The 8 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park

By Michael Lanza

The morning sun wouldn’t make the climb over Mount 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.

There was a good reason for our early start: We had a big day ahead of us, one of the finest long days of hiking one can do in this flagship national park—a judgment I make based on numerous visits dayhiking and backpacking much of Glacier over the past three decades, including 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

At the head of the valley, we zigzagged up through switchbacks beneath ribbon-like waterfalls free-falling hundreds of feet down cliffs, looking back down the valley at lakes flanked by the upright meat cleavers of Mts. Wilbur and Grinnell. Beyond Swiftcurrent Pass, we descended across alpine slopes strewn with wildflowers, with a sweeping view of mountains rolling to distant horizons.


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A backpacker on the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park.
Jerry Hapgood hiking the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

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. In every direction, peaks appeared to erupt from the ground in vertical walls of heavily stratified rock. We finished that dayhike at 6,646-foot Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road—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 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.

Looking for more moderate hikes?
See “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Glacier National Park.”

The dayhikes described below range from under 12 miles 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. Start early for any of these hikes—but avoid hiking in the dark in grizzly country (another reason to make sure your entire party has the strong pace and stamina required for long, strenuous dayhikes).

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 and private shuttle and taxi services greatly ease trailhead transportation logistics. See nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/shuttles.htm. 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.

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A hiker at Pitamakan Pass in Glacier National Park.
Todd Arndt at Pitamakan Pass in Glacier National Park.

For 2023, a vehicle reservation is required for four areas of Glacier National Park: Going-to-the-Sun Road, the North Fork, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier. Each location has unique details and requires a separate reservation from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. To drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the west side or to drive into the park’s North Fork area via the Polebridge entrance from May 26 through Sept. 10, 2023, you must purchase a vehicle registration at recreation.gov/timed-entry/10087086. A vehicle registration is also required for driving to Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the St. Mary (east) side at Rising Sun Check Point from July 1 to Sept. 10. See more info at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/gtsrticketedentry.htm. This is separate from a park entrance pass, which can be purchased at the park or before you arrive there at recreation.gov/sitepass/74280.

See all stories about Glacier National Park and backpacking trips in Glacier at The Big Outside, my expert e-guides to backpacking trips in Glacier and other parks, and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any trip you read about at this blog. Click on any photo to learn more about that hike.

Please share your thoughts or questions or suggest your favorite hikes in Glacier in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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Bighorn sheep along the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park.

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 up the Garden Wall Trail to Grinnell Glacier Overlook, which diverges from the Highline Trail about 6.7 miles north of Logan Pass; it’s a relentlessly steep ascent of 900 vertical feet in 0.9 mile, 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 wild 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 nearly 1,000 feet of climbing and more than 2,000 of downhill. Adding the 1.8 miles round-trip and 900 feet up to Grinnell Glacier Overlook makes the hike 17 miles with nearly 2,000 feet of uphill and 3,000 feet of downhill.

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.

See my story “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop” for more photos of the Highline Trail.

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The view from Ahern Pass in Glacier National Park.
The view from Ahern Pass in Glacier National Park. Click photo to read about “10 Backpacking Trips for Solitude in Glacier National Park.”

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 next shuttle stop west of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

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A backpacker hiking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm hiking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to see “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”

Dawson Pass-Pitamakan Pass Loop

While other trails on this list run for miles high above the treetops, perhaps none equal the sensation this one inspires of soaring like an eagle through the mountains. This roughly 17.5-mile loop from the Two Medicine North Shore Trailhead over Dawson and Pitamakan passes—both of which reach nearly 7,600 feet—stays high above the forest for several miles, and delivers panoramas of remote, icy peaks in the wilderness heart of Glacier, green valleys carved into classic U shapes by ancient glaciers, and shockingly blue alpine lakes. Good chance you’ll see bighorn sheep and mountain goats, too.

Shorten the loop by about 4.5 miles (although without losing much of the 2,500 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss) by catching an early boat shuttle across Two Medicine Lake (see http://glacierparkboats.com/tour/two-medicine/); take the boat and hike to Dawson Pass first in order to get off the alpine traverse, which is exposed to severe weather, earlier in the day. Shortest option: Dayhike 9.5 miles (with the boat shuttle) out-and-back to Dawson Pass—although you’ll miss most of the alpine traverse that makes this dayhike so unique, the stroll to Dawson Pass is certainly a five-star outing on its own.

By the Numbers 17.5 or 13 miles (with the boat shuttle), with about 2,500 feet of up and down.

Getting There Start at the Two Medicine North Shore Trailhead, in the park’s southeast corner.

See my story “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” for more photos of the Dawson Pass Trail connecting Dawson and Pitamakan passes.

Gear up right for hikes in Glacier.
See the best hiking shoes and the 10 best hiking daypacks.

Backpackers hiking the Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park.
Backpackers on the Piegan Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to read “5 Reasons You Must Backpack in Glacier National Park.”

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; or just 13 miles hiking directly from Siyeh Bend to Many 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. You can take the park’s free shuttle bus between Siyeh Bend and St. Mary, and the private (fee-based) hiker shuttle operated by Xanterra between St. Mary and Many Glacier.

See my stories “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” and “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop” for more photos of the hike from Siyeh Bend to Many Glacier.

Want more? See “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes
and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”

A view from the Highline Trail looking toward Logan Pass and Mount Clements in Glacier National Park.
A view from the Highline Trail looking toward Logan Pass and Mount Clements in Glacier National Park.

Logan Pass to The Loop

Coming in at under 12 miles, mostly downhill, between two shuttle bus stops on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, this point-to-point traverse is the shortest and easiest hike, both physically and logistically, described in this story. As with the Logan Pass to Many Glacier hike (above), this route begins with the Highline Trail’s justifiably popular 7.6 miles from Logan Pass to Granite Park; start as early as possible (but in daylight, for bear safety) for fewer people and more potential for seeing wildlife like mountain goats and bighorn sheep.

Highly recommended: the side trip up the Garden Wall Trail to Grinnell Glacier Overlook, which diverges from the Highline Trail about 6.7 miles north of Logan Pass adding a steep 0.9 mile and 900 vertical feet up and down to this hike’s stats to reach a notch in the Garden Wall high above the Grinnell Glacier and a lake-filled valley. From Granite Park, turn southwest to descend 2,200 feet in 4.2 miles to The Loop trailhead on the Sun Road.

By the Numbers 11.8 miles, with nearly 1,000 feet of climbing and more than 3,000 of downhill. Adding the 1.8 miles round-trip and 900 feet up to Grinnell Glacier Overlook makes the hike 13.6 miles with nearly 2,000 feet of uphill and 3,000 feet of downhill.

Getting There The hike begins at Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and finishes at The Loop, the next shuttle stop west of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Serious adventures demand serious gear. See “The 10 Best Down Jackets
and “The 7 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking”.”

Gunsight Pass Trail

Mountain goats near the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Mountain goats near the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.

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 about 6.6 miles and over 1,700 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.

See my story “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop” and my story about a three-day family hike on the Gunsight Pass Trail for more photos of the Gunsight Pass Trail.

Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”

 

Contact Glacier National Park, nps.gov/glac.

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20 thoughts on “The 8 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park”

  1. Thanks so much for this article! Preparing for our first trip to Glacier and we are torn between Gunsight Pass and Logan Pass— Many Glacier. Which do you recommend/prefer? To go to Many Glacier, if we go that route, is via Highline or Piegan Pass better? We don’t have a car permit for Many Glacier so I don’t think we will go there otherwise, but Gunsight looks spectacular too.

    Reply
    • Hi Madison,

      Well, you’re considering three of the most amazing hikes in Glacier so those are all great choices. Gunsight Pass Trail is in forest for a few miles at each end, and you’ll spend much less time in forest on the Highline to Many Glacier or the Piegan Pass Trail to Many Glacier. Personally, I’d hike on day one from Logan up the Highline and over Swiftcurrent pass down to Many Glacier; then the next day, hike over Piegan Pass back to Siyeh Bend and catch the shuttle bus back to your vehicle. No car permit needed.

      Have a great trip.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much for responding and for reaching out directly. First, I’ll just say that I love your blog and it is a go-to for me to learn about off the beaten path hikes and backpacks. I love how you always include hikes for all levels of accessibility, ability, and mileage. It is just really well done, all around, and so poetic in how you describe these amazing places.

        Second- great food for thought on your comment! My few follow up questions (if alright with you) are:

        1. Do you know what conditions and snowpack are generally like around July 5-8?
        2. If on the reservation page for backcountry permits it says that a sit opens on a certain date, is it not reservable before then (or not advisable to go- for example Lake Ellen Wilson opens 8/1)
        3. Are you able to see Grinnell Glacier from Piegan Pass? If not, how much more mileage would it add to visit? I am hiking with someone who probably maxes out at 14-15 miles/day. And I don’t want to push him into being too uncomfortable!
        4. If we don’t get a spot at Many Glacier to camp tomorrow with the permit crazy rush (I think there are 4 backcountry spots?), is there another option or is walking in our bst bet? Seems like the lodge is full.

        If we were miraculously able to get a spot at Many Glacier, then it would be about 14.7 one way through Swiftcurrent +/1 1.2 for the spur to Grinnell Overlook (long day for my fiancee, we will see if he’s game) and then 12.5 or so back? Would it be possible to visit the glacier itself as part of this? How is Piegan Pass on the way up?

        Thanks again for your help! We are so excited and again, I really love your writing.

        Reply
        • Hi Madison,

          Thanks for the nice words about my blog, I really appreciate that.

          1. Glacier’s snow won’t usually melt out of the high country enough to make backpacking feasible until around mid-July. That can vary year to year, but July 5-8 is not usually a good bet. You’ll see that many backcountry camps are not even open for reservation that early in summer.

          2. You are correct, as I mention above.

          3. I’m recalling this from memory and checking a few photos but I’m pretty sure the Grinnell Glacier is largely obscured by mountains from Piegan Pass, which makes sense because it sits in a cirque of sorts. To hike up to Grinnell Lake and the toe of the receding Grinnell Glacier from the Piegan Pass Trail would add at least six miles round-trip and more than 2,000 feet both up and down. See the park trail and backcountry campsites map at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/upload/Backcountry-Map-Web-2018.pdf.

          4. The inn and lodge and campground at Many Glacier probably booked up months ago. It’s one inherent conflict when applying for a backcountry permit: You don’t know if and when you’ll need lodging or camping in the park until it’s too late to book lodging. Walk-in backcountry permits will likely be the only option for spending the night there this summer.

          Grinnell Glacier is a rigorous hike. Piegan Pass is more spread out, and a good trail, but it’s long. I think it becomes a huge day to combine Grinnell Glacier with Piegan Pass. I’d recommend hiking the trail to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook from the Highline Trail south of Granite Park: It’s very steep but just a mile and about 1,000 feet one-way to an awesome viewpoint, much easier than the detour to the glacier itself.

          Good luck with your permit application!

          Reply
  2. My favorite single day hiking in the mountains (although part of a 2-night backpack) has to be from Old Man Lake to No Name Lake. The day began with a mama and cub grizzly playing and swimming at Old Man during morning coffee, progressed to bighorns running down the slopes from Pitamakan Pass and another hiking with us up to Cut Bank Pass, the amazing “in the clouds” traverse along the ridge to Dawson Pass (3 passes in a handful of miles, what!?), and then a sunset final leg down to No Name with a small herd of spooked elk. The icing on the day’s cake? As we rolled into camp and started dinner, a 15-minute chorus of wolf-howling as darkness claimed the day. Undoubtedly part of a hunt of those same elk. Classic Glacier Magic!

    Reply
  3. Thanks so much for the Logan Pass to Many Glacier hike description. I really want to do that hike and getting the mileage report was hard before reading your review. Thanks again!!

    Reply
  4. Michael,
    I enjoyed the read! Do you have any suggestions on backpacking trips? We were looking to do a total of 5 nights camping in mid-July. We’re open to a long 5 night trip or 2-3 shorter ones (2-3 nights camping for each). Also looking for some where parking may not be an issue so we can leave a car where ever we start. Thanks!

    Reply
  5. Awesome list of hikes! There’s some great ones here I will have to hit up next time I’m in Glacier. Another time, another time. Hope you don’t mind but I linked your blog on my own about a day trip to Glacier National Park. Thanks again!

    Tam

    Reply
  6. Hi Michael,

    Great blog! I’m going to be spending a few days in Glacier Park towards the end of August and was planning on making the Logan Pass to Many Glacier hike the highlight of the trip. I see that you have done that hike in both directions, but was wondering roughly how long it took to complete them? And which direction you prefer? Starting at Many Glacier seems more difficult, but I think I would prefer the lighting a bit better. Wanted to get your thoughts since I will have to plan accordingly to catch the various shuttles.

    Thanks,
    Scott

    Reply
    • Hi Scott,

      Starting at Many Glacier obviously involves more uphill and is harder, but there are other pros and cons to both. I think the biggest pro to starting at Logan Pass is that you’re most likely to see wildlife like mountain goats and especially bighorn sheep with an early start on the Highline Trail (from Logan Pass), before there are many other hikers on it. But I wouldn’t hike in the dark because of the chance of a nighttime encounter with grizzlies (plus, you can’t see any views). The morning light when you start from Many Glacier is certainly really pretty, too, but the really scenic upper section of that trail, as you’re climbing toward Swiftcurrent Pass, is also spectacular at any time of day. I’d start from Logan Pass when I do it again.

      As for total time, that depends, of course, on your pace. The trails are quite good and well graded, so many moderately fit hikers could maintain a pace of two mph or better, with the slowest section probably the steeper part of the uphill to Swiftcurrent Pass if you’re coming from Many Glacier; I’d plan an hour or more longer hiking in that direction. And it’s 15 miles, so even with lots of photo-taking and gawking, eight hours or less isn’t hard to accomplish. If you make the very worthy side trip to Grinnell Glacier Overlook, that’s a consistently steeper and slower trail.

      Good luck.

      Reply
  7. A couple of big days that I also recommend, though with glacier you can’t go wrong anywhere.

    1) I did Ahern pass from the loop, but also bagged Ahern peak and Swiftcurrent Peak during the day. Very very long day, but very special!

    2) Triple divide peak and norris mountain from cut bank in a day.

    3) Mount helen, flinsch peak, and rising wolf all in a day from two medicine campground, first hiking up to dawson pass.

    Reply