Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Our Kid-Friendly Glacier National Park Itinerary {Adventures in Family Camping: Part 4}

We planned. We packed. Now it was time to load it all up and hit the road!

Coming from Oregon we'd be driving for around 10 hours. It could have been done in one drive but we decided to split it up into two days and stay one night in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The next day, we hit the road in the morning and pulled into Glacier Campground in West Glacier (with a pit-stop for Huckleberry milkshakes along the way and for new sleeping bags in Kalispell) later that afternoon. The next morning, Andy drove into the Park at 7AM and found a campsite for us in the Apgar Campground. We made it! Commence GNP Itinerary!

A few notes: 
  • This was our itinerary with two 6-year-olds and a 3-year-old. Their endurance is limited and it would have been easy to try to cram in a lot of hikes and trips. But, we want these kinds of trips to be a) enjoyable in their memories and b) sustainable for us as parents. So we majorly downgraded our expectations and as someone who normally plans out itineraries to the hilt, it was the best thing for our family! 
  • If you have small kids, plan for a "camp day" in between day trips. We found that the every-other-day schedule worked beautifully for us. 
  • There are a lot of itinerary ideas online. Take what you like and make it your own! We barely scratched the surface of Glacier National Park and our trip back next time will most likely be a totally different experience. 

Our Kid-Friendly Glacier National Park Itinerary

Day 1 - Settle In and Explore Apgar

Settle into camp. Walk to Apgar Village (.2 miles) to check out the lake and the grocery/ice cream situation. Get huckleberry ice cream at Eddy's and walk down to the lake shore. The view from McDonald Lake is beautiful and the water is crystal clear and that glacial water is COLD! Walk back to camp and eat dinner, then walk over to the Apgar Ampitheater for a ranger talk. Get your Junior Ranger booklets to complete and turn in for your badges in the next few days and learn about the geological history of Glacier that led it to be designated a World Heritage Site! 

Day 2 - Trail of the Cedars/Lake Day

Trail of the Cedars. Go early, if you can, to find parking. We went late and it took us a while to park. It's a congested area with all the hike entrances and the Avalanche Campground. Don't forget snacks. If energy levels are good, continue on from the Trail of the Cedars and do the Avalanche Lake hike. 

Come back to camp and gather swim stuff and head to the Lake. Go to the Day Visitors area of Apgar for more shoreline space. We brought an inflatable SUP and it works perfectly. Walk back to camp for dinner and IF spirits are good, head to the Apgar Visitor Center parking lot for astronomy viewing with volunteer astronomers. 

Day 3 - Camp Day

Spend the day close to the campsite. Go to a Junior Ranger talk at the Apgar Nature Center and get your Junior Ranger badges which will be pinned to the kids' clothing each morning from here on out. Maybe get some rest/naps in, if you're lucky. Bedtimes are late here as the sun is still shining until at least 9pm. Take a picnic dinner down to the lake for more swimming/SUP. 

Day 4 - Bowman Lake/Polebridge

Pack up early and head out to Bowman Lake and the town of Polebridge. The "town" is an off-grid collection of buildings: mercantile/bakery and a saloon built in the early 1900s, with cold beer in mason jars, a selection of groceries, and food.

If Polebridge is busy, head to Bowman Lake first. The lake is up a 6 mile dirt and rock road, and you might see a bear on the road! You'll drive into the Bowman Lake Campground and find day parking. Walk down to the lake and gasp at the stunning views. There are not very many people here and it's very peaceful. The only downside to Bowman over Lake McDonald on the kid-friendly perspective is the biting flies that hang out on the shoreline. They aren't terrible, but just annoying. Enjoy the water and maybe take a short hike along the North side of the lake. Come back to Polebridge and purchase some pastries from the Mercantile, making sure to get a few huckleberry bear claws for breakfast. Between the Mercantile and Northern Lights Saloon is a sand volleyball court and some kids play structures that the kids can dig in/climb around on while you sit out on a picnic bench under the saloon's shady trees and enjoy a cold Montana-brewed beer.

On the way back to camp, if you're hungry and don't want to make dinner, stop for BBQ at Home Ranch Bottoms. It's a very small restaurant serving locals and some tourists with filling food and deliciously smoked BBQ. Hear locals talk about the effect of the wolves coming back and feel conflicted. Remember that there are no simple answers when humans and animals co-exist.  

Day 5 - Camp Day/Laundry Day

After a busy day trip, this morning is relaxed and you toss around ideas for the day. In our case, you may have had one child who had a nighttime accident two nights in a row and you need to find a laundromat to wash sleeping bags and throw in all the clothes, towels, etc. to wash, too. In this case, pile into the car and drive into West Glacier to ask at the KOA (you have to be staying to use facilities), then find a frightening place in Coram that is a definite NO, then finally find one in Hungry Horse. Load your clothes into three triple-load washers and then walk to the adjoined grocery store to find cheap cast iron pans and groceries that you'll probably need. 

Find a distillery on the way back to West Glacier and get some small-batch whiskey and vodka. You deserve it! Get back to camp late but load everyone up and drive down to the lake anyways for an evening swim/paddle. Dinner is quick and bedtime is needed. Make a much-deserved cocktail with your local liquor. 

Day 6 - Going To The Sun Road and Many Glacier/Swiftcurrent Lake

Finally getting to do the Going to The Sun Road! Head out as early as you can (in this case it was STILL 10:30am before we got out of camp) and hope to get to Many Glacier for a hike and to see if there are any campsites available in case you decide to move over to the east side. 

The Sun Road is breathtaking and beyond words - a bucket list experience. It's nerve-wracking, too. The narrow roads climb high and the going can be slow. The road was completed in 1933 and its history is fascinating. Stop out at a few vista points and hope for parking at Logan Pass Visitor Center. If there is no parking, keep going. Change plans to do one of the hikes that starts at Logan and postpone it for another day. Cross the Continental Divide and see the immediate shift in the landscape.

Come out at St. Mary, leave the Park for a few miles, and circle back in at the Many Glacier entrance. Here, the Park is much drier with a more "Wild West" feel to it. It is supposedly the "remote" area of the park but note how many people are here - it's crowded! The scoop from a reputable source says there are less amenities in Many Glacier but the hiking is better. The Many Glacier campground hosts say it is fairly impossible to get a campsite here unless you've reserved, and they start handing out first-come, first-serve numbers at 7am. Abandon plan to move to this side of the park and decide Apgar is treating the family well. Next time! 

Find the Many Glacier Campground picnic area and have lunch before heading out on the hike around Swiftcurrent Lake and the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail. The trail is 3 miles long, which is the perfect length for the kids' stamina. If your energy level is higher and there is enough time, veering off to the Grinnell Glacier hike would be a highlight experience. Another time. Remember the Boba carrier this time and put the 3-year-old up to see if she'll nap. She does! Enjoy the beautiful hike around the lake and end at the century-old Many Glacier lodge for an ice cream sandwich stop. Continue to circle around to the picnic area and realize you're going to be getting back to camp really late. Decide to embrace the journey and instead of going home on the Sun Road, head outside of the Park to East Glacier to Serrano's Mexican Restaurant for dinner and margaritas. East Glacier deserves some more exploring next time, too, because there won't be time to head to the Two Medicine area until next visit. Drive the LOOOONG way home around the South end of the park and drive back in with enough time to put everyone in bed. 

Day 7 - Camp Day

After such a long but fun day yesterday, it's time for another camp day. Enjoy your breakfast and coffee around the campsite and let the kids play. Walk up the Nature Center for a Jr. Ranger talk and ask for a replacement badge because someone already lost theirs. Get ice cream at Eddy's in Apgar Village. Scoot into West Glacier to Glacier Guides to reserve a Scenic Float Trip for the next morning. Relaxing dinner and bedtime and a camp cocktail. 

Day 8 - Scenic Float with Glacier Guides

A Scenic Float with Glacier Guides can be done by all ages, which is perfect for the small children. In the morning, get to the Guides headquarters at the appropriate time and ride a big blue school bus to the Flathead River launch. Your kids will think the bus ride is the best part of the adventure. Your guide will row you down a gentle section of the river while chatting about Glacier, wildlife, river life, etc. There are 3 "rapids" just bumpy enough to get the kids excited and there are quite a few calm spots to jump out into the frigid water and swim. If you're lucky, see a bald eagle. Enjoy the rainbow-colored rocks of the Flathead and take a deep breath. After the float, hit the burrito food truck Wandering Gringos on the way back and realize how massive these burritos are. Save them for dinner. 

Back at camp, either relax or head to the lake before going to another Ranger Talk at the amphitheater. After the talk it takes a long time to get everyone settled as they're becoming adjusted to the new later bedtime. No one blames you if you fall asleep with the kids! 

Day 9 - Junior Ranger Hike

Eat a quick breakfast with your late risers and send an adult to the Apgar Visitor Center to get the free tickets for the Star Party tomorrow night - they'll only hand out as many as the parking lot can hold. Hustle up to the Apgar Nature Center for the Jr. Ranger Hike with one of the rangers. With 10-12 kids, hike along Lower McDonald Creek, stop at a beaver dam, do a nature scavenger hunt, and try to help your kids use all their senses in the 1.5 hour hike. The kids will be in awe of the ranger and shy at first, but by the end of the hour, they'll want to hold her hand and tell her everything about their lives. Circle back around through Apgar Village and either eat lunch there or back at camp. Relax in camp and go for an early evening swim before an early bedtime because tomorrow night is the Logan Pass Star Party and it's going to be a late night. 

Day 10 - Hidden Lake Overlook / Logan Pass Star Party

This is the last day in camp! Time to tie up loose ends. If your kids wake up early and the day stretches wide before you, take the beautiful drive back to Polebridge for pastries and to buy cool souvenir hats and stuffed animals because the shops in the Park all have the same merchandise and none of it is catching your fancy. On the way back, circle through West Glacier to the distillery and get more whiskey and vodka. You're definitely taking some home with you! 

Pack up parts of camp that you can for the early departure tomorrow morning. Get on the road to Logan Pass for the Star Party around 3pm or 4pm. Plan to do the Hidden Lake Overlook hike before the Logan Pass Star Party starts and be SO GLAD that you did. This hike is gorgeous! See mountain goats congregating on the boardwalk paths up by the lake. They are walking right by you and the kids think it might be fun to chase them. Nope! Don't do that. They're close but still wild. 

Come back down to Logan Pass and make dinner out of the back of the car. Bundle everyone up as the temperature is dropping. Walk up to the Center to get a seat along the rock walls to watch the Astronomer presentation before taking a look through 10-12 mega telescopes. When darkness falls, around 11pm, be astounded at the Milky Way while the kids want to go back to the car and go to sleep. Take shifts with the two adults still awake - one at the car looking at the stars, the other walking around looking through the telescopes. See the moon, star clusters, nebulas, and the andromeda galaxy. Stay in the parking lot until midnight and make your way back down the Going to the Sun Road in the middle of the night which is it's own experience. Everyone stays asleep as you put them in their sleeping bags. 

Day 11 - Ready to go! 

Camp is mostly packed up and around 8am, hopeful campers will begin driving through the campground to ask you if you're leaving. Someone reserves your spot and you quickly take down the camper and get everyone strapped in. Say goodbye to Apgar, to Lake McDonald, and to Glacier National Park. This place has been so good to your family! You'll be back. You only scratched the surface. You're already planning for your next trip back to Glacier, where you'll spend more time in Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and will not forget the passports so you can visit the Waterton-Glacier sister park in Canada. 

Building Your Own Itinerary Resources:

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