Last updated on March 2, 2023 by Wandering our World
Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park are two of the most popular parks in the United States of America. Both are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and both offer breath-taking views across stunning countryside.
Glacial peaks and geothermal geysers are two of nature’s wonders that can be enjoyed by visitors to these great parks, but as stunning as both parks are, the reality is they are actually quite different from each other….
Glacier National Park, located close to the Canada border in the state of Montana, is known for its stunning glacial-carved peaks, crystal-clear lakes, and abundant wildlife.
The park is a great destination for hikers, nature lovers, and those seeking a peaceful escape in a stunning natural setting.
With over 700 miles of trails, a number of scenic drives, and cross-country skiing in the winter, there’s plenty to do on a visit to Glacier National Park. And as the less busy and more mountainous national park between the two, there’s many chances to get away from the crowds.
Yellowstone National Park, set primarily in Wyoming, is famous for its geothermal features, including geysers and hot springs, as well as its diverse wildlife and beautiful landscapes.
That makes Yellowstone a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts who are interested in geology, wildlife, and hiking. Featuring over 1,000 miles of hiking trails, incredible geothermal activity, and an abundance of interesting fauna, Yellowstone has plenty to keep everyone, even young children, occupied.
But that’s just the beginning when it comes to how these mighty national parks differ from each other!
That’s why we use our experience below to show you which has the best hiking trails, road tripping and photography opportunities, family friendliness and more! All to help you plan your next outdoor odyssey…
- Which Has The Best Hiking?
- Which Is Best For Scenic Drives?
- Which Is Best For Photography?
- What Time Of Year Is Best?
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
Which Has The Best Hiking?
Both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks are blessed with miles upon miles of stunning hiking trails, and for many, these are the main reasons for visiting.
The two parks are filled with breath-taking scenery to take in as you pound the trails, but with so many trails to choose from, it can be overwhelming choosing which one to hit.
There are more trails in Yellowstone, and the good thing is that the main features of the park (like geysers) can be accessed through relatively easy hikes – so those trails are perfect for families and non-serious hikers.
However Yellowstone is incredibly popular, and the main trails can get crowded. So if you’re looking for more tranquility – alongside spectacular views and trails that will get your heart beating – then Glacier National Park may suit you better.
Here’s a run-through of three of the most popular trails in each of the two parks. By seeing the highlights in each, you can work out which park you may prefer visiting.
The Best Glacier National Park Hiking Trails
1. Grinnell Glacier Trail
This is a reasonably challenging route and an out-and-back trail which covers 18 kilometers in total. The trail will take around five and a half hours to complete.
This trail is considered an absolute must-do in Glacier National Park, as it offers up everything: glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, forest, wildlife, and incredible views along the way.
If you plan to tackle this trail, it’s best to contact the park authorities in advance to check if the trail is fully open.
Occasionally, parts are closed due to weather, with snow potentially making parts inaccessible, even during the summer months.
2. Avalanche Lake
This out-and-back trail covers a little under ten kilometers and is considered to be moderately challenging, and you should allow two and a half hours to complete it.
The trail to Avalanche Lake is one of the most popular hikes in Glacier National Park due to the lake’s uncommonly clear blue waters and the stunning views along the way.
The walk takes you through old-growth cedar and hemlock forests before snaking along the roaring stream up to a beautiful glacial-melt lake.
3. Highline Trail
This out-and-back takes close to seven hours to complete and is considered challenging due to the distance involved (24 kilometers in total).
It’s perhaps not the best choice for those without a head for heights, as there are steep and narrow sections with big drops to the sides.
The trail, however, offers picture-perfect views throughout, and bighorn sheep and mountain goats are commonly encountered. There’s also a reasonable chance of a bear sighting, so ensure you are prepared and knowledgeable of how to react; speak to the park rangers if you have any doubts.
The Best Yellowstone National Park Hiking Trails
1. Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser Loop
This takes you along fifteen kilometers of reasonably flat paths to view the park’s geothermal features and one of its waterfalls.
The route is considered to be moderately challenging, more due to the distance than the terrain, and hikers are rewarded with excellent views of Grand Prismatic from the overlook before reaching Fairy Falls, as well as the Imperial Geyser.
The trail can be quite busy during peak seasons, but an early start can help you beat the crowds and hike in relative tranquility.
2. Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Observation Point Loop
This trail takes in Yellowstone’s most famous geyser, amongst others, and covers a distance of around eight kilometers.
Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser was the first in the park to be given a name and is one of the more predictable geysers, having erupted every 44 minutes to two hours since the turn of the millennium.
The geysers and pools are spectacular, and you can expect the easiest conditions along the trail in summer when snow and ice are not an issue.
This area of the park has many bison, and you have very good chances of spotting them along the way too.
3. Mystic Falls, Fairy Creek, and Little Firehole Loop
It takes around an hour and a half to complete this six-kilometer trail, which is often a little quieter than some of the other trails.
You begin in the geyser basin before heading up through the forest and along the Little Firehole River before reaching the Mystic Falls.
There are jaw-dropping views along the way, and, if you time it right, you can watch Old Faithful erupt from the top of the trail—check the expected eruption times in advance.
Which Is Best For Scenic Drives?
While the trails in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks are scenic and impressive, you can also enjoy some of the epic scenery from the comfort of your car.
Both parks are located in areas of outstanding natural beauty, and a scenic drive through the countryside can reveal breath-taking views along the way.
Both of the main road trips in each park are spectacular, although the one in Yellowstone is longer but also an easier drive.
We detail both below:
Yellowstone: Road Trips
In Yellowstone, if you fancy letting the horse power of your car take the burden of the journey, you can follow the Grand Loop Road.
The Grand Loop Road is a scenic 142-mile (229-kilometer) route which connects many of the major attractions in Yellowstone National Park.
The road is divided into two loops: the upper loop and the lower loop, and it takes about eight hours to drive the entire loop. The road is open from mid-April to early November, depending on weather conditions, and it’s best to check ahead during the winter months.
The upper loop of the Grand Loop Road takes visitors through some of Yellowstone’s most iconic attractions, including Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, and the Tower-Roosevelt area.
Mammoth Hot Springs is a series of terraced hot springs that are constantly changing shape and color due to the minerals in the water. Norris Geyser Basin is home to some of the park’s most active geysers, including the world’s tallest active geyser, Steamboat Geyser.
The Grand Loop Road’s lower section features the Old Faithful geyser, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Yellowstone Lake.
Old Faithful is one of the most famous geysers in the world, erupting every 90 minutes or so. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a stunning gorge that is more than 1,200 feet (365 meters) deep and 20 miles (32 kilometers) long. And Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-altitude lake in the whole of North America, covering 136 square miles (352 square kilometers).
Glacier National Park: Road Trips
The Going-to-the-Sun Road is a breath-taking mountain road that cuts through Glacier National Park. It is considered one of the most spectacular drives in North America, and it stretches for 50 miles (80 kilometers) through the heart of the park, crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.
The road was completed in 1932 and takes visitors through breathtaking alpine scenery, with views of towering mountains on either side, deep valleys, waterfalls, and glacial lakes.
The road is narrow and winding, with steep drop-offs, and it is only open during the summer months, as snow makes it inaccessible during the winter.
One of the highlights of the Going-to-the-Sun Road is Logan Pass, which is the highest point on the route at an elevation of 6,646 feet (2,026 meters).
From Logan Pass, visitors can take in panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys and spot interesting wildlife, such as mountain goats and bighorn sheep. There are also several hiking trails that start from Logan Pass, including the popular Highline Trail.
Other notable features along the road include the Weeping Wall, which is a steep cliff face which is covered in sparkling waterfalls during the spring and early summer, and the Jackson Glacier Overlook, which offers stunning views of the glacier.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road is an engineering marvel, with numerous hairpin turns, narrow tunnels, and steep grades to allow it to pass through the area’s rugged terrain.
Drivers should be prepared for narrow lanes, limited visibility, and challenging driving conditions. However, the rewards are well worth it, as the road offers unparalleled views of some of the most stunning mountain scenery in North America.
Which Is Best For Photography?
Yellowstone and Glacier national parks both offer a wealth of opportunities for photographers to capture stunning images of nature, wildlife, and landscapes.
But if you’re wanting to snap dynamic geothermal features, the Yellowstone will suit you best. Though be prepared to potentially have crowds in your shots!
For mountain and lake photography, Glacier can’t be beat. You can find more secluded spots there so you can get your perfect shot without people getting in the way.
Ultimately, each park has its own unique characteristics that make them ideal for different types of photography.
So below we’re going to have a quick look at the most iconic photography spots in each park, so you can see which you’d like to visit (and photograph) the most!
Glacier National Park: Photography
Avalanche Lake can be reached via a 2-mile hike that starts near Avalanche Gorge. The lake is surrounded by the park’s giant mountains. It’s a great spot for snapping pictures of the reflections in the lake and waterfall photography.
Lake McDonald is one of the most popular photo spots in Glacier National Park and is another great spot for photographing the reflections on the lake’s surface. There are plenty of scenic overlooks and quiet coves where you can move around and try different angles.
Hidden Lake Overlook is a stunning spot for landscape photography throughout the year. You can reach the viewpoint towards the end of the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail, and it’s particularly stunning in the spring, when snow still covers the mountains. At this time of the year, the lake is often partially frozen too, making for stunning shots.
Grinnell Glacier Viewpoint sits at the end of a six-kilometer trek up from Lake Josephine and offers views of Grinnell Lake below. As you turn to take in the panoramic view, you can find various subjects to point your camera at, such as glacier-fed waterfalls and, if you’re lucky, mountain goats perched precariously on the rocks.
Yellowstone National Park: Photography
Observation Point overlooks the Old Faithful geyser and is reachable via a short but steep trail. There are plenty of benches available at the top, and you can pick a spot and get ready for the eruption.
You can check with the visitor center regarding the next eruption time. Once you have snapped a few shots of the eruption, you can head off to the trails in search of more diverse photo opportunities.
The Grand Prismatic Overlook in Midway Geyser Basin is a great spot to capture shots of the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring, which is the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the entire world.
The orange, turquoise, and deep-blue waters of the Grand Prismatic make for a stunning image and are present due to microbial mats around the edges of the mineral-rich water.
Artists’ Paintpots is a small hydrothermal area near Norris Junction that features colorful hot springs and two large mudpots.
It’s a chance to snap the weirder side of nature, and a boardwalk circles the hydrothermal area, passing bursting mudpots, bubbling hot springs, and mesmerizing milky blue pools along the way.
Inspiration Point offers the chance for some epic landscape photography. The viewpoint overlooks the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and is best visited around sunset.
It can be very busy here during the day, but the crowds tend to thin out before the golden hour hits. You can snap stunning shots of the river below in the canyon, as well as of the beautiful waterfalls.
What Time Of Year Is Best?
While both parks offer breathtaking landscapes at all times, they also have different climates and weather patterns throughout the year. Depending on your reasons for visiting the parks, you may need to plan ahead for the best conditions.
Yellowstone: When To Visit
Yellowstone National Park is open year-round, but the best time to visit will depend on what you intend to do and see.
If you are interested in seeing the famous geysers, such as Old Faithful, the best time to visit is during the summer months.
During this time, the weather is perfect, and the park is bustling with visitors. However, be prepared for large crowds and long lines at popular attractions as this is the peak visiting time.
If you would rather steer clear of the crowds, then you should consider visiting Yellowstone during the shoulder seasons, which are the months before the start of peak season (April and May) and the months after the busy summer season (September and October).
The weather during these months is cooler but can still be great. Also, the crowds are smaller, and the fall colors in the trees are stunning.
Winter in Yellowstone is a unique experience, with opportunities for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and even wolf watching.
However, the park is less accessible during this time, and many roads, trails, and facilities are closed due to snow.
Glacier National Park: When To Visit
Glacier National Park, due to its more northerly location and heavier snowfall, is typically only open from late May until early October.
The best time to visit Glacier National Park is during the summer months (June through August), when the weather is at its best and the park is fully open.
The fall months of September and October are also a great time to visit Glacier National Park. During this time, the crowds are much smaller, and the park is full of color. However, be aware that some facilities and roads may begin to close as early as mid-September.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
Getting to either of these areas of outstanding natural beauty should pose no major obstacles. Both parks have regional airports nearby, and larger international airports are not too far away.
Glacier National Park is located in northern Montana, adjacent to the Canadian border. The nearest airport is Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell, Montana, which is served by several major airlines.
From the airport, visitors can rent a car and drive to the park’s west entrance, around thirty miles away, or take a shuttle service.
Yellowstone National Park is located mainly in northwestern Wyoming, with entrances in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.
The nearest airport is Bozeman Yellowstone Regional Airport (BZN) in Cody, Wyoming, which is served by several airlines. From the airport, visitors can rent a car and drive to the park’s two most popular entrances, the west and north entrances, or take the shuttle service.
For visitors traveling from overseas, you may need to fly into a larger international airport first and then transfer via a domestic flight to the smaller and closer regional airports. Alternatively, you can rent a car at the international airport and set off on a road trip to enjoy either of these two national parks.
Glacier National Park sits on the Canadian border, and the nearest major international airport is actually Calgary International Airport (YYC). The airport is served by several major airlines, with direct flights to several cities in the United States.
From the airport, visitors can rent a car and drive to Glacier National Park’s west entrance, which is approximately a 4-hour drive. You should be aware that this will involve crossing an international border, though, and you should check with the car rental companies first.
Alternatively, to avoid the need to cross the international border, you could fly into other major US airports, such as Chicago (ORD), Denver (DEN), or Salt Lake City (SLC), and then source an onward domestic flight to Glacier Park International Airport.
The nearest major international airport to Yellowstone National Park is Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC), in Utah. The airport receives several international flights each day, and onward direct flights to many domestic airports are possible.
From the airport, visitors can rent a car and drive to Yellowstone National Park or take a domestic flight to one of the smaller regional airports near the park, such as Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) or Jackson Hole Airport (JAC). The drive from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone National Park’s south entrance covers around 330 miles and takes about five and a half hours.
While both parks have easy access from within the United States, international visitors may find Yellowstone a little less complicated to reach.
Yellowstone vs Glacier National Park: Which Is The Better Choice?
While both Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park are set in stunning areas of the US, which one is best to visit will depend a little on what you want from your trip and also on what time of year you plan to travel.
If you are looking for a winter getaway, you may be better off opting for Yellowstone National Park. Its more southerly position means that it is much more accessible during the winter months.
Glacier National Park sits against the Canadian border, and many of its roads and attractions can be off-limits after heavy snow.
That being said, if you’re a serious hiker looking to hit the trails hard, the trails in Glacier National Park are that little bit more challenging. Glacier is a more mountainous region, and the trails are more rugged with more elevation gain compared with the trails in Yellowstone.
Given the short distance between these two national parks, it is not impossible to visit both in a single trip. Especially if you are traveling from overseas and wish to make the most of your time in the US.
Whichever park you choose to enjoy, you’re sure to encounter stunning scenery and interesting flora and fauna, and neither will disappoint.
The north-west region of the United States is a beautiful place to visit, and Yellowstone and Glacier national parks both showcase this beauty exceptionally well…