5 Backpacking Trips for Solitude in Glacier National Park
Thank you for such a comprehensive site. It is a joy to read and inspires so many travel dreams! I was pouring over all your stories on Glacier but I have a question. A friend and I just decided to go to Glacier in mid-September and would like to do a backpacking trip for two or three nights. We would appreciate something beautiful, somewhat challenging, but most of all, solitude. It seems we are late to get a reservation on top trails, and it seems like a good opportunity to take less-traveled trails. Do you have any suggestions?
We are both fairly fit and have done overnights in the Pacific NW. I live in Berlin, though I am originally from Seattle.
Thank you very much!
All the best,
Congrats on planning a trip to Glacier, definitely one of my favorite parks. I was there just last September, backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through the park.
As you probably know, Glacier National Park, like most national parks, limits the number of people in the backcountry, and many available permits do get snapped up for the summer by spring; it’s best to submit a permit reservation application by March 15 for up to eight people, or by March 1 for a group of nine to 12 people. You should read my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
It’s not too late to submit an application for a permit reservation, though. Given there’s only two of you, you could also possibly get a walk-in permit for a variety of areas of the park the day before you want to start hiking. This page at the park’s website provides a non-topographic map of backcountry campgrounds and trails in the park, and by clicking on a specific backcountry campground, you can access a calendar showing current campsite availability (updated frequently). My story “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit” offers tips on doing that. Find more information at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm.
Complete solitude is somewhat rare because most available permits get used, but you can walk for hours, even on some popular trails (that are farther from trailheads) and see few or no people. Going in mid-September means you’ll probably see fewer people than in July or August, too.
Accessible, very scenic areas like Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, Logan Pass, St. Mary, and Two Medicine attract the most hikers, including dayhikers.
Get my expert e-guides to the best backpacking trip in Glacier
and backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier.
My suggestions below all make solitude a priority; every one of these hikes will have Glacier-caliber natural beauty and a high likelihood of seeing wildlife.
1. The first backpacking trip I did in Glacier was a 39-mile, point-to-point hike from Bowman Lake to Kintla Lake in the park’s northwest corner, via Brown Pass and Boulder Pass. I rode my mountain bike between the trailheads instead of arranging a vehicle shuttle; I recall it being less than an hour from Kintla downhill to Bowman. It’s a beautiful hike in a less-accessible corner of the park, going from forest and lakes to alpine terrain with views of peaks and glaciers and likely sightings of mountain goats.
2. Arrange a shuttle from Many Glacier to the Chief Mountain customs station on the Canadian border, and hike from there up the Belly River Trail and Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail back to Many Glacier; an awesome 20-mile trip over two to three days. If you can, add the 8.6 miles (but not much elevation gain) out-and-back to Helen Lake, and camp there; the trail ends there, so you could have the place to yourself, and the lake sits in a deep mountain cirque below the soaring cliffs of Ahern Peak. Even though Iceberg Lake is a popular dayhike, make the short side trip out to it, it’s well worth the time and putting up with the crowds (although there should be fewer people in September). See photos from these areas in my feature story “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” (which requires a paid subscription to read).
I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
3. The Continental Divide Trail traverses Glacier from north to south (you can hike it in either direction), and explores some of the richest scenery and loneliest corners of the park (as well as, to be sure, a few popular areas where you’ll see more hikers). My downloadable e-guide “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park” explains all you need to know to plan and execute that trip—and it describes several shorter alternative itineraries that hit parts of Glacier that provide the best opportunities for solitude.
Keep in mind that you could certainly see a snowstorm in mid-September. Check the forecast before you head out, and have warm clothes, waterproof boots, a warm bag, and a good tent. Snow at that time of year tends to melt away as soon as the sun comes out again, but be ready for any weather. And certainly carry pepper spray in grizzly country.
After Glacier National Park, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
See all of my stories about Glacier National Park and my feature stories about my family’s three-day backpacking trip on Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail, a 90-mile backpacking trip in northern Glacier, and a 94-mile traverse of Glacier mostly on the Continental Divide Trail. The last two trips also are among “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.” See also my favorite, long dayhikes in Glacier. Note that most of those stories require having a paid subscription to read.
Thanks for following The Big Outside and have a great trip. Thanks for writing, let me know how it goes.
Thank you so much for your email! I really appreciate it. You are putting so much good energy out in the world! I was just doing a backpacking trip in the Carpathians in Romania. It was so very beautiful, and I am even more excited for Glacier!