Kayaking in Glacier National Park

5-minute read
By Sharon Brodin
Glacier National Park is truly an American national treasure known for its towering mountains. The park also includes hundreds of lakes, many of which are accessible to canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts. The crystal clear waters with stunning mountain views make it a great place for paddlers.
kayaking glacier national park
Kayaking on Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park—what a view!!

I had been to Glacier a handful of times before, and always admired the lakes with their beautifully clear water along with everything else. But on this most recent trip, I was itching to kayak on the water and not just be amazed by the beauty of it.

I got that chance on Two Medicine Lake, just one of many of the park's alpine lakes wonderful for paddling.

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—Lake McDonald, Saint Mary Lake, Swiftcurrent Lake and 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, the park's largest lake—have the beautiful green-blue cast of glacial meltwater.

As you can see from the Park map below, many of these lakes are very long and finger-like:

map of glacier park

(To view the full map of Glacier, click here)

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!

If you prefer calmer conditions, 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, canoe or paddle board you’ll definitely have more flexibility to paddle when it’s calm.

The best places to launch your boat are at any of the lakeside front country campgrounds. The first two bullet points on our list are on the east side of the park while the rest are in West Glacier (some of these areas require a vehicle reservation for access):

  • St. Mary and Rising Sun Campgrounds on Saint Mary Lake
  • Two Medicine Campground on Two Medicine Lake
  • Apgar, Fish Creek and Sprague Creek Campgrounds on Lake McDonald
  • Many Glacier Campground close to Swiftcurrent Lake
  • Bowman Lake Campground on Bowman Lake
  • Kintla Lake Campground on Kintla Lake

Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park

Swiftcurrent Lake is near the Many Glacier area

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 any of the ranger stations in the park. You’ll get a free launch permit to attach to your kayak or canoe for the duration of your visit.

Another thing to keep in mind: Even the lower-elevation lakes are very cold throughout the summer months, not more than 50º F. Keep safety top-of-mind! Always wear a life jacket, it's a good idea to dress for immersion just in case, and consider paddling within a safe distance of the shoreline whenever possible. Weather conditions can change rapidly in the mountains so be sure to get a forecast before you head out.

Traveling with an Inflatable Kayak

I was excited to bring my brand-new inflatable Advanced Elements Sport kayak on this most recent trip to Glacier. It packs up into a zippered bag with handles and stowed easily in our Expedition or pop-up camper. That, along with my 4-piece Sting Ray Hybrid paddle, meant great portability for traveling.

inflatable kayak, glacier
My Advanced Elements Sport inflatable kayak and 4-piece Sting Ray Hybrid—both super packable for a road trip

The Sport is half the weight of my rigid kayak, at just 26 pounds. And it's easier to stow than strapping the hardshell to the luggage rack on our SUV. It’s also much easier for me to carry alone—a huge plus for a (then) 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 our Expedition fully inflated for the short drive through the campground.

Even though Inflating and deflating take just a few minutes, I kept it inflated at 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.

Canoe and Kayak Rentals

If you decide to rent your boat, Glacier Park Boat Company handles all the canoe and kayak rentals in Glacier. They operate at all four major campgrounds: Many Glacier, St. Mary, Apgar and Two Medicine.

The rates are very reasonable, from $20-25 per hour for canoes, single kayaks and tandem kayaks (2023 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!)

kayaking glacier
You can take your pick of dozens of front country and backcountry lakes in Glacier

Hike-in Backcountry 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) is the smallest of these and is a mile across. McDonald Lake (at Apgar) is the largest at 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—not that small either.

If you own a packraft or an ultra-light inflatable kayak or paddle board, you can pack it into the backcountry to one of Glacier’s smaller alpine lakes. Then the wind isn’t as much of an issue—although depending on the time of summer you go, there may still be ice on these lakes!

(We were there the last week of June. Several of the higher-altitude lakes still had some surface ice.)

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 (you'll need a vehicle reservation for Sun Road).
  • 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 is 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 trek.

If you plan to camp, you'll need a free backcountry permit. And remember, Glacier is grizzly bear and black 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.

kayaking two medicine lake, glacier
All the water in Glacier is crystal-clear and cold!

 (Photos courtesy of Sharon Brodin; Sources: nps.gov; HikinginGlacier.com. This was first published in 2019 and has been updated.)

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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