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Best Kayaking Spots in Glacier National Park

Best Kayaking Spots in Glacier National Park

For all the times we’ve been to Glacier National Park and the surrounding area, it still never gets old. Kayaking in Glacier National Park is a great way to experience the park’s nature and wildlife, and the views from the many lakes are simply unmatched. Whether you’re traveling with your own gear or you want to rent kayaks, we’ve got suggestions for some beautiful kayaking in Glacier Country.

Glacier National Park is a kayaker’s paradise with over 700 miles of lakes and river areas to explore. No matter your skill level, Glacier National Park has a spot you’ll enjoy kayaking. With crystal-clear lakes like Two Medicine and Lake McDonald, beautiful rivers like the Flathead, and the awesome Rocky Mountain scenery paddling here needs to be on your Glacier to-do list.

If you have any questions about where to go kayaking in Glacier National Park or just Glacier Country in general, we love sharing all our favorite hikes and tips for visiting. Just leave a comment or send us a note, and we’ll get back to you ASAP!

Kayaking at Two Medicine Lake Glacier National Park Montana

Know Before You Go Kayaking in Glacier NP

There are a few rules before you can go kayaking in Glacier National Park. It’s such a pristine area that the rangers and administration work hard to keep it that way, and that includes the waterways. Also, like with anywhere you may go paddling, kayaking in Glacier can be dangerous, so there are guidelines to keep everyone safe on the water.

Invasive Species Inspection for Kayaks and Watercraft

Prior to launching you own kayak, canoe, SUP or motorized watercraft onto any lake or river in Glacier NP, you MUST go through an invasive species inspection. Once inspected, you’ll be given a document and then you can launch. There are watercraft inspection stations at Apgar Village, Polebridge Ranger Station, Many Glacier Ranger Station, just before the Glacier National Park entrance at Two Medicine, and the Many Glacier Visitor Center.

Note: you can proceed without an in-the-moment inspection if you have a prior approval within 30 days from Montana State, Whitefish Lake, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Blackfeet Tribe, or Waterton Lakes National Park as long as your craft hasn’t been in other waters with potentially invasive species.

Glacier National Park is about two and a half hours north of Missoula, MT, so you’ll find there are lots of great kayaking places from Glacier Country down to the I-90 corridor. Once you’ve passed your inspections, you can enjoy lots more waterways after your Glacier NP kayaking trip.

Lifejacket Regulations in Glacier National Park

Before you can go kayaking or canoeing in Glacier National Park, you must be able to show that you have life jackets / PFDs for everyone going out. While it may not be required for everyone to wear life jackets at all times when on the water, you have to have the PFDs. If you’re renting kayaks, PFDs will be provided. Kids 12 years old and under must always wear a PFD if they’re on the water (even if they aren’t stylish ones).

Taylor Family on morning Drift Boat Clark Fork River Float Trip Missoula Montana 8

Easy Kayaking in Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park has numerous lakes that provide pristine waters and gorgeous scenery that are just perfect and EASY for kayaking. These spaces are ideal for those with little to no experience, or who just want to see Glacier NP from the water. With a few spots offering rentals, first-timers will have plenty of options to kayak without the hassle of portaging their kayak or packing it on top of the car. Pop to the end of this article for our recommendations for EASY kayaking gear you can travel with.

Our recommendations for easy kayaking in Glacier National Park is organized from northwest to northeast, counter clockwise: Polebridge area, West Glacier, East Glacier, and ending at Many Glacier.

Kintla Lake – Polebridge

The Polebridge and North Fork areas of Glacier National Park are jaw-dropping. Here you’ll find the best kayaking in Glacier for still water Kintla Lake has no motorized watercraft on the lake, so you can easily enjoy a kayak or canoe haven that is truly isolated near the Canadian border. The road in can be a bit rough, but this is one of the prettiest places for kayaking in Glacier National Park. The park’s fourth-largest lake, it’s one of the best for kayaking as you can skirt the shore or paddle a triangular path on the water.

Bonus: the Kintla Lake campground is rarely fully occupied. There are also numerous day hikes for when you want to go ogle the views or look for wildlife on foot. This is one of the best places for kayaking, but it’s also one of the best spots to visit with minimal crowds.

Where to launch: west shore of Kintla Lake, not quite to the ranger station. Google Maps link here  

Kayaking on Kintla Lake in Glacier National Park Montana

Bowman Lake – Polebridge

Bowman Lake is a little more off-the-beaten-path (or, in this instance, off of paved roads) than some of the other locations in Glacier, but it’s well worth the effort (and easier to get to than Kintla Lake). You will not be disappointed with the spectacular views. Camp at the Bowman Lake campground and go for a paddle in the morning and a hike in the afternoon. The first time I came to Bowman Lake I couldn’t believe the one-of-a-kind kayaking experience on the most glassy water I’d ever seen. And when the fall colors are going, it’s amazing.

The water’s freezing here, and Kintla Lake too. You will not want to swim and for sure will want to be as safe as possible to ensure you don’t end up in the water. The lake is in the northwestern part of Glacier National Park, about 32.5 miles from the west entrance and 30 miles from Canada, so you know it’s cold.

Where to launch: western shore near Bowman Lake Ranger Station Google Maps link here

Snowy Mountain reflection at Bowman Lake Polebridge Glacier National Park 5

Lake McDonald – West Glacier

Lake McDonald is the most famous lake in Glacier National Park. Located at an elevation of 3,153 feet, it is easily accessible from the Going to the Sun Road and the Apgar Village area just inside the West Glacier entrance. As the biggest lake in Glacier NP, there are plenty of opportunities for paddling, and the public boat launch at Apgar is a very convenient spot to start. There is an actual boat launch as well as a beautiful rocky beach to go from.

Lake McDonald really is big, and it’s surprisingly wide. Skirting the shoreline on the west side is a great opportunity for wildlife viewing and you’ll get the more epic reflections in the afternoon due to the mountains rising from the northeastern end of the lake. 

Where to launch:

Kayaking on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park Montana

Two Medicine – East Glacier

The tiny Two Medicine Lake sector is one of the least-visited areas of Glacier National Park, with access south of the eastern end of the Going to the Sun Road. Consider this very much off-the-beaten-path in terms of what most people put on their Glacier NP itinerary. If you didn’t bring a kayak with you, rentals are available at the dock at Two Medicine Lake.

Two Medicine Lake is very similar to Swiftcurrent Lake in its scenery and the paddling experience. For kayaking on Two Medicine Lake, you can launch from the shore between the General Store and boat house. Paddle to the left and go around the bend, crossing the narrow area and then skirt the northern shore. The views are awesome.

Where to launch: Two Medicine General Store parking area 

Kayaking on Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park Montana

St. Mary Lake – Eastside of Glacier National Park

On the eastern side of the park, you’ll find St. Mary Lake, Glacier’s second-biggest body of water. The water here is chilly, but you shouldn’t have any issues with the cold in your canoe or kayak. Rising above the west shore, Little Chief Mountain gives a great backdrop against the lake. Hiking at St Mary Lake is fun, but the views are way better from the water. Our kids love this area, especially when it’s stormy on the west side of the park.

If you’re not in the mood for kayaking (I get it, vibes change and St Mary Lake can be windy), you can also get out onto St Mary Lake via one of the Glacier Park Boat Co tours. These are offered all summer and are an easy alternative to kayaking on windy days. There are also boat tours on Swiftcurrent Lake, Two Medicine Lake and Lake McDonald.

Where to launch: near St Mary Visitor Center or multiple areas along Going to the Sun Road (launch A, Rising Sun Picnic Area, Little Chief

Tip: for the most epic, and least experienced view from the water, launch at Little Chief just before Going to the Sun Road heads up into Logan Pass and paddle to the right. This will take you around the bend and opens to epic views and Wild Goose Island (pictured here).

Wild Goose Island in St Mary Lake Glacier National Park Montana

Swiftcurrent Lake – Many Glacier

The Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park is my favorite spot for hiking and being on the water. You can easily launch from the lakeshore right by the Many Glacier Hotel. Circumnavigate and you’ll see that as you kayak around Swiftcurrent Lake your views completely change. There’s even a 100+ year old beaver lodge on the lake you can paddle past. We were stuck in this part of the park once when there was a terrible forest fire in Glacier NP, and thank goodness we were able to get out on the water.

If you have a hike-able kayak, do the easy Swiftcurrent Lake trail to Lake Josephine and enjoy even more views and fewer people I love Lake Josephine and think it’s one of the prettiest places in Glacier National Park. It’s perfect for kayaking if you can transport one there. Check current restrictions before hiking here with your compact watercraft.

Where to launch: just before Many Glacier Hotel or in front of the hotel near boat dock

Many Glacier Hotel in Storm in Glacier National Park 2

Challenging Kayaking in Glacier National Park

Most of Glacier National Park’s kayaking trails are appropriate for all levels. However, given the backcountry nature of many kayaking spots, we’ve put paddling trails that need portaging your kayaks, such as with Red Rock Lake and Cobalt Lake. The Flathead River and Lakes areas are better for experienced kayakers given the currents and the whitewater paddling you can do, but even these kayaking options can be mellow if you know where to paddle.

Hiking with a foldable (Oru) or inflatable kayak is a great workout, so if you have the gear, don’t be discouraged by a hike!

Bullhead or Red Rock Lakes – Many Glacier

Bullhead or Red Rock Lake is located in the Many Glacier area. If you’ve got an Oru or inflatable kayak and have the stamina to go into the backcountry to kayak this trail, you won’t be disappointed with the secluded setting. Filled with mountain beauty and an abundance of wildlife and birds, including swans, moose, ducks and eagles, paddlers won’t be disappointed. Last time I did this hike we couldn’t kayak because there was a juvenile moose in Bullhead Lake and we couldn’t paddle without disturbing him. We also came across a very large bull moose at Redrock Lake, so foiled again!

The trailhead for these lakes is actually the Swiftcurrent Pass trail, but you do not go up the pass. The hike is actually relatively easy and we usually do it with kids. If you’re carrying portable kayaks, you’ll be glad this is as easy of a hike as it is.

Bull Moose at Red Rock Lake at Many Glacier in Glacier National Park Montana 1

Cobalt Lake and Upper Two Medicine Lake – Two Medicine

The reason we say kayaking at Cobalt Lake or Upper Two Medicine Lake is challenging is because you have to hike WITH your kayak. The lakes are located in Glacier National Park’s Two Medicine area, slightly east of the Continental Divide. Either hike climbs to a magnificent crossing on the Continental Divide with panoramic views of the peaks before getting to the lakes. Cobalt Lake is significantly smaller than Upper Two Medicine, but equally pretty.

The hike to Cobalt Lake leads through a magnificent mountain valley via Aster Falls before arriving at the lake, which is flanked by sheer rock cliffs. It’s a similar hike to Upper Two Medicine Lake, just a tab bit shorter, and again the lake is surrounded by cliffs and the beautiful mountains Glacier NP is known for. Both lakes have primitive campgrounds at them, so if that’s what you’re interested in, be sure to make appropriate arrangements at the ranger station before starting your kayak/camping hike.

Note: I’ve done the hikes but NOT camped at either lake. There is a lot of wildlife in this area, including moose and bear. My son and I did the Cobalt Lake hike (fall 2023) and encountered 10 moose and a herd of bighorn sheep, so be alert and safe.

Two Medicine Cobalt Lake in Glacier National Park Montana

Kayaking Outside of Glacier National Park

Besides the big lakes in Glacier NP, a lot of the kayaking requires hiking for the more secluded lakes. Once you’re outside of the park though, you’ll find quite a few more paddling options. We love kayaking and rafting in Glacier Country, so adding a day or two of activities that AREN’T in the park is usually a part of our travel plan.

Flathead Lake – South of Glacier NP

Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, with over 200 square miles of water and 185 miles of shoreline. The lake has a moderate current and is known for its many small islands and rocky shoals. You will probably find yourself driving along the shore at some point anyways, so why not set aside a few hours to get on the water. We LOVE Flathead Lake!

Sea Me Paddle offers classes and tours and is an excellent resource to the lake. Summers are busy but still not crowded on the water. Do a tour or just rent kayaks, sticking close to the shore as you explore.

Where to launch:  

Fishing from Kayak on Flathead Lake Glacier Country Montana

Flathead River – Polebridge, West Glacier or Columbia Falls

Coming in from the north, shooting out of the Canadian Rockies, Flathead River is popular for whitewater rafters and kayakers. There are many other spots on the river for those wanting a more chill paddle, but the further upriver you go, the more challenging/dangerous the Flathead becomes. You can go kayaking on both the Middle and North forks of the Flathead River.

Pop into one of many outfitters in the area for advice before you launch for river kayaking. Also, checking in at a ranger station is always advisable. We love rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and have done it many times. If you’ve visiting Glacier National Park with kids, rafting with a guide is typically a better, safer option for the Flathead River.

Where to launch: Blankenship Bridge Columbia Falls, MT – this is best area for paddling without too complex stretches to navigate.

Taylor Family floating Flathead River Glacier Guides Montana Rafting Glacier National Park 2

Lake Five – West Glacier (outside of Glacier NP)

Just west of Glacier’s most popular entrance is Lake Five. Good for taking a dip or having a relaxing paddle, you will understand why people enjoy Lake Five. There is camping at the lake and a small resort, but you can easily get on the water as a visitor and it’s pretty mellow. It’s an ideal mountain lake kayaking experience and it’s really close to Glacier National Park.

Where to launch: Paul’s Memorial Fishing Access Columbia Falls, MT 

Tally Lake – West of Whitefish

In case you’re looking for a nice kayaking spot in the Glacier Country area outside of the park, Whitefish is a great town with several options (and a great Oktoberfest!). Tally lake is characterized by calm waters and a shoreline colliding with dense forests. Short 30-minute drive west of Whitefish gives you access to Tally, which attracts both non-motorized and motorized boaters. Given its size, finding space for everyone isn’t a problem. While its location puts you just outside the Glacier National Park, it is still worth the side trip to experience a paddle on the state’s deepest waters.

The Flathead National Forest website gives information needed for planning your trip to Tally Lake. 

Where to launch:

Gear for National Park Kayaking

I like to start here when we’re talking about kayaking in National Parks. Many of the most beautiful spots, particularly in mountainous places, like if you’re planning on kayaking in Glacier National Park, might require a short hike, either to a launch area or strait up to a remote lake or something. If that’s the case, having a kayak you can actually hike with is important. The Oru Kayak LAKE is a great option for being able to transport a kayak on a hike, as it’s only 17 pounds! The Oru Inlet is the other top pick, as it comes in at just 20 pounds and is the most compact kayak available.

Tip: if you’re looking for an easy-to-hike-with standup paddleboard, we love the Goosehill Sailor SUP. It’s pretty light and you can do short hikes with it. The Oru Kayaks still win for being lighter. Some people visit Glacier National Park via Amtrak, and if so having a compact paddling option is great to bring on the train.

Recommended Paddle Tours around Glacier National Park

Rafting is the easiest type of paddling tour to find at Glacier National Park. While there is no rafting IN the park, you do get to skirt the boundary of the park. For paddling tours within Glacier NP, you’re quite limited with options.

If you’re looking for a water activity for the family, scenic floats or whitewater rafting are really fun. This scenic float on the Flathead River is a great way to experience some of what this beautiful river has to offer. We usually go out with Glacier Guides Montana Raft and love the experience with them.

While not very close to Glacier National Park, if you’re going to be in the Missoula area, there’s a really cool hiking/paddling combo tour that’s offered going out of Darby, just south of Missoula. Check it out if you aren’t rushing your way through the area and want to do a fun, adventurous guided tour in the backcountry.

When to Visit Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is famous for its spectacular scenery and an abundance of activities, but we love it most for the wildlife. If you want to avoid the crowds, go in September or October. The summer months are the busiest months and the warmest weather, but also the most people. Note that the park is open year-round, but for those wanting to paddle, winter is a no go. Kayaking and canoeing is only allowed during certain times of year and is closely monitored by the National Park Service.

From the Park:

  • Vessels are permitted on park waters on the west side of the Continental Divide between the second Sunday in May and October 31
  • Vessels are permitted on park waters on the east side of the Continental Divide between the last Saturday in May and the last Thursday in September

Weather in Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is home to some of the most beautiful lakes in the world, fed by glacial meltwater… which means they’re cold! Kayaking is ideal in the relaxed and clear waters, but always approach paddling with a safety-first mindset knowing that hypothermia can happen even in the summer.

The summer months are awesome for kayaking though. From June to August, the air temperature can reach 90 degrees F. However, the water in the lakes never gets warmer than 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) throughout the year. Kayaking is best done during the day because of the warm days and cold nights. Also, choose the morning or afternoon when the winds are usually at their lowest. The weather in the park is variable due to its location on the Continental Divide, especially from November to April. Temperatures can drop well below freezing, resulting in frequent road and trail closures. We’ve been foiled by road closures as early as October and as late as June.

Wildlife Safety in Glacier National Park

When you kayak in Glacier National Park, keep an eye out for the wildlife that calls the Park home. Glacier is a kayaking photography dream come true. You might see deer, elk, moose, and even bears so grab your paddle and get ready for some fantastic experiences.

Taking safety precautions is extremely important. Knowing bear and moose safety is essential for both hikers AND kayakers. Bears can be deterred by frequent clapping and talking if you’re hiking. In case of an aggressive encounter, we recommend carrying a can of bear spray. If you encounter a bear while paddling, paddle away to a safe place and keep your eyes on the bear to monitor its direction.

The same concept goes for moose if you come across them. They are great swimmers, so paddle fast and put more distance between them than you might think is a good idea.

Cow Moose in Fishercap Lake at Many Glacier in Glacier National Park Montana1

I hope all this information is helpful and inspires you to add some kayaking in Glacier National Park to your next trip. We also have guides for kayaking in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks as well, so take a peek at them if you’re planning a bigger National Parks road trip in the Rockies.

Have an awesome trip, remember safety first, and please reach out if you have any questions. Feel free to leave a comment or send us a note. We’re always happy to share more!

Kayaking in Glacier National Park is a completely different way to experience this amazing Montana destination. We've picked the best places to kayak and also rental options for exploring Glacier NP on the water.


Saturday 21st of October 2023

Wow, these kayaking spots in Glacier National Park look absolutely breathtaking! Can't wait to dip my paddle into these pristine waters. Thanks for the awesome recommendations!