• Steven Boldt

How to Pull Off Your Last Minute Camping and Backpacking Trip to Glacier Country, Montana

Updated: 5 days ago


Northwestern Montana’s natural wonders - big mountains, glaciated slopes, alpine lakes, wide meadows - definitely draw crowds each summer. And for good reason! The area caters to a wide range of outdoor minded visitors, with tons of opportunities for all ages and skill levels. Hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, backpacking, whitewater rafting, and fishing are just a few of the activities you can pursue here!


Bowman Lake Campground looking east into Glacier National Park with Rainbow Peak and Numa Peak in the backgorund.
Just steps from the Bowman Lake Campground in Glacier National Park.

You’re coming to Glacier Country for awesome adventures and it’s just natural to spend a night (or three!) under the stars in an amazing campground or backcountry campsite!


Finding spots to camp in Northwestern Montana can be a bit tricky, but it’s certainly not impossible. Below we’ll describe some of our favorite spots that usually have last minute availability, and how to go about securing your car camping or backpacking campsites.


Car Camping Spots in Glacier Country


1. Glacier National Park


Glacier NP is a huge wilderness area in Montana's Rocky Mountains and extends all the way to the Canadian Border; the park is a bustling hub for all types of outdoor adventures. For those looking to stay overnight with their vehicle, it offers 13 different campgrounds accessible by car, and about half of them accommodate RVs. The campgrounds are scattered throughout the park and vary in terms of fees and amenities.


First-come, First-served Campgrounds

Of Glacier's campgrounds, 9 operate on a strictly first-come, first-served basis and don't offer reservations. Simply head to the campground you'd like to stay at once you're in the park and follow the posted instructions to secure your site.


We highly suggest checking out the park's Campground Status Page before you get to the park. The page is essentially a map that shows each campground and provides information on whether they still have space and what time each campground filled the day before. Clicking on an individual campground will direct you to its page where you can find plenty of specific details and even a calendar that shows current and historic fill times. Flexibility is key to getting a spot - be prepared to get to the park early (before 8:00am) or to drive up to Bowman and Kintla Lakes on the park's far northwestern side (~1.5 hours from West Glacier).


Reservations

Reservations can be made for 4 of Glacier's campgrounds. They're available up to 6 months in advance for individual sites and 12 months in advance for group sites. To make a reservation, you can either use Recreation.gov or call the park directly at (877)444-6777.


Resources


Yellow Bay State Park on the east side of Flathead Lake in Montana.
Looking down onto Yellow Bay State Park on the east side of Flathead Lake.

2. State Parks Around Flathead Lake


Flathead Lake is just 7 miles south of Kalispell, MT - at 30 miles long and 16 miles wide it's the largest freshwater lake west of the Missouri River in the Lower 48. Visitors will find miles of hiking and biking trails, great fishing, and plenty of boating opportunities.


There are 5 State Park Campgrounds scattered around the lake that provide a perfect setting for spending the night. All the campgrounds are ADA accessible and pet friendly. They also have boat launches, grills, fire pits, restroom and trash facilities, and drinking water. Most also have bear lockers for food storage - if they don't, please follow posted campground rules for storing food.

Campgrounds

* West Shore State Park offers paddle board, kayak, and pedal boat rentals through Sea Me Paddle Kayaking Tours, Inc.

** Yellow Bay State Park is the only campground that doesn't accept reservations and cannot accommodate RV's.


Two people in a canoe during sunset on Whitefish Lake in Northwestern Montana
Canoers on Whitefish Lake at dusk.

3. Other State Parks


Whitefish Lake State Park


On the southwestern shore of Whitefish Lake and just a couple miles from downtown Whitefish, MT, the park offers access to beautiful hiking and biking trails, and plenty of water sports with its boat launch. Sea Me Paddle Kayaking Tours, Inc. also operates here with paddle board, kayak, and pedal boat rentals and tours.


The state park has a campground with 25 car camping/RV sites that can be reserved. Amenities include bear lockers, bathrooms, trash facilities, and drinking water. Outside of the swimming beaches, the park is pet friendly.


Whitefish Lake State Park | Reservations | Directions on Google Maps


Lake Mary Ronan State Park


About 35 miles southwest of Kalispell and 8 miles west of Flathead Lake sits 120 acre Lake Mary Ronan State Park. The park is on the eastern shore of medium sized Lake Mary Ronan and features a boat launch with great boating, swimming, and fishing. It's a wonderful spot to relax and is also a jumping off point for many area walking and hiking trails.


In terms of amenities, the park has 25 campsites, some with RV hookups. There are bear lockers, firewood and ice sales, vault toilets, trash facilities, and drinking water available. Outside of the swimming beaches, the park is pet friendly.


Lake Mary Ronan State Park | Reservations | Directions on Google Maps


Summer wildflowers in bloom over the Hungry Horse Reservoir in the Flathead National Forest.
Summer wildflowers in bloom over the Hungry Horse Reservoir in the Flathead National Forest.

4. Flathead National Forest


Encompassing most of the area south of Glacier National Park, is the 2.4 million acre Flathead National Forest. This massive area protects a section of the Rocky Mountains, almost countless lakes, and over 2,000 miles of trail. It's also the home of about 250 wildlife species and over 20 types of fish.


The forest has 31 developed campgrounds and 14 rustic cabin rentals that are spread across 5 ranger districts. The campgrounds and cabins vary in terms of amenities and fees - 13 of the campgrounds offer reservations and all of the cabins can be reserved.


Hungry Horse Reservoir

One of our favorite areas in the Flathead for car camping is the Hungry Horse Reservoir. The Reservoir is just east of the cities of Whitefish and Kalispell. It's a 34 mile long artificial lake created by the Hungry Horse Dam and has awesome swimming, boating, and fishing opportunities. Trailheads are scattered about and provide excellent hiking into the 25+ mountain peaks that surround the reservoir.


Of the 31 campgrounds in the Flathead NF, 14 dot the shores of the reservoir. About half of the campgrounds can be reserved and the other half operate on a first-come, first-served basis.


Flathead NF Campgrounds Page | Flathead NF Cabins Page | Reservations


RightOnTrek car camping gear kit layout.
Pieces from our car camping gear kit.

With all the options available, there's definitely a campground out there available for you on your next trip - no matter if you plan ahead or are just winging it.



If you get to our neck of Montana and need any camping gear for a couple nights out under the stars, take a look at our Glacier Country Gear Page. In just a few minutes, you can secure a full camping kit for you and your group, and we can get it to you within 24 hours.



Also, just a friendly PSA - Northwestern Montana is seeing a large influx of residents and travelers. While that's extremely exciting, it can also put a strain on areas. Please, follow Leave No Trace's 7 Principles during your visit, notably, Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces and Dispose of (Human) Waste Properly.



A special note about campfires: just because there's a fire ring doesn't mean it's OK to have a fire. Please use this Fire Restriction Map, published by the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation, to see if fires are allowed in the area you're headed. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact the managing agency of your campground.


Backpacking Trips in Glacier Country


1. Glacier National Park


Glacier NP is a backpackers dream - 700+ miles of trails span the park, varying from beginner friendly to challenging and technical. Mountains, meadows, lakes, rivers, wildlife - it's somewhat cliche, but there truly is something for everyone here.


The main caveat of backpacking through the park, and staying at one of its backcountry campsites, is that a permit is needed. In the 2021 Permit Lottery, more than double the normal amount of permit applications were received. Setting that initial torrent aside, we're here to tell you that with a bit of flexibility and an openness to exploring any area of the park - permits are attainable throughout the summer!


St. Mary's Falls off of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.
Iconic St. Mary's Falls in the eastern portion of Glacier National Park.

Walk-up Permits

Glacier NP saves a good chunk of the total permits for walk-up permits - these permits are issued the day before, or the day of, the trips start. Walk-up permits are issued from 8:00am - 4:30pm from the Apgar, St. Mary, Two Medicine, Many Glacier, and Polebridge Ranger Stations. Note: for 2021, the St. Mary Ranger Station is closed due to limited staffing. Go prepared! Check out Glacier's Backcountry Campsite Status Page - it shows all of the backcountry campgrounds in the park and their availability over the next 6 days. We suggest writing down a few that you're interested in and bring that list with you when you go in for a permit - the rangers will be thrilled and help get you to those sites if it's possible!

Advanced Permits

To obtain a Glacier backcountry permit in advance, you'll have to fill out and submit a reservation application at least 1 week (7 days) before the trip's start date.


  1. Head to the Glacier NP Backcountry Advance Reservation Application on pay.gov.

  2. Fill out the permit with your dates and multiple different itineraries that are ideal for you. If you need itinerary inspiration, check out our Glacier National Park page where you'll find a bunch of different routes through the park.*

  3. Check as many of the 'Minor and Major Changes' boxes as you're comfortable with - rangers will do their best to put together an itinerary as close to your requested ones as possible, but giving them some flexibility will certainly help!

  4. If you're open to anything, check the 'Last Resort - I Just Want Something' box. This all but guarantees you'll get a permit.

  5. Finally, in the comments section, if you or a member of your group have specific requirements or mileage/elevation maximums that you know you can't break, enter them here with a quick explanation. Rangers will always do their best to respect these requests.

While chances are slim that you'll get exactly what your first choice itinerary, you will almost certainly get something for the dates you provide.


*Not seeing something on our page that fits your needs or wants? We're working on updating and increasing our catalog daily. Send us an email to info@rightontrek.com and we'll help you plan your trip! It's literally what we live for!

Pro-tip: Whether applying for an advanced permit or trying to nab a walk-up permit - avoid Many Glacier as it's the busiest area in the park.


The Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Complex, running from Cliff Mountain to Larch Hill Pass.
In the Bob Marshall Complex lies this incredible 1,000 ft. tall escarpment, known as the Chinese Wall.

2. Bob Marshall Complex


The Bob Marshall Complex is the combination of 3 incredible Wilderness Areas and encompasses 1.5 million acres south of Glacier NP. With over 1,700 miles of hiking trails, the routes through the Complex are essentially endless. None of the individual Wilderness Areas or the Complex itself require any use permits or fees, and so long as Leave No Trace ideals are followed, dispersed camping is allowed throughout. The following links will lead you to our specific pages for each of the Wilderness Areas that make up the Bob Marshall Complex - you'll find detailed information about each area, as well as an interactive map with different hiking routes. Below each Wilderness Area link, we've also included an example hike plan or two.

Great Bear Wilderness


Bob Marshall Wilderness


Scapegoat Wilderness


Holland Lake in the Flathead National Forest in Northwestern Montana, near Kalispell.
Beautiful Holland Lake is a starting point of many hiking adventures in the Flathead National Forest.

3. Flathead National Forest


The Flathead National Forest is south of Glacier NP - a decent portion of it is made up of the Bob Marshall Complex, but there's still about a million acres of land that are solely the Flathead.


Like 'the Bob', the forest doesn't require permits or assess any use fees. Dispersed camping is also allowed throughout the forest - the USFS just asks that visitors follow Leave No Trace etiquette and set up camp 1/4 mile from developed recreation areas, including developed campgrounds, trailheads, and day-use areas.


Ready to plan your trip? Head to our Flathead National Forest area page. There you'll find our interactive map with pre-made itineraries, as well as plenty of information about the forest and planning your trip there. Be sure to check out the Jewel Basin Loop #1 - it's one of our favorites and perfect for all skill levels!

RightOnTrek backpacking rental gear kit layout.
Our backpacking rental kits are ready for your trek.

We truly hope you're inspired to take a backpacking trip here, and that you feel like Glacier Country is accessible to you. If you're traveling from far and wide, or just don't want to deal with the logistics of bringing your gear and going shopping for backpacking food, we're here to help on that front as well.



Check out our Glacier Country Gear Page - we offer full backpacking rental kits with premium products (think MSR Tents, Jetboils, & Garmin InReaches) and we can set you up with individual meals or full meal kits with just 24hr. advance notice.



Another friendly PSA - Northwestern Montana is seeing a large influx of residents and travelers. While that's extremely exciting, it can also put a strain on areas. Please, follow Leave No Trace's 7 Principles during your visit, notably, Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces and Dispose of (Human) Waste Properly.



A special note about campfires: just because there's a fire ring doesn't mean it's OK to have a fire. Please use this Fire Restriction Map, published by the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation, to see if fires are allowed in the area you're headed. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact the managing agency of your campground.


Happy Hiking!

Steven, the author, lives in Portland, OR and is the Head of Wilderness Data and Community for RightOnTrek. When he’s not hiking, biking, or snowboarding in the Cascades, you can catch him eating a sushi burrito and drinking a beer at one of Portland’s food truck pods.

Have any of your own favorite spots in Glacier Country you love? Or want some help planning your next adventure to Northwestern Montana? We live for helping people get outside - it's literally what we do! Drop us a note in the comments or email sboldt@rightontrek.com. We look forward to hearing from you!