Scenic Drive from Missoula to Glacier National Park
Missoula to Glacier Drive Overview
The drive from Missoula MSO to Glacier National Park is about 138 miles and takes 2.5 hours to the west park entrance. (Your travel time will vary if you choose to make stops along the way).
This scenic drive is not just about getting to the park – the drive from Missoula, MT to Glacier National Park will be a memorable part of your trip to Glacier. In fact, there’s so much to see and do along the way you can spend all day to Glacier. Or even spend a couple days in the Mission and Flathead Valleys.
This road trip will take you through the Mission Mountain Valley, along the east shore of Flathead Lake and on to West Glacier. From here, head through the west entrance of Glacier National Park, and drive east on the famous Going to the Sun Road through the magnificent Rocky Mountains of western Montana.
From Missoula, take Exit 96 from I-90 and head north on US highway 93. Near the interstate there are several large gas stations if you need to gas up and grab some drinks and snacks.
(If you’ve flown into MSO – Missoula International Airport, it’s about 3 miles to the I-90/Hwy 93 interchange). The total distance from MSO airport to Glacier National Park is 131 miles.
Flathead Reservation and Mission Mountain Valley
Seven miles north of I-90, you’ll enter the Flathead Indian Reservation. Watch for road signs that include both English and Salish/Kootenai place names.
A few miles past the town of Arlee, turn right on White Coyote Road to reach the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. This peaceful, magical place features not only Buddha statues, but plaques with wise quotes from Buddha as well. Walk up to the prayer tent for an amazing view of the garden.
North of Ravalli, you can take a little side trip to spend a few hours at the Bison Range in Moiese. Previously known for over 100 years as the National Bison Range, this 18,766 animal sanctuary is home to as many as 500 bison and many other animal species.
Take a quick stop in St. Ignatius to see the picturesque St. Ignatius Mission built in the 1890s. You can see the brick church from the highway but it’s worth a stop to see the intricate frescoes inside.
In St. Ignatius you’ll also find Three Chiefs Culture Center (formerly the People’s Center in Pablo) with exhibits featuring the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai Tribes.
Along this part of the drive, the jagged peaks of the spectacular Mission Mountain Range rise to the East.
About 8 miles north of St. Ignatius, you’ll discover the Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge.
(It’s Ninepipes, not Nine Pipes. Ninepipes is named for the Bitterroot Salish leader Chief Joseph Ninepipes).
You can walk around Ninepipes reservoir, or from Ninepipes Picnic Pullout, take the short Ninepipes Interpretive Nature Trail.
Stop at the nearby Allentown Restaurant at the Ninepipes Lodge for a bison burger or some street tacos. The dining room has giant windows with a stunning view of the Mission Mountains reflected in the glacier-formed kettle pond.
Next door you’ll find the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana. This collection contains numerous Western Plains Indians artifacts. Spend an hour or two perusing this interesting historical collection and make sure you visit the gift shop that sells local items and books about the area’s history. Learn more about the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana on their informative website.
Continue north, stopping at the Mission Mountains View Point for a marvelous photo op.
If you’re up for another museum, check out the quirky Miracle of America Museum in Polson. Dozens of buildings hold an enormous collection of Americana, such as vintage motorcycles and a soda counter.
Polson is also the home of local favorite Richwine’s Burgerville with fantastic burgers and milkshakes.
If you continue on US 93, the highway will take you up the west shore of Flathead Lake, but I recommend turning off on Montana highway 35 (aka S Shore Road), which will take you along the east shore of the lake.
You’ll drive along beautiful Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. You’ll drive along the lake shore for about 30 miles, passing campgrounds and cherry orchards.
Depending on the time of year you might be lucky enough to find fruit stands selling local Flathead cherries. Or stop at a U-pick orchard and pick your own. Montana cherries make a refreshing and delicious (although sort of messy) road trip snack.
About 15 miles past Bigfork, you’ll turn onto Montana Hwy 206 headed north. Just southeast of Columbia Falls you’ll meet up with US Highway 2 that goes northeast to West Glacier.
Glacier National Park
The west entrance of Glacier National Park is right across the river from the town of West Glacier. Upon entering the park, you’ll be on the Going to the Sun Road.
Going to the Sun Road
The Going to the Sun Road will take you from West Glacier to St. Mary, taking you over the Continental Divide. Along this breathtaking scenic drive, you’ll see soaring mountain peaks, alpine meadows, crystal waterfalls and clear blue lakes. This 52-mile route is a 2 to 3-hour drive without stops. (Note: Glacier is open year-round but because of deep winter snow, the Going to the Sun Road is only fully open during the summer months, starting in late June or early July).
(If you can’t get one of the limited passes, there are a few other ways to get into the park, like taking the shuttle, or booking an activity (such as a Red Bus Tour, a boat tour) along the Going to the Sun Road).
Upon entering the west entrance to the park, you’ll encounter the Apgar Visitor Center. The road takes you along the shores of Lake McDonald, and you’ll spot Lake McDonald Lodge.
At the highest point of the Going to the Sun Road you’ll find the Logan Pass Visitor Center atop the Continental Divide. Located here are the trail heads to the popular trails to Hidden Lake Overlook and the Highline trail. Take a short hike or just enjoy the breathtaking view from the visitor center.
St. Mary and the East Side of Glacier National Park
The Going to the Sun Road ends on the east side of Glacier National Park at the St. Mary entrance. You’ll find lodging here, both inside and outside of the park. From St. Mary, you can drive north to Many Glacier or south to East Glacier and Two Medicine.
The east side of the park has fewer commercial services than on the west side, but you’ll still find lodging, dining, gas and groceries.
In East Glacier, there is more lodging, including the historic Glacier Park Lodge.
Throughout the park, be on the lookout for Glacier’s famous wildlife, such as grizzly bears, black bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and moose.
If you want to add another country to this road trip, you can drive up to the adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada.
The Return Trip to Missoula
To return to Missoula, you can drive back over the Going to the Sun Road, and it’s just as enjoyable going the other way. Alternatively, take US Highway 2 back to West Glacier. This route runs outside the southern border of the park.
On the return trip, you might change things up a little and drive along the west shore of Flathead Lake.
Alternatively, north of Flathead Lake, take Montana Highway 83 and drive through the Seely-Swan corridor, connecting to Highway 200, I-90, and back to Missoula. Going through Seely Lake is pretty, but I find it gets monotonous driving through miles and miles of forest with little else to see. Watch out for deer. Seriously, these woods are teeming with suicidal deer who will jump out in front of your car. Especially at dusk.
Can I do this Missoula to Glacier National Park trip in one day?
Yes! I recommend taking your time to really explore the area. BUT if you have only one day to zip up and see the “Crown of the Continent”, you should do it! With minimal stops, it takes about 10 hours to drive from Missoula, over the Going to the Sun Road to St. Mary, back across to West Glacier, and returning to Missoula.
During the long summer months (again, the only time Going to the Sun Road is fully open) you’ll have plenty of daylight for this trip.
Missoula to Glacier as a weekend getaway.
Here’s a sample of a 2-night itinerary.
On Friday afternoon, drive to West Glacier and spend the night.
Saturday morning, get on the Going to the Sun Road as early as possible, as parking lots along the road fill up early. Stop along the way to enjoy the scenic vistas. Take a hike if you can. Spend Saturday night in one of the lodges on the eastern side, such as the Many Glacier Hotel or Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier. Enjoy an afternoon hike, dinner at the lodge, and a beautiful sunset.
On Sunday, explore the east side. If you stayed in East Glacier, try to catch sunrise at Two Medicine Lake. You may also enjoy hiking and wildlife viewing at Many Glacier. Sunday afternoon, return to West Glacier and Missoula.