Glacier National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, nature education centers, campsites, and in depth experiences that foster a love of nature and science.
Cost: $35 per car for a 7 day pass, free for National Parks Pass holders ($80 annually)
Glacier National Park is home to a variety of keystone, and engangered species such as big horn sheep and grizzly bears respectively. It contains 25 glaciers (down from 150 when the park opened) which are all expected to be melted by 2030, so you want to visit this park sooner rather than later. Not that the park will close after the remaining 25 glaciers melt, but it is cool to see just why the park got its name.
Like all National Parks, Glacier has a ton of ranger led programs that allow kids to pursue a variety of badges. At Glacier my girls got their Junior Ranger badge, night sky patch, paleontology badge, and a historical badge as well. If you attend a ranger led program you can get the junior ranger booklet, the more specialized booklets are available at the main park headquarters.
While the booklets and ranger led activities will teach you a lot of natural science, there was one visit that really stood out to our whole family on our Glacier trip: the Apgar Nature Center. It’s in my number 1 spot of things not to miss while at Glacier National Park.
1. The Apgar Nature Center
The Apgar Nature Center is open daily during the summer months (mid-June to late August) from 10-4 and is a must do on any STEM-focused family’s list. This is hands down one of the best nature centers I have ever visited and the perfect place for hands-on scientific inquiry-based learning (wow, that is quite the mouthful)! Kids have the chance to touch (yes, touch!) animal pelts, bones, eggs, horns, and more. They also have a microscope to investigate small details of feathers and scales, a sedimentary stick that lets kids think, do, and see, how rocks filter out of water, a mountain sculpting station, AND it is the home to the Junior Ranger programs.
A trip to Glacier would truly be remiss if you skipped the Apgar Nature Center. Bonus: There is a delicious ice cream shop just across the street that sells local huckleberry ice cream – the perfect treat for newly minted Junior Rangers!
2. The Sinopah Ferry
The Glacier Park Boat Company has been giving tours of Glacier’s amazing lakes for more than 75 years. Their boat ride at Two Medicine over in East Glacier takes you across the lake and gives you the opportunity to take an afternoon hike to twin falls with a trained naturalist. The hike is pretty easy, there is a decent hill or two thrown in but nothing that four-year-old legs couldn’t handle. Overall I think it turns out to be about a mile or two, but again, nothing too terrible and the distance was split up on the way up by our naturalist and on the way down by…well we ran down because it was fun.
The trained naturalist we had was fabulous. He pointed out all of the edible berries along the way, talked about the two different types of salmonberries that were found (apparently the salmonberry in Glacier is not edible, but it also looks much different than the salmonberry of the PNW), and helped us identify tracks and sign. He also had some great cheesy jokes and freaked out our kids at the very end by pretending to eat moose scat (it was just a cliff bar, but man he really sold it).
In addition to the motorboat tour, we rented two double kayaks in the morning to go for a little human-powered trip of our own. This was a big highlight for the whole family. Some kayakers a bit ahead of us got to see swimming bears, and while we had no such luck we still got to enjoy the insanely gorgeous views and have a fun experience we don’t often get at home (despite living on an island).
The Sinopah ride cost us about $40 for our family of four, and the renting of double kayaks for an hour was similarly priced.
3. The Lodge
The Glacier Lodge, located in East Glacier is a 100+ year-old building that still houses the trunks of massive trees, has taxidermied animals, and hosts a small historical walk through museum. It also has pretty good food, especially if you’re looking for something interesting like a bison burger or elk sausage. While it isn’t steeped in science, it is rich in history. Kids can walk inside pre-made tepees, visit the train depot on the Great Northern Line that brought tourists to Glacier way back when, and fill their tummies.
If you’re looking for educational points the walkthrough museum provides tons of openings for conversation starters.
OK, so this technically isn’t in Glacier. It also technically isn’t science-based. But it is a ton of fun, a great way to test your courage, and a new take on problem-solving in the real world.
Glacier Highline is an above ground (read 10-30 feet in the air) obstacle course. Kids from 3 on up can partake in the course which makes this a great activity for families to enjoy together. Their people will educate you on how to use their special harness system which will keep you safe and then release you on the lower course.
Kids (and adults) will have to muster their nerves, use their wits, and think through how to complete each obstacle. Some are just walking across a wiggly beam. Others require timing, swinging, jumping, and zipping. You can amp up the learning by having kids make a map of the obstacle course that night, discuss why the safety harnesses work, the forces in play, the problem-solving pathway they took for various obstacles, etc.
This was one of the biggest highlights of our trip. We all had so much fun and learned about ourselves and our limits (or what we thought were our limits). If you feel like cooling off after a day in the trees you can finish by enjoying their giant swing!
5. Camping and hiking
If you’re in Glacier National Park you likely want to see wildlife. While we didn’t get to see bears, we did see mule deer and bighorn sheep. That’s not to say bears aren’t out there. Like I mentioned earlier, apparently, there were some bears that had taken a swim just before we got to a point on our kayaking adventure.
Camping and hiking the trails is the best way to connect with nature. We camped at Fish Creek and Two Medicine while at Glacier and absolutely loved both sites. The forest fires evacuated Fish Creek while we were there, so future years could be more up in the air.
Hiking the trails lets you see wildlife, learn tracking signs, investigate local plants, and just have a little time to yourself. We practiced journaling while we were out there, allowing our kids to record, write, and draw, their memories.