Glacier National Park is arguably best visited in the fall.
There may be cold temperatures at night, but the crisp autumn air, dust of snow on the peaks, and a distinct lack of crowds make September, October, and early November our favorite months in the park.
You may be thinking: “What about the forest fires?”
Yes, as of the Summer of 2017, Glacier (and Waterton Lakes National Park, which shares Glacier’s northern border) is battling significant, numerous blazes—like many areas in the country. The area that makes up Glacier (and the entire Flathead Valley), like any forested or grasslands region, has dealt with fires since time immemorial. In fact, in 1910, the year that Glacier received national park status, a blaze burned more than 100,000 acres. Scientists who have studied the history of the areas fires (via trees, soil samples, and even rock) say there have been nearly 70 major fires in the area since the 1400s.
In fact, as of publication date, there are more than 8 million acres of U.S. lands on fire; almost 47,000 reported fires. There are more than 6 million prescribed burn areas in U.S. and Canada this year—the majority in the southern U.S. and B.C./Northwest Territories.
In August of 2017, the Sprague Fire started in Glacier due to a lightning strike. As of early September, it’s burned about 13,000 acres, including the historic Sperry Lodge. Smoke has resulted in a partial closing of the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road and backcountry travel in the fire zones.
However, it is important to remember that while the fire is scary and destructive (and a big danger to firefighters), the impacted area is only 1.3 percent of the park’s 1 million acres. Many fires in Glacier are simply controlled and contained—the big ones tend to burn until snow and rain put them out.
Leaf-peepers will love the brilliant fall color.
All that being said, a visit to Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park in the fall is wonderful—there are fewer visitors and your chances of seeing wildlife increases exponentially. Leaf-peepers will love the brilliant fall color. Leaves start turning a kaleidoscope of red, gold, and orange by mid-September. The larch trees fade to a bronzed gold and burnished tangerine by mid-October. The good news is that you can see lots of fall color in areas of the park that aren’t impacted by the recent fires—Highway 2 on the park’s southern boundary is legendary for its colorful vistas.
If you visit the park in the fall (or winter), know you’ll not have a lot of vender, tourist-driven support. Most services by end mid to late September, and this year services at Lake McDonald shut down early, due to the heavy smoke from the Sprague Fire. However, there are numerous small towns that border the park. In the bigger Flathead Valley, Whitefish, known as the Aspen of Montana, and Kalispell, which is bigger but more less touristy, both have excellent restaurants, lodges, and grocery stores.
Fall is arguably the best time to camp in the park.
Fall is arguably the best time to camp in the park. Spring and winter are great as well—but more than likely you’d better be prepared for snow. Starting in early September, camping in the park is first-come, first-served. There are no reservations required (you can’t even make a reservation)—and there are plenty of campsites available. But the lack of crowds in autumn means you’ll have a better chance at those iconic spots with the best views. Check with the Glacier National Park website to see which campgrounds are open after Labor Day, and which ones have running water, electricity, and flush toilets. Some campgrounds change from “full service” to “primitive” after Labor Day—the good news is the cost of a campsite drops by half. By November 1, Apgar and St. Mary campgrounds are the only car-accessed campgrounds that are open, and there are no fees during the winter.
In addition to leaf peeping, insiders know that bear spotting is one of the joys of the Glacier/Waterton regions. Bears are plumping up for winter, while elk and sheep are heading down to lower elevations. You can also expect some great bird watching; the park is home to more than 260 species of birds, including an impressive population of bald and golden eagles.
Some campgrounds change from “full service” to “primitive” after Labor Day—the good news is the cost of a campsite drops by half.
If you are planning on traveling to and from Canada, the Chief Mountain Port of Entry is open from Labor Day to September 30th, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then closes for the season. The Port of Piegan/Carway, on Hwy 89, is open all year (check the hours that it is open). Before you travel, visit Glacier and Waterton Lake’s national parks’ websites for up-to-date information of all park roads and potential closures due to weather, fires, accidents, or other natural disasters.