Driving from Seattle to Glacier National Park is a popular summer trip, but I love making the drive in the winter when the snowcapped mountains, frozen lakes and eerie winter light increase the sense of vastness of the land. One of the great western US road trips, the Seattle-to-Glacier NP route takes in some of the most geologically dramatic stretches of the States. This road trip includes widely diverse landscapes – from the dense evergreen forests of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the tundra-filled high deserts of eastern Washington, the glacier-formed lakes of Lake Coeur d’Alene and Flathead Lake, and Montana’s rugged and vast Glacier National Park.
Encompassing 4,046 sq km (1 million acres), Glacier National Park takes its name from the over 50 glaciers located in the area. The park includes two mountain ranges, 130 lakes, over 1,000km (700 mi) of trail for day and overnight hikes, and offers excellent wildlife spotting as a home for grizzly and black bears, bison, mountain goats, Canadian lynx, wolverines,mountain lions, gray wolves, and numerous birds of prey.
Beginning our road trip in Seattle, we packed up our winter gear and hit the road for a week of downhill skiing, snowshoeing, and winter sports in Glacier National Park. Here’s what you can expect to encounter on this road trip:
Seattle’s skyline just after sunset. Kerry Park on Queen Anne is favorite spot of travellers and photographers looking for classic views of the city.
Seattle – also called the Emerald City for the year-round green forests that surround this West Coast metropolis – is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest. Home to many tech and music icons like Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Boeing, Jimi Hendrix, and Pearl Jam, Seattle is an entrepreneurial city that loves coffee and rock & roll as much as it loves inventing the Next Big Thing that will change the way we live and work. Set against a gorgeous backdrop of Mt Rainier, Puget Sound, and old-growth forests, Seattle is a beautiful city to spend a few days. Not to be missed here are the famous Pike Place Market, the iconic Space Needle (built for the 1962 World’s Fair), Experience Music Project’s impressive collection of famous music memorabilia, Seattle’s underground city, and its plethora of small breweries.
The Columbia Gorge
Heading out from Seattle, we drove east, soon leaving the lush forests of the Cascade Mountains and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, entering eastern Washington’s high desert. Normally a seemingly endless expanse of arid land and tundra, in the winter its rolling hills were dusted with snow. As we travelled east, the high desert led to the impressive Columbia River Gorge. Carved by glaciers and the Missoula Floods at the end of the last Ice Age, the gorge’s walls are over 1,200m (almost 4,000 ft) tall in some areas. We stopped at many of the lookouts around the gorge to take in the spectacular scenery.
Small Towns and Rugged Mountains of Idaho and Eastern Montana
Continuing east, we crossed into Idaho before turning northeast to re-enter the national forests. The road took us through winding mountain passes, flat valley basins lined by soaring peaks and forests of old Douglas firs, maples, Englemann spruce, cottonwood, and aspen. Driving along I-90, we passed through Coeur d’Alene and both Lolo and Flathead national forests before finally reaching Flathead Lake and the mountain town of Whitefish in the heart of Glacier National Park. Along the drive, we encountered many small communities living closely with the land.
Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park
Driving through the valleys, gorges, plains, and high mountains of Idaho and eastern Montana, we followed part of the journey explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made on their famous expedition of the early 1800s. It was easy to imagine the awe early settlers and explorers must have felt traversing this landscape by horse, covered wagon, and canoe.
Our road trip ended at the mountain town of Whitefish in Glacier National Park. The area is known for its summer hiking, boating, fishing, and mountain climbing, and in wintertime it has just as many adventure activities as well as stunning scenery to offer travellers. Adventure seekers can ski and snowboard, snowshoe, snowmobile, cross-country ski, dog sled, ice sail, and even try the strange sport of skijoring (“ski driving,” being pulled over snow or ice on skis by a horse or dog). There is something for everyone in Glacier National Park.
We completed our road trip in two days, spending the night in Spokane. The drive from Seattle to Glacier National Park can be completed in one long day, but is most enjoyable when spread over a few with stops in quaint towns like Ellensburg, Coeur d’Alene, and Kalispell.
Inspired to take a road trip of your own across the western US? Let G Adventures do the driving and hop on one of our group tours today. Check out our “Camping Yosemite & Yellowstone” trip and start planning.