Five Days in Glacier NP

We spent five glorious days at North American RV Park & Yurt Village in Coram, MT about 5 miles outside the West Glacier entrance of Glacier National Park. The RV park itself is nothing fancy. Site F8 was a pull-thru with full hookups and a decent-sized patch of grass to make Max happy. If we had had any other site in our row (F1-F8), we would’ve had some nice shade trees, which would have come in handy during the hot, high temps of mid-July. The restrooms and showers were very nice and clean, but we didn’t check out the laundry or lounge. The best part about this park was the location. The immediate area had a handful of restaurants/bars, a distillery, a highline course, rafting companies, and a number of lodging options. A grocery store and post office can be found down the highway in Hungry Horse. Within a short drive is the entrance to the National Park in the cute little community of West Glacier.

Address: 10649 Highway 2 East, Coram, MT 59913

Phone: (406) 387-5800

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Guest Lounge
  • Ice and Firewood
  • Picnic Table
  • Cabins
  • Yurts
  • Tent Sites
  • Playground
Site F8 (Notice the peek view of an Airstream next door!)

We would have loved to stay within Glacier, but there are very few sites that can accommodate a 28′ trailer and truck, there are even fewer sites that can be reserved that will accommodate us, and there are no sites with hookups, which isn’t an option when you have a dog that you need to be able to run the A/C for. Also, after driving through the park, out the east St. Mary entrance, and around the south end of the park back to Coram, we decided we would never attempt to stay on the east side of the park with our Airstream in the future as it is quite a rough journey. In addition, there’s not much available outside the east side of the park for services, so you’d be pretty dependent on whatever services are available in Many Glacier and Two Medicine.

We definitely plan to return to Glacier National Park in the future, so we scoped out a few other options in the area. We found that the West Glacier KOA is the most beautiful, well-appointed RV park we had ever seen. It’s at the ‘KOA Resort’ level, which means it has extra special amenities, and apparently it’s the 2017 KOA Campground of the Year. I know, I know — a KOA? Sometimes we stay in places for $10 with nothing more than an electric hookup and sometimes we stay in what is essentially a resort for $75. When choosing a place to stay, we always need to consider our length of stay, comfort, safety, what hookups are available, cell coverage, and what services we require nearby. We plan to stay considerably longer on our next trip to Glacier, so full hookups with nice amenities would turn it into more of a vacation as opposed to just our normal everyday life.

These are a few of the places in the area we enjoyed during our stay:

  • Glacier Distilling: Distillery and tasting room in Coram that specializes in small-batch whiskeys, but also offers brandy, vodka, gin and rum. Travis enjoyed the Wheatfish Whiskey and bought a bottle for home.

  • Wandering Gringo Cafe: If you’re looking for a good burrito the size of your head, you’ve found the right place. Also in Coram, this stay-in-place food truck offers shareable-sized portions with an onsite picnic area.

  • Belton Grill Dining Room at Belton Chalet: This 1910 railroad chalet is located in West Glacier. They offer delicious farm-to-table options with as many grown/raised-in-Montana ingredients as possible. While a little pricy, it’s not the kind of meal you’d expect from a restaurant that’s on the proverbial front steps of a national park.
Pan Seared Wild King Salmon with Morel Mushrooms, Peas, Fiddlehead Ferns and Béarnase

Now, for the Park itself…

Our first introduction to Glacier National Park was a stop at Lake McDonald in Apgar Village. Apgar is home to a visitor center, campground, picnic area, watercraft rentals, a hotel or two, a store and some places to eat. We returned to Lake McDonald a couple of days later to kayak, but it was so windy that there were whitecaps on the lake, which would not have made for an enjoyable experience.

On our second day visiting the park, we drove the infamous Going-to-the-Sun Road to the St. Mary Falls Trailhead. From www.visitmt.com:

The Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in 1932 and is a spectacular 50 mile, paved two-lane highway that bisects the park east and west. It spans the width of Glacier National Park, crossing the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass. It passes through almost every type of terrain in the park, from large glacial lakes and cedar forests in the lower valleys to windswept alpine tundra atop the pass. Scenic viewpoints and pullouts line the road, so motorists can stop for extended views and photo opportunities. The road is well worth traveling in either direction, as the view from one side of the road is much different than from the other. In 1983 Going-To-The-Sun Road was included in the National Register of Historic Places and in 1985 was made a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

There is a 24-mile stretch of the upper portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road that has vehicle restrictions (which is why you have to drive around the outside of the park to get to the east side with a travel trailer) — nothing longer than 21 feet bumper to bumper, wider than 8 feet including mirrors, and taller than 10 feet ground to highest point of vehicle. FYI, this is the ONLY road within the park that connects the east and west sides.

The St. Mary Falls Trailhead was about an hour and fifteen minute drive from our RV park in Coram. As it’s a popular trail, we left the Airstream at 7am to get to the trailhead before the crowds. When we reached the small parking area at 8:15, it was less than half full. However, when we returned to the parking area after the hike at about 9:45, it was full and people were jockeying for a spot. Glacier offers a free hop on, hop off shuttle system that provides two-way service along Going-to-the-Sun Road between Apgar Visitor Center and St. Mary Visitor Center. There’s a shuttle stop at the St. Mary Trailhead, as well as pretty much anywhere else you’d want to go along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Another extremely busy spot is Logan Pass. There’s a visitor center and trailheads for popular hikes. When we passed it a little before 8am, the parking lot was already pretty full. When we passed it on our way back, it was pure chaos. The rule of thumb in Glacier seems to be to: Get. There. Early.

From the trailhead, the St. Mary Falls Trail is 1.1 miles one way, but it you continue on to Virginia Falls like we did, it’s 1.8. The trail is easy and can be traversed by any able-bodied person. The most difficult part of the trail is actually at the end where you have to walk up a steep incline to get back to the parking lot. Signs warn to take precautions against bear: Hike in groups, carry bear spray, make noise, and be aware of your surroundings. When we set out on the trail, we encountered only four other parties before we reached Virginia Falls. While it’s nice to have the trail to ourselves with peace and quiet, the multiple groups of people on the trail on the return trip was a little comforting.

The trail is very well marked at the trailhead, as well as along the entire route.
The first part of the trail is an area that was heavily impacted by the Reynolds Fire in 2015.

There are a couple smaller, unnamed falls along the trail, like this one.
You’ll know you’ve reached St. Mary falls when you see this bridge. The color of the water was so beautiful — and is completely unedited!
St. Mary Falls
And when you reach this bridge, you’ll know you’ve arrived at Virginia Falls!
Virginia Falls is 50′ high.
Just an FYI — It’s super wet and windy right by the falls!

A few more pics from stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road:

Jackson Glacier as seen from the Jackson Glacier Overlook

McDonald Creek

The weather in Glacier can vary greatly from day to day. One day we were at Lake McDonald, the wind was calm and the water was like glass. A couple days later, it was windy with white caps. The first time we drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road, it was clear sky, sunny, and about 65 degrees (though the temp varies depending on what elevation you’re at). The next time we drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road (when the wind at Lake McDonald thwarted our plan to kayak), it was cold and incredibly foggy, especially at the highest point, Logan Pass, where it was in the mid 40s. Be prepared and dress in layers. The following are a few pics from our second drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road, demonstrating how different the weather was:

At times, visibility was pretty nonexistent, as the fog (clouds?) cloaked the road.

The fog made for a moody vibe at Wild Goose Island Overlook
Wild Goose Island Overlook

We loved our time in the Glacier National Park area and look forward to returning in the future. Besides the park, there is so much to explore in this area that we didn’t get a chance to get to: Kalispell, Whitefish, Flathead Lake.

Route Planning and the Billings KOA

The most difficult part of route planning for us is when Travis has to fly somewhere for work. The business trips aren’t usually last-minute trips, so that helps, but sometimes we find ourselves in places that we wouldn’t otherwise be in. However, Billings is not one of those places (a place we wouldn’t otherwise be in, that is). When we started planning our route back west from our extended stay in Wisconsin in May, we knew we wanted to spend some time in Montana. We also knew that Travis would need to fly to Minneapolis during this time and that the trip would be during the week of the Fourth of July holiday. Before settling on Billings, we first made a list of all the commercial airports in the approximate area we’d be in — Wyoming and Montana. We then searched to see which ones have direct flights to Minneapolis, because who wants a layover when you’re not flying very far? Then, we had to find a safe place to stay with availability for the holiday week, not too far from the airport. I say a safe place because Travis never wants to leave me (and Max) in a questionable location, obviously. Taking all of that into consideration, we landed on the Billings KOA.

This has been our method of operation since we hit the road full time back in January. Travis has had to make a business trip once a month, so these trips have somewhat determined our route. With each booked business trip, we’ll have a specific date and location we need to be. We also throw some personal date/location combos in there too to make it even more interesting — Crater Lake Rim Run in August, our friends’ October wedding in San Diego, and the Joshua Tree half marathon in November. It forces us to plan ahead, which suits our personalities just fine. We just aren’t go-with-the-flow type of people when it comes to trip planning. Twice we’ve had gaps of a night or two in our route where we were just going to wing it and see where we end up and both times we caved and booked something last minute.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, we don’t like long travel days and not knowing your destination may make your day longer. Two hours is great, three hours is fine, but when we get into four to five hours, we get crabby. We can’t comprehend how some people travel eight to ten hours a day — that just sounds miserable to us and like a waste of a day. If you don’t NEED to be somewhere fast, what’s the hurry? Secondly, this has been a hot, hot summer. After boondocking Memorial Day weekend, we learned that we want and need an electric hookup. We have a 13.5-year-old dog that we want to keep comfortable and we’ve had to work some very long days, so having electricity is essential. Yes, we have a generator, but many places have limitations on generator use and when it’s really hot, we burn through gas like crazy. Also, we would never leave our generator running unattended, so we’d become prisoners to the Airstream — and that’s not fun!

Before we hit the road, we had these romantic ideas, like so many tend to, that we’d boondock nonstop and wake up next to the ocean one day, and in the mountains the next, and so on, without another human in sight. And while there are plenty of Airstreamers and RVers that do just that, we’ve determined we’re not those people. We like electricity and showering every day and doing laundry once a week (or at least every two weeks) and strong cell signals and eating great food at restaurants and exploring cities along with our country’s natural wonders. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that we’ve learned what type of full timers we are over these last six months. On the full-timer spectrum with off-the-grid boondockers on one end and snowbirds that only move twice a year on the other, I think we fall right in the middle.

Back to Billings.

We settled on Billings and I’m glad we did. We stayed from a Saturday to a Saturday (I’m actually writing this the day before we leave). KOAs are notoriously expensive and this one is no different. I don’t know if they jacked their prices because of the holiday, but our water and electric site (no sewer hookup) was $75 a night, $67.50 with our KOA membership. Thus far, the most expensive place we’ve stayed. That being said, this is such a nice KOA. It’s the first in the country and the current owners have owned it since the 70s. There’s a huge staff that meticulously maintains it and the amenities are great. There’s a decent-sized, albeit cold, swimming pool. There’s a nice little mini golf course that Travis destroyed me on. The bathrooms and showers are so, so nice — probably the nicest we’ve ever seen. We’ve used the showers a few times because we don’t have a sewer hookup and don’t want to be so concerned with the grey tank level. The onsite store is well equipped. Breakfast and dinner are offered every morning and evening (for a price). Our site is super long, allowing us to park our truck at either end of the trailer. We have a nice patio with a picnic table, porch swing, and fire pit. Now, amenities like this are definitely NOT a requirement for us, but if we’re going to pay this much, they’re nice to have.

Site 37

There’s more to this KOA than just the amenities, however. The location is fantastic! It’s not far off I-90 making it extremely accessible for those that are just passing through. Downtown Billings is literally 5 minutes away. We have had some great meals here; we’d recommend Walkers and The Fieldhouse specifically. And one of the best parts — the airport is 13 minutes away! We usually have to drive 45 minutes to get to an airport, so the short drive is really a nice change.

All in all, our stay in Billings has been great. It was a little loud the night of the Fourth (I hate you, fireworks), but other than that, no issues. With the next business trip tentatively scheduled for October, we’re looking forward to moving on to Bozeman, Missoula and Coram to explore more of Montana.