If you are anything like me before I had a kid, you may not really appreciate the National Parks as road-trip destinations. Growing up in California, somehow I managed to completely miss most of them including the ubiquitous Yosemite.
That all changed for me in June 2014 when I took my daughter on a drive up to Glacier National Park (and later to Yellowstone). The two parks could not be more different with the latter feeling a lot like Disneyland because of the bus loads of tourists.
We explored both sides of the Park, but I enjoyed the greener and wetter west side more because I was traveling with a child. (If I was backpacking with adults only, I can see why people gravitate to the solitude of east side of the park.)
Getting There from CA:
Of course, for us, this road-trip was a good 20 hour + drive one way. Starting in San Diego, we made stops in Sacramento (visiting family) before heading out on Highway 50 East. East of Reno, Nevada appears to be a giant sweltering desert valley with nothing but desolate space surrounding you.
Starting in San Diego, we made stops in Sacramento (visiting family) before heading out on Highway 50 East. East of Reno, Nevada appears to be a giant sweltering desert valley with nothing but desolate space surrounding you.
That all changes when you cut North through Twin Falls, Idaho on the way to Montana. As you enter the Flathead National Forest, the small roads leave you with stunning views of the mountains and more lakes than a Californian could imagine so close together.
It may sound a little hokey, but the Junior Ranger programs are great if you have kids with you (realistically, if they are 12+ they may be too cool for it). Not only are there “missions” for them to accomplish while they learn about the park, but the Rangers really make them feel special once they swear them in and give them their badges. My daughter is starting the pre-teen phase, but she still has fond memories of being a Jr. Ranger (even if she would not admit it).
The Place to Be is West Glacier:
In my opinion, if you are traveling with kids, the best thing you could do is book one of the lakeside cabins at Lake McDonald (about a 15-20 minute drive inside of the National Park Entrance).
The historic Lake McDonald Lodge is part hotel and part cabin rentals right on the water and within easy walking distance, or a short drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, to trail heads. The other nice thing about the cabins inside of the park is that you will have absolutely no cell service so there is little opportunity to waste time on your phone.
Hiking with Kids:
For me, traveling with an 8-year-old whom is prone to whining, one the best hikes we tried on the west side of the park was the Avalanche Lake trail. It was long enough to be a hike, but not so long that the whining started on the way up.
Also, the lake itself is a worthwhile reward as a destination and was a great spot to spend a few hours at the waters’ edge before going back down.
Side Note: Glacier is not the busiest National Park you will visit, but of course, there will be plenty of people trekking up such a convenient hike. However, do not let the fear of other people dissuade you from doing the hike. If you go earlier in the day, it really isn’t that crowded and the number of people on the trail did not stop wildlife from wandering by. (When some pretty large deer crossed our path on the way down, my daughter’s eyes nearly jumped out of their sockets).