09/15/2010 02:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Glacier National Park (For the Less Adventurous)


With nearly two million people flocking to Glacier National Park each summer, this pristine paradise can often feel more like Disney World than a remote environmental wonder. Only a tiny fraction of visitors will head into the backcountry, so if you are one of the many that will be sticking to the roads, consider these five tips to avoid getting lost in the crowd:

1. Get out of the car
Glacier bills itself as a 'backpacker's paradise,' but many park visitors never set foot on a trail. The views from the road are majestic, but only skim the surface of what Glacier has to offer. Don't be intimidated if you lack hiking experience, the latest gear, or a mountain-climbing physique. Dozens of short, easy walks can easily be accessed, and you don't have to walk far to find incredible views and a sense of solitude not experienced on the highway. Pull over at a trailhead (avoid congested lots at Logan Pass and Lake McDonald), grab a bottle of water, and walk for a few minutes through the forest.

2. Take the road less traveled
Many first-time visitors spend all of their time between West Glacier and St. Mary along the famous Going to the Sun Road. However, the most spectacular parts of the park are found elsewhere. Even if you can only spend a few hours in the park, try visiting a one-way entrance instead. Many Glacier offers some of the most jaw-dropping views, Cutbank is quiet and serene, and Two Medicine is a good balance of the two. At the very least, you'll be spared the frustration of driving a congested one-lane mountainous highway.

3. Stay for the stars
With the sky hovering just above your head and not a light in the distance, the 'crown of the continent' offers spectacular stargazing. On clear nights, the park service will set up a telescope for viewing distant objects in the night sky. The location and time changes daily, so call in advance if you are expecting a cloud-free night sky. Be sure to bundle up as it takes between twenty and thirty minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, so you'll be spending a while outside.

4. Take a guided tour
Glacier's spectacular views and landscapes 2010-09-15-glacierimage2.jpgare the result of millions of years of geologic activity, and the true magic of the park is only revealed through that history. Park rangers offer guided tours of many trails, and daily trips provide insight into the history and science of the glaciers, wildlife, and rocks of the park. Taking one of the trips found here will help you better understand and appreciate this unique place.

5. Explore the region
Glacier National Park is only one of many highlights to be found in Northwest Montana. A visit to the area is incomplete if you only stay within the boundaries of the park. If you get the chance, a hike in the Jewel Basin will provide you with views of the entire park situated among the many mountain chains that surround it, plus dozens of lakes concentrated in a small alpine area. For a cultural experience, visit a Blackfeet powwow on the nearby reservation. Foodies will enjoy the restaurant options in Whitefish, which has some of the best dining options in the entire state. Also not to overlook is nearby Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Western United States. Rent a boat or a kayak and head out to the islands in the middle for a great day trip.

Not-to-miss day-hikes:
Easy: Trail of the Cedars to Avalanche Creek

Moderate: Cut Bank to Medicine Grizzy Lake

Strenuous: Logan Pass to the Loop via Highline Trail (the Glacier View Trail just before Granite Park Chalet is a must-do. It will hurt, but the 360 degree views of Grinnell Glacier and Lake McDonald make it well worth it.)

Further reading:
Bear safety (attacks are extremely rare so don't let them intimidate you)
Geology of Glacier National Park (if you can't make a guided tour)
History of the land (for a cultural context)