Bears, wolves, moose, elk, deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, birds, fish, and reptiles can all be found in Glacier National Park, but where is the best place in the park to see these animals?
Most of the time animals will congregate in the areas with the best habitat. Those will be the areas with the best food, water, and shelter. To see wildlife you need to find a location where you can observe as much good wildlife habitat as possible and be there at the times of day when wildlife are most likely to be moving.
The Logan Pass area, specifically the Hidden Lake Trail, offers the best combination of suitable habitat and vantage points to observe bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and moose in Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park also hosts many bird, fish, and amphibian species. This article will focus on the larger animals because they are usually of most interest and are most sensitive to human presence, which often makes them harder to find than birds and fish.
Wildlife Habitat in Glacier National Park
The key to finding wildlife is to first identify their habitat. The things they need to survive. Any animal needs food, water, and shelter. Requirements for those important things are the same in Glacier National Park as they are anywhere else. I’ll quickly go through the most important habitat factors for the large mammals in the park. This will help you find places to focus your wildlife watching efforts.
Deer, Elk, and Moose
Most cervids (members of the deer family, which includes deer, elk, and moose) have similar habitat requirements. They need good browse (food), water, and places of shelter. Water abounds in Glacier National Park so wherever you are there’s a good chance water is close by.
Deer, elk, and moose are going to eat slightly different foods. Deer probably have the widest diet range. They will eat anything from grass to sagebrush. Elk are going to be more oriented towards grasses and tender shoots on plants like willows. The best browse for moose is usually in riparian areas (areas near water). Moose focus on willows and other riparian plants and even eat submerged vegetation.
For shelter, the cervids are going to seek out shaded areas with overhead cover. Elk usually seek out slopes and benches timbered with conifers. Moose and deer are a little more variable in the places they bed. You can find them in similar locations to elk, but they will also bed in thick deciduous vegetation.
Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep
The habitats of mountain goats and bighorn sheep differ from the cervids but their feeding areas may overlap. Goats and sheep can often be found feeding in the same alpine meadows that deer, elk, and moose may sometimes occupy. However, they also spend a good deal of time feeding on steep, rocky slopes.
For shelter sheep and goats take to the cliffs where they have good lines of sight and are difficult to access. During warm, sunny days search the shadows of steep slopes and cliffs for bedded goats and sheep.
When bears (both black and grizzly) aren’t in hibernation they are looking for food to eat to put on fat for the upcoming winter. Bears eat almost anything so you can find them almost anywhere. When in season, berries are a favorite. Huckleberries abound in Glacier National Park and a reliable way to find bears in August is to watch huckleberry patches on open hillsides. If the berries are ripe it’s a good bet a bear will show up eventually. Bears also eat grasses and forbs, small mammals, large mammals, fish, roots, honey, and a number of other foods.
Just like the cervids, bears will often look for cool, shady places to take a rest during warm days. Though they may also stay out and eat all day, especially during autumn when they are trying to put on some extra fat.
Finding Wildlife Near Hidden Lake and Logan Pass
The Hidden Lake and Logan Pass area is the best place to see wildlife in Glacier National Park because it meets the habitat requirements of all the big animals in a small area. Near Logan Pass, there is great mountain goat and bighorn sheep habitat. As you move toward Hidden Lake there are more patches of timber to support elk and deer and riparian areas for moose.
Once you know the habitats different animals are likely to use, you’ll need to consider when animals will be using those habitats and the best method to see them when they’re there. The best time of day and method for viewing may vary for different species of wildlife.
What is the Best Method to Find Wildlife?
Spotting with Optics
You will have the best success finding wildlife the place where you can see the most wildlife habitat. Usually, the best way to do this is to find a good vantage point that overlooks areas where animals are likely to be feeding or bedded. Then use binoculars and/or a spotting scope to find animals.
Animals that are feeding in meadows and openings in the forest are usually quite easy to spot. If you are using optics, it’s a good idea to scan the openings first to see if any animals are out and moving around. Once you’ve checked the open areas you can start focusing on places with vegetative cover.
Even with optics, there will be some areas where the vegetation is too thick to see into. In other areas, there may be places where you can see through to the ground. During the warm part of the day make sure to look in shaded areas for animals that may be bedded there to escape the heat.
From the Logan Pass visitors center, we were able to see a bighorn ram on the opposite hillside without binoculars. He was over a quarter of a mile away and laying down, but once you knew where he was it wasn’t too hard to pick him out.
Hiking and Looking
If you don’t have binoculars or a spotting scope don’t worry. You will have opportunities to see wildlife without them. Mountain goats are a prime example. Because they are nearly white, you can spot mountain goats at long distances without optics. Glacier National Park is full of mountain goats, especially in the Logan Pass and Hidden Lake areas.
You can also spot animals while hiking trails, though it’s not as effective as dedicating time to sit and look. If the main purpose of your hike is to see animals it pays to slow down a little bit and spend more time looking and listening to your surroundings. I would not recommend this method for bears. It’s safest to spot bears from a distance.
Of course, even if you’re just hiking at regular speed there’s a good chance you can still find wildlife. We saw several mountain goats in the meadows and cliffs next to the Hidden Lake Trail and Logan Pass area.
Rely on Others
In national parks, many visitors are happy to point out the wildlife they spot. So relying on others with more expertise can be a good strategy. This may be especially true if you’re new to wildlife viewing and don’t know exactly what to look for yet.
What is the Best Time of Day to see Wildlife?
Deer, Elk, and Moose
Morning and evening, near sunrise and sunset, are the best times to see deer, elk, and moose. Most cervids (members of the deer family, which includes deer, elk, and moose) are crepuscular, which means they are most active near dawn and dusk. These are the times they are most likely to be feeding in open areas. This is the time of day they are most visible and easiest to see.
Once the sun comes up deer, elk, and moose will find places to rest, or bed down, for most of the day. Cervids look for safety and shelter when selecting a location to bed. Bedding areas are usually shaded places in thicker vegetation that offers protection from sunlight and makes it difficult to see the animals.
Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep
Similar to elk, moose, and deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep are most likely to be on their feet and feeding in the hours near dawn and dusk. However, it seems they are also likely to get up from their beds more frequently during daylight hours.
Because sheep and goats occupy open habitats (cliffs and rocky outcroppings) they are often easily spotted during daylight hours. With their white coats, mountain goats are especially easy to see throughout the day.
Grizzly bears and black bears can be seen at any time of the day. This is especially true in the autumn when bears are in hyperphagia (eating as much as possible) to put on extra fat for the winter. However, during warm days it’s common for bears to find shady places to rest or feed under the timber making them less visible.
What are the Best Habitats to Look for Wildlife?
So far we’ve discussed what Glacier National Park animals need to survive, methods to look for them, and the best time of day to look for them. Certain animals are going to be more visible in certain habitats and different times of the day. These next sections will give some suggestions for where to start looking for different big game animals in Glacier National Park.
Deer, Elk, and Moose
As discussed earlier, once cervids bed down in the morning they can be difficult to find until they come back out in the evening to feed again. The best place to look for deer, elk, and moose in the morning and evening is going to be open areas and edge habitats where they are feeding or traveling to and from feeding and bedding areas.
Edge habitats are where one habitat, like a meadow, transitions to another habitat, like a timbered area. These are transition zones where vegetation communities change and often offer both cover and food. It is common for cervids (and other animals) to follow these transitions when feeding or traveling.
Areas that have previously burned are a great place to look for cervids. After a fire, many of the lush, tender understory plants that provide great forage for elk, moose, and deer are the first plants to grow. There aren’t any old burns in the Logan/Pass hidden lake area, but you can find them as you head down the mountain in either direction on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Basically, you want to look where you can see. It’s not going to do you a lot of good to stare at a timber patch where you can’t see the ground through the trees. If you’re not seeing any animals after an hour or so, you may want to move to a different vantage point. Even though you may be looking at good habitat the animals may just not be there on that day.
Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep
There are two places you’ll have the most luck finding mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Alpine meadows and cliffy, craggy, rocky hillsides. You’ll have the best luck finding goats and sheep feeding in alpine meadows in the mornings and evenings. During the day your best bet is to look for them on the nasty (for a human) hillsides where they are protected from predators.
Don’t discount those steep hillsides in the morning and evening hours. Even where it appears there is only rock and dirt goats and sheep can find good food sources.
In reality, you can find bears almost anywhere because they are omnivorous so they can find food almost anywhere. However, there are a couple of places I’ve found I see bears more consistently.
First, meadows and ‘parks’. While we often tend to think of bears (especially grizzly bears) as voracious predators a large part of their diet consists of plants. It’s very common to find bears grazing in meadows and parks (small openings in the forest) in the mornings and evenings (and even during the day). In the early spring, the best way to find bears is often to look for the greenest grass on a hillside and wait for a bear to come graze.
Second, berry patches. It’s no secret that bears love berries. There are plenty of berries in Glacier National Park and bears seem to especially love huckleberries. Most berries become ripe in late summer (late July and August) and early autumn (September). These are good times to observe a berry patch (from a distance) to see if any bears show up.
Third, carcasses. When bears can make a kill or take over a carcass they often stay close to that food source. If you can find, or hear of, a carcass where a bear has been feeding there’s a good chance it will be back. Once again, carcasses should only be viewed from a distance. It’s never a good idea to get between a bear and its meal.
Many animal encounters just happen by chance. If you spend enough time in Glacier National park you’ll eventually bump into some animals somewhere. However, if your main goal is to view wildlife you’ll have the best luck as you take some deliberate actions to put yourself in a position to view the best habitats at the best times of the day. If you’re unsure where to start looking for wildlife in Glacier National Park the Hidden Lake and Logan Pass areas give you a good chance to get started seeing wildlife. As you grow more confident in your wildlife finding skills venture out to find your own locations. I hope this article has given you a helpful starting place to find wildlife, but remember, the only way you can see wildlife is if you go out and try to find them. You’ll learn more from your experiences, mistakes, failures, and successes than you will from reading this (or any other) article.