Exploring Glacier National Park in the Off-Season

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Driving into Glacier National Park in October, the tourist areas both inside and outside of the park become seasonal ghost towns, devoid of activity. Windows are boarded up on numerous buildings, huge gift shop parking lots sit empty, except for a few piles of leaves and a scattered deer roaming around. Where throngs of visitors once stood in line to rent paddleboards and kayaks during the summer, bolt locks and a closed sign greet everyone passing. The majestic lodges around the park are closed, as are the visitor centers, restaurants, and remote campgrounds.

This is the off season in Glacier National Park, and for those looking for a feeling of solitude, autumn beauty and adventure, it is the absolute best time to visit.

Fall in Glacier is a shoulder period. Existing in the months between the crowds of summer and the influx of snow-sports enthusiasts, shoulder season in this mountainous National Park is a time when most people tend to stay away.

The Hidden Lake Trail at Logan Pass
The Hidden Lake Trail at Logan Pass Exotic Hikes

After the masses roamed every square inch of Glacier during the warm summers, visitors vanish, leaving even the most popular trails to become silent and isolated. In the fall, human interactions can be few and far between, passing only a handful of people at the more popular destinations. Day hikes that are typically packed during more heavily-visited months have a smattering of hikers, each remaining mostly silent. Where crowds and car noise would normally distract from the beauty of a roadside pullout, shoulder season explorers are rewarded with the silence of nature. Glacier in the fall allows you to have popular trails mostly to yourself, giving guests of all abilities a unique opportunity to experience and embrace the beauty of this park.

Standing on the shore of Bowman Lake, the solitude of this massive wilderness region in the Rocky Mountains is impossible to ignore. Even with a strong wind causing two foot waves on this remote lake, the silence was deafening.

The waves come crashing in at Bowman Lake
The waves come crashing in at Bowman Lake Exotic Hikes

The iconic view at Many Glacier on the eastern side of the park experiences a drop of visitation of nearly 45,000 people from September to October. Even the popular Lake McDonald region sees a drop of over 100,000 visitors during the same time period. Campgrounds that averaged nearly 1,000 people a day in September see just 48 people a night in October, giving campers their choice of spots to try to stay warm in the cold mountain air. 

Autumn in Glacier is a time when the larches and other deciduous trees transform the region into a golden paradise, showing off the wealth of riches hidden in the American Rockies. The entire region explodes in yellow, standing out sharply against the greens of the forests, and the grey of the clouds encircling the mountains. In the valley floor, against creeks and rivers, stands of yellowing trees add saturation to an already vibrant region.

While impressive, the best views of fall colors in Glacier are from the mountains, either on trails or along the roads crossing the high alpine terrain. The Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is already jaw-dropping in iconic beauty, becomes a life-changing event. As you look down from any of the viewpoints heading to Logan Pass, above the McDonald Creek Valley, swaths of bright colors are painted into the stunning landscape, giving an autumnal panorama like nowhere else in the world.

McDonald Creek Falls in the off-season
McDonald Creek Falls in the off-season Exotic Hikes

The shoulder season in Glacier is also a fantastic time to watch for wildlife. During the month of September and early October, both grizzly and black bear can be commonly seen on the eastern side of the park. Mountain goats and big horn sheep are also seen quite often, with the region around Many Glacier a hotbed for animal activity. On the hillside leading to Altyn Peak, north of Many Glacier Lodge, it is not uncommon to see goats, sheep, and a bear all along the same ridge. Elsewhere, migrating birds cruise overhead in flocks, while coyotes can be observed throughout the region. While watching wildlife is good in the off-season, each passing day makes viewing them more difficult, due to hibernation, restricted access and of course, the weather.

It's true, the weather during fall around Glacier makes backcountry camping and long distance hiking more suited for experienced outdoorsmen and women. But you don’t need to hit the trails to have a great time. Even just driving and taking short day hikes can turn a trip to Glacier into one of the more memorable experiences of your life. Rounding the corners leading to Logan Pass, exploring the remote lakes, or even driving the perimeter of the park, the autumn months give everyone an amazing time in a national park.

Before the heavy snows close access to America’s 10th most popular national park, there is a magic window of access, giving those able to get away in late September and October a wild, majestic window into one of the more dramatic national parks in America. Silence and solitude expand in every direction, while fall colors erupt in every nook and cranny of this one million-plus-acre park. Visiting in autumn isn’t for everyone; but for those looking to feel just how wild the Rocky Mountains of Montana can be, there is no greater time to visit.

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