What is your big office disagreement? Is it about the temperature? Do people steal things from the fridge? Like every office, here at the Helena Tourism Alliance we have a big ongoing office controversy. Mind you, we also only have two full-time employees. I’m not sure what this says about office morale, but if it helps this is our only argument.
What do we argue about? Which Montana National Park is best.
Anna absolutely loves Glacier. Don’t get the girl started on red buses, East vs. West, which lake to take a tour of, etc. She really will not stop until you make her. She gets up to the Park just about any chance she can get.
And, I absolutely love Yellowstone. After three season of working at Canyon Village in Yellowstone, the Park will always hold a piece of my heart, and of my youth. The smell of sulfur that dominates Yellowstone means that I’m home.
It’s pretty much perfect to live in Helena, Montana and be a National Park lover. We are exactly half way between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park. You really can’t get more central than Helena. If you’re planning on traveling to Montana this summer and visiting the National Parks. Check out our suggested routes and things to do along the way. We also have maps you can print for all stages of your Montana journey. We look forward to hosting you in Helena.
Check out what Anna and I love about our Parks and then tell us which park do you like best? Why? We want to hear what you think. Even if you haven’t been to both, how about telling us why you want to visit either Yellowstone or Glacier. We’ll be giving out ten Glacier Day Hike books and ten Yellowstone Day Hike books. Vote and share.
– Heidi OBrien
People always ask me which area of the park to spend the most time in – the west side of Glacier or the east side? Honestly, the entire park will blow your mind with its natural beauties and wildlife.
I’ve camped on the west side in Avalanche Lake campground, driven the Going-to-the-Sun road, stayed in outside-of-the-park lodging in East Glacier and had back-country jeep tours of the Many Glacier area…all of it was breathtaking and memorable. Because there is such a variety of options, I think it’s easiest to set your budget and select your options from there. Glacier is breathtaking from all angles.
The famous Going-to-the-Sun Road is typically open mid-June pending weather, snow-plowing, and road repair. Parts of the road are accessible year-round, check here for Going-to-the-Sun road status updates. The road covers 50 miles. Please note that the only service stations in the park are on the opposing sides, in St. Mary and Apgar Village, please make sure your tank is full before starting across Going-to-the-Sun!
Staying Inside or Outside the Park
There are many pluses to staying inside the park, including the ease of access to the start of Red Bus and boat tours (most Red Bus tours start from the lodges). Staying inside the park would also put you at a closer distance to the trail-heads of many popular GNP hikes. If you prefer the ease of eating at your lodge over finding restaurants or cooking a few of your meals, this is another good reason for you to stay in the park. To book rooms at properties inside the park visit click here and here.
On the other hand, if you’ve been to GNP before and want to mix it up or if you’re simply looking for a different experience than the lodges provide, there are many affordable, unique lodging options outside the park. If you’re comfortable navigating yourself to the Going-to-the-Sun road from the community of East Glacier, I recommend staying there. Here are a few options I recommend: Bison Creek Cabins, Lone Elk Lodge (an especially great option for large families), or if you’re willing to take a short scenic drive on Highway 2 through the south end of the park, Summit Mountain Lodge or Izaak Walton Inn.
Wildlife in GNP
I remember the first time I saw one of these bear signs, a part of me felt like I was entering Jurassic Park and that I should prepare for immediate bear sightings. While that was a bit dramatic, please remember you are entering a natural habitat to many species. Moose are more-easily spotted in the Many Glacier area. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats abound, especially at the top of Logan Pass. I spotted this black bear on the side of the road in Two Medicine once. Be prepared with bear spray (rent it here) and be smart about keeping your distance at all times, with all wildlife.
Hiking in GNP*
While I could fill an entire post with just GNP hikes, here are three hikes I recommend, all with varying distances and difficulty. Please remember your bear spray before you hike as well as water and appropriate clothing/footwear. *Also, remember that you will be at a higher elevation than your body is used to.
For the non-experienced/family hiker: St. Mary Falls – 1.7 miles (2.73 km) roundtrip, difficulty rating 2.13 (easy). This is a beautiful, easy hike with the option of going on to Virginia Falls. I like this hike because of the fantastic views along St. Mary lake.
For the person who’s moderately in shape: Avalanche Lake – 4.5 miles (7.24 km) roundtrip, difficulty rating 5.96 (moderate). While designated ‘moderate’ this is a good option for families too. This trail begins with the Trail of the Cedars near Lake McDonald.
For the expert hiker: Grinnell Glacier – 7.6 miles (12.23 km) roundtrip, difficulty rating 11.28 (strenuous). If you are wanting to get a up close view of a glacier, this is a great hike for you. This trail is accessed near Many Glacier lodge.
Glaciers in GNP
Due to changes in regional and global climate, only 25 glaciers remain. While you may not be able to get close enough to touch one of the remaining glaciers on you GNP trip, stop a moment and acknowledge the work of the glaciers of the past in the formations within the park.
Visiting Yellowstone National Park (YNP)
After working three years in Yellowstone at Canyon Village, a part of my heart will always be in Canyon and I’ll always have eyes for Lower Falls. But, like Anna’s plug for Glacier, the entire part is truly amazing and worth visiting. If you only have a couple of days, you’d be able to get a little snippet of everything in Yellowstone. You could cram in Tower Falls, The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Lake, Old Faithful, Norris Hot Springs and Mammoth. I’m really hesitant to say that’s the best use for your couple days in Yellowstone. If it were me, I’d do some research and pick the area that I was most interested in and they’d I’d really take the time to explore that area. I’d make sure that I was able to hit every boardwalk and trail. I’d find a day hike so I could see the park without the crowds. You can also take a ranger lead hike and learn even more. Visit any of the National Park Service ranger stations or look in the information you are given when you enter the park. Here a link to the official Yellowstone National Park map.
Staying Inside Or Outside the Park
Staying the Park is a nice option. You could wake up and see Old Faithful erupt in your pajamas – that’s an amazing thing to be able to do. If you do stay outside the Park, you have to consider the drive into the park every day. And, please don’t plan on being able to travel the 45 mph speed limit in the park. Traveling is much slower. There are bear jams, and RVs going 20 mph, and with Yellowstone only being snow free a couple months annually, you better believe you’ll also hit construction. So, staying in the park is nice because of those things. For more information on staying in the park and lodging click here.
It may sound like I’m discouraging you from staying outside of the Park. There are certainly some huge advantages of staying outside the park:
a) there are a variety of hotels in different price ranges outside the park and you can usually get a better deal than inside the park;
b) there are actually rooms available outside of the park – Yellowstone books up really, really quickly. It’s crazy. You have to make your reservation a summer in advance.
c) there are two licensed concessionaires in the park who serve food – this can mean that the food you get at Grant Village will be the same as the food you’re going to get at Canyon which is also the same as Old Faithful. I’m not saying there’s no variety, but heads-up, there’s not a whole lot. If you stay outside the park, you’re going to have a lot more dining options.
Wildlife in YNP
The most meaningful wildlife sightings I have had in Yellowstone have been when I was traveling in early or late season along the main roads or in the backcountry. By the backcountry, I mean any trail that brings you more than a half mile from the main drags. Having to reroute because of a moose with 40-pounds of gear or looking up while fly fishing and seeing a grizzly on the opposite bank are incredible ways to experience Yellowstone’s wildlife.
This is by no means any sort of guarantee, but you are looking for roadside animal sightings, you’ll often find bison in Hayden Valley (between Lake and Canyon) in mid-summer. Fall brings the elk to Mammoth. Best place for wolves is Lamar Valley (between Tower/Roosevelt and Cooke City). Please remember that all these animals are WILD and you need to exercise extreme caution. They may seem tame when they’re right outside our car window, but I assure you they are not.
Hiking in YNP
Bring bear spray with you if you’re going off the boardwalks and onto the trails. It can be rented at locations throughout the park. You’re going to be at a much higher elevation than you’re used to so respect your body and the decreased amount of oxygen you’ll have available.
For the non-experienced/family hiker: Elephant Back – 3 .6 miles (5.8 km) This is a great loop hike that provides beautiful views of Yellowstone Lake. Family friendly.
For the person who’s moderately in shape: Cascade Lake – 5.5 miles (8.0 km) This is one of my Canyon Area favorites. It brings you off the beaten path and help you feel emerged in Yellowstone’s majestic landscapes.
For the expert hiker: Pebble Creek You can do two different versions of this hike. One is 4 miles (6.4 km) round trip and the other is just over 12 miles (19.4 km). This trail is accessed near the Northeast entrance and the longer route does require a shuttle. This is the trail I had to detour around a moose. (If you’re backcountry camping in the Park, you absolutely must get a permit from one of the ranger stations.)
Geysers in YNP
Please note that any of the times that you’ll see posted for Old Faithful eruptions are ONLY estimates. Make sure you give yourself a nice buffer zone of time. Note parking at Old Faithful will be tough around eruption times so keep this in mind. The entire Old Faithful geyser basin is worth exploring so don’t miss it.