Glacier NP and the West Glacier KOA

We visited Glacier National Park in July of last year, but were only able to spend five days — which was not nearly enough. We knew then that we would return for a longer stay in the near future, which turned out to be August 9-23 of this year. We spent two amazing weeks in West Glacier at the West Glacier KOA, which is one of only 19 KOA Resorts amongst the 480+ KOA properties throughout North America. We had friends fly in from D.C. and Tampa to help us celebrate my 40th birthday. They stayed in one of the Deluxe Cabins, which is a great way for friends and family to join RVers on the road in great destinations like Glacier. During their 4-day visit, we explored trails and lakes and waterfalls and hiked/walked almost 88,000 steps, or more than 37 miles. We drank whiskey and beer and ate burritos and churros and trout. The guys went whitewater rafting and we all enjoyed campfires in the evening. Their visit flew by, as did our 2-week stay, and we’re pretty sure that Glacier National Park will be a place we return to again and again.

Read about our July 2018 visit here.

West Glacier KOA

355 Half Moon Flats Rd, West Glacier, MT 59936

www.koa.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Picnic Tables
  • Fire Pits
  • RV Sites with Tent Pads
  • Cable TV (Limited to 4 Channels)
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Dump Station
  • Nature Trail
  • Propane Fill
  • Playground
  • Basketball Court
  • Horseshoe Pits
  • Fenced Dog Park
  • Two Swimming Pools (1 Family, 1 Adults Only)
  • Gift Shop
  • Cafe (Serves Breakfast & Dinner)
  • Ice Cream Shop
  • Sunday Morning Worship Service
  • Weekly Mobile Dog Groomer
  • Nightly Entertainment (Wildlife Expert, Magic Show, Music, etc.)
  • 2.5 Miles to West Entrance of Glacier National Park

Our site, #166, was a back-in Super Site with full hookups and a tent pad. It’s on the end of a row and backs up to a tree line. It’s next to a bathroom, which was very convenient for when our friends were hanging out at our site. We LOVED our site. It was huge and quiet and pretty private for a KOA.

There are a number of things that we enjoyed about this KOA:

For such a large property, it’s pretty quiet. Because we were in an end site that backs up to trees, our stay may have been quieter than if we were in a different site, but overall, the place was pretty low key even though it was at max capacity most nights

The sites are well spaced apart. Again, this might have something to do with our particular site. We didn’t walk the entirety of the campground, but every site we saw looked nice.

Breakfast and dinner are available every day, which is very convenient for those days you don’t feel like making a meal or going out. They have a pretty substantial breakfast menu each morning, along with pastries for purchase. There’s also a coffee bar to get your day started right. Each evening, Gene mans the grill, where you have a choice of trout, ribs, flat iron steak, or ribeye steak. The ribs were pretty good but the trout was our favorite (we didn’t try either of the steaks).

The. Adult. Pool. Is. Everything. Due to most people staying at KOAs with kids, the family pool was always pretty busy. However, the adults only pool never had more than a half dozen other people at it and was incredibly peaceful. There are also two small hot tubs at the adult pool — again, very nice to enjoy without kids.

The location to the national park entrance gets two thumbs up. It’s only a couple of minutes drive into West Glacier Village, where you’ll find the west entrance of the park, a post office, an urgent care clinic, the newly opened West Glacier RV Park & Cabins, a motel, a food market, retail/gift shops, coffee cart, ice cream, a bar, and a cafe.

Mobile dog grooming? Yes, please. Every Saturday, a woman brings her RV that’s converted into a mobile dog grooming salon to the West Glacier KOA. There’s a sign-up sheet in the office. This was super convenient for us, as Max hadn’t been groomed in a very long time due to having a back injury. Also, it’s really hard to get a dog in for grooming on short notice in most places and we’re usually not somewhere long enough for it not to be short notice. She did a great job and Max was done in less than an hour, unlike the three hours that are normally required at other groomers.

Things to Do

Hiking

Avalanche Lake

The hike to Avalanche Lake can be anywhere from 4.6 to 6 miles roundtrip, depending on how far you continue along the lakeshore once you reach the lake. This trail can be busy, as there is a shuttle stop at the trailhead (which is actually the Trail of the Cedars Trailhead), and is accessible during the off-season months when the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed. There’s ample parking, but as with most trails in any national park, the earlier you get there the better. However, we didn’t arrive at the trailhead until 9am on a Saturday during mid-August and we were able to find a parking spot. The trail is rated as moderate and seemed to be popular with families. We did this hike on an overcast day, but the views from the lake were still gorgeous. We hiked the extra distance to the opposite side of the lake, as most people stop on the near side. Only a few parties continued to the far side which made it a quiet and peaceful place to drop in with our Kokopelli Packrafts and paddle around for a bit. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~32 minutes

The beginning of the trail starts on the Trail of the Cedars, which is a 0.9-mile loop.
Much of the trail is through a forested, mossy wonderland along Avalanche Creek.
This is as far as most people go, but another 0.7 mile will get you to the other side of the lake.
Even on a gloomy day, the views were beautiful!
It wasn’t the most ideal conditions for the packrafts, but any time you can paddle around on a glacial lake is a good time.

Saint Mary Falls and Virginia Falls

We did this hike last year when we visited and both Travis and I remembered it as being easier than it was this year. We accessed the trail from the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead, but you can also start at the Saint Mary Falls Shuttle Stop or from the boat dock on Saint Mary Lake. The first mile of the hike is pretty flat and fairly easy, and brings you to the three-tiered Saint Mary Falls. This a good place to turn around for those who aren’t very steady on their feet. If you continue an additional three-quarters mile up the trail, which starts to gain and lose elevation regularly just pass Saint Mary Falls, you’ll reach Virginia Falls, which is approximately 50 feet tall. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~1 hr, 15 min

A few tips:

  • Throughout the hike, there are a handful of smaller unnamed falls, and some people may mistake these for Virginia Falls and turn around before reaching the actual Virginia Falls.
  • The earlier in the season you visit, the more impressive the falls will be. That’s true for any of the 200+ waterfalls located throughout Glacier. We visited Glacier in mid-July last year and mid-August this year and noticed a big difference.
  • There is a third waterfall that can be reached from the Saint Mary Falls Trailhead, though the Sunrift Gorge Trailhead is a closer option. When starting the hike to Saint Mary and Virginia Falls, you’ll see a sign that says Baring Falls to the left, while the other two are to the right. We’ve never hiked it, so I can’t comment on the difficulty of the trail or the brilliance of the falls. I believe it’s about a mile to the falls from where the trail splits in two directions.
  • There’s a pit toilet near Virginia Falls if needed, though don’t expect it to be as nice as the pit toilets you find at trailheads. And pack your own toilet paper.
Saint Mary Falls
One of the unnamed falls along the trail.
Virginia Falls

Iceberg Lake

The trailhead to Iceberg Lake is found behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in the Many Glacier area of the park. There are a number of hikes that leave from this area, so everything I read about the Iceberg Lake hike said that arriving early is important, even though there’s a very large parking lot. We did this hike on a drizzly Monday morning and when we arrived at the parking lot around 7:30am, there was quite a bit of parking still available. Maybe it was because of the weather, maybe it was because it was Monday, but whatever the reason, we probably could have shown up at 8 or 8:15 and still been fine. The park’s hiking guide rates this hike as very challenging, though AllTrails says moderate. Even though it’s about 10 miles roundtrip and has approximately 1800′ of elevation gain, I’d have to agree with moderate. About halfway along the trail is Ptarmigan Falls, which is a nice place to stop for a snack. There’s also a pit toilet here, but as with the one by Virginia Falls, it’s more of an outhouse and requires you to bring your own toilet paper. Once we reached the brilliant turquoise lake, which was sans icebergs (we missed them by a few weeks), the wind really picked up and it was freezing. We spent a short time at the lake before heading back and being treated to some moose sightings along the trail. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~2 hr, 10 min

We hit the road early and were able to see the sun rise along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Most of the trail looks like this: Fairly flat, along the side of a cliff, with views of the mountains ahead and lush, green valley below.
We were lucky to see a couple of handsome moose both on the way to and from the lake.
No icebergs to be seen, but still a nice hike.
There was a blanket of fog overhead for the majority of the morning, but it didn’t detract from the great views.
There were so many wildflowers along the way!
We did this hike the morning of my 40th birthday. In this photo, I’m pretty sure I was thinking — what a silly thing to do — wake up at 5am, drive four and half hours roundtrip, and hike 10 miles in an almost constant drizzle/rain. Silly, indeed.

Hidden Lake Overlook

This is another very popular hike in Glacier, but with good reason. It’s rated as challenging, or moderate, but is less challenging than other moderate hikes we’ve done. It’s fairly accessible, as the trailhead is right behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center. At 2.6 miles roundtrip, the payoff is pretty great without having to put a lot of miles in. The hike can be extended an additional 1.2 miles each way if you choose to hike down to the lake itself. We saw what seemed like every rodent that calls the park home as well as a momma mountain goat with her babe. It’s a busy trail, but one that I would say should be on your must-do list. We arrived at 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon and were lucky enough to score a parking spot without having to circle the parking lot for too long. Drive time from West Glacier entrance: ~1 hr, 3 min

Another gloomy day, but the view of the lake from the overlook was still pretty great.
This little guy was gorging on all of the flowers.
This grazing mom and baby mountain goat kept their distance, but didn’t seem bothered in the least by everyone watching them.
The views are this incredible along the entirety of the trail.

Whitewater Rafting

While I stayed back at the Airstream with Max, the guys went whitewater rafting with Glacier Raft Company. They enjoyed it, but it was a little tame for their liking. As with the waterfalls in the park, the water level and flow of the Flathead River peak in early June and slowly recede throughout the summer.

Food & Drink

Wandering Gringo Cafe

Delicious tacos, quesadillas, and burritos the size of your head. Cash only.

Glacier Distilling Company 

They specialize in small-batch whiskey but also offer brandy, vodka, gin, rum and liqueurs. Do some tastings, order a cocktail, or buy a bottle to take home — or all three.

La Casita

The rafting guide swore by their chimichangas, so we partook after our hike to Iceberg Lake. We also sampled the margaritas and churros. ‘Twas a delicious trifecta!

West Glacier Restaurant

Located right in West Glacier Village, a good place to stop for breakfast, lunch, or dinner either on your way in or out of the park. The food was good, the service was fast, and the prices were reasonable.

Boat Club Restaurant – Lodge at Whitefish Lake

The Lodge is a 40-minute drive from the West Glacier KOA. We visited on a busy Sunday afternoon, so the service was a tad bit slow, but the views made up for it. Whitefish is a fantastic town and deserves to be explored, but we only had time for a quick lunch at the lake.

North Fork Pizza

Located in Columbia Falls, North Fork Pizza is about a 20-minute drive from the KOA. The pizza is fantastic and worthy of the drive.

In Conclusion…

The Glacier National Park area does not disappoint. It’s not the easiest to get to, but everyone should try their best to get there. When the park was established in 1910, there were 150 active glaciers. Today, only 26 remain. By 2030, that number may be zero. The park itself is mind-blowing, but there is so much in the area that we haven’t yet gotten a chance to explore — Kalispell, Whitefish, Flathead Lake, etc. We spent 45 glorious days in the great state of Montana this summer, but it looks like we’ll need to spend more.

Crossing the Canadian Border with an Airstream and a Dog

When planning our trip to Canada, the border crossing was the biggest question mark for us. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be nothing to worry about and took less than five minutes.

We crossed at the Sweetgrass, Montana crossing, which is listed as Montana’s busiest border crossing and the only one that’s open 24 hours for commercial vehicles. There are six lanes, with one reserved for people holding a NEXUS card and two reserved for commercial purposes. There were two cars ahead of us when we pulled up, but they moved through very quickly.

When we pulled up to the window, the agent asked for our passports immediately and then asked the following questions:

Where are you headed?

How long will you be in Canada?

What’s the purpose of your visit?

Do you have any alcohol? How much?

Do you have any tobacco products?

Do you have any cannabis products?

Do you have any weapons?

Do you have a taser or pepper spray?

Do you have more than $10,000 cash with you?

Will you be selling any goods while you’re in Canada?

Americans crossing into Canada are each allowed to have 1.5 liters of wine -or- 1.14 liters (40 ounces) of liquor -or- 24 cans of beer, as well as 1 carton (200) of cigarettes, up to 50 cigars, and 200g of loose tobacco. For more information about the items you can and can’t cross with and the possible duties imposed, visit www.ezbordercrossing.com. There were also signs posted that stated “All cannabis items must be declared,” but we have no idea what the rules are for that.

He then asked to see Max’s rabies vaccination record. After that, he handed everything back to us, and we were on our way!

Approaching the border from Sweetgrass, MT…
Waiting for our turn…
And we’re through!

The city on the Canadian side of the border is Coutts, which is where we spent the night before driving up to Cochrane, just west of Calgary, the next day. There is a duty free shop in both Sweetgrass and Coutts, so you can buy all the alcohol and tobacco your heart desires without having to pay a duty fee. If we were to cross the border via this route again, we would keep driving past Coutts to Lethbridge, about 100km (60mi) north. Coutts is a tiny, dusty, agricultural city without many amenities while Lethbridge is the third largest city in Alberta, offering food and recreation options.

After spending five nights in Cochrane, AB and three nights each at Lake Louise Campground and Tunnel Mountain Campground in Banff, we spent one night in Cranbrook, BC as we made our way back towards the border.

We crossed back into the U.S. at the Roosville, BC border crossing. It was much busier than when we crossed in Sweetgrass — maybe because it was a Friday instead of a Thursday, and there were only two lanes as opposed to three. The border agent gave us a hard-to-explain uneasy feeling, but again we had no issues crossing once answering his questions:

How long were you in Canada?

Do you have any fresh produce or plants?

Did you buy any items to declare?

This time, there was a gauntlet of cameras and devices to drive through before reaching the border agent’s window.

From there, it was less than a 2-hour drive to our destination of West Glacier. Be prepared and be honest when crossing the border, and you should have no issues. We recently read of a fellow Airstreamer forgetting to declare a couple pieces of produce at the same border crossing and were fined $300 and had their passports held until they paid it.

A Very Short Week in Lake Louise and Banff

The idea of a visit to Banff National Park in Alberta can be a bit daunting — almost as daunting as trying to put all of the info about actually visiting Banff into a blog post can be. But, it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been and completely worth the hassle it takes to get there!

So, I’ll start at the beginning:

Getting to Banff National Park

Obviously, we drove to Banff, which involved crossing the international border. We drove from Helena, MT to Milk River, AB (crossing at the Sweetgrass/Coutts border crossing) to Cochrane, AB to Banff National Park to Cranbrook, BC to West Glacier, MT (crossing at the Roosville crossing). To find out more information about crossing the border with an Airstream and a dog, read this. If you aren’t making a road trip out of your visit, then you’ll most likely be flying into Calgary. Calgary is a very large, great city that deserves a few days of exploration itself. From there, it’s a 90-minute drive to the town of Banff and an additional 45 minutes to Lake Louise. This drive can be accomplished by renting a car, taking an airport shuttle, or buying tickets for the On-It Regional Transit bus (make sure to check the schedule). Another option that many people choose is to rent an RV. We saw a lot of RVs from CanaDream, so check out their website if this interests you.

Camping in Banff

Reservations for Canada’s national parks open in January. I’m not sure if it’s the same date every year or if it changes, so keep an eye on the Parks Canada site for information. I booked our sites on January 10th this year, which I believe was the day after reservations opened. We stayed in the Lake Louise Hard-Sided Campground for three nights and the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court Campground in Banff for three nights. Lake Louise Hard-Sided is open year round and has a period of about three months during the summer when reservations are available. Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court is open from the beginning of May to the beginning of October and accepts reservations during the whole season. Two dates that you should avoid during the summer are July 1st, which is Canada Day, and the first Monday of August, which is a civic holiday. We did not know this and were in Lake Louise over the long holiday weekend at the beginning of August. According to employees in the park and at restaurants, the area was MUCH busier than normal during this weekend. There is an $11.00 CAD nonrefundable reservation fee for each reservation made and a daily park entrance fee of $9.80 CAD per adult or $19.60 per family/group. A Parks Canada Discovery Pass, which gives you unlimited admission for 12 months from date of purchase at over 80 locations, is $67.70 CAD per adult or $136.40 per family/group. It was most cost effective for us to purchase the family annual pass, which is approximately $103.50 USD, and is valid through August of next year.

Lake Louise Hard-Sided Campground

Site: 136

Price: ~$24.50 USD ($32.30 CAD)

Amenities at Site: Pull-Through, 30amp Electric Hookup, Picnic Table

Amenities in Campground: Restrooms with Flush Toilets, Showers, Phone, Dump Station, Recycling

The sites are designed that two RVs park in each pull-through. They’re separate sites with separate hookups, but you’re close enough to each other that you can’t drive a vehicle between, especially if you have slides. We were lucky and barely had neighbors during our stay. The electric box is on the wrong side of the trailer. Most people just ran their electric cord under their trailer, but seeing as we have a second 30amp connection on the front end of the Airstream, we used that. There are restrooms with flush toilets, sinks, soap, and hand driers throughout the campground. There’s one larger restroom that has free showers. All sites have a picnic table, but not all sites have a fire ring. When you make a reservation online, it tells you if a site is with or without a fire ring. There is a dump station near the entrance/exit of the campground. We didn’t see any water fill stations (and none are listed on the map), but the map does state “all water in this facility is potable unless otherwise posted.” The campground is in a great location for exploring the Lake Louise and Moraine Lake areas, but not really walking distance to anything. I believe there’s a shuttle pickup at the front of the campground that takes you to the main park and ride where you can catch a shuttle to wherever you’re looking to go. We never saw it, but according to the public transportation map, it’s there.

Note: You HAVE to be in a hard-sided trailer to stay in this part of the campground. There’s a separate tent section that is surrounded by an electric fence and equipped with bear boxes.

The side-by-side sites are situated in opposite directions and a little snug when both are occupied. The green box is the electric hookup.

Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court Campground

Site: 607

Price: ~$29.06 USD ($38.20 CAD)

Amenities at Site: Pull-Through, Full Hookups with 30amp, Picnic Table

Amenities in Campground: Restrooms with Flush Toilets and Showers, Recycling

Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court is a 322-site campground with full hookups at each site. Most sites are single pull-throughs, but there are a few buddy sites referred to as ‘shared sites’. The Trailer Court Campground is right next to the Tunnel Mountain Village II Campground, which has a dump station, potable water, a phone, and bus stops, which according to the Camping in the Banff Area pamphlet, “Public transit is available to many top destinations and is free from most campgrounds.” Tunnel Mountain II also has oTENTiks available, which are exclusive to Parks Canada and are a cross between an A-frame cabin and a prospector tent mounted on a raised wooden floor. The sites in the Trailer Court are pretty unlevel side to side, but also fairly shady. Unlike Lake Louise Campground, the roads throughout Tunnel Mountain Campground are paved and in good condition. A short drive (or long walk) from the campground is the town of Banff, a beautiful and clean quintessential mountain town full of restaurants, shops, and other services. Yes, there is a town of about 10,000 residents in the middle of a national park, and yes, it’s gorgeous.

As you can see by the triple stack of levelers, the sites here aren’t level.
The temps were perfect when we visited at the beginning of August, but we still appreciated the amount of shade the trees offered.
There are mountain views in every direction, though I’m not sure which sites have the best.

If camping isn’t your thing, there are PLENTY of hotels, motels, hostels, resorts and short-term rentals in both Lake Louise and Banff.

Note: We had a good cell signal with AT&T in both campgrounds and most areas of Lake Louise and Banff.

Out and About in Lake Louise

Hiking

Fairview Lookout

The best place to start is with a quick hike to the Fairview Lookout. It’s a steep, 1.5-mile out and back with pretty great views of Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

Lake Agnes Tea House

When researching hikes in the Lake Louise area, the hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House kept coming up. It’s 2.2 miles one way with over 1300′ of elevation gain. We hit the trailhead at 7:25am in order to avoid the crowds and be able to get a parking spot — arriving any later than 7:30 on a Saturday of a holiday weekend is not a good idea. It took us 50-55 minutes to get to the top. The tea house has sat at 7005′ of elevation on the shores of Lake Agnes (and on top of a waterfall) since 1905. Known primarily for their selection of loose leaf teas, they offer other beverages as well as baked goods, soups, and sandwiches to warm you up — it was 44° when we started the hike and only 60° when we got back to the truck. We each got a piece of apple blueberry crumble and split a small pot of Madagascar Almond Spice tea. We wrapped up the remaining complimentary biscuits and jam to enjoy after the hike back down.

Two Tips:

  1. Start early. Parking is limited around Lake Louise as it’s a VERY popular area. The Tea House opens at 8:00am. We got there at about 8:20 and had to wait 15 minutes.
  2. Cash only. Preferably Canadian, but it seems they do accept US dollars as well.

Moraine Lake Rock Pile Trail

This is a short, half-mile trail with stairs that leads you to the top of an actual rock pile where you’ll have the best views of Moraine Lake.

We didn’t do any other hikes in the Moraine Lake area, but there are definitely some great ones available. On the easy end of the spectrum is the Moraine Lake Shoreline Trail, which is exactly what it sounds like — a nice, flat trail that follows the shoreline of the lake with both lake and forest views. There’s also the hike to Consolation Lakes, which starts from the rock pile trail and recommends groups of four due to bear activity. This trail is rated as easy. Eiffel Lake Trail is rated as moderate and the Larch Valley Trail is rated as hard. Both trails start at the Moraine Lake lakeshore.

Food & Drink

Lake Louise

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise offers a range of dining options, from grab-and-go to fancy schmancy. We tried to get reservations at the Fairview Bar and Restaurant, but didn’t book far enough in advance. Priority seating is given to hotel guests, which is understandable, as they’re paying upwards of $700/night to stay there. The Fairview also offers daily afternoon tea service. The Lakeview Lounge is probably the most sophisticated hotel lobby lounge you’ll come across. We had a drink at the beautiful bar in the lounge before eating dinner at the fondue restaurant, Walliser Stube. Lago Italian Kitchen, Poppy Brassiere, Alpine Social and Chateau Deli round out the dining options at the Fairmont.

Pre-Dinner Cocktails at the Lakeview Lounge
The Fondue was Excellent at Walliser Stube

Note: If you have a reservation at one of the Fairmont restaurants, you’re able to park on their property for free (after getting the parking ticket validated).

There are plenty of other places to eat in Lake Louise, from fast casual to fancy-ish, but the only other place we ate was the Mt. Fairview Dining Room at Deer Lodge. The decor is a little worn but the food was absolutely delicious. The Samson Mall is located in the main part of the village and here you’ll find a small grocery store, a liquor store, souvenir shops, a book store, a bakery/deli, a cafe, and services including banking, postal, and car rental — everything you need to survive for a few days if eating out isn’t really your thing. Of course, the Lake Agnes Tea House and the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House are also alternative dining options — you just have to work a bit to reach them.

Moraine Lake

Access to Moraine Lake is limited during the day (more about that later), so dining options at Moraine Lake are also limited. The Moraine Lake Lodge offers the only accommodations and food options in the area. The Snowshoe Cafe is open during the day and offers a number of grab-and-go selections. The Walter Wilcox Dining Room is open for breakfast, afternoon tea, and dinner, with reservations being required for dinner. The lodge also has a fantastic gift/souvenir shop.

Things to Do

People are drawn to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake for the beautiful views, great hikes, chance to see wildlife, and delicious food — but also, of course, the lakes! Both lakes have canoe rentals available, but at $125/hour (bananas!) it’s a little steep. Of course, people will stay pay that crazy price so they can paddle around the milky waters of Lake Louise and bright turquoise waters of Moraine Lake. We prefer to bring our own, however. Our Kokopelli Packcrafts are super convenient and give us access to areas we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. We’ve used them on a number of alpine lakes, including Jackson Lake in Grand Teton NP and Avalanche Lake in Glacier NP.

As I mentioned earlier, access to Moraine Lake is limited. During the busy season, the parking lot at Moraine Lake is full most of the time, especially on the weekends. When the parking lot is full, the 11km road that leads to the Moraine Lake area is closed. The road is windy and takes a bit to drive, so they avoid an obscene amount of traffic and people sitting in their cars waiting for a parking spot by just not allowing anyone to drive it. As space becomes available, they sporadically allow people through the blockade. To avoid getting shut out, there are a few options: 1) Take the shuttle. 2) Get there early. Like, really early. 3) Ride a bike. Seeing as there’s little traffic on the road during the day, this road, though windy, is actually pretty safe to bike.

Before we move on to our stay in Banff, here are a few more pics from our time in and around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake:

Unlike most national parks in the States, dogs are allowed in most places in Canadian national parks. Before taking your dog on a specific trail, I would recommend making sure that it’s not off limits to dogs for some reason. P.S. This was taken at 9:30 at night at Moraine Lake!

Out and About in Banff

Hiking

Johnston Canyon

As an unfortunate side effect of working full time, we were only able to do one hike while staying at the Tunnel Mountain Trailer Court in Banff. Johnston Canyon is one of the more popular day hikes due to its family-friendly nature. The trail starts behind the Johnston Canyon Lodge. There are a couple of parking lots, but they fill pretty quickly unless you arrive early in the morning or later in the evening. The only time we could make the hike was smack dab in the middle of the day, which was not very ideal. We ended up parking along the side of the road almost a half mile from the trailhead. Again, this is a VERY popular hike and some parts of the trail are only wide enough for single file (sometimes very slow single file), so to avoid crowds, get there early.

The first part of the hike to the Lower Falls is flat, easy, and fairly short at 1.1km (.68mi). The entire hike is gorgeous as it winds through the canyon on catwalks along the creek. At the lower falls, there is a bridge across the creek that gives a better vantage point of the falls and at the other side of the bridge is a small cave. Walking through the small cave allows for a second vantage point of the falls, but beware that you may get a little wet. People wait in line in order to walk through the cave to see the falls up close, but honestly, it’s not worth the time unless this is your last stop on the trail.

Most of the hike looks like this – an easy trail through a beautiful natural setting.
Lower Falls
A shot from above of the bridge that crosses the creek in front of the Lower Falls to the cave with a closer view of the falls.
This is the view from inside the cave. While you get closer to the water, any photos taken are either dark foreground with well-lit background or well-lit foreground with a light-saturated background.

If continuing on to the Upper Falls, the trail will become a little more difficult, as this part of the trail is rated moderate due to the incline. It’s not dramatic, but substantial enough that some people may have difficulty. From Lower Falls to Upper Falls is another 1.6km (~1mi) or 2.7km overall. The same beautiful views continue and again, if you go during a busy time, you’ll find yourself in a line. Unfortunately, this line is unavoidable if you want to catch a glimpse of the Upper Falls. The way the falls are situated, you can’t see them until you are pretty much right in front of them. There’s a small platform that extends from a narrow boardwalk from which you can see the falls. Only a few people can fit on this platform at a time, so a line forms. Obviously, you don’t have to wait in line, but then there’s no point in doing the hike unless you’re just looking for some exercise.

Another long line to get to…
…this narrow platform, which is the only place you can see…
…the Upper Falls, because they’re tucked back in a corner.
The platform is so narrow that it’s difficult to get any kind of photo besides a selfie.

If we had had more time and if we didn’t waste time waiting in line at the Lower Falls, we would have continued on the trail to the Ink Pots, which are seven cold water spring pools in varying shades of blue and green. The Ink Pots are an additional 3.1km (1.93mi).

Food & Drink

Our one major dining out experience in Banff can also fall under the ‘Things To Do’ category. We purchased the Sky Experience Package, which included a round-trip gondola ride and dinner at the Sky Bistro. The Banff gondola takes you to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, where you can find boardwalks to take in the views, an interpretive center, a theatre, a rooftop deck, a gift shop, a cafe, and two restaurants. We made the trip on an overcast day, but the views were still beautiful.

There are four people to each car and it takes about 10 minutes to get to the top.

I was really looking forward to this meal as a food and travel writer occasionally featured by Travel & Leisure said this was his best meal while in Banff. We were a bit disappointed with the quality of the food — it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great like we were expecting it to be. Unfortunately, none of the food was that flavorful.

Our meal included a starter and a main. We both got the duck confit wings as our starter.
For the main, I got the halibut and Travis got the pork tenderloin.
Tip: Make a reservation for 5:00 and you’ll get a window seat.

Make sure to get outside and walk the boardwalks in order to take in the 360° views. You might also be lucky enough to see mountain goats!

Just an FYI, there’s also a Starbucks and a second gift shop at the base of the gondola.

Things To Do

The town of Banff is full of great restaurants, great shops, and a number of things to do, including the Banff Hot Springs, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and Cascade Gardens. It’s cute and clean and offers a pretty great public transportation system. I wish we would have had more time to explore the town and the surrounding areas of the park, but we’re treating this trip as an introduction to the area and now know what to expect when we return.

The Banff sign is on Mt. Norquay Road as you enter town, across the street from the Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre.
It’s difficult to capture the charm of the town of Banff, but just know that it’s exactly what you would expect a mountain town to be.
A doe and her two babes snacking in someone’s front yard.

A week is not nearly enough time to spend between Lake Louise and Banff. I would say at least two weeks, if not longer, are needed to get a better feel for the area. We were so limited with our time that we couldn’t even think about driving the Icefield Parkway, which is said to be one of the most scenic drives in the world (and runs between Lake Louise and Jasper in Jasper National Park). Banff National Park really charmed us and we hope to return in the future in order to enjoy more of its beauty.

 

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.