Perhaps I’m a victim of proximity ignorance, but I had no idea Glacier National Park (the US version) was so popular. Popular and surprisingly difficult to reserve campsites at. I was so worried about getting spots at Yellowstone National Park, I was dumbstruck when my first attempt to book at Glacier failed.
Located in the northwest corner of Montana and bound to the north by an international border (Glacier is twinned with Alberta’s Waterton National Park), I wrongly assumed it was well enough out of the way that it wouldn’t be busy. Yeah, I know, stupid.
Glacier National Park was the last stop on our magnificent camping trip of 2022 with stops in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and a motley selection of state parks and private campgrounds in between. By the time I was attempting to book campsites in Glacier, our itinerary was set in stone, with no wiggle room for the final three nights. Not an ideal situation when booking at high demand, low availability campgrounds.
To add to the difficulty, our options for camping in Glacier National Park were restricted by geography. Glacier has two large campgrounds, one on either end of Road-to-the-Sun, a gorgeous road over which most RVs cannot pass. Even our Nissan Pathfinder pulling a 16’ Geo Pro can not pass.
Besides, the west side campground options were just not convenient for our route home. And one of them was closed for the season, anyway. Not wanting to attempt FCFS camping, we were left with only St. Mary Campground on the east side of the park as an option.
Unfortunately, when the day finally came to book at St. Mary Campground, the few available sites disappeared in a flash. And I didn’t get one.
In a panic, I looked outside the park for options. There’s a huge KOA just outside the eastern park boundary, but the prices are ludicrous. Other options exist, some further away, but finally I settled on Johnson’s Campground, a slightly less ludicrous option also just outside the park’s boundary.
Thankfully, I also found a handy website that systematically scans national park campgrounds for cancellations and sends you notifications when something comes available over your desired timeframe. The basic tier is free, and I gave it a go because, why not.
Well, it worked! Several cancellations would cross my screen in the weeks and months prior to our trip. Some were for sites we didn’t like. Some were for only part of our time frame. Eventually, a decent site became available for our entire window, and we pounced. Three nights at St. Mary Campground in Glacier National Park was a reality and with that our trip was complete.
ST. MARY CAMPGROUND LOCATION
St. Mary Campground is located on a hill overlooking the St. Mary Visitor Center and St. Mary Entrance at the far east end of Glacier National Park near the teeny town of … you guessed it … St. Mary.
The village of St. Mary is situated on highway 89, at roughly the midpoint along the eastern boundary of the park. It also represents the eastern extent of the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, and you’ll find its namesake campground off to the north across the St. Mary River.
That river, I might add, winds its way into Canada and eventually passes another St. Mary Campground. This one is an Alberta provincial park campground, and I wrote about our surprisingly fun stay there.
ST. MARY CAMPGROUND SETTING
Glacier’s St. Mary Campground isn’t the prettiest place you’ll ever pitch your tent. Now, hold on, I know that’s not fair, but it’s true. It’s true because the viewing standards within this national park are so mind-blowingly amazing that a campground stuck out at the eastern edge could only pale by comparison.
It’s also a rather ugly mix of grasslands and stunted, scrappy aspen and poplar trees. There’s a bulb of mature trees through the centre of Loop A that is slightly more appealing, but the remainder of the campground just didn’t impress me much.
I don’t know if this is all natural or the outcome of a former wildfire? Maybe it was logged at one time? Or maybe it’s just the reality of a transition environment. Whatever the case, the mountain conifer forest I was naively expecting prior to investigating camping options does not exist at St. Mary Campground.
That said, there are some lovely views to be had of the mountains to the west and southwest. With the rising slope of the campground and uneven tree cover, some campsites have tantalizing views of what awaits you in the heart of the park.
ST. MARY CAMPGROUND LAYOUT
St. Mary Campground houses 141 standard, non-serviced campsites in three, large loops (A through C). All the sites are arcuate pull-throughs and reside on both side of roads. Once again, NPS relegates half the campers to backward setups. Not a big deal for those with tents, but annoying as hell for those with RVs.
The loops are arranged like petals on a flower radiating from a single access stem. Loops A and B are both elongated ovals with Loop A the lowest and next to the St. Mary River. Loop C is triangular in shape and is positioned at the top of the slope.
It is also the least sheltered of the three loops, with only the easternmost campsites having any tree cover, few of which are large. Loop B has more trees for the most part, but again, few are overly tall. Only the central portion of Loop A has genuine, tall tree cover that will fully shade the campsites within.
Another advantage to Loop A, assuming the mature trees are to your liking, is that this loop forbids generators. Loop B and C both allow them, and with no power at any site, you’re sure to hear a few scattered about. There are strict posted time limits for using them, with that caveat that I’ve no idea how strong enforcement is.
Main roads throughout the campground are all paved, but it’s old asphalt and is disintegrating everywhere.
ST. MARY CAMPGROUND CAMPSITES
Although size varies a bit, campsite layout is uniform across St. Mary Campground. A gravel pullout diverges from the campground road and beyond that is what I’ll call the living bulb, where the firepit and picnic table resides. In some sites, a bordered plot for tent setup is also present.
With the entire campground on the side of a hill, in some instances the living bulb is not at grade with the driveway. This results in a tiered campsite which may or may not appeal to you. For those with tents, it’s not such a big deal but if you have an RV, you may find it frustrating.
Our site in Loop C was one of the non-tiered versions and I was reasonably happy with it. There was some modest aspen present that offered some shade to the living bulb. We had a nice campfire in the broad, low-profile firepit and watched the stars come out.
The driveway was quite narrow and either side was thick with trees and shrubs. It was also a backwards site leaving us completely unable to use our awning. There was room for our small slideout, but just. I’d be concerned trying to fit an RV much larger than ours into this campsite.
Some campsites, by comparison, are capable of handling very large RVs, but for the most part smaller is better. Just be conscious of your length when booking.
Two accessible campsites are located next to the shower house in Loop C. They are identical to the other campsites with exception of a raised tent pad. That’s something I’ve never seen before and is rather interesting. Typically, accessible campsites cater to RVers.
I’ll add too that a handful of sites are quite close together, almost paired. They aren’t double sites, but rather just close together around loop bends (back to back), for example. Again, not a deal breaker, just something to be aware of. Campsite privacy can vary quite substantially.
And finally, a couple of the sites at the bottom of Loop A were closed due to damage. Another one or two were in very rough shape. These sites are close to the river, so I suspect flood damage.
GROUP CAMPING AT ST. MARY CAMPGROUND
At the very tippy top of Loop C is the lone group camping site. It’s labeled as sites 139 and 140 on the campground map given to visitors.
As group sites go, this is the bare minimum. It’s really just a site (maybe two) with an extended green space attached. It was very much likely two regular pull-through campsites originally.
RVs can use the leftover gravel driveways, but there isn’t room for many. And if you are using them, that leaves little to no parking for any tent campers in your group. They, in turn, will set up their tents in the grass as there aren’t any demarked tent pitches (note … the Google satellite photos show some but I didn’t see any in person).
The extended green space is nice, but completely unsheltered. Additional picnic tables and an upsized firepit are the only upgrades from a regular campsite. Better than nothing, I suppose, but not a genuine group campsite in my opinion.
There is a designated campground host site, but when we were there it was vacated. I have no idea if this was temporary or if they are no longer employing hosts. I can’t say I miss having a host. But I will say that being a campground host in Glacier National Park would be a pleasant way to spend a summer.
BATHROOMS AND SHOWERS
There are 8 bathrooms in St. Mary Campground, each with flushing toilets. Yay!
The buildings are old but have renovated interiors. Dual flush toilets, urinal, sinks, hand dryer, and a baby change table are all provided in the mens. I assume the womens is similar, sans urinal. Each of these buildings also has a single clean-up station for tent campers.
The bathrooms each have an associated parking lot that is sometimes not immediately next to the structure. This requires a bit of a walk. The path from the parking to the washrooms are now concrete sidewalks making them accessible. Accessible parking is also available in the upgraded parking lots.
Campers capable of walking have worn dirt paths into the grass to access the bathrooms from the other direction.
Of the 8 bathrooms, 6 are inside the 3 loops, one towards each end. The other two bathrooms are found in the space between Loops A and B and Loops B and C. This puts a washroom fairly close to your site, regardless of location. It also puts a washroom dirt path very close to certain campsites. I would advise you to refrain from choosing any such campsite unless you literally have no other choice.
A shower house is paired with a bathroom on the west side of Loop C. Unfortunately, during out stay in 2022, it was closed for renovations. And I do mean, closed, I couldn’t even peak in a window, let alone an open door, to see what they looked like.
Oddly, there is at least one pit toilet in the campground. It’s located between the accessible campsites and the shower house. It looks newer than the bathrooms, so I’m not sure why it exists. I can’t imagine anyone choosing a vault toilet over a flush version. Perhaps it’s for shoulder season campers when the water has been turned off for the winter?
Potable water is available from several spigots scattered about the campground. Their locations have little rhyme or reason. Some are beside bathrooms while others are in the middle of the loop interiors. And still others are placed inconveniently close to other campsites.
This was the case with the tap closest our campsite. I was all but standing at their trailer door when filling my water bottle and eventually started using a tap further along the road just to avoid the discomfort of it all. You will want to avoid a campsite hosting a water tap.
Additional water is available at the dump station near the campground entrance.
Bear proof food storage is similarly placed randomly around St. Mary Campground. These are not site specific, so if a lot of tent campers show up and need them, you will be sharing space. Of course, most people will just use their vehicles. Not sure these bins get used much anymore?
The short shoot entry road to the campground momentarily splits to accommodate a log registration office. This is where you’ll register during work hours in the core camping season.
The park staff are friendly and will get you on your way quickly after providing a map and giving you the bear aware speech.
The map shows self-serve kiosks at the entry to each individual loop as well, but our timing coincided with workers being present in the main office.
Immediately to the west of the registration office, is the lone dump station at St. Mary Campground. It too appears to have been recently upgraded, with fresh asphalt and concrete. It remains a single outlet, however, and lineups can quickly form on popular departure days.
As mentioned, potable water is available here as well as a recycling and garbage station.
AMPHITHEATRE (NO PLAYGROUND)
True to form, there is no playground at St. Mary Campground, but there is an amphitheater. And not only does it exist, but it is also being used for programming. I was even present for one such program on the Thursday evening of our stay, an interesting, interactive lecture on communities in the park and fungi.
Situated in the interior of Loop C near the west bathroom and shower house, the amphitheater is looking a bit worse for wear. There is no stage, and the benches need repainting. The once gravel base is overgrown with grass and weeds. But, hey, at least they’re using it!
There is plenty of incredible hiking available in Glacier National Park, but none of it originates from St. Mary Campground. Not surprising considering its location. I am including this section thanks to a short, but quaint hike from Loop A to the St. Mary Visitor Center.
The trailhead is located between sites 12 and 14, pretty much in the dead center of Loop A. Comprised of dirt and gravel, it’s not an interesting trail save for the footbridge over the St. Mary River. I thought it was a pretty little bridge, albeit creosote soaked. It makes a nice spot to pause and watch the water flow beneath you.
ST MARY VISITOR CENTER
As the first impression to visitors of Glacier National Park in the east, the St. Mary Visitor Center puts forth its best foot. It’s an architecturally appealing building that fits well with its surroundings.
Inside you’ll find the expected amenities. A central service desk has park staff to answer your questions about the park and get you prepared for backcountry adventures. A large auditorium shows informative, park-related films and hosts presentations. Educational displays expound on the Blackfeet Indigenous peoples of the area. And a modest gift shop offers clothing and keepsakes.
A strip of bathrooms is attached to the structure but accessed from outside. And three large parking lots provide parking for vehicles and RVs alike.
One of the more interesting accessories to the Visitor Center is a small observatory for stargazing programs. I was unable to participate in any astronomical programming during our stay, but it was interesting to see such a structure present. Glacier is surely a great place to view the stars.
Along the central parking lot is a shuttle station for the shuttle service that travels the length of Going-To-The-Sun Road stopping at popular viewpoints along the way.
Extending southward from the Visitor Center is the main park entrance with staffed kiosks.
RISING SUN MOTEL/STORE/RESTAURANT
What neither the Visitor Center nor St. Mary Campground have is food, gas, or firewood. For those you’ll have to venture forwards or backwards.
The venture forwards option is the Rising Sun Motel located 9 km further into Glacier National Park. It’s an additional option for accommodations, obviously, but also boasts a restaurant and general store.
We didn’t eat at the restaurant so I can’t say much about menu quality. The park website describes it as family friendly serving a classic American menu. Hard to screw up “classic American” too badly.
The General Store is a combination grocerette, gift shop, and camping/hiking supply store. There’s a little bit of everything here that should help save your butt in emergencies. And there’s firewood here for your campfire.
ST. MARY VILLAGE (and LODGE)
The venture backwards option is to return to St. Mary Village just outside the park. The village is hardly a full-service town, but it has more to offer than anywhere inside the park.
There’s more to St. Mary than the lodge, but the lodge is certainly the most noticeable place in town. Similar to the villages found in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, St. Mary Village Lodge offers plentiful accommodations plus a grocery store, gift shop, outfitting store, and a gas station. More importantly, it has a café that serves ice cream.
The Curly Bear Café is a nifty place, quite attractively adorned for what otherwise looks like a cafeteria. Food is classic American too, I guess, but the ice cream selection was rather novel. Selection was modest and they were sold out of waffle cones when we visited, but the honey cinnamon flavoured ice cream was incredible.
The outfitter shop was surprisingly robust. I still wonder about people that show up at a national park without any of this equipment already in their possession.
The grocery store is like most park grocery stores, smaller than your city grocer but bigger than a convenience store, with prices that’ll clamp your sphincter. They too sell large bundles of firewood.
And there’s a gas station with the expected overpriced gasoline. It’s not like you have much choice in these parts, so suck it up buttercup.
MY CONCLUSION ABOUT ST. MARY CAMPGROUND
Oooohhhhhh, this is so hard. I hate making up these ratings sometimes. I should never have even started in the first place. Alas, there is no turning back once the opinion ball starts rolling.
This may seem a bit petty, but I’m giving St. Mary Campground 3.4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. There wasn’t anything especially wrong with the place, it just didn’t wow me much. The park did, but not the campground. Sounds a little stupid now that I’ve written it.
The lack of showers was a bit annoying, but at least they were closed for renovation purposes. I’m sure they’re wonderful now. No playground is probably frustrating for some families. There’s certainly space for one. The campsite layouts are often too tight, and I still hate the backwards setup with our trailer opening up onto the road.
On the other hand, there were flush toilets and actual functioning ranger programming. Some sites offer spiffy views (ours did not) and overall, St. Mary Campground did everything we needed for our three-night stay. With limited options for RVers wanting to reserve, I should be more grateful perhaps. Hell, we were lucky to get in here at all.
Glacier National Park is without a doubt worth visiting. If you camp at St. Mary, you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t expect to be impressed either. But you won’t be spending much time at your site anyway.