By Michael Lanza
Create a list of the attributes that constitute a great backpacking trip and the chances are very high that you will describe Glacier National Park. There’s the incomparable landscape, where rivers of ice pour off craggy mountains, vertiginous cliffs tower above deeply green valleys carved in the classic U shape by ancient glaciers, and hundreds of mountain lakes reflect it all. And regular encounters with wildlife like bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, moose, and, yes, grizzly and black bears: Few places in the continental United States harbor such a breadth of megafauna.
Sprawling over a million acres in Montana’s Northern Rockies, most of it wilderness, Glacier exudes a sense of wildness and beauty not replicated in most of the country.
Little wonder that this park remains so enduringly popular with backpackers. During the 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, its reader polls repeatedly ranked Glacier as the number one park for backpackers. After more than three decades of backpacking all over the United States and more than a decade running this blog, having taken many of the best multi-day hikes out there—some of them, like Glacier, multiple times—I have to agree that Glacier is, in many respects, the best. (See my lists of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips”—and yes, of course, Glacier graces both lists.)
I’ve had the good fortune to get to know Glacier (and its extremely competitive permit system) very well—and I’m already planning my next backpacking trip there.
A Glacier backpacking permit is one of the hardest to get in the National Park System. Glacier opens 70 percent of wilderness campsites for reservations starting March 15 at 8 a.m. Mountain Time at recreation.gov/permits/4675321; and holds a one-day lottery on March 1 only for mid-size groups (five to eight people) at pay.gov/public/form/start/74000984 and large groups (nine to 12) at pay.gov/public/form/start/74000862. During the backpacking season, 30 percent of wilderness campsites will be available for walk-in/first-come permits no more than one day in advance. See “How to Get a Permit to Backpack in Glacier National Park” and “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
See also my expert e-guides “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park” and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park,” both of which provide all you need to know to plan those trips, including very detailed tips on getting a high-demand backcountry permit, multiple itinerary options of varied lengths, the best campsites, plus expert advice on the ideal time of year, gear, and safety in bear country.
I’ve also helped many readers of my blog plan a very enjoyable backpacking trip suited to them in Glacier. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can do that for you.
Please share your thoughts on this article—or 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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1. Well, There’s All Those Critters
On nearly every backpacking trip I’ve taken in Glacier, I have seen bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and both black and grizzly bears (the last from a safe distance—most of the time, with the exception of this encounter). I’ve seen mountain goats on every trip. Go in late summer or early fall and you may hear elk bugling every morning and evening (as I did on this mid-September trip).
While you can see all of those megafauna in some other parts of the Lower 48 and Alaska, very few places host such a density of them—which means you are more likely to see them in Glacier than other wildlands.
Every backpacker who walks through the wilderness of Glacier takes home a powerful sense of awe over this park—and a desire to return again and again.
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and backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier.
2. And the Mountains and Lakes—Wow
The Blackfeet who’ve inhabited this area for centuries called these mountains “the backbone of the world.” In 1901, the American anthropologist, historian, naturalist, and writer George Bird Grinnell, in campaigning for the creation of Glacier National Park, coined the phrase “Crown of the Continent,” and it stuck.
Today, Glacier’s one million acres comprise just one piece of a contiguous, protected ecosystem spanning nearly 13 million acres across the U.S.-Canada border.
But those words and numbers fail to even come close to conveying the majesty of these peaks. The Rocky Mountain chain arguably reaches its full glory in the Northern Rockies of Glacier, where giant axe and knife blades of rock erupt from the earth, slicing into a sky often strikingly blue in summer.
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More than 760 lakes dot Glacier’s landscape, many of them nestled among peaks so jaggedly dramatic that you’ll struggle to leave them—like Elizabeth Lake, Sue Lake, and Lake Ellen Wilson, to name just three that I list among the most gorgeous backcountry lakes I’ve ever seen.
Among Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers, the prevailing opinion is that the two greatest highlights of their multi-month trek were the Wind River Range and Glacier.
Of course, the best way to know this is to go and see for yourself.
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3. It’s Not That Hard
Some big, mountainous parks are notorious for steep, rugged terrain, high elevations, and/or severe weather. But that’s not generally the case in Glacier. Most of the park’s trails are built at what’s called a “horse grade,” meaning never too steep for horses, which is less steep than many trails designed strictly for humans. Step for step, mile for mile, hiking here feels a bit easier than in many other parks.
Trail elevations in Glacier pose significantly less challenge than other parts of the Rockies or the High Sierra: With the highest passes on trails under 8,000 feet, most people feel little effects of altitude beyond shortness of breath hiking uphill.
Like most of the Mountain West, Glacier may see afternoon thunderstorms in summer, and snow can fall in September or even August, although that’s rare. But the park often sees stable, sunny weather with just about perfect temperatures during the peak hiking season of mid-July into early September, without as many biting insects as wetter climates.
Don’t expect an easy stroll (and keeping your pack light has the biggest impact on comfort and fatigue). But we took our kids backpacking in Glacier for the first time when they were nine and seven, on a three-day hike on the Gunsight Pass Trail—and they loved it.
The biggest challenge of backpacking in Glacier is staying safe in bear country—and park management all but eliminates the possibility of the most common mistakes people make, with designated backcountry campgrounds all equipped with bearproof food-hanging systems. That delivers another great benefit of relieving you of the weight of a bear canister that’s required in many other parks, from Grand Teton to Yosemite, the parks and national forests of the High Sierra, and other destinations.
See my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
Get the right tent for you. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Tents”
and “5 Expert Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent.”
4. Finding Solitude and a Wilderness Experience
Sure, you will encounter other backpackers and dayhikers on some trails. But as in many major national parks, Glacier’s management limits the number of backcountry permits issued to backpackers. While virtually all available permits get claimed during the peak summer season, every time I’ve backpacked in Glacier, my party has enjoyed hours every day seeing few other people—especially the farther you hike from any road (and the park has very few roads).
Certain areas of the park attract the most visitors—including Logan Pass and Many Glacier. But in a park that spans over a million acres, mostly wilderness, it’s not hard to get away from the hordes, especially in more-remote areas like the North Fork, Goat Haunt, and Nyack/Coal Creek areas and even some sections of the Continental Divide Trail.
Yes, it’s hard to get a backcountry permit in Glacier—and that’s a good thing. The wilderness experience remains protected—and amplified by all the factors noted above.
Want deeper solitude? Follow tip no. 2 (“Go outside the peak season”) in my “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking” and backpack in Glacier in late September or early October, when average temperatures range from highs in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit to lows in the 30s to around freezing. While precipitation is more likely than in August, September and October both average just over two inches of total precipitation—and none on two out of every three days—falling mostly as rain in September, while the shift to snow occurs sometime in October.
In other words, you can see snow in late summer and early fall, but the weather is dry more often than not, with moderately cool temps. Watch the forecast and take advantage of a good weather window.
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5. Because It Will Blow You Away
Backpacking my own variation of Glacier’s Northern Loop with two friends who’d never been to the park before, as we reached Piegan Pass—and a view that stopped us in our tracks—one of them remarked, with joking sarcasm, “I can’t see why you wanted to take us here, Mike. It’s not like there’s much to see.” And that was just our first day.
As was the case when I backpacked much of the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier with three other friends, every day felt like a walk through a time 10,000 years before the present, when nature was pristine (mostly, although human-caused climate change is rapidly causing the park’s glaciers to melt away) and North America’s full complement of original animal species still roamed the mountains. That trip culminated with a crossing of the high and stunning Dawson Pass Trail from Pitamakan Pass to Dawson Pass, overlooking some of the biggest peaks and glaciers and most-remote wilderness in the park’s core—and seeing yet more bighorn sheep.
That’s what awaits you in Glacier. Go there.
See all stories about backpacking in Glacier at The Big Outside, including “5 Backpacking Trips for Solitude in Glacier National Park,” “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier,” and “Jagged Peaks and Wild Goats: Backpacking Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail.” Like many stories at this blog, reading those in full requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside.
See also my expert e-guides “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park” and “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park,” and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can plan your backpacking trip in Glacier.