to large grocery stores (Super 1 in Columbia Falls was 20 minutes from our campground) and the town of Kalispell (45 minutes from the KOA) which has a Wal-mart, Costco, and other major chain stores. If you stay on the east side, know that it is a much more rural area and you will have smaller, local stores available. You might want to make sure you double check your list and not forget anything if you stay on the east side.
I would not want to stay further away than West Glacier on the west side. Staying in Kalispell or Whitefish would have added around 45 minutes to our commute each day. (But again, we loved Glacier so much that if that was your only options, it’s still definitely worth going!)
Hikes (and areas to explore)
Lake McDonald Area:
Lake McDonald. We didn’t hike here, but did spend time wandering around the creek and lake. The colored rocks were a hit.
Fish Creek. We did this on our last day. The kids loved wading and playing in the water.
John Lake Trail. This was a short, very easy hike we did on our first afternoon. We called it a “warmup” hike for the longer ones that were coming later in the week.
Avalanche Lake (with Trail of the Cedars). My kids all loved this hike! It was about 6 miles long, round trip. The kids loved walking by a waterfall, huge boulders in a more forested section, and then arriving at the lake. They loved the lake. This would be a great place to bring a picnic lunch and let the kids play and wade in the water. Do note, this is a popular area and unless you arrive early, finding parking will take time and luck. We stuck it out and drove around a while and finally found one. (Pit toilet available near the lake.)
Iceberg Lake: This hike was a little over 10 miles, but I would consider it an easy hike. This hike turned into one of our big adventures on the trip because it started pouring (and sleeting) on us just as we arrived at the lake. In nicer weather, we would have enjoy exploring the lake area a bit more. You can park in the Swiftcurrent Inn parking lot. (Pit toilet available near the lake)
Grinnell Glacier: This was my favorite hike. In fact, the favorite that I’ve ever been on. It was challenging but the views were totally worth it and I would do it again. This was over 11 miles and rated hard on AllTrails. All three of my kids conquered it and say they were glad they did it. We arrived early in order to finding parking near the trailhead (bathrooms are available there as well). I’m glad we did, because it was 9.5 hours before we got back to the van and we had to drive back to the campsite. (Pit toilet available shortly before reaching the glacier.)
St. Mary and Logan Pass
St. Mary and Virginia Fall: This hike was another homerun. The kids loved these waterfalls (and the unnamed fall between them). This hike is going to be around 3 miles or more, depending on where you find a parking place. Again, parking is limited so you may have to park nearby and walk a little extra.
Highline Trail: This was a fun hike. You are on the side of the mountain and at one point on a cliff over Going to the Sun Road. You can go the entire 11.8 miles to The Loop or to Haystack Butte and back is a little over 8 miles. I didn’t want to push my kids on too many long hikes, so we just went a couple of miles out and came back. It’s a pretty hike being able to look down into the valley. The 3/10 of a mile on the cliff at the beginning of the trail did terrify my 8 year old. He crossed it and I had him go a little further but he was still panic-y, so my husband and he went back to the visitor center and the car. The 10 and 5 year old did fine crossing the cliff and kept going. Highline Trail and Hidden Lake share a parking lot at Logan Pass. Both are popular hikes so this lot will fill up fast, especially during peak months.
Hidden Lake: This is another popular hike we were going to do after Highline Trail. Unfortunately, it was closed for bear activity during our time at Glacier. We were able to see a momma bear and her 2 cubs hanging out near the visitor center.
I really wanted to do some hikes in this area, but we ran out of time. It’s on my list for our next trip!
As you are planning your hikes, be sure to check out these sites for information:
Plan for back up hikes each day incase parking lots are full or trails are closed because of bear activity.
Here is how our itinerary went while at Glacier:
- Day 1: arrive early afternoon. Hit up some gift shops in West Glacier waiting for check in time. Set up tent and head to the park. Went to Lake McDonald and John Lake Trail.
- Day 2: Left at 4:30am to head to Grinnell Glacier. Got back in time for a late supper.
- Day 3: Went on the Going to the Sun road, doing all of the pull offs we wanted to on the way to St. Mary Visitor Center. Went to St. Mary and Virginia Falls. Back to our campground for supper.
- Day 4: Arrived at Logan Pass before 7. Hiked part of Highline (would have done Hidden Lake had it been open). Went to Hungry Horse Dam. Got back to campground in the afternoon and the kids played and swam.
- Day 5: Iceberg Lake followed by ice cream in Apgar Village and dinner at the campground.
- Day 6: Avalanche Lake followed by letting the kids play in Fish Creek before heading back to the campground to let the kids play at the playground, make supper, and starting organizing to leave.
- Day 7: Left for our next destination.
If you are making the same loop we did, here is my post on our visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton! If you have any questions, let me know. We loved Glacier National Park and all say we want to return.
For another fun family trip idea, check out this post on the Black Hills and Badlands National Park.