Photo: SNEHIT PHOTO/Shutterstock

Yellowstone Vs Glacier: Which National Park Is Right for You?

Montana National Parks
by Suzie Dundas Jan 4, 2024

The United States has 63 national parks in its national park system, but they’re not all spread evenly throughout the country. Some states are lucky enough to have multiple national parks, like California (nine) and Utah (five).

But quantity doesn’t always outweigh quality, and two of the most popular and gorgeous parks in the US are in Montana: Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park (which spreads between Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho). While the two parks aren’t technically too far from one another – it’s about a six-hour drive to connect the two – both parks are so large and have so much to offer that they deserve their own separate trips. It’d be shame to travel all the way to Glacier and only see the highlights, especially for backpackers or hikers willing to stray off the paved paths and into the park’s thousands of acres of undeveloped wilderness.

Yellowstone is no different. While it has more roads and accessible destinations, it’s downright massive at more than two million acres. In fact, it’s the second-largest park outside of Alaska. So rushing through it is a bad idea.

But that leaves one major question: between Glacier vs. Yellowstone, which should you plan a trip around first? It all depends on what you’re looking for in your next outdoorsy adventure, since each park has different main draws, attributes, and experiences that’ll appeal to different types of travelers.

Jump to:

Nature and environment

yellowstone vs glacier - glacier mountain goats

Mountain goats at high-elevation Logan Pass in Glacier National Park’s backcountry. Photo: Pung/Shutterstock

Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park are both mountainous, high-elevation parks, but they showcase distinct natural wonders and diverse landscapes. Glacier National Park is known for Switzerland-esque, pristine alpine scenery with rugged mountains, glaciers, and deep-blue lakes. Yellowstone is more known for vast valleys and geothermal features — including geysers, hot springs, and the iconic Old Faithful — and many of the walking paths and trails are shorter and easier, compared to Glacier.

Wildlife thrive in both parks, but when it comes to Glacier vs. Yellowstone, Yellowstone may have the edge, at least when it comes to how easy it is to find wildlife. Visitors to Yellowstone are almost guaranteed to see bison, while large mammals like grizzly bears and moose can be harder to spot in the forested terrain of Glacier. Otherwise, you’ll find similar wildlife in both parks, including bighorn sheep, mountain goats, grizzly and black bears, moose, and smaller critters like beavers, pika, and wolverines. Both parks have wolves, though they’re easier to spot (but still not easy) in Yellowstone.

Seasonality and when to go

yellowstone vs glacier - winter buffalo

Wildlife watching is a popular winter activity in Yellowstone. Photo: The Sturdy Table/Shutterstock

The optimal times to visit Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park vary a bit, though there’s some overlap. Glacier National Park has a more concentrated visitation season that mirrors the camping and hiking season, from June to early September. During this time, the weather is milder, and most roads and trails are accessible. However, this popularity leads to larger crowds in all but the most remote parts of the park, requiring early reservations for accommodations and activities. Hotels in and around the park get quite expensive during this period.

In contrast, Yellowstone National Park has two primary visitation seasons. Summer (from June to September) is still the busiest, but the park’s significant size helps distribute visitors. When it comes to Glacier vs. Yellowstone shoulder seasons, Yellowstone has more visitors during April, May, September, and October, compared to Glacier. Yellowstone also has more winter attractions, including wolf viewing and overland snow tours. But both parks are significantly less crowded (and significantly cheaper) in the winter, though that comes with few-to-no options for trail access and the closure of some services, roads, and entrances in both parks.

Hiking and backpacking in Yellowstone vs. Glacier

hiker in glacier national park, montana

Glacier National Park is known for having some of the best backpacking routes in the National Park System. Photo: Alisha Bube/Shutterstock

Perhaps the greatest differences between the parks are in their respective offerings for hiking and backpacking. Glacier has just one main road crossing the park (Going-to-the-Sun road), and you’ll need to use the park shuttle bus to reach most them, unless you’ve managed to get a private vehicle driving pass. Even with a pass, parking can be extremely limited.

That means to see some of the most beautiful parts of Glacier National Park, you’ll need to venture into the backcountry. Many of the most popular trails in the park are long with extensive elevation gain, and the best backpacking routes include significant elevation gain while crossing ridgelines. You can even backpack from the US directly into Canada via Goat Haunt.

Because of this, there’s a very extensive lottery system to apply for backcountry camping reservations (required to do any overnight backpacking trips). You can only camp in designated campgrounds, some of which have as few as two sites. The lottery system opens March 15 on and is very competitive. You’ll need to have your top choices for dates and routes already figured out, and fill out the lottery application in advance. There’s also a last-minute system for walk-up reservations, but that’s only a good fit for backpackers willing to be very flexible with their routes and number of days.

In terms of day hiking, the park is divided into several different areas, all of which have trails of various lengths. Compared to most national parks, including Yellowstone, the trails are longer and have more elevation gain. Most trails also have limited (if any) cell service and the potential for large wildlife encounters. They’re usually narrow, rocky, dirt trails, though they’re very well maintained and signed.

In Yellowstone National Park, the hiking is more like what you’d expect at other parks – a diverse mix of trails, many of which are short, paved, or ADA-accessible. Yellowstone is famous for the boardwalk trails around many of its geysers and hot springs, and many of the trails are more akin to paths through the landscape than they are uphill climbs. In general, hiking in Yellowstone is easier than hiking in Glacier, and it’s easier to drive the various trailheads.

Yellowstone does offer backcountry camping and backpacking, but it’s not as popular of a destination for it as Glacier. Reservations are available year-round, but the process is less competitive. For backpacking trips during the peak season (May 15 through October 31), you’ll want to enter the advanced lottery on, which opens March 1. Reservations not issued during the advanced lottery will be available either online or in person at a backcountry office. For backpacking trips outside of the peak season, there’s no advanced lottery – just reserve your dates and sites in advance online, or show up to the park and get an in-person pass two days prior to your preferred start date.

Driving tours and accessible activities

yellowstone vs glacier - red bus tour at glacier

Glacier’s famous red buses are a great way to see the park’s landscapes without worrying about hiking or driving. Photo: Steve Boice/Shutterstock

When it comes to Glacier vs. Yellowstone, Yellowstone is generally more accessible and friendlier to visitors not keen on walking long distances. Yellowstone has more roads, more parking, more paved and ADA-accessible paths, and more sites and attractions reachable by car. Some of Glacier’s main attractions are in the backcountry and may be harder for mobility-impaired visitors to access.

That said, both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks have entire web pages dedicated to accessible sites and offerings, plus plenty of gorgeous things to see that don’t require long hikes. Yellowstone just has more.

Both parks offer narrated tours. In Glacier, you can sign up for tours in the park’s iconic red buses, and Yellowstone has a long list of companies authorized to provide driving tours within the park.

Other major recreational draws

yellowstone vs glacier - horsebacking riding in yellowstone

Yellowstone’s vast valleys create lots of picturesque places for guided horseback rides. Photo: DanaForeman/Shutterstock

Both parks are quite popular, so they offer plenty of activities aside from hiking and backpacking. Wildlife photography is popular at both parks, though Yellowstone has arguably more easy-to-reach areas for setting up your tripod. But you can find photography tours readily available at either location.

Other popular activities in both parks include fishing, horseback riding, and ranger programs; both have an extensive schedule of lectures, activities, and family offerings, including junior ranger programs. In Yellowstone, guests can take painting or art classes, hike with a llama, or visit the National Park Ranger Museum; Glacier has a smaller selection of non-hiking activities, though you’ll still find opportunities for kayaking, snowshoeing, and river camping. Horseback riding is available in both parks.

Camping and hotels

many glacier lodge, glacier national park

Many Glacier Lodge, inside Glacier National Park. Photo: Sean Xu/Shutterstock

If you want to stay inside a national park, you’re in luck, whether you choose Yellowstone or Glacier.

Yellowstone has nine in-park lodges, the fanciest of which is the iconic Old Faithful Inn, built in the classic style of turn-of-the-century park lodges. All the park’s lodges are managed by a third-party hospitality company, and reservations should be made as far in advance as possible. In the winter, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins is the only in-park lodging option.

Glacier National Park has seven in-park lodges, including one in a similar “classic national park” style: the Many Glacier Hotel. It also has two backcountry chalets (Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet) that are bookable for backcountry campers and hikers.

In Glacier, there are 13 front-country campgrounds, most of which require reservations. You can make campsite reservations up to six months in advance on Reservations are highly recommended, and almost essential, unless you want to start lining up at a campground around 5 AM to snag a first-come, first-served spot. A few small campgrounds do not take reservations, but you’ll still need to get there extremely early to find a spot on most days.

Yellowstone has 12 front-country campgrounds. Reservations for all should be made up to six months in advance on, though Mammoth Campground is first-come, first-served from November 1 to mid-May.

Though both parks are very popular with RVers, Yellowstone tends to have more. In general, camping reservations are easier to get at Yellowstone for tent campers than they are at Glacier. Both parks can have large temperature swings between day and night and require extra precautions regarding food storage and animal management.

If you stay outside the park, you’ll want to book a hotel or home in West Glacier, East Glacier, or Hungry Horse, depending on which part of the park you plan to visit. All are within a short drive of a park entrance. Near Yellowstone, you’ll want to stay in West Yellowstone or Jackson, with West Yellowstone being the closest option. Jackson is roughly 60 miles from the park, though staying there also allows you to visit Grand Teton National Park in the same trip.

Getting to Yellowstone vs. Glacier

For Glacier, the nearest major airport is Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell, Montana. From there, it’s a 30-mile drive to the park’s west entrance. You can fly to Kalispell from most major cities on the West Coast.

Yellowstone has several gateway airports. Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) in Montana is the busiest airport in Montana and the airport used by most visitors flying in. It’s about 90 miles from the park’s West Entrance. Alternatively, Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in Wyoming provides access to the park’s South Entrance, approximately 60 miles away.

The drive times can vary based on the selected airport and entrance. From Kalispell to Glacier’s west entrance, it takes around 45 minutes. Bozeman to Yellowstone’s West Entrance takes about 2 hours, while Jackson Hole to Yellowstone’s South Entrance takes approximately 1.5 hours.

During winter, roads can and will close in and around both parks. Be sure to check the road conditions pages on the Glacier or Yellowstone websites before your trip to ensure the roads and entrances you plan to use are open.

What kind of person will like each park?

yellowstone vs glacier - prismatic spring at yellowstone

Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring at Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Ronnie Chua/Shutterstock

Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park cater to different types of travelers. Hikers, backpackers, and very active visitors seeking to go on long day or overnight hikes will probably prefer Glacier, while travelers keen on shorter hikes, more accessible attractions, and visiting via car will likely prefer Yellowstone. Yellowstone may have the edge when it comes to wildlife viewing, while road cyclists know Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the prettiest road biking routes in North America.

Fortunately, both parks are quite popular, so you’ll find plenty of guided activities, non-hiking adventures, and lodging and dining options in and around both parks. It really comes down to your preferred activities: if you want challenging hikes among glaciers and lakes, head to Glacier National Park. If herds of buffalo and geothermal wonders are on your list, Yellowstone is the spot.

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