Glacier National Park boat tours are one of the more unique National Park activities in the USA. The setting is picturesque, and the actual mode of transportation opens up views and access in the park for people who might not normally get to experience as much of it. In Glacier NP, it’s a vintage experience that opens up a trip into more than hiking.
We still haven’t visited Switzerland. It’s been on our list for some time and somehow we haven’t gone. We have been to the Rockies in the USA though, and I think that’s sated us. True, the Rocky Mountains don’t have historic quaint villages, but they do have the beautifully jagged mountains, the pristine lakes, the Swiss-style buildings and folks in costume playing alpenhorns. And there are small, quiet little boats. Glacier National Park boat tours are a surprisingly wonderful way to experience the Park.
On previous trips we’d seen the boats on Swiftcurrent Lake, and down on St Mary and Lake McDonald, but I’d never given them a second thought. “There are so many hikes to do. Why would we go on a boat?” Enter children and being trapped in a location. All of the sudden there was a reason to do the boats. Our oldest, Oliver, he loves the water. Like, really really loves the water. He saw the boats and was fascinated…and easily convinced us to check them out (remember, the first time we did this on a family trip to Glacier NP was when the boys were little).
Glacier National Park boating
The Glacier Park Boat Co (GBPC) has been operating in Glacier National Park since 1938. They have boats on five different lakes in the Park. The boats are vintage and lend to the picturesque setting. The cost is relatively low for the tours ($25+-). There are many departures and you can choose how long you’re actually gone from the dock. There are even guided hikes you can opt for. It’s all worth it. Check out the GPBC website for details.
You’ll find that there are a variety of options for Glacier National Park boat tours, and some actually include guided hiking. We love hiking with a naturalist and do it whenever we can, so if that’s something you’re looking for, be sure to plan a day doing the Glacier NP boat tour in one of the locations.
Boat Views in Glacier National Park
Everything looks different from the water. You can hike through the hills and look out from a high cliff, but it’s not the same as being on the water. We live on Puget Sound in the Seattle area and have a water view, so heading so far inland takes us out of our element. Getting onto the lake and having the view and feel of flowing water reset us and gave us the energy to keep going. Also, the sights around the lakes are much different than what you see from shore. And I’ll tell you: they’re breathtaking.
Tip: even in bad weather, the view from the water is great. Water reflects light and gives you that extra dose of sunshine that you just might need. Also, clouds reflecting off the lake are truly a sight, especially with how quickly they change in the mountains.
Where do Glacier National Park Boat Tours Go?
There are five different spots to do boat tours in Glacier National Park:
- Many Glacier
- Two Medicine
- Apgar Village
- Lake McDonald Lodge
- St Mary Lake
In the Many Glacier area there are actually many lakes too. The GPBC tour here takes you across two of them: Swiftcurrent and Josephine. True, you can hike to and along both, but the boat tour speeds up that process and if you’ve got kids, makes your day a whole lot easier. We mentioned in our post about hiking at Many Glacier that the Josephine/Grinnell Lake trail can be done with a stroller. It’s true. Being accessible with a stroller is a godsend when you’ve got a little one that can’t walk on their own. The boat crew is happy to help with getting on/off the boat and will make sure you’re okay along the hike, if you choose to go.
Tip: go on the guided hike. If you’ve got kids then you know that there are never ending questions, especially when you’re in a totally new environment. The guided hikes provide lots of simple information about the area, history, plants and wildlife. Take advantage of this. Our guide was incredible, flowing with knowledge and she took the time to connect with the kids.
Do I Need a Reservation?
As National Parks become more and more popular, reservations have become more important. Glacier National Park boat tours don’t require booking in advance, but you can book your tour as soon as the company opens the dates on their calendar. I WOULD BOOK IN ADVANCE.
Also, know that Glacier National Park has a vehicle reservation system in place for driving on Going to the Sun Road. If you have a boat tour from Lake McDonald Lodge, you’ll be able to drive as far at the lodge to do your tour, but this doesn’t grant you access to the rest of the scenic National Park road. The same goes with boating out of St Mary.
Accessibility on Glacier Park Boat Tours
Accessibility is something we always try to consider when writing about our travels. While we do not typically have a companion with us who uses a wheel chair, we do have family with accessibility concerns, so we try to pay attention to both ADA qualified accommodations and experiences that don’t have obstacles preventing people of all access needs from enjoying them.
While Glacier Park boat tours are stroller-friendly and there is support for people with walking assistance (canes and walkers) the boats are not wheelchair accessible. If you are able to do a transfer, the scenic cruise option could work, but in general the vintage Glacier Park Boat Co vessels aren’t wheelchair accessible.
Is it Too Touristy to do a Boat Tour in Glacier NP?
So many travelers these days want to distance themselves from being a “tourist”. Tourist. Such a dirty word. You know, it’s not bad to be a tourist as long as you’re doing it responsibly. You can take a few minutes to sit in a lodge you’re not a guest at. You can enjoy looking at taxidermy that’s 100+ years old. You can go on a boat tour…like a tourist. There’s no shame in doing an activity that tourists do, as long as it’s responsible and respectful.
Tip: doing a touristy thing, such as a guided hike, is a great way to learn and connect with other travelers. If you’re backpacking through Europe you meet travelers by necessity. Touring in the US, where we aren’t so open/friendly, you can meet other adventurers by joining a tour for a short time. Example: after two weeks on the road and being the only gay family that we saw, we actually started talking to some folks and learned that they were a couple from our home city, Seattle. It was a nice moment of connection.
When you’ve been traveling, whether on the road constantly or backpacking through the mountains, you sometimes just need to sit, but then you feel like you’re wasting time. Here’s your solution. Hop on a boat tour, relax, explore, relax, hike, relax, go about your trip.
Tip: if you’re tired and need to reboot, a trip on the water does just that. You are forced to relax for at least a short while and you aren’t wasting time. This is great, but don’t lose track of time, as boat tours stop around 5:00 pm and you don’t want to be stuck far out and unprepared.
More National Park Boat Tours to Consider
Glacier National Park isn’t the only one with boat tours of sorts. You can also find boating in Acadia National Park, Everglades National Park (we loved our boat-assisted kayaking), Biscayne National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yellowstone, Isle Royale NP in Michigan and more!
Being on the water in a preserved place like one of America’s National Parks is really special and provides such a great, different perspective. We can’t recommend it enough!
As you can see, doing a boat tour in Glacier National Park is worth the time and cost; so many reasons to do it. And the Glacier Park Boat Co does a great job of guiding and being stewards of the land. Where else do you recommend getting out on the water for a new experience?