Glacier National Park Travel Photography Tips
Glacier National Park is a beautiful lake and mountain filled landscape at the north end of Montana. It’s a hidden gem among National Parks as nearby Yellowstone gets most of the attention and I must admit I hadn’t heard of Glacier until I started researching it. I was, however, thoroughly impressed by the photographic opportunities this national park offered. In this guide I’ll cover everything from logistics and safety, to advice for shooting at the many amazing photo locations throughout the park.
Arriving at Glacier National Park is very easy and the recommended airport to fly into is in the town of Kalispell. The Kalispell airport is a short 45 minute drive from the west entrance of the park. There’s another airport on the east side of the park that’s cheap to fly into in a small town called Great Falls but the downside here is that the drive to the entrance is two and a half hours. At the west entrance of the park you’ll find Apgar Village which is where you can buy and rent any necessary camping and outdoors recreation supplies. The best time to visit is in the summer months as the weather is most enjoyable however it does shift from the high 80s during the day to the 40s at night so if you plan to do early or late hikes and shoots it’s recommended that you bring warm clothing and dress in layers. The fall is also a great time to visit for the colors or in the winter for the snowy landscape look just be aware that some of the trails and campgrounds are closed during that time.
The downside to the weather being so pleasant in the summer is the campgrounds get booked early. For convenience sake I definitely recommend camping in the park but because of the aforementioned reason it’s wise to book as early in advance as possible. A lot of people book six months in advance for the most popular spots like Apgar Village campgrounds and St. Mary Lake but I think 3 months is early enough. There are private campgrounds available outside the park as well which can sometimes be less busy and have the same or better facilities as far as showers, laundry, etc. Hotels and Airbnbs are also an option but definitely pricier. While the campgrounds generally come in the $20-$30 range the hotels and AirBnbs can easily be in the $100-$250 per night.
For transportation I always recommend renting a car because you’re more flexible in your schedule for arriving to locations early and staying as long as you need. The roads are paved and easy to drive except for some narrow and curvy areas near Logan Pass but overall an SUV or 4x4 vehicle isn’t necessary. There’s a free shuttle that stops at popular locations throughout the Going the Sun Road if you need it.
A few restaurants are available at main locations such as Apgar Village or the Stagecoach Inn in the Many Glacier Area but for the most part I would recommend stocking up at supermarkets outside the park.
Safety is of a little bit more concern here than most other parks due to the presence of bears. I’ll go into details of which areas and trails are more bear populated than others but I’ll cover some general advice here. The two types of bears in the park are black bears and brown bears (Grizzlys). They can be similar looking so some differentiators are that brown bears have longer nails, a large hump on the back and short rounded ears with black bears having small nails, no hump, and pointy ears. The reason for wanting to differentiate between the two is while with both the general rules of engagement are to slowly back away and not run, if the bear decides to charge you will want to react differently. In general you should carry Bear Spray which is available for rent in stores at Apgar Village for $28 for 7 days or $32 for 14. This should be on hand and used only for bear charges. If a black bear begins to actually attack it is recommended that you fight back however if a brown bear attacks you should cover your vitals and play dead. While bear encounters are common (a quick search on youtube will bring hundreds of results) actual attacks are rare and 98% of individuals who used bear spray during an attack walked away. All this being said general precautions for hiking in bear territory are to hike in groups and make noise when going around blind corners. In most circumstances if you spook a bear it will either run away or mind its own business.
I was surprised at how large and aggressive mosquitoes are in Glacier National Park especially living in South Florida. I strongly recommend packing a bug spray with high percentage of Deet and at minimum spray your clothing and cover up well because when you’re standing in one location framing and composing shots it can be quite a nuisance to have swarms of mosquitoes attacking your face.
In general the compositions you will be making in Glacier are of a lake view with mountains in the far background. Therefore the challenges you’ll face are interesting foreground elements and dealing with occasional lack of clouds which was most of the days during my trip. Certain locations have colored rocks or fallen trees for the foreground or fields of wildflowers during the early summer which can be quite beautiful. As for lack of clouds you’re going to have to either replace the sky or frame the composition to where it isn’t the focus.
Lake McDonald is the most popular and accessible location as it is right by Apgar Village. Fortunately it’s a large lake with many banks to shoot from and you can shoot at sunrise or sunset here depending on the time of year. The classic composition is known as the fruity pebbles or skittles comp and you basically use a circular polarizing filter to show the colorful rocks below the water as a foreground element with the mountains in the background. There’s also plenty of dead trees and logs you can work with.
Hidden Lake Overlook
Hidden Lake Overlook was one of my favorite locations as you can shoot it for sunrise or sunset (or astrophotography) and because of the short easy hike (30 mins) to reach the overlook. The trail head is located at the Logan Pass Visitor Center where parking is easy in the morning and evening but sometimes quite busy during the day. Goats and Marmots are very common on this trail and it’s also in bear territory however I didn’t see any on my three visits. The wide shot from the overlook is the most common composition but there is room for creative close ups as the light hits the mountain and you can also hike down closer to the lake where you’ll find some fields of Beargrass flowers that make for a great foreground element.
As mentioned you can shoot here during Milky Way season and it perfectly aligns itself from the left side to the right side of the mountain in the distance (Bearhat Mountain) throughout the night but remember to shoot a foreground shot from dawn or twilight because there’s obviously no way to light paint the mountain. Definitely bring your bug spray because the mosquitoes swarm here in large numbers.
Wild Goose Island Overlook
Another favorite location of mine due to its convenience is Wild Goose Island Overlook. You’ll recognize this location from the opening scene of The Shining. The overlook is right off the main road on St. Mary Lake towards the east entrance of the park and all day tourists will park, pop off a shot, and continue on their way. I visited this location for sunrise, sunset, as well as for astrophotography and due to the lighting it’s primarily a sunrise spot because the sun lights the valley as it rises allowing for creative shots where only the island and the mountains in the distance are lit. During the night the Milky Way aligns perfectly with the island and makes for a great shot as well although as with the location above a foreground composite will be needed.
Swiftcurrent Lake is in the Many Glacier Area. The Many Glacier Area can be reached by exiting the park on the east side, driving up, and turning left into another park entrance (about a 38 min drive). Once entering you drive for a few minutes and park in the lot by the Many Glacier Hotel. It’s a short walk to the lake shore by the left side of the hotel and here you have a great view of Mt. Wilbur. This location is primarily a sunrise location as the sun will light up the mount from behind you. Foreground elements can be found in the reeds, rocks, and logs by the shore and there is a small path on the left that will lead you to another small area where you have a slightly different angle of the mountain. Mosquitoes are out in swarms here so take proper precautions.
Iceberg Lake Trail is a very popular but quite strenuous hike that begins at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (a great restaurant for some afternoon grub). The hike is 9.7 miles and usually takes about 4 hours round trip. The reward is worth it though as you reach the cool icy waters of Iceberg Lake at the end. Typically there’s a bunch of icebergs in the lake to use as leading lines and foreground elements but when I was there I didn’t see many and so didn’t like any of the shots I took. This location looks best at sunrise but you have to time it correctly because reaching the lake as the sun hits it means you’ll have to begin hiking well in the dark which with the heavy bear presence might deter most photographers. We saw a black bear just off the trail on the return hike from the lake. I began the hike just as the sun was rising and while I got some great time lapses on the way up as the sun lit the valley, by the time I reached the lake it was harsh overhead light. There are some wildflower fields on the way there which can make for good foreground elements or macroshots.
Two Medicine Lake
Two Medicine Lake is a little out there as you have to exit the park at the east entrance and drive for an hour south, making a right turn before reaching East Glacier Park Village. Luckily the shoot location is right by the parking lot. This spot is similar to Swiftcurrent Lake except the prominent Mount Sinopah is in the middle and makes for a great sunrise shot. I visited at sunset on a day where we luckily had some clouds which were lighting up nicely from the setting sun. This made for some awesome long exposure shots and time lapses.
St. Mary and Virginia Falls
As the name suggest St. Mary Falls derives from St. Mary Lake. This easy hike begins towards the beginning of the lake if you’re heading east right off the road. It’s a mere 15-20 min hike of .8 miles to reach the waterfall. Here you can shoot from the bridge for a higher perspective or climb down the rocks to the water’s edge for a lower one. If you arrive a little before sunset you will see the sun rays beaming over the waterfall catching the spray making for a nice accent your composition. An ND filter is your friend here if you’re looking to smooth out the water. If you’re feeling bold you can jump off the rocks or the bridge into the cool but not too cold water below. Virginia Falls is a short 10 minute hike continuing along the path. This waterfall is stacked and there’s a section you can shoot near the top where you can get a distant mountain in the frame or you can shoot some of the sections further down where you can find some creative compositions. I shot some long exposure slider time lapses here too.
Haystack Creek/Birdwoman Falls
These are a couple waterfalls where I didn’t get anything epic but can be seen from the Going the Sun Road. Haystack trickles down the canyon wall under the road and Birdwoman is off in the distance but with a zoom lens and the right conditions a nice shot can be had.
The Avalanche Gorge trailhead is about 30 mins from the west entrance of the park. It’s a river that follows the trail for the first quarter then the trail goes off into the forest finally reaching a large lake. The gorge itself is pretty interesting looking although tricky to shoot. The river has carved some cool patterns in the rock wall and there are opportunities to pick off creative shots. I personally was disappointed by this hike because there’s really nothing interesting to shoot at the lake and it’s more of a hangout spot for families. If someone wanted to check out this hike anyways I would recommend sticking to the first quarter of the trail and finding some compositions there.
I admittedly didn’t complete this trail because I was running out of time but I hear there are some great views of the valley and lake. I hiked up till the point I had a good composition for sunset which was about 30 mins in. Even then I was able to compose a nice shot with some Beargrass, the valley, and sun setting in the distance. Keep in mind there are many bear sightings on this trail and during the time I visited a hiker had actually gone missing on it.
A location quite off the beaten path is Bowman Lake. It’s about an hour and 20 minute drive from Apgar Village through mostly rugged and rough road so a 4x4 vehicle is recommended. The benefit here is that the campground is more likely to have room during the busy season. The view is similar to that of Lake McDonald so you can use some of the same techniques with the rocks in the foreground revealed by a circular polarizing filter and the mountains in the distance. When I visited the clouds were nowhere to be found so I wasn’t exactly in love with any of the photos I took. I imagine this location would lean more towards a sunset spot because when I was there at sunrise the sun peeked over the mountain and just barely lit one side of the view.
This is a comprehensive but by no means definitive guide to shooting Glacier National Park as there were a few hikes I missed like Elizabeth Lake and Grinnell Glacier Trail but hopefully there are some informative tidbits you can take with you when planning your trip to this beautiful park. I’ll post links below to my travel tips video, behind the scenes vlog, and cinematic travel video.