Select Page

The 6 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park

The 6 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.

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 Mounts 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.

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up for my FREE email newsletter now.

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. 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 six dayhikes 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.

Bighorn sheep along the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park.

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 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 about 1,000 feet of climbing and more than 2,000 of downhill. Adding the 1.2 miles and 1,000 feet up to Grinnell Glacier Overlook makes the total hike 17.6 miles with 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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

The view from Ahern Pass, Glacier National Park.

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.

I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

 

A backpacker on the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Hiking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.

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 17.6-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 to 14.8 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 9.4 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 17.6 or 14.8 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 my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 8 best daypacks.

 

. . .

 

Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor and primary gear reviewer for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

6 Comments

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Avatar

    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
    • MichaelALanza

      Thanks, Tam. I hope you get back to Glacier soon.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    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
    • MichaelALanza

      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
  3. Avatar

    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
    • michaellanza

      I want to do them! Thanks for the suggestions.

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit | The Big Outside - […] in the Tetons,” “Ask Me: Can You Recommend a Big Dayhike in the Grand Canyon,” and “5 Perfect (Big)…
  2. Photo Gallery: Backpacking Glacier National Park | The Big Outside - […] trip on the Gunsight Pass Trail. You might also be interested in my story listing some favorite, long dayhikes…

Welcome to the Big Outside

photo of Michael Lanza

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside and former Northwest Editor at Backpacker magazine. Click my photo to learn more about me and my blog. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside now to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. And click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This
[login_form]