Battle of the National Parks: Yellowstone vs. Glacier

Travel Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

For many, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks are the first sites they think of when they think about National Parks. However, seeing both in one trip could be tricky. Though the two are located in Montana, their actual distance from each other—at least 370 miles, depending on routes—easily adds an extra day of travel. But, whether you can get to both or just one, this is the right time to do it. National Park Week is April 18 to 26. During that time, park visits are free.

We’ve broken down each park based on what it has to offer and why it is worth visiting to help you plan a trip both, or either, of the scenic sights.

The Land

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park straddles Wyoming, Idaho and the southwestern corner of Montana. The park is huge and diverse, with mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, forests (some of which are petrified) and wildlife. But what makes Yellowstone more than just a pretty face is its slightly unsettling topography of shifting plates over the continent’s largest supervolcano, the Yellowstone Caldera.

The volcanic activity going on just under the surface of Yellowstone creates a thrilling kind of otherworldly experience for visitors, proving that the ground itself is living and breathing. It is what creates the estimated 10,000 thermal features of the park, from the explosive boiling geysers, such as Old Faithful, to the colorful pools of the Grand Prismatic hot springs, and oozy bubbling Fountain Paint Pots.

Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is less than half the size of Yellowstone with fewer entrances and main roads. It is further north in Montana and goes into Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, which means it is not always accessible and has a shorter tourist season. But Glacier remains to be a pristine mountain paradise for hikers, campers, cyclists and every day tourists who simply want to observe the park’s breathtaking scenery, crystal-clear lakes and varied wildlife. More than that, Glacier is a national treasure that is quite literally melting away.

Glacier.Northern Lights over Lake McDonald.jpg
Glacier: Northern Lights over Lake McDonald Photo via GNP media site

What’s Inside

If Yellowstone’s terrain feels like something from outer space, Glacier’s resembles an American trip to the Alps. The towering mountains carved by glaciers typically warrant cooler weather than Yellowstone, at least in summer, when travelers have the best chance of seeing the majority of the park. The Going to the Sun Road is open year-round, but can have long portions blocked off after snowstorms, even in mid summer.

Yellowstone National Park
The landscape is not the only wild thing about Yellowstone. The park is also home to bison, bears, wolves, bald eagles, deer, antelope and elk, and you won’t have to search very long to find them. Prepare for foot-traffic jams every few miles as herds of bison cross the road. For a truly up-close wildlife experience, check out the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, where visitors can observe and feed animals that are no longer able to live in the wild.

Yellowstone has over 2,000 individual campsites, but there are also private cabins and historic hotel rooms all over the park. The rustic Old Faithful Inn is the world’s largest log structure and would not be such a bad place to get snowed in, with its gigantic central fireplace and pine rocking chairs.

Another selling point for Yellowstone is its winter accessibility. Snowcoaches and snowmobiles are allowed in certain areas of the park, particularly between West Yellowstone and Old Faithful. For a less intrusive experience, visitors can cross-country ski or snowshoe into the park. Don’t let frigid temperatures and deep snow put you off because seeing Yellowstone in winter is well worth the extra layering. You will find the landscape still and empty, covered in a pristine white sheet, a true escape for the adventurer who wants to avoid hoards of fanny-packed tourists and their telephoto lenses.

Glacier National Park
Glacier is a haven for those who love water, with more than 131 named lakes (and another 500-600 unnamed), including Lake McDonald, Saint Mary Lake, Swiftcurrent Lake, Two Medicine Lake and Kintla Lake. Many of the larger lakes offer guided boat tours and, of course, extensive fishing. The historic Many Glacier Hotel and Lake McDonald Lodge come with postcard worthy views of the water as well as comfortable lodgings for the night.

In addition to seeing Glacier from the windows of the family car, visitors can tour the park in vintage 1930s red buses. Cycling is another popular mode of transport in Glacier for those who are fit and fearless enough to go for it. The park even offers a limited number of Hiker/Biker campsites in Apgar, Avalanche, Many Glacier, Two Medicine and Rising Sun, which are off the beaten track areas for non-motorized campers, especially welcome to those visitors tired of the usual campsites jammed with tents and RVs.

Hiking enthusiasts will find limitless trails to explore, some of the best being those near the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center, the Avalanche Falls trail through the cedar trees, Grinnell Lake trail, Iceberg Lake Trail and the trail to Granite Park Chalet, which is marked with huckleberry bushes. Seeing Glacier on foot also gives visitors an up close view of the 1000 difference species of plants such as Beargrass and Indian Paintbrush, or possibly even catch a glimpse of the park’s mountain goats, grizzly bears, Canadian lynx or big-horned sheep.

Quick Stats

Yellowstone National Park
Oldest national park in the USA, founded in 1872.
Total acreage is 2,219,791 (more than 3,468 square miles).
At least 3 million visitors per year (3,394,326 in 2012).
Open year-round (with restrictions).
Nearest major airport is Gallatin Field in Bozeman, Montana (about 1-2 hours drive from West Yellowstone).

Glacier National Park
Founded in 1910.
Total acreage is 1,013,322 (1,583 square miles).
There were 1,853,564 visitors in 2011.
Open year-round, but with major restrictions in winter.
Nearest major airport is Kalispell, Montana (less than one hour drive from West entrance), and there is an Amtrak line into the park as well.

Maryann Koopman Kelly is a freelance culture writer and blogger who spent five years in Ireland before moving to California with her family last year.

Also in Travel