Approaches to Glacier from the West

Lake McDonald SP12 Pano 2

From the western United States, there’s two main approaches to Glacier National Park: either from the northwest, through Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, or straight up from the south, either through Nevada, Utah, and Idaho on Interstate 15, or through Nevada and Idaho, on Interstate 80 and Route 93 and Interstate 84. Curiously, no matter where are in California, travel times to Glacier are going to run usually between 17 and 20 hours, though people in the far southeast might have a longer drive, and people in the far north central and north east might be able to make it in less than 16 hours.

Nevertheless, I’m going to look at the route one should take if you live on the north coast of California, anywhere from Garberville to Crescent City. Oddly enough, the quickest approach, in terms of driving time, to a national park on the Continental Divide from California’s far northcoast is Glacier National Park. Yellowstone and Grand Tetons are an hour or two longer in driving time, and Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado, several more hours. One reason for this is the fact that the route is relatively straight and, once you get to Grant’s Pass, it’s interstate freeway all the way into Montana. You can’t really say that for the other three Continental Divide National Parks, which require driving two lanes highways through most of California, than meandering up and down through much of Nevada on Interstate 80, and then either returning to a two lane highway for a good chunk of the rest of the trip to Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons, or following Interstate 80 south to Salt Lake City, then north into Wyoming, than south again to connect to Rocky Mountain NP. For Glacier, instead, one is traveling either north or east for much of the trip. The route is not perfectly straight, but straight enough, with no long detours south or west. You begin by going north on Highway 101, than northeast on Route 199, than north on Interstate 5, than east on Interstate 84, than north on Highway 395, then east on Interstate 90. At the St. Regis exit in Montana, you taken Route 135 north to Route 200, than you go east to Route 28, which leads to Route 93, which will take you to Kalispel and Route 2, which leads to West Glacier:

Google maps lists the trip as only 17 hours and 15 minutes, but if you throw in traffic, bathroom breaks, lunch breaks, etc. it usually works out to around 20 hours. I’ve driven it in two days and two and a half days. It can’t be realistically done in one day, so you’re going to have to come up with stop over places. My favorite type of stop-over places are those that provide quick on and off access to the freeway plus provide quick photo opportunities. Places I’ve stopped off on the way to or from Glacier on this route through the northwest United States are: Roseburg, OR; The Dalles, OR; Stevenson, WA; Kennewick, WA; Ritzville, WA; and Coeur d’Alene, ID. I don’t recommend Kennewick or Stevenson. Kennewick is crowded and not terribly scenic. Stevenson is in the Columbia River Gorge and is therefore scenic, but it’s on the wrong side. Most of the scenic waterfalls are on the Oregon side, and driving across the Columbia River (on a Toll Bridge no less) is tedious, and best avoided.

Let’s look at some of those other places. Roseburg is the place to stay if you’re on the way to Glacier and you get off to a late start. From Eureka, it’s a little over a four hour drive to Roseburg. It’s a small, pleasant city, with the Umpqua River providing some of the best scenery:

Roseburg SP12-1

The next best place to stop is somewhere in the Columbia River Gorge, preferably on the Oregon side. If you’re going to Glacier, Portland is good stop off-place, if you can find lodging not too off the beaten path. If you’re going south, Hood River might be a good stopping off place, or The Dalles (if you want to save money and you don’t mind getting up early). The easiest waterfall to photograph is Multnomah Falls, since it’s literally right off the freeway. But it’s best photographed in the early morning, before it gets hit by direct sunlight, and before it gets over-run by crowds. There’s a quick exit to a parking lot for the falls on the left lane of the Interstate 84 (in both directions). You can easily stop off and grab some quick shots and then be on your way:

The Columbia River Gorge is a pretty obvious stop-over place. Less obvious, but no less attractive, is 200 foot high Palouse Falls in eastern Washington. Coming from the south, the quickest way is to take Route 260 east for 24 miles, then make a right on Route 261 and turn left on Palouse Falls Road. It’s a little more than half hour drive to the falls. From the north take Route 261 South off interstate 90 near Ritzville. It’s about a forty minute drive coming from this way. Unfortunately, no lodging anywhere near the falls, although there is a small campground near the falls, and a KOA about fifteen minutes south at Lyons Ferry on the Snake River. The place is quite scenic, especially in spring, when the hills are green and the falls is gushing with water:

Two other stopping off places before getting to Glacier would be Spokane or Coeur d’Alene. These are crowded cities and would not receive my top recommendations, although they are nice enough as cities go, with Spokane being far more attractive as a city than one would suppose, and Coeur d’Alene rising from the shores of an attractive, though hardly spectacular, large lake. Once you’re in Spokane, you’re only four hours from Kalispel, Montana, so why not keep driving? Kalispel’s a half hour drive from the western entrance to Glacier. If adding four hours to your drive will make it to long, why not take two hours off your drive and stop at Ritzville instead? With those extra two hours you could go out to Palouse Falls.

Of course, one does not have to take the quickest route from California to Glacier National Park, as long as one is willing to add days to the trek (and subtract days from one’s stay at Glacier). If you’re willing to invest the time and take a longer route to Glacier, you could also conceivably fit in either Rainer National Park and/or North Cascades National Park. These parks are present superb scenery, and make excellent drop off places in a longer trip involving Glacier National Park:

It’s a long days trip (nine to ten hours) from either of these park to West Glacier, so plan accordingly.