Okay, so you want to go to Glacier National Park, and you don’t think you want to drive. How does it work?
On my recent trip there, I knew, positively, the following:
- One can get on the “Empire Builder” Amtrak train in Portland, OR and get off both in West and East Glacier
- Neither West nor East Glacier are actually in Glacier National Park, but they’re close
- There is a Park Service shuttle that runs east to west through the park on the Going to the Sun Road, the only road that goes through the park. This shuttle stops after Labor Day. (I would love to link you to the page that describes it, but that government shutdown thing apparently means that websites cease to exist also)
- There is also a private shuttle associated with the Red Bus tour company that runs between a few different destinations on the east side of the park. This shuttle runs until near the end of September (call for the exact date)
Knowing those four things, I figured that I knew enough to at least get off the train in East Glacier and stumble my way to where I could catch a shuttle that would take me somewhere I could camp and get backcountry permits for the backpacking trip(s) I wanted to take.
I’m okay with that level of uncertainty, but it turns out that it was even easier than I’d hoped!
The train station in East Glacier stops right in front of the East Glacier Lodge, one of the several Swiss-style lodges in and around Glacier that was originally built by the railroad company back in the early 1900s.
There are even shuttles that will drive you the 100 yards from the train station to the lodge doors, but since I’d been on the train for the last 17 hours, I opted to walk;)
Inside the lodge, as is the case in all the Glacier lodges, there’s a counter with general and transportation information. Here I was able to book myself a ticket for the next shuttle, leaving right from the front doors of the lodge about an hour after I got there. If I’d wanted, I could have stayed in the lodge or the Brownies hostel and bakery for a night, but I was rarin’ to go on my adventure and wanted to get into the backcountry as soon as I could.
The East Side shuttle is priced per destination. That is, it costs $10 to get from East Glacier to Two Medicine, for example, but $20 to get to the further-away St. Mary, $30 to get to Many Glacier and $50 to get all the way to the Prince of Wales hotel in Canada. It was a little steep since I wanted to get to Many Glacier–but, when you enter the park, it’s a $25 fee if you have a car and only $12 if you’re hiking or biking, so I figure I already saved $13 on that. So the shuttle only really cost $17. heh.
Anyway. The shuttle takes a while, since it stops in places you don’t necessarily want to go, but my driver, Darlene, gave us what amounted to a free tour as we were driving just because she was so enamored of everything we were driving through. She even stopped to let us take pictures if we wanted. But the best thing is that she was totally willing to drop us off where we wanted to be, so even though the real shuttle stop is the Many Glacier Lodge, she also took a detour to drop me at the ranger station where I could see about backcountry permits. I love it when people are flexible about things like that.
I was slightly concerned about where I would stay that night, since it was too late to actually get to any of the backcountry campsites but I’d been hearing all through the shuttle stops that the campground at Many Glacier was full. Luckily, it turns out that all the campgrounds in Glacier have hiker/biker sites! YES! This is a definite advantage to not having a car, since it’s never hard to find room as a hiker/biker, but they definitely run out of room for cars and RVs.
(Also, I sort of unofficially heard that the Park Service will never turn away someone who legitimately shows up on foot, which strikes me as a very humane policy. Because really, what are you going to do, hike 50 miles to the next campground?)
So there you go. I showed up in Glacier with no real plans, but was very easily able to navigate the transportation and camping systems. In fact, I think not having a car actually helped me here, because it gave me access to the hiker/biker campsites that don’t fill up (and actually, the ranger I got my backcountry permits from even offered to let me camp in his front yard for the night if I couldn’t find a legitimate campsite:)
The trailheads I wanted access to were all a pretty easy walk from the campsite, but even if I’d wanted to get further away I heard from another woman at the hiker/biker that people would stop to pick her up almost before she even put her thumb up to hitchhike. All told, getting around Glacier is pretty darn easy sans car, and I think cheaper too if you’re smart about it (the Going to the Sun shuttle that stops at Labor Day is free). Plus, so much of the park is not accessible by car anyway, since there’s only the one road that goes through it and then a few other spur roads around it. It’s definitely a place to show up and hike the heck out of:)