Kayaking in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park, the “Crown of the Continent,” is an incredible destination with towering and rugged mountains, abundant wildlife and many beautiful lakes and rivers.
I had been to Glacier a handful of times before, and always admired the lakes along with everything else. But this time I was itching to kayak on the water and not just be amazed by the beauty of the water.
Kayaking the Lakes in Glacier National Park
There are more than 700 lakes in Glacier, 131 of which are named. The waters here contribute to the three North American watersheds: the Pacific, Atlantic and Hudson Bay.
Many of the famous lower-altitude lakes in Glacier—Saint Mary Lake, Lake McDonald, Swiftcurrent Lake, the Two Medicine Lakes (there are three of these)—are large, deep, cold and clear, surrounded by the gorgeous mountains the park is known for.
Some of them—Lake McDonald, for example—have the beautiful blue cast of the glacial meltwater.
As you can see from the Park map below, many of these lakes are very long and finger-like. Mountain summers often mean windy afternoons, and on these lakes, that means plenty of chop. If you love the challenge of paddling in a strong headwind, you’ll love it!
(To view the full map of Glacier, click here)
If not, the best time to kayak is in the early mornings before the winds pick up, or in the evenings after they die down.
Unfortunately, the rental venues don’t open until 8:30 each morning, and they close by 6:00 pm. So if you can bring your own kayak, you’ll definitely have more flexibility to paddle when it’s calm.
An important note: If you bring your own boat, you’ll need to have it inspected for invasive aquatic species before putting it in the water. You can do that at an inspection stop anywhere in Montana, or at a ranger station in the park. You’ll get a tag to attach to your kayak for the duration of your visit.
Another thing to keep in mind: Even the lower-elevation lakes are very cold throughout the summer, not more than 50º F. Keep safety top-of-mind!
Traveling with an Inflatable Kayak
I was excited to bring my brand-new inflatable Advanced Elements Sport kayak. It packs up into a zippered bag with handles and stows easily in our Expedition or pop-up camper. That, along with my 4-piece Sting Ray Hybrid paddle, meant great portability for traveling.
The Sport is half the weight of my Old Town Otter kayak, at 26 pounds. And it's much easier to stow than strapping the Otter to the luggage rack on our SUV. It’s also much easier for me to carry alone—a huge plus for a 54-year-old!
Once we arrived at our campsite, I inflated it there and could easily carry it the couple hundred yards to the beach at Two Medicine Lake. Or, when I wanted to launch at a different spot, it was easy enough to shove into the back of the Expedition fully inflated for that short drive through the campground.
Even though Inflating and deflating take just a few minutes, I kept it inflated in our campsite the whole time we were there, which worked perfectly. It was ready to go anytime any of us wanted to take it out.
Renting Kayaks and Canoes
If you decide to rent your boat, Glacier Park Boat Company handles all the rentals in Glacier. They operate at all four major campgrounds.
The rates are very reasonable: $15.50 an hour for single kayaks, $18.50 for canoes and tandem kayaks (2019 rates).
(These prices especially seemed great after researching rental prices in Canada—an astronomical $125 an hour for Lake Louise!! That’s Canadian dollars, but still…wow!)
Hike-in Alpine Lakes in Glacier
The lakes at the most popular “front country” campgrounds (Apgar, Many Glacier, Saint Mary and Two Medicine) are big. Swiftcurrent Lake (at Many Glacier), the smallest of these, is a mile across. McDonald Lake (at Apgar) is the largest—9.4 miles long and 6,823 acres.
My family camped at Two Medicine and did our kayaking on Two Medicine Lake, right there at the campground. It’s two miles long and a third of a mile across—no slouch either!
If you own a packraft or an ultra-light inflatable kayak, you can pack it into the backcountry to one of Glacier’s smaller alpine lakes. Then wind isn’t as much of an issue—although, depending on the time of summer you go, ice might be!
(We were there the last week of June and several of the higher-altitude lakes still had some ice on them.)
Some options are:
- Avalanche Lake—trailhead in Glacier’s west side off Going-to-the-Sun Road; 4.5-miles roundtrip, 730 ft elevation gain; moderate hike.
- Cobalt Lake—trailhead out of Two Medicine Campground on the park’s southeast side; 11.2 miles roundtrip including a 1,450 ft elevation gain; strenuous hike.
- Iceberg Lake—trailhead out of the Many Glacier area on the east side; 9.7 miles roundtrip, 1,275 ft elevation gain; strenuous hike.
- Redrock Lake—An easier option near Many Glacier; 4.2 miles roundtrip, just 285 ft elevation gain; easy hike. Redrock Falls are also on this trail.
- Hidden Lake—trailhead at Logan Pass, at the Continental Divide along Going-to-the-Sun Road; 5.4 miles roundtrip with 1,325 ft elevation gain; moderate hike.
- Upper Two Medicine Lake—take the shuttle boat to the west end of Two Medicine Lake, and it’s a 4.8 mile round trip hike to Upper Two Medicine; 350 ft elevation gain; moderate hike (without the shuttle, add another 4-6 miles). There are four backcountry campsites there if you'd like to make it an overnight.
Remember—Glacier is grizzly bear territory. When hiking into these backcountry lakes, have bear spray along and keep it handy!
Glacier National Park is one of the world’s most gorgeous parks, with some of the most beautiful lakes anywhere. When kayaking or canoeing there, you get to enjoy both the clear, clear water and the surrounding mountains from a different point of view than most of the park’s visitors.
What kayak paddle questions do you have? Get a hold of our Wisconsin-based Customer Service team today for help: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]
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