Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop
By Michael Lanza
Never mind that it was the seventh straight bluebird morning of backpacking in mountains that constantly look surreal, like a painted mural backdrop in a movie. It didn’t matter that the trip had been a parade of wildlife. We even forgot about the heaviness in our legs from 15-mile days.
The menacing snarl piercing the silence seized our full attention.
My buddy Jerry Hapgood and I stood in the warm sunshine at 7,050-foot Lincoln Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. We had stopped for a snack after passing yet another mountain goat with a kid—I’d lost track of our goat tally for the week—and had just started ambling down the trail again when the sound stopped us cold. Then we heard it a second time, and followed it with our eyes.
Below us about 200 vertical feet and three switchbacks, the authors of the menacing snarls wrestled in the sparse conifer forest beside a small tarn: two grizzly cubs. Grazing nearby was their mom, whom I’ll politely describe as a big woman. They were about four steps off the trail we needed to descend, a distance I quickly calculated that sow griz could close, at her max speed of 35 mph, in 0.16 seconds.
I felt suddenly very anxious.
We waited, watching the bears. No amount of yelling, “Hey bear!” sent them packing. No amount of impatience persuaded us to just go for it and walk past them. An hour crawled by. Then three other hikers came along, two men and a woman in their 20s, going in our direction.
After a brief, excited discussion, we concurred on a plan: The five of us would hike down together, making abundant noise, exploiting the impressive force of our numbers to scare the grizzlies away. It seemed like an excellent idea. As Jerry and I turned to retrieve our packs, the woman in their trio said, gravely, “There are the bears, guys.”
When we looked downhill, she added, “No, behind you.” I doubt I’ll ever forget the cold shiver her words sent through me.
Jerry and I spun around to see the sow not 30 feet from us across a grassy meadow. She had just emerged from a copse of trees, her cubs in single-file formation behind her. From that close, I saw the hairs standing up on her hump, her shoulders rippling, her mouth slightly agape showing off incisors that could cut through human flesh like it was thinly sliced prosciutto. She looked a little bigger than my refrigerator would if laid on its side.
As we backpedaled, trying unconvincingly to exude calm, she sniffed the air, swung her massive head in our direction, and fixed a hard, top-of-the-food-chain predator stare directly on us.
Six days earlier, our September week of backpacking through Glacier commenced with the kind of scenery that justifies a badly abused adjective: awesome. Two hours after parking our car, Jerry, another friend, Geoff Sears, who was along for the trip’s first five days, and I walked up to Piegan Pass at over 7,500 feet and suddenly contracted a bad case of goofy grins. The pinnacled Garden Wall’s long barrier of cliffs rose before us like a 500-foot-high castle. Below it, emerald lakes speckled the valley we would descend. Clouds billowed dramatically over a jumble of sharply angled mountains extending to a distant horizon, in the direction we were headed.
Jerry joked with friendly sarcasm, “I can’t see why you wanted to take us here, Mike. It’s not like there’s much to see.”
Jerry and Geoff are in Glacier for the first time, but for both it’s been a dream trip years coming—because that’s what Glacier embodies for hikers, our highest aspirations. For my fifth visit here, I crafted a somewhat unorthodox itinerary that would normally require complicated driving acrobatics, but is made logistically effortless by the park’s free shuttle buses. It would have us touching down in the front country twice during the week. That’s not my usual backpacking M.O., but it offered certain advantages: We could target backcountry highlights that required one short, mid-trip shuttle down the Going-to-the-Sun Road; and on day five, Geoff could depart (he needed to get home) and Jerry and I could resupply.
First up: a 65-mile, five-day horseshoe-shaped circuit from Siyeh Bend on the Sun Road to Ptarmigan Tunnel, Stoney Indian Pass, Fifty Mountain, and Logan Pass. Then Geoff would travel home and Jerry and I resupply for a 25-mile overnight from Jackson Glacier Overlook on the Sun Road to Lake McDonald Lodge via Gunsight Pass and a side trip to Sperry Glacier.
Standing in Piegan Pass, a profound sense of déjà vu overwhelmed me, though I’d never seen this spot before. Then it hit me. Glacier’s mountains remind me vividly of the Swiss Alps, where, as it happened, I had trekked just two months earlier: the deep valleys carved in that perfect half-pipe symmetry by prehistoric ice; the stark contrast between lush green below and soaring, rocky peaks above; the waterfalls leaping in suicidal freefalls off cliffs, and shawls of crack-riddled ice enwrapping mountain shoulders—water always molding earth. The Alps are more heavily glaciated and higher, with laudable amenities like huts, hotels, beer, and real food. But Glacier is raw, primal wilderness, with an array of wildlife long gone from most of the continent, thriving here in shocking abundance.
We hiked 13 miles that first day, walking along darkly forested Lake Josephine in early evening—right at grizzly dinnertime—calling out, “Hey bear!” to hidden ursine prowlers but only seeing three goats. And in a departure from the backpacking norm, we ate dinner in a restaurant across the road from the campground at Many Glacier—agreeing unanimously on the merits of digging into heaping plates of pasta and quaffing beers on the first night of a wilderness trip.
At 7,200 feet on a headwall where the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail makes a couple of long switchbacks before slamming up hard against a cliff, the three of us lingered to admire the view down the valley we’d spent the morning walking up. Rays of sunshine dodged scudding clouds, casting shifting light and shadows over Ptarmigan Lake, the Ptarmigan Wall, and the ledges of Crowfeet Mountain, where earlier we’d spied five mountain goats through my monocular. In the distance, the hatchet blade of Mt. Wilbur jutted above the Swiftcurrent Valley.
Then we turned and walked through a mountain.
Eighty years ago, workers spent a summer drilling and dynamiting through the Ptarmigan Wall, creating a 250-foot-long tunnel tall and wide enough to lead horses through, and blasting a trail into sheer cliffs on the wall’s north side. We walked through its cold darkness toward the spot of light at the opposite end, emerging abruptly to a completely new vista of mountains and lakes. We then followed the trail across black cliffs and a mountainside of burnt-red talus, eventually dropping more than 2,000 feet to the green shore of Elizabeth Lake in the Belly River Valley. By evening we made camp at the foot of finger-like Glenns Lake, whose still waters sharply mirrored Cosley Ridge bathed in warm alpenglow.
A clear night brought morning temps barely above freezing. After two hours without breaking a sweat hiking through frigid forest shaded by mountains, we finally hit sunshine traversing above Mokowanis Cascade, which tumbles for 300 feet or more over innumerable ledges. We climbed higher still, through two hanging valleys spliced by more waterfalls, following the trail’s improbable zigzagging up a headwall.
A couple resting beside their packs asked us, “Did you see the two bull moose sparring in that clearing back there?” We must have missed them by minutes.
But there was no missing the grizzly footprint with distinct claw marks in the trail. The print sat beside a pile of bear poop that would impress anyone who’s ever known the discomfort of backcountry constipation.
We came upon it on our third afternoon, in the midst of a 2,200-foot, sun-baked slog up out of the Waterton Valley on our way to the campground at Fifty Mountain. That tedious climb brought us to a high, gently undulating plateau littered with enormous boulders, treeless and wide open. Cathedral Peak’s cliffs extended for four miles or more on our left, but in every other direction we looked out on storm-tossed waves of mountains crashing against far horizons.
“Well, if one comes after us up here, we’ll see him coming,” Jerry said, referring to the animal that’s always on the minds of backpackers in Glacier: the grizzly bear. But by the next day, our fourth, we’d be cracking jokes about not having seen a single bear yet—a joke that would ultimately be on us.
The nanny goat on the Gunsight Pass Trail apparently wasn’t familiar with the etiquette about yielding to uphill hikers.
On the first day of our trip’s second leg, on an amazing footpath traversing high up a cliff en route to the 6,946-foot pass, Jerry and I watched a nanny lower her head as if to point her horns at us as a warning against getting any closer. On a ledge just below the trail, her two kids grazed, oblivious to us.
We didn’t mind the wait. Around us, cascades plunged hundreds of feet down cliff faces, fed by snow patches and glaciers. Geologic layers folded at 45-degree angles painted the sheer walls in stripes of white, maroon, gray, and brown. Under a blazing midday sun, the wind blew ferociously and Gunsight Lake shimmered 1,500 feet below us.
As it turned out, the nanny goat was all show—she obligingly scrambled aside at our slow, non-threatening approach. Leaving the goats to their lunch, we continued over Gunsight Pass and dropped a thousand feet into the deep bowl containing Lake Ellen Wilson, one of the finest corners of a park with a gaudy wealth of world-class scenery. The emerald-green lake is nearly enclosed by ice- and snow-topped, 1,000-foot-high cliffs with several ribbon waterfalls pouring off them. From the lake’s southwest end, a creek flows to the brim of this hanging valley before disappearing over another thousand-foot cliff. The place fosters the illusion of sitting at the edge of the world.
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Funny thing about when a grizzly sow with cubs sneaks up behind you: It’s extraordinarily difficult to remember all those things you’re supposed to do.
On that seventh and final day of our Glacier adventure, after those bears snuck up behind Jerry and me at Lincoln Pass, we shuffled backward, trying to run while trying not to run (which could incite a bear’s predator instinct to pursue). But the bears displayed considerably less angst over our encounter than we did. They merely continued on their way, sauntering toward some delectable patch of flora across the meadow. I could swear that Momma wore a grin that said, “Ha! Cotcha! Could’ve eaten ya!” The stealth shown by her and her cubs—and the virtual certainly that they detected us long before we saw them—was a sobering reminder of how ill prepared we humans are for encounters with wild animals.
So like any seasoned backpackers armed with pepper spray in hipbelt holsters, we instinctively reached for our… cameras. We fired off a few exposures while shuffling quickly away in the opposite direction, down the trail. Unfortunately, stumbling backward doesn’t create ideal circumstances for prize-winning photos.
But my shot of the sow’s head and back visible above the tall grass will always remind me of that feeling of getting a little too close—and that encounters like this could happen only in a few places in North America, which is what makes Glacier so special.
NOTE: Want a shorter trip that’s suited to beginner backpackers and families? See my story about a three-day family hike on the Gunsight Pass Trail.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR backpackers with at least intermediate experience and good fitness. Trails are well-constructed and graded—generally at a “horse grade,” not very steep—and easy to follow. Primary challenges are avoiding encounters with bears, including managing a campsite with that goal in mind (though the designated backcountry camps are structured to facilitate safety); and dealing with potentially cold, wet, even snowy weather that can arrive by late summer.
Make It Happen
Season Mid-July through mid-September is peak season. Snow can make some trails difficult or impassable into early July (check conditions with rangers), and new snow often arrives by late summer or early fall, although those early snowfalls typically melt away with the next sunny day.
The Itinerary Begin with a 65-mile, six- to seven-day horseshoe-shaped circuit from Siyeh Bend on the Sun Road to Many Glacier (spending your first night in the campground there, which has campsites reserved for backpackers who have a backcountry permit), Ptarmigan Tunnel, Stoney Indian Pass, Fifty Mountain, and Logan Pass. From Logan Pass, take a park shuttle back to your vehicle to resupply; most likely, you’ll spend that night in a park campground or local lodging. Next day, take the park shuttle to Jackson Glacier Overlook on the Sun Road to begin a 25-mile traverse (two or three days) to Lake McDonald Lodge via Gunsight Pass, including the out-and-back side trip to Sperry Glacier.
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. 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 all four trailheads on this hiking itinerary, from early July through early September; see the park’s website for details. The 65-mile leg of this hiking itinerary begins at Siyeh Bend and finishes at Logan Pass; the 25-mile leg begins at Gunsight Pass Trailhead and finishes at Lake McDonald Lodge. They can be done in either order.
Permit A permit is required for backcountry camping. Apply for one by April 15 for the best chances of getting a desired itinerary, especially if your plans include popular backcountry campsites like Fifty Mountain, Granite Park, Gunsight Lake, and Lake Ellen Wilson. All applications received by April 15 are sorted and processed randomly; applications received after April 16 are processed in the order they’re received.
Map Trails Illustrated Glacier/Waterton National Park map no. 215 ($11.95; 800-962-1643, natgeomaps.com).
• Bear canisters are not necessary; all backcountry campsites have bear lockers or poles, and a designated cooking and eating area separated from tentsites.
• Inform yourself on how to avoid dangerous encounters with bears while on the trail.
• Prepare for cold weather and snow even in August.
Contact Glacier National Park, (406) 888-7800, nps.gov/glac.