Mt Piegan from the Siyeh Pass Trail

I’ve just returned from a weeklong vacation in Glacier National Park, and though I didn’t intend to think much about transit while there, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of the park’s bike, bus, and rail options. Glacier draws 2.3m visitors per year despite its remoteness – the nearest large cities (Calgary and Spokane) being 175 miles away – a feat that makes its carfree options all the more impressive. For reference, despite being a full hour closer to its nearest major city, Glacier draws nearly twice as many people as Mt Rainier.

Unlike Rainier or Olympic, which are primarily wilderness parks with few roads or services, Glacier stands out for a more European Alps feel: staffed backcountry chalets, multiple ferry services, 3 intercity rail stations, and a major road (Going to the Sun) bisecting the park from west to east. In the spirit of our Transit Report Card series, here are a few of my anecdotal observations.

Segments ridden

  • Horizon Air outbound to Kalispell, Amtrak inbound to Seattle
  • National Park Shuttle between Apgar Transit Center, Lake MacDonald Lodge, Avalanche Creek, The Loop, Logan Pass, and Siyeh Bend
  • Cycling from West Glacier all the way to Logan Pass via Going to the Sun Road
System Map
System Map

Fare Structure: A+

  • Sensibly for a large area lacking ATMs or cell service, and visited by people from all over the world, the 48-mile shuttle system from Apgar to St. Mary Lake is completely fare free.

Scope: B+

  • Most major attractions in the park are accessible by the free shuttle, including all destinations along Going to the Sun Road. Fee-based shuttles are available on the lesser-visited east side of the park, connecting East Glacier, Two Medicine Lakes, Many Glacier, and Waterton Lakes in Alberta for fares ranging from $10-$92. Amtrak connections are easiest at the West Glacier station, where a $10 shuttle or a 3-mile bike trail will take you to Apgar at the foot of Lake MacDonald.

Frequency: A+

  • For a wilderness system detached from any urban areas, I was pleasantly surprised to find 15-30 minute frequency all day on the free shuttles.

Span: C-

  • Service only operates from 9am-6pm, and only during the summer. Limited express service exists in the morning eastbound from Apgar to Logan Pass as in-service deadheads.

Usability: B-

  • There are 3 lines along Going to the Sun Road, all with forced but untimed transfers. From Apgar to Lake Macdonald Lodge and Avalanche Lake, 30′ Optima Opus low-floor buses carry the lion’s share of passengers. Due to narrow turning radii between Avalanche and Logan Pass, passengers must transfer to smaller vans to reach the pass. Between Logan Pass and St Mary Lake, a mix of both type of vehicles are used. The forced transfer is made worse by priority given to other passengers waiting to transfer. If you are going from Apgar to Logan Pass, for instance, you are not guaranteed a seat at your transfer point.

Bike Integration: B+

  • Most of the shuttles have 2-position bike racks, an amenity that became exceedingly useful because bikes are prohibited on Going to the Sun Road between 11am-4pm every day due to high traffic. Bike repair stands are located at Lake MacDonald lodge as well.
Architecture: A+
  • All the shuttle routes are full of the some of the best subalpine forests and Precambrian rock formations on earth. ;)

Safety and Cleanliness: A+

  • Every shuttle I rode was staffed by well-trained, friendly drivers who drove difficult technical routes with great skill.

Final thoughts:

  • A car-free or car-light vacation is far more doable in Glacier than in our local national parks, where there is no transit either to or within them. Families could easily and comfortably spend a week along the shuttle system and come nowhere close to running out of lakes to visit or trails to hike. As western National Parks go, Glacier is about as good as it gets.

29 Replies to “Transit Report Card: Glacier National Park”

  1. Important detail left out: Amtrak’s Empire Builder!

    It’s a beautiful overnight trip from Seattle directly to (and through) Glacier National Park. What’s better: it’s possible to take a weekend trip from downtown Seattle without missing work. Here’s how I did it:

    1. Leave at 4pm friday.
    2. Have a great dinner, some wine, and retire to your mini-sleeper.
    3. Wake up just west of Glacier, have a nice breakfast onboard as you enjoy the scenery of GNP.
    4. Hop off at East Glacier. Here I had to rent a car (right next to the station), but a bike would work too.
    5. Explore for the day. Hop back on the train that evening at 6pm.
    6. Dinner as you ride through GNP.
    7. Wake up near Seattle, and the trip ends at around 11am.

    1. You don’t need a car or bike…it’s really just a mile and change walk along a mostly dedicated path from the train station in West Glacier to the (free) transit hub at the Apgar HQ. The train is timed perfectly both ways for an easy trip from Seattle. I upgraded to the Sleepette car for a few extra bucks, which included a bed and all meals (dinner and breakfast both directions). I don’t know if you could make a National Park vacation from a major city (Portland and Seattle) with fewer hassles. I heard some people grumbling about the transit system, but it’s actually amazing how accessible it makes the park without needing anything other than your backpack.

  2. I visited Glacier National Park a few years ago. The shuttle system worked quite well, and I was amazed by how many people rode them. On the way back from Logan Pass, in the afternoon, it looked like the schedules had a lot of padding in them. We arrived early at nearly every stop and sat around and waited until the bus following us (which was also early) pulled up behind us.

    One things about the shuttles that you should note is that they don’t go to the Amtrak station itself – it’s about a 2-mile (flat) walk from the Amtrak station to the Apgar Visitor Center shuttle stop. Considering that the train runs just once a day, it would be nice if they could operate one bus a a day two extra miles to connect with the train, but it doesn’t seem like they do.

    There also didn’t seem to be any sort of transit connections to the nearly towns, so I’m not sure how you’d get there from Kallispell Airport without a taxi or rental car.

    The Amtrak between Seattle and Glacier is a nice ride, but anything but reliable. The ride home from Glacier can often be hours late (some of the time can made up by lots of padding in the schedule on the way to Seattle).

      1. That’s very convenient for Amtrak riders. The Whitefish Amtrak station is a 1 or 2 block walk from the Whitefish Library bus stop. The bus schedules even seem to be timed for the train arrival and departure.

  3. How did you get from Kalispell airport to Glacier? There isn’t any sort of usable transit in Kalispell (just a few once-a-day commuter trips).

    The Empire Builder is running much more smoothly now. BNSF has finished the projects that were causing 8+ hour delays a couple of years ago.

    1. Oh, good to know! I’d heard about those and written off the Empire Builder as unusable, so I read the above comments and said “hah, yeah, that’d be great if the train didn’t have 100% interstate time delays. Very intriguing!

      1. …also, the delays were initially due to Bakken oil traffic. BNSF built a lot of new track to accomodate the Bakken oil traffic. The Bakken oil traffic is now disappearing. So there’s loads of track capacity and the Empire Builder is running pretty close to on time.

  4. Zachary, it didn’t look like you went to the east side of the park. I was there last month and the east side service leaves a lot to be desired. There are only two vehicles so the service runs only every 30-45 minutes, and ran with a van and a cutaway bus. The lines are therefore long and no one wants to get off mid route because they’re afraid they will be denied boarding on the return, and the van turned away several passengers both at St Mary and Logan Pass, in addition to everyone at mid route stops. The cutaway was packed to standing room only which is uncomfortable but at least everyone gets to board. Also, the drivers on the east side shuttle complain about having to commute from Browning, 45 minutes away. One of them had a travel trailer but was denied permission to camp on park grounds. This may impact driver safety due to the high loads and long commute (this driver said she was doing 12 hour days, excluding the commute, due to pulling the bus in and out).

    It’s too bad you didn’t seem to get to the east side since it has some of the best scenery and wildlife. The Lake McDonald and weeping wall are nice but the only actual glacier visible from the roadway, as well as St Mary Lake and Sunlit Gorge, are on the east side of the park. Many Glacier has the best hiking but that is isolated from the rest of the park.

    1. I hiked Siyeh this year, but in previous years I’ve done hikes on the east side in the Two Medicine area, including Appostoki and Scenic Point.

  5. Mid summer Empire Builder bonus: From around Memorial Day until about mid-July, the Washington parts of the trip (Seattle-Ephrata, Portland to well past Pasco) is a sightseer’s delight. The east slope of the Cascades and the basalt cliffs of the Columbia River are stunning on the Seattle section. The entire trip from Portland to Pasco through The Gorge is equally wonderful. Spokane will forever be ill-served by Amtrak’s one train per route limitations because of its location in the greater scheme of how the train must be scheduled to serve other major destinations well.

    1. Not necessarily forever.

      Every night there are switching moves on the train to combine the two sections in Spokane.

      From at least 1950 up until 1971 the BN provided local coaches and a sleeper lounge on the Portland section. These were uncoupled during the switching moves in Spokane and left at the Spokane station so that passengers on them could deboard at their leisure, or board at a more sane hour of the evening before they departed.

      You must need to find someone with a pile of money to offer that service today.

      1. Both my understanding of the history and personal experience would disagree. SP&S train 2 left Portland eastbound around 3:00 with a coach, diner and sleeper lounge fort Spokane, plus coaches and sleepers for eastbound NP’s #26, the North Coast Ltd, uncoupled at Pasco. The train continued to Spokane where coaches and sleepers for eastbound GN #32, the Empire Builder were switched to the section from Seattle. The coach, diner and sleeper lounge were turned and when the westbound GN Empire Builder #31 arrived, its portland cars were uncoupled and moved to SP&S #1 which departed to Pasco where it picked up cars from NP North Coast Ltd and then scooted down the gorge arriving Portland around 7:30 AM. The Empire builder portion of this occurred between about 10:30 PM and Midnight in Spokane, a quick turn around, but easily accomplished in those times when trains were perhaps more punctual that today. There would have been no opportunity for travelers from Portland to spend the night in a sleeper in Spokane. Early boarding westbound occurred I am sure whd=en the incoming #31 was running late. All ab it arcane, I admit. Best is to remember that until about 1960 there were 3 trains a day each way ‘twixt Portlands and Spokane and 7 a day each way between Seattle and Spokane, all operated on 5 different routes by 5 railways.

      2. One of those SP&S sleeper lounges, The Mount Hood was donated to the Pacific Northwest Chapter, National Railway Historical Society. I’m a member of that group, and all the history we have about the car says it was sent to Spokane as the car that would spend the next day there, with it and sister Mount Saint Helens alternating.

        It’s not an efficient use of rolling stock, so perhaps in later years the pattern was altered?

      3. Ah-ha! Thanks for that update on the passenger-friendly but railway-inefficient use of those two sleeper lounges.

  6. You know, I think it would be worthwhile for the national park system to run a shuttle bus from Tacoma (city) to Tacoma (mountain)

    1. Switzerland has transit to recreation areas. Western Washington hasn’t quite gotten the message yet. I want to go to Northwest Trek sometime, and it looks like we’ll have to rent a car for it. (Hmm, maybe that will be my chance to ride in a Mini.)

      1. Too bad they stopped doing the train trips up there. You aren’t the only one that would like something other than driving to get there. You’d think Mt Rainier Scenic would be able to come up with something that would work.

        The thing of it is, western Washington is far better than a number of states when it comes to getting to some of these places. You can at least get to Crescent Lake, Deception Pass and a few other such places.

  7. One of the ways Glacier has been able to support its bus system is it’s partnership with the Cities of Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Flathead County in the purchase and maintenance of equipment. The county has a population of around 80,000 and gets a good share of federal transit dollars that are targeted to small, rural metros. Obviously Glacier doesn’t need these buses for most of the year (October through May), so in the winter season all of the Optima transit buses get used throughout Flathead County. Its a win-win partnership that allows the park and the nearby population centers to punch above their weight when it comes to transit.

    *I used to work on transit and active transportation advocacy in Missoula at the ASUM Office of Transportation at the University of Montana.

    1. That would be interesting if the level of transit service in the nearly towns goes up during the winter months (when more buses are available) and goes down during the summer months (when the national park needs the buses).

      Although, I suppose with schools closed during the summer, the national park shuttle buses could, in theory, be used as school buses the rest of the year.

  8. Glacier is one of the better parks as far as public transportation is concerned (both within the park and getting to it). Zion is great, as the main valley is only accessible by bus or bike (no driving within the valley). Both allow for some wonder loop trips (start at one trailhead and end at another) but Glacier really stands out in that regard. Just make sure you make noise to scare off the bears, as many of the trips can be very remote (and the grizzlies in Glacier are about as dangerous as any in North America).

    Washington parks aren’t that great for transportation. Nor are the transportation options to the other federal lands that great either. A frequent topic of conversation on is how to get to and from Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass (in case you are backpacking a section of the Pacific Crest Trail). If I remember right, Greyhound serves Stevens, while you are basically on your own to Snoqualmie (it might be best to hitch a ride in both cases). I just came back from Ashford, which is next to Paradise, in Mount Rainier. They do run a shuttle from there to the park, but only on weekends. The website link doesn’t work anymore, so I have no idea the timing, but I don’t remember it being that good. I did notice that someone was charging a reasonable price for trips from Tacoma to Ashford (Uber style) so that might work as well. But nothing official. Service in the park, especially to Paradise, would make sense, as the huge lot(s) get full, even during weekdays.

    For the Olympics it isn’t that great either. There is a shuttle service that routinely serves Hurricane Ridge, but nothing public or regular. I think the pickings are even more slim for the North Cascades.

    My public transportation outdoor dream would involve a passenger ferry from Seattle to Port Angeles, along with a bus up to Hurricane Ridge. I would take the thing several times during the winter and summer (there is great backcountry skiing up there as well as great hiking). They already have the ferry dock, it would just be a matter of running the boat and bus.

    1. Glacier really stands out in that regard

      Grand Canyon South Rim has a decent bus service too.

    2. Yosemite has had fairly extensive bus/transit service for quite a few years.

      Bryce Canyon has a somewhat sketchy but still sometimes useful service.

      As Ross points out, Zion is excellent. The fact that the problem they are trying to solve is relatively easy helps, but they solve it very well. They also provide service through much of the length of the gateway town (Springdale). There is a near-sunrise trip for early-start hikers in the summer – invaluable given the often-hot temperatures there. Note that Zion shuttle doesn’t run in the winter.

    3. In the 80s when Greyhound did the northern route to Spokane (secondary to the I-90 route), I took it and on the way back the bus did a stopover at Stevens. There was a guy from South Africa and he had never seen snow before so he enjoyed it, and threw a snowball at his girlfriend. More recently Northwestern Trailways has been doing that route once a day. It still does it looks like, although I’d call and make sure the website is up to date.

    4. The last time I looked, there was a Trailways bus to Stevens Pass in the middle of a Seattle->Wenatchee->Spokane run (which is basically Greyhound). Fares are expensive – for a daytrip with two people, the bus would cost about the same as driving up there in a Zipcar. There is a also a ski bus during the winter – also expensive, but can be bundled with a lift ticket for a more reasonable price. I have never actually ridden either of these buses, so I can’t say what it’s like.

      Snoqualmie, as far as I know, has basically nothing. There is a Seattle->Ellensburg->Spokane Greyhound route, but they go right by there without stopping. I suppose one might be able to hitch a ride with someone off Craiglist, but I’ve never tried that.

      Mt. Ranier has a park shuttle that runs every half hour or so from Longmire to Paradise, with limited service to Ashford. There is no bus to Ashford as far as I know. (There are private tour companies, but they charge ridiculous prices and don’t transport backpackers one way). The best bike option to Mt. Ranier would probably be to forego the popular tourist routes altogether and use the Carbon River entrance. From the Puyllup Sounder Station, you can take the Foothills Trail close to halfway there, and the roads for the remaining section don’t have nearly as much car traffic is the road to paradise. I believe there are unfunded plans to eventually extend the Foothills Trail all the way to the park entrance. Maybe within some of our lifetimes, these plans will eventually happen.

      Hurricane Ridge, I don’t believe has any park-operated shuttles, but there are private shuttle services, but they’re very expensive – basically like riding a taxi. However, I did discover one potentially reasonable-cost travel option. If you can make it to the park entrance, you can hike about 8 miles (one way) to the Hurricane Ridge visitor center along the park trails. From Port Angeles (which has Clellem Transit bus service), the park entrance is just over 6 miles away, so even doing it in a taxi would not break the bank.

    5. As an agent at Martz Trailways in Scranton, PA, told me, Trailways is the common reservation and ticketing system the bus companies use. Greyhound is a Trailways company but it started using its own brand to gain market share. Greyhound used to sell through tickets on the other carriers, which I used for a Discovery Pass (an unlimited 4-week pass), and they also used to have bookings through to Chicago on other carriers after Greyhound withdrew from Missoula to Minneapolis, but for the past couple years the Greyhound website won’t and it claims I can’t get to Chicago from Seattle, and even Seattle to Denver is on and off.

  9. Jackson, WY has a fleet of 35 mostly Gillig low floor buses that go largely unused in the summer and would do wonders for Grand Teton National Park. Right now there’s no transit service in eather Grand Teton or Yellowstone. Both sorely need it.

  10. (Much) farther away, there is decent transit service, albeit private, to and within Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. Even though it was off-season – late fall – I took a pleasant three-hour bus trip from Punta Arenas to TdP’s gateway city of Puerto Natales on one of several competing bus companies. The following day (you can do it in one, but the arrival time is not optimal in the park) I took another of several bus lines for the three hour drive into the park itself. The buses loop through the park, stopping at several trailheads and points of interest. In the high season they run several times a day and also connect with a boat on one of the beautiful large lakes that will take you right to the base of the mountains and the main hiking trails.

    Not only is the park stunning, the ride there went through some beautiful, desolate areas on the Chile-Argentina border – and even off-season there were several hikers that made the trip back with us (I only did a day hike while waiting for the return bus). It was a very simple trip and required absolutely no cars at all!

    I’ve been very impressed by bus service in several developing nations (although Chile is pretty developed); certainly what passes for long-distance bus service nowadays in the US doesn’t even compare.

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