5 Perfect (Big) Days in Glacier National Park
By Michael Lanza
The morning sun wouldn’t make the climb over Mt. Grinnell and find its way into the valley of Swiftcurrent Creek for a couple of hours yet, so we hiked quickly without breaking a sweat in the chilly air. No one else was on the popular Swiftcurrent Pass Trail when we set out shortly after dawn, and this trail was new to us; so it felt like we were the first people to walk into this small but spectacular little crease in the mountains of Glacier National Park.
At the head of the valley, we gazed up at several ribbon-like waterfalls free-falling hundreds of feet down cliffs. We zigzagged up through switchbacks toward Swiftcurrent Pass, looking back down the valley at lakes flanked by the upright meat cleavers of Mts. Wilbur and Grinnell. After crossing the pass, we descended across alpine slopes strewn with wildflowers, with a sweeping view of mountains rolling to distant horizons, to the stone buildings of the Granite Park Chalet.
But with more than seven miles in our legs that morning, our day was just half complete. We headed south on the Highline Trail, across alpine meadows, with the miles-long Garden Wall’s cliffs rising above us like a giant blade sprung from the earth. In places, the trail was blasted out of cliff, with a sheer drop-off to one side. We marveled at uninterrupted panoramas of Glacier’s severe topography, where peaks appear to have erupted from the ground and then instantly frozen in place, leaving vertical walls of heavily stratified rock.
We finished that dayhike at 6,646-foot Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road—just a bit over 15 miles from Many Glacier, where we’d started out early that morning. That outing left me with a few strong impressions: First, that it must be one of the most drop-dead gorgeous dayhikes in the national park system. Second, that given the distance and amount of climbing and descending, it wasn’t that hard.
And finally, that Glacier, long recognized as a premier park for backpackers, is a great place for a trip consisting of long dayhikes or trail runs from one or more base camps. You can see a lot of this park’s amazing scenery on day trips—especially if you have the legs for 15 miles or more per day—carrying only a light pack, and enjoy real food (and perhaps a bed) every night.
While you should not underestimate the strenuousness of long tromps through the mountains, Glacier’s well-built and moderately graded trails—mostly pitched at a not-too-steep “horse grade,” for pack animals—are ideal for long-distance hiking and running. Elevations are moderate—you’re rarely above 7,500 feet, and the highest points on the routes described here barely top 8,000 feet. The park’s free and frequent shuttle operating on the Going-to-the-Sun Road greatly eases trailhead transportation logistics and reduces your gas expense. And there are spots like Many Glacier with quick and easy access to high country from a grand hotel, an affordable motel, or a campground.
The five dayhikes or runs described below range from 15 to 20 miles, and each has a longer option. All offer amazing scenery; they vary mostly in the degree of logistical complications and popularity. Tick them all off and you’ll bite off a big chunk of Glacier in an unforgettable week, assuming an extra day or two for bad weather—or maybe a much-deserved rest.
The Hike: Logan Pass to Many Glacier
This is the usual direction of travel for the hike described above because it’s primarily downhill. (I’ve done it in both directions—going in the uphill direction is certainly harder, but the scenery keeps getting better.) The Highline Trail’s 7.6 miles from Logan Pass to Granite Park is one of the park’s most popular walks, so to avoid the hordes, start shortly after sunrise, which is also the best time for seeing wildlife. I’ve seen mountain goats and bighorn sheep on this stretch of trail—and once missed by minutes an encounter with a grizzly that sprinted right past other hikers on a section so narrow they barely had space to lean out of the bear’s path. Do not pass up the side trip to Grinnell Glacier Overlook, which diverges from the Highline Trail 1.8 miles south of Granite Park Chalet; it’s a hump, but the footpath ends at a notch in the Garden Wall high above the Grinnell Glacier and a chain of lakes spilling down a lush valley framed by spectacular mountains and rock walls. That will fire you up for the hike from Siyeh Bend to Many Glacier (below).
The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail from Granite Park to Many Glacier, also 7.6 miles, is also fairly popular but much quieter than this hike’s first half. Watch for goats and sheep at the pass. The descent east off the pass into the glacial cirque forming the headwall of the Swiftcurrent valley is breathtaking. The trail ends in the parking lot adjacent to the Swiftcurrent Motel and its restaurant, a pretty good pizza and pasta joint; minutes after finishing, you can order a celebratory beer.
By the Numbers 15.2 miles, with about 1,000 feet of climbing and more than 2,000 of downhill. Add 1.2 miles and 1,000 feet up and down for the side trip to Grinnell Glacier Overlook.
Getting There The hike begins at Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and finishes at the end of Many Glacier Road, which is off US 89 about 11 miles north of St. Mary, on the park’s east side.
The Hike: The Loop to Ahern Pass
This hike offers a scenic payoff similar to the Logan Pass to Many Glacier route, but with fewer people—partly because you’ll climb 2,200 feet in the first four miles. It also provides the most direct route to Granite Park, where you’ll head north on a section of the Highline Trail that receives much less traffic than the stretch between Granite Park and Logan Pass, but also has constant views of the mountains and a chance of seeing mountain goats and bighorn sheep. The hike gets much easier after Granite Park, mostly contouring with little ups and downs.
The Highline Trail traverses a spectacular cliff face above Ahern Creek right before reaching the last 20 minutes of uphill to Ahern Pass, at 7,100 feet. From the pass, you’ll look down 2,000 feet to Helen Lake, which nestles in the cirque at the head of the Belly River Valley, beneath the soaring walls of Ahern Peak and the Ptarmigan Wall. It’s one of the park’s great backcountry views, and far enough out there that you’ll rarely see more than a handful of other hikers, if any. From Ahern Pass, if you walk just minutes uphill to the north, you’ll gain the crest of Ahern Peak’s southeast ridge for a look at the mountain’s massive east face. If you’re up for a much more strenuous side trip from the pass, look for the faint use trail leading east along the Ptarmigan Wall; it climbs a steep 2,200 feet to Iceberg Notch, which offers a dizzying perspective from high above Iceberg Lake.
By the Numbers 17 miles, with about 3,000 feet of up and down. Alternatively, begin at Logan Pass, go out to Ahern Pass, and then finish at The Loop, which bumps the distance up to 20.6 miles but reduces the amount of uphill by about 2,000 feet.
Getting There The out-and-back hike begins on the Granite Park Trail at The Loop, the major hairpin turn about nine miles west of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The Hike: Siyeh Bend to Many Glacier
Piegan Pass, at just under 7,600 feet, is one of my favorite spots in the park. The panorama takes in the soaring Garden Wall right above you, Piegan Mountain’s cliffs and glacier, the lakes of the Grinnell Valley and amazing peaks jutting above it—and several miles to the south, sighting straight down the classic U-shaped glacial trough of Siyeh Creek Valley, the Blackfoot Glacier, one of the park’s biggest. This hike also takes in gorgeous waterfalls, emerald lakes, and a worthwhile side trip to the fast-disappearing Grinnell Glacier. That detour adds almost five miles to the 13-mile direct route from Siyeh Bend to Many Glacier.
To avoid needing a shuttle, combine this route with the Logan Pass to Many Glacier trip in reverse, spending a night in Many Glacier. Really ambitious hikers and runners could link them up in one huge day, keeping the distance to 28.2 miles by skipping the side trip to Grinnell Glacier. Or you could break up the hike into three days—still only carrying a light pack because you don’t need camping gear—with a second night spent at Granite Park Chalet (graniteparkchalet.com).
By the Numbers 17.9 miles, with about 3,200 feet up and 4,200 of down, including the side trip to Grinnell Glacier.
Getting There Start at Siyeh Bend, about three miles east of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and finish at Many Glacier. A shuttle is needed.
The Hike: Gunsight Pass Trail
Before hiking this trail, I was told by a few people who know the park well that Lake Ellen Wilson is one of its most magical spots—setting up expectations that can be hard to match. But the emerald-green lake, nearly completely hemmed in by ice- and snow-topped, 1,000-foot-tall cliffs with several ribbon waterfalls pouring off them, did not disappoint. It’s almost a shame to not spend a night there, but if long hikes or runs from a comfortable front-country base of operations is your thing, this is a great one by many measures: The trail’s grade is gentle enough to make the ascent to the pass feel relatively easy, there are numerous waterfalls, and you’re virtually guaranteed to see mountain goats.
The side trip to Sperry Glacier tips this trek over the edge from a hard but reasonable day for a fit person to a very hard one—but it’s worth the effort to see the glacier-scoured terrain with its pothole lakes, the expansive glacier and its amazing surroundings, and the very cool final steps to reach Comeau Pass (which I won’t spoil by divulging any details).
By the Numbers 20 miles, with about 3,350 feet up and more than 5,400 feet of down. The out-and-back to Sperry Glacier adds five miles and about 1,600 feet of vertical gain and loss.
Getting There The hike begins at Jackson Glacier Overlook/Gunsight Pass Trailhead, about five miles east of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It finishes at Lake McDonald Lodge, about nine miles east of Apgar on the Sun Road, where there is ample trailhead parking across the street from the trailhead.
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The Hike: Chief Mountain to Many Glacier
Crossing one of the most remote corners of the park, this traverse from the Belly River Valley to Many Glacier also takes in an amazing breadth of scenery. You’ll pass by waterfalls, lakes, glacier-clad peaks and cliffs that stretch for miles—and through one of the park’s most interesting features, the Ptarmigan Tunnel. Constructed in 1930, the 250-foot-long tunnel—tall and wide enough for people on horses—bores through one end of the miles-long cliff called the Ptarmigan Wall. On the tunnel’s north side, the trail is built into a sheer cliff.
You’ll run into some dayhikers between Chief Mountain customs station and Elizabeth Lake; and gobs of hikers from the junction where the Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel Trails split south to Many Glacier. But the middle of this hike, with its incredible views, is pretty lonely, increasing the prospects of wildlife sightings—two friends and I saw mountain goats cavorting on the cliffs of Crowfeet Mountain. The side trip to Iceberg Lake, nestled within cliffs in one of the park’s most-visited and scenic cirques in the park, adds just four miles and about 500 feet round-trip—well worth doing.
By the Numbers 20.1 miles, with 2,600 feet of uphill and 2,800 feet of descent.
Getting There Start at the Chief Mountain customs station trailhead, on MT 17 at the Canadian border, about 32 miles north of St. Mary, and finish at the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Tunnel Trailhead at Many Glacier. A shuttle is needed.
See also my stories “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” and my story about a family trip, “Jagged Peaks, Mountain Lakes, and Wild Goats: A 3-Day Hike on Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail,” and all of my blog posts about Glacier.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR only very fit hikers and runners with experience knocking off long day trips in the mountains. It requires the knowledge of how to prepare with the proper clothes, nutrition, and fluids, and an eye for anticipating changing mountain weather. Consider starting with one of the shorter hikes/runs, to gauge your fitness and readiness for the longer outings, and evaluate what you want to bring with you. While you’ll need the ability to read a map, trails here are obvious and well-marked. See my story “Cranking Out Big Days” for tips on how to pull off long dayhikes and trail runs.
Make It Happen
Season Mid-July through early September is peak season. Snow can make some trails difficult or impassable into early July (check conditions with rangers), and snow can fall in late summer, although those early snowfalls typically melt away with the next sunny day.
The Itinerary The routes described above, or any combination of them, can be done in any order. Although there’s a bit of overlap between some of them, I described each hike as it’s normally done, for aesthetic reasons, and assuming that some readers might not do all of them in one trip. But if you’re confident of your ability to do all of the hikes, and want to link them up on consecutive days (perhaps with a rest day built in), I’d suggest the following itinerary for the easiest transportation logistics and to minimize overlap:
Day one: Get a shuttle to the Chief Mountain customs station and hike (or run) to Many Glacier to spend the night.
Day two: Dayhike up the Swiftcurrent Valley to Swiftcurrent Pass and back (an “easy” day of about 13 miles) to spend another night at Many Glacier.
Day three: Dayhike from Many Glacier to Siyeh Bend; catch the park’s free shuttle bus to lodging or a campground.
Day four: Use the free shuttle for the dropoff and pickup to dayhike the Gunsight Pass Trail—the week’s hardest day if you include the trail to Sperry Glacier.
Day five: Take the free shuttle to Logan Pass, hike to Ahern Pass and down to The Loop (the 20.6-mile option described above).
Getting There West Glacier is about a 3.5-hour drive north of Missoula, MT. West Glacier and East Glacier are both serviced by Amtrak.
Shuttle Services The park’s free shuttle runs regularly between the Apgar Transit Center and St. Mary Visitor Center to numerous stops along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, including trailheads, from early July through early September; see the park’s website for details. Glacier Park, Inc., (406-892-2525, glacierparkinc.com) provides a fee-based shuttle to some areas not serviced by the park’s free shuttle.
Where to Stay Glacier National Park has 13 campgrounds with about 1,000 sites total, many operated on a first-come basis and popular, so don’t arrive too late in the day. Reserve rooms at least a few months in advance if you want to find lodging within the park. Glacier Park, Inc., (406-892-2525, glacierparkinc.com) operates the Village Inn Motel, Lake McDonald Lodge, Rising Sun Motor Inn, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, and the Many Glacier Hotel. There is also the Apgar Village Lodge on Lake McDonald (406-888-5484). Other lodging is available outside the park.
Permit A permit is required for backcountry camping only, not day trips.
Map Trails Illustrated Glacier/Waterton National Park map no. 215 ($11.95; 800-962-1643, natgeomaps.com).
Concerns Hikers and trail runners planning long days are wise to start early—but that’s also a time of day when animals are active, including grizzly bears. And there’s much less likelihood of other people being out there to help alert wildlife to the presence of humans. Travel in a group, stay together, and make noise. Carrying pepper spray in an easily accessible place (e.g., on your pack’s belt) is a good idea; make sure you know how to deploy it. Other large wildlife you’re likely to encounter, like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, or elk, are generally not aggressive toward humans; but maintain a distance so as not to harass or provoke them. Check the weather forecast daily; cold weather and snow are possible even in August.
Contact Glacier National Park, (406) 888-7800, nps.gov/glac.