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.
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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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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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 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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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.
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.”
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
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.