Explore McDonald Falls: Hiking and Activities Guide

McDonald Falls, located in Glacier National Park, Montana, is a nature lover’s paradise waiting to be explored. This picturesque spot, along the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, offers a breathtaking view of a beautiful waterfall. 

I’ll guide you through everything you need to know about McDonald Falls and its surrounding attractions. From the best times to visit for the most spectacular views to the variety of hiking trails nearby, I’ll help you plan your adventure. 

Have you ever wondered what makes McDonald Falls such a popular destination in Glacier National Park? As we explore the beauty and accessibility of this natural wonder, you might find yourself inspired to visit and experience its magic for yourself.

7 Key Takeaways on McDonald Falls

  1. McDonald Falls in Glacier National Park is easily accessible from Going-to-the-Sun Road, with a viewing area that offers a close look at the waterfall’s beauty.
  2. The falls are fed by McDonald Creek and are best viewed in late spring through autumn when the water flow is at its peak, with early spring and late fall offering the clearest views.
  3. Families and visitors of all ages and mobility levels can enjoy McDonald Falls, as it is one of the few waterfalls in the park that doesn’t require a long hike to reach.
  4. Hiking trails near McDonald Falls, like Trail of the Cedars, Avalanche Lake Trail, and Siyeh Pass Trail, cater to various skill levels and offer breathtaking views of the surrounding landscapes.
  5. Activities near McDonald Falls include hiking, picnicking, and photography, providing a range of ways to experience the natural beauty of the area.
  6. Adventure enthusiasts can explore white water rafting and boating near McDonald Falls, with options for guided tours and rentals, offering a thrilling way to enjoy the water.
  7. Safety is paramount, with swimming near the falls prohibited due to strong currents, but there are plenty of other safe spots for swimming in lakes and streams throughout Glacier National Park and Flathead County.

About McDonald Falls

Location CoordinatesElevationNearby FeaturesLocation
48.63949° N, -113.86444° W3,210 feet (978 meters)Lake McDonald, Avalanche Lake, Hidden Lake, and St. Mary LakeGoing-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Flathead County, Montana

McDonald Falls is a special spot in Glacier National Park, nestled in Flathead County. It’s right along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, making it super easy to find. A quick walk down some stairs from the road leads you to a narrow viewing area where you can see the waterfall in all its glory.

Interestingly, some visitors think that the view from the road and parking area near the stairs is even better than the official viewing ledge. This might be because the view from the ledge can sometimes be blocked by plants, especially in different seasons. If you want the best view, early spring and late fall are great times to visit.

What’s cool about McDonald Falls is that it’s a hit with all kinds of visitors. Since it’s so easy to get to, families with little ones and people with mobility issues can enjoy it too. 

If you’re planning a visit, keep in mind that it can get pretty busy, especially during the busiest times of the day. So, if you prefer a quieter experience, aiming for early morning or late afternoon might be your best bet.

McDonald Falls gets its water from McDonald Creek, and the best time to see it is from late spring through autumn when the flow is at its peak.

If you’re looking to stay close, there are over 20 campgrounds nearby with hundreds of sites, as well as some RV parks. It’s a great place to make a home base for exploring the falls and the park.

Hiking Trails Near McDonald Falls

A winding trail near McDonald Falls in Montana takes you through lush greenery

McDonald Falls is surrounded by some of the most beautiful hiking trails in Montana. These trails offer a mix of difficulty levels and stunning views, making them perfect for nature enthusiasts of all kinds. 

Each of these trails near McDonald Falls offers a unique perspective on the natural beauty of the area, from serene forest walks to breathtaking mountain vistas. 

1. Upper McDonald Creek Trailhead

The Upper McDonald Creek Trailhead leads through towering trees toward the scenic McDonald Waterfall in Montana.

Trail Length5.6 miles (9 km)
Elevation Gain278 feet (84.7 meters)
Trail TypeOut and back

The Upper McDonald Creek Trail in Glacier National Park is a perfect pick for a leisurely hike, offering a delightful nature experience.

It’s one of those trails that most people finish in under 2 hours, making it great for a quick outdoor adventure. This trail is a hit with birdwatchers, horseback riders, hikers, and trail runners, but remember, it’s a no-dog zone.

Families looking for a peaceful hike will love the Upper McDonald Creek Trail. The path is dotted with shady spots, passing through forests, wetlands, and leading to the falls. If you’re planning a visit, remember that pets are not allowed on this particular trailhead.

2. Apgar Lookout Trailhead

A peaceful view of the mountains from Apgar Lookout Trailhead.
source: flickr.com

Trail Length7.1 to 7.2 miles (11.42 to 11.58 meters) round trip
Elevation GainApproximately 1,900 feet (579.12 meters)
Trail TypeOut and back

This trail is no walk in the park, clocking in at around 7.1 to 7.2 miles (11.42 to 11.58 meters) round trip, offering a challenging adventure for avid hikers.

One of the highlights of this trail is the panoramic view of Lake McDonald and the Flathead Valley. It’s a real treat for those who love to capture the beauty of nature in their memories and on camera.

The trail itself is like a mini adventure park, with a mix of terrains that keep things interesting. But, this variety can also make it a bit tricky, especially for beginners or those looking for an easier path.

Despite its challenges, the Apgar Lookout Trailhead promises a hike that’s worth every drop of sweat. The stunning views and the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel at the top make it a must-do for anyone who loves a good challenge and breathtaking scenery.

3. Johns Lake Loop Trailhead

Johns Lake Loop Trailhead guides you through a tranquil coniferous forest, perfect for wildlife spotting near McDonald Waterfall in Montana.
source: flickr.com

Trail Length1.8 miles (2.89 km) (out-and-back)
Elevation Gain225 feet (68.58 meters)
DifficultyFairly easy
Trail TypeLoop

The Johns Lake Loop Trailhead is nestled 1.3 miles east of Lake McDonald Lodge along the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road. This spot marks the beginning of the well-loved 1.8-mile (2.89 km) Johns Lake Loop hike, a journey that nature enthusiasts adore.

Along the way, hikers are treated to breathtaking sights, including the reflective beauty of Johns Lake, the mesmerizing Sacred Dancing Cascade, and the powerful McDonald Falls.

For those planning their visit, the trailhead parking area can welcome about 7 or 8 cars, making it a convenient starting point for your adventure. The hike is rated as fairly easy, with a total elevation gain of 225 feet (68.58 meters), ensuring a delightful outdoor experience that’s accessible and enjoyable for many.

This hike is a gem for those looking to immerse themselves in the natural wonders of Glacier National Park, offering a perfect blend of picturesque landscapes and a manageable trail length.

Things to Do at McDonald Falls

During winter, the tranquil McDonald Waterfall transforms into a serene scene as icy waters cascade over a snow-lined forest stream in Montana.
source: flickr.com

McDonald Falls is more than just a sight to see; it’s a place to experience. Here are some things you can do to make the most of your visit.

1. White Water Rafting

A group of adventurers engages in white-water rafting near McDonald Waterfall

White water rafting is a top adventure pick in Glacier National Park and the wider Montana area. It’s a thrilling way to experience the natural beauty and excitement of McDonald Falls. What’s cool is you can choose between guided tours or going on your own if you have the gear or rent it.

For those looking to make a splash, you’ll find options for quick runs or more relaxed trips, ranging from partial to multi-day adventures. Before you book, it’s smart to think about what extras you might want, like snacks, meals, or even camping gear.

If you’re ready to ride the rapids, some popular choices for tours and rentals are:

  • Get Your Guide Day Rafting Trip
  • Glacier Raft Company
  • Great Northern Rafting and Resort
  • Rafting Trips with Wild River Adventure

Each of these outfits offers a unique way to enjoy the water, whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned rafter. 

2. Swimming

Two children jump excitedly into Lake McDonald during a Montana summer

Swimming in McDonald Falls is off-limits, and for good reason. Waterfalls, as beautiful as they are, can be dangerous. They create strong currents called undertows that can pull you under, making it risky to swim there.

But don’t worry, Glacier National Park has plenty of other safe spots for swimming. You can enjoy a dip in lakes like Ipasha, Margaret, or Lake McDonald. Plus, there are many roadside and backcountry lakes and streams throughout the park that offer easy access to cool off.

Remember, safety first. Always pick spots that are safe for swimming, especially since there are no lifeguards in the park. It’s also a good idea to swim with a buddy and never alone.

The water in these natural spots can be pretty cold, coming from glaciers and mountain peaks, so be prepared for a refreshing chill.

3. Boating

A tranquil lakeside setting featuring a rowboat anchored to a wooden pier surrounded by trees near McDonald Waterfall

Boating is a big deal in Glacier National Park and the areas nearby. If you’re looking to dip your oars in the water, you’ve got some amazing spots to choose from.

Inside Glacier National Park:

Holland Lake and Lake Josephine are both popular spots for boating. They offer serene waters and stunning views, perfect for a day out on the boat.

Outside the Park:

The boating scene in Flathead County is top-notch. Here are some places that are just waiting for you to make ripples:

  • Flathead Lake and Corridor
  • Swan Lake
  • Salmon Lake
  • Placid Lake
  • Hungry Horse Reservoir
  • Noxon Reservoir

Boating is a fantastic way to experience the natural beauty of Montana, and these spots are sure to provide unforgettable adventures.

McDonald Falls Final Thoughts

A picturesque, sun-drenched view of McDonald Waterfall cascading through a lush mountainous forest in Montana.
source: flickr.com

McDonald Falls is more than a scenic stop along Going-to-the-Sun Road; it’s a nature lover’s dream come true. What makes it special is how accessible it is.

Just a short walk from the parking area leads you to a perfect view. This means everyone, no matter their age or ability, can enjoy its beauty.

The area around McDonald Falls is full of adventure. You can choose from many hiking trails like Upper McDonald Creek, Apgar Lookout, and Johns Lake Loop. If you’re into more intense activities, there’s white water rafting and boating, perfect for exploring the wild side of Glacier.

While you’re having fun, it’s important to stay safe, especially near the water. Swimming close to the falls can be dangerous, so it’s best to enjoy the view from a safe distance. This way, your visit is not only memorable but also worry-free.

McDonald Falls is like a door that opens to more of Glacier National Park. It’s a great starting point for your adventure, showing you the park’s beauty and how easy it is to explore.

McDonald Falls FAQs

1. Can You Swim at McDonald Falls?

No, swimming at McDonald Falls is strictly prohibited due to safety concerns. Waterfalls like McDonald Falls create powerful undertows that can pose significant risks to swimmers.

2. Are Pets Allowed at McDonald Falls?

Pets are generally allowed in Glacier National Park but are not permitted on certain trails and areas, including those leading to waterfalls like McDonald Falls. Visitors should check park regulations regarding pets before visiting.

3. Is Hiking Necessary to Reach McDonald Falls?

No, hiking is not necessary to reach McDonald Falls as it is a roadside waterfall. Visitors can view the falls from a narrow area after a short walk down some stairs descending from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

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Written by:

Ashley Smith
Hello there! I'm Ashley Smith, born on a chilly winter's day, Montana has been my playground since childhood. The first snowfall of the year always brings back memories of building snowmen and winter hikes. Co-founding PocketMontana.com was my way of sharing the magic of Montana's seasons with the world. While Chris dives deep into the landscapes, I'm obsessed with Montana's rich culture, from the local festivals to the tales passed down generations.

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