Glacier National Park is a beautiful, popular destination for both city slicker tourists and backcountry hikers. Glacier's remote location and mountainous terrain can make it difficult to get around.
There is only one main road that runs through Glacier N.P. and it's known as Going to the Sun Road. It's responsible for getting the park's 3 million annual visitors from one end of the park to the other.
And it has views that rival some of the best hiking trails in the park; like the Logan's Pass overlook.
The downside to getting 3 million people per year through a single 2-lane road that stretches 50 miles is stuff like this...
So if you want to see the beauty of Glacier NP without suffering through lines of traffic and fistfights in the parking lot (that really happens), then you'll need to use the shuttle system.
How to Plan Your Shuttle Logistics
The logistics of getting around Glacier without a car relies on 2 separate parts.
- Shuttles inside of the park
- Shuttles outside of the park
We'll start with the shuttles inside of the park since that's the easy part.
Glacier NP Shuttle System - Inside the Park
The shuttle inside the park is 100% free to ride and runs frequently between all the stops. Even if it was free to rent a car I think I'd still choose to ride the shuttle because it was so convenient and let me watch the beautiful scenery instead of worrying about driving up a mountain with thousands of other cars.
The park is divided into two halves, with Logan Pass being the separating point at roughly the halfway line of the park.
The bus icons on this map show where the shuttle stops for drop-offs and pickups. The green shuttle icons show the bus stops that are serviced by shuttles on the west side of the park and the yellow icons are for stops on the east side of the park.
When I went to Glacier in 2019 I entered the park at Apgar Village and traveled to St. Mary's for a separate shuttle that took me to Two Medicine. Crossing the entire park was simple and convenient and took roughly 2.5 hours to go from the west end of the park to the east end.
Shuttles run frequently which means you can hop off and do a small hike or get some pictures then grab the next shuttle to keep moving through the park. The shuttles run from sun up to past sundown but the specific times are updated yearly and will be posted on the official shuttle page here.
If you're planning to visit Glacier during peak season (July - August), you should give yourself some extra time in case there are lines. I did a 4 day backcountry hike through Glacier in late August and it was pretty crowded. I avoided long lines by getting on the shuttle as early as possible in the morning when the shuttles first started running.
Now that you've got an idea of how the shuttle inside the park runs, we'll take a look at how you can get into and out of the park.
West Side Shuttles- Outside the Park
I live in Michigan which means I had to fly out to Montana to visit Glacier. Getting from the airport to Glacier NP seemed like it'd be expensive or difficult but it was actually really easy.
The closest airport to the park is Glacier Park International Airport (FCA). It's a small airport and is roughly 30 minutes away from the west entrance to Glacier NP.
If you're going to stay anywhere in Kalispell where the airport is, then the Commuter shuttle is your best bet for getting into the park.
The Commuter shuttle stops at a handful of different places in town and will take you all the way into the park. The locations and times get updated every year so make sure you get an updated schedule before you go. Here's what it looked like for 2019 when I visited.
You can also take a taxi to get into the park but a 30-minute ride isn't going to be cheap.
The park administration in Glacier is trying to reduce congestion caused by traffic so they've been encouraging people to use the Commuter shuttle more. One of the things they did in 2019 was to eliminate the fare cost so it was completely free to take the shuttle into the park.
This might change in the future but the shuttle will still probably be the cheapest way to get to the park.
East Side Shuttles- Outside the Park
The east side of the park isn't as crowded as the west side and is more difficult to navigate with shuttles.
The two main points of interest on the east side of the park are St. Mary's and Two Medicine. The Glacier Park Collection shuttle is the best way to travel between these two campgrounds/trailheads.
The hike I did began at Two Medicine and ended at St. Mary's so I just had to pay $15 for a one-way ticket to get me down to Two Medicine. This shuttle ride was also the only time I got to see a grizzly bear so make sure you keep your eyes open when you're on the shuttle!
Why You Don't Want to Take a Car to Glacier
After visiting Glacier and using the shuttles, I thought of a couple more reasons to avoid bringing your own car.
Cost - A rental car in Kalispell was going to cost about $60 per day. So for the length of my trip, I would have spent about $400 on a rental car that would have spent most of the time sitting in a parking lot.
Crowds - Glacier is a popular, busy park. And the parking lots aren't getting any bigger. When I took the 7 AM shuttle from Apgar to Logan's Pass, the parking lot was 100% full by the time we got there. When I'm visiting a new place I want to spend my time exploring and checking out the natural beauty. Fighting for a parking spot is something I can live without.
Non-Loop Hikes - Getting a permit for Glacier is pretty tough. It's a lottery system now so if you're lucky enough to get a permit, it might not be your first choice of route. The route I got was a point to point hike which meant I would need to find some way to get to the starting point. Even if I had rented a car, I still would have had to pay for a shuttle to take me to the trailhead since I didn't get a permit for any of the loop hikes I requested.
Sightseeing - Going to the Sun Road is one of the most famous roads in the United States. It winds along the edge of the mountainous terrain in the park and offers stunning views. Since I wasn't driving, I could just gaze out the window and take in the views. Some of the vistas from the shuttle were almost as good as what I saw in the backcountry after climbing thousands of feet to go over a mountain pass. It's hard to overstate how beautiful the views are from Going to the Sun road.
Resources for Planning Your Trip
There are a lot of logistics to planning a backpacking trip and it only gets more complicated when you have to figure out your shuttle logistics as well.
Here are some of the resources I used to plan my trip to Glacier that were helpful (not all of them are shuttle related).
- Map of park with campsites marked
- Backcountry campsites with mileage
- FAQs for new Glacier NP visitors
- Official Glacier NP shuttle page
- Glacier Taxi
- Permit application
Words and photos by Jim Barron.