Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop

By Michael Lanza

Never mind that it was the seventh straight bluebird morning of backpacking in mountains that constantly look surreal, like a painted mural backdrop in a movie. It didn’t matter that the trip had been a parade of wildlife. We even forgot about the heaviness in our legs from 15-mile days.

The menacing snarl piercing the silence seized our full attention.

My buddy Jerry Hapgood and I stood in the warm sunshine at 7,050-foot Lincoln Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. We had stopped for a snack after passing yet another mountain goat with a kid—I’d lost track of our goat tally for the week—and had just started ambling down the trail again when the sound stopped us cold. Then we heard it a second time, and followed it with our eyes.

Below us about 200 vertical feet and three switchbacks, the authors of the menacing snarls wrestled in the sparse conifer forest beside a small tarn: two grizzly cubs. Grazing nearby was their mom, whom I’ll politely describe as a big woman. They were about four steps off the trail we needed to descend, a distance I quickly calculated that sow griz could close, at her max speed of 35 mph, in 0.16 seconds.

I felt suddenly very anxious.

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We waited, watching the bears. No amount of yelling, “Hey bear!” sent them packing. No amount of impatience persuaded us to just go for it and walk past them. An hour crawled by. Then three other hikers came along, two men and a woman in their 20s, going in our direction.

After a brief, excited discussion, we concurred on a plan: The five of us would hike down together, making abundant noise, exploiting the impressive force of our numbers to scare the grizzlies away. It seemed like an excellent idea. As Jerry and I turned to retrieve our packs, the woman in their trio said, gravely, “There are the bears, guys.”

When we looked downhill, she added, “No, behind you.” I doubt I’ll ever forget the cold shiver her words sent through me.

Jerry and I spun around to see the sow not 30 feet from us across a grassy meadow. She had just emerged from a copse of trees, her cubs in single-file formation behind her. From that close, I saw the hairs standing up on her hump, her shoulders rippling, her mouth slightly agape showing off incisors that could cut through human flesh like it was thinly sliced prosciutto. She looked a little bigger than my refrigerator would if laid on its side.

As we backpedaled, trying unconvincingly to exude calm, she sniffed the air, swung her massive head in our direction, and fixed a hard, top-of-the-food-chain predator stare directly on us.

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Jerry Hapgood below Morning Eagle Falls on the Piegan Pass Trail in Glacier.

Six days earlier, our September week of backpacking through Glacier commenced with the kind of scenery that justifies a badly abused adjective: awesome. Two hours after parking our car, Jerry, another friend, Geoff Sears, who was along for the trip’s first five days, and I walked up to Piegan Pass at over 7,500 feet and suddenly contracted a bad case of goofy grins. The pinnacled Garden Wall’s long barrier of cliffs rose before us like a 500-foot-high castle. Below it, emerald lakes speckled the valley we would descend. Clouds billowed dramatically over a jumble of sharply angled mountains extending to a distant horizon, in the direction we were headed.

Jerry joked with friendly sarcasm, “I can’t see why you wanted to take us here, Mike. It’s not like there’s much to see.”

Jerry and Geoff are in Glacier for the first time, but for both it’s been a dream trip years coming—because that’s what Glacier embodies for hikers, our highest aspirations. For my fifth visit here, I crafted a somewhat unorthodox itinerary that would normally require complicated driving acrobatics, but is made logistically effortless by the park’s free shuttle buses. It would have us touching down in the front country twice during the week. That’s not my usual backpacking M.O., but it offered certain advantages: We could target backcountry highlights that required one short, mid-trip shuttle down the Going-to-the-Sun Road; and on day five, Geoff could depart (he needed to get home) and Jerry and I could resupply.

First up: a 65-mile, five-day horseshoe-shaped circuit from Siyeh Bend on the Sun Road to Ptarmigan Tunnel, Stoney Indian Pass, Fifty Mountain, and Logan Pass. Then Geoff would travel home and Jerry and I resupply for a 25-mile overnight from Jackson Glacier Overlook on the Sun Road to Lake McDonald Lodge via Gunsight Pass and a side trip to Sperry Glacier.

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Standing in Piegan Pass, a profound sense of déjà vu overwhelmed me, though I’d never seen this spot before. Then it hit me. Glacier’s mountains remind me vividly of the Swiss Alps, where, as it happened, I had trekked just two months earlier: the deep valleys carved in that perfect half-pipe symmetry by prehistoric ice; the stark contrast between lush green below and soaring, rocky peaks above; the waterfalls leaping in suicidal freefalls off cliffs, and shawls of crack-riddled ice enwrapping mountain shoulders—water always molding earth. The Alps are more heavily glaciated and higher, with laudable amenities like huts, hotels, beer, and real food. But Glacier is raw, primal wilderness, with an array of wildlife long gone from most of the continent, thriving here in shocking abundance.

We hiked 13 miles that first day, walking along darkly forested Lake Josephine in early evening—right at grizzly dinnertime—calling out, “Hey bear!” to hidden ursine prowlers but only seeing three goats. And in a departure from the backpacking norm, we ate dinner in a restaurant across the road from the campground at Many Glacier—agreeing unanimously on the merits of digging into heaping plates of pasta and quaffing beers on the first night of a wilderness trip.

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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.

At 7,200 feet on a headwall where the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail makes a couple of long switchbacks before slamming up hard against a cliff, the three of us lingered to admire the view down the valley we’d spent the morning walking up. Rays of sunshine dodged scudding clouds, casting shifting light and shadows over Ptarmigan Lake, the Ptarmigan Wall, and the ledges of Crowfeet Mountain, where earlier we’d spied five mountain goats through my monocular. In the distance, the hatchet blade of Mt. Wilbur jutted above the Swiftcurrent Valley.

Then we turned and walked through a mountain.

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Mountain goat along Glacier National Park's Gunsight Pass Trail.
Mountain goat along Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail.

Eighty years ago, workers spent a summer drilling and dynamiting through the Ptarmigan Wall, creating a 250-foot-long tunnel tall and wide enough to lead horses through, and blasting a trail into sheer cliffs on the wall’s north side. We walked through its cold darkness toward the spot of light at the opposite end, emerging abruptly to a completely new vista of mountains and lakes. We then followed the trail across black cliffs and a mountainside of burnt-red talus, eventually dropping more than 2,000 feet to the green shore of Elizabeth Lake in the Belly River Valley. By evening we made camp at the foot of finger-like Glenns Lake, whose still waters sharply mirrored Cosley Ridge bathed in warm alpenglow.

A clear night brought morning temps barely above freezing. After two hours without breaking a sweat hiking through frigid forest shaded by mountains, we finally hit sunshine traversing above Mokowanis Cascade, which tumbles for 300 feet or more over innumerable ledges. We climbed higher still, through two hanging valleys spliced by more waterfalls, following the trail’s improbable zigzagging up a headwall.

A couple resting beside their packs asked us, “Did you see the two bull moose sparring in that clearing back there?” We must have missed them by minutes.

After this trip in Glacier, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”

But there was no missing the grizzly footprint with distinct claw marks in the trail. The print sat beside a pile of bear poop that would impress anyone who’s ever known the discomfort of backcountry constipation.

We came upon it on our third afternoon, in the midst of a 2,200-foot, sun-baked slog up out of the Waterton Valley on our way to the campground at Fifty Mountain. That tedious climb brought us to a high, gently undulating plateau littered with enormous boulders, treeless and wide open. Cathedral Peak’s cliffs extended for four miles or more on our left, but in every other direction we looked out on storm-tossed waves of mountains crashing against far horizons.

“Well, if one comes after us up here, we’ll see him coming,” Jerry said, referring to the animal that’s always on the minds of backpackers in Glacier: the grizzly bear. But by the next day, our fourth, we’d be cracking jokes about not having seen a single bear yet—a joke that would ultimately be on us.

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13 thoughts on “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop”

  1. Michael, first off, I love your content. Bought one of your e-guides for glacier and it’s awesome. First time Glacier backpacker here. Is all backcountry camping done at defined locations? Meaning, you have to camp at an established campsite every night, right? For example, you can’t camp along a creek and you also can’t camp at say Iceberg Lake since it’s not listed on the Glacier backcountry campsites map. Is that all accurate?

    • Hi Shane,

      Thanks for buying one of my Glacier e-guides, I think you’ll find it very helpful with all the trip-planning details. You are correct that all backcountry camping in Glacier is in designated backcountry campgrounds—you reserve each night’s campground and take any unoccupied campsite when you arrive in it. Glacier does that to reduce impact and create a safer environment for camping, which includes food-hanging cables at each campground, so you only have to bring stuff sacks for hanging the food.

      I think you’ll find that e-guide is thorough. Good luck planning your first Glacier backpacking trip. It’s an amazing place.

      Always good to hear from you. Keep in touch.

      • Hey Michael,

        Once again, it’s winter, and I’m back on your site. No surprise there. It’s funny, as I was scrolling down to the bottom I happened to see my comment at the top, so I figured I’d circle back around to not only let you know that I’m going to pick up a few more guides, but also to give my short review of that 90-mile CDT trek in Glacier you wrote a guide on.

        First off, the guide was fantastic. It’s well worth the money and your experience and insights are highly valuable. I applied during the ‘early draw lottery phase’ and must have been pulled quite late, because it was about 2 months later when the rangers got back to me. However, I was flexible as could be and so they set me up for late September on the full traverse. For smoke purposes and lack there of bugs, it was exceptional for 90% of the time or more.

        Mother nature wouldn’t be THAT nice though. The wind was as severe as I’ve ever experienced (ridgelines were rough – often) and likely ever will in my lifetime, but we managed to persevere. For context though, after enduring the most intense day of them all (Reynolds Creek to Many Glacier) the park ranger said that the weather reports were calling for 75 mph wind gusts AT MANY GLACIER CG and that same day we had just came down from Piegan Pass (some 3k ft above the CG). As you know, not a lovely place to be during what I’m considering a western tornado. I’m certain mother nature gave us 100+mph winds…as evidence by our 1.5 mph pace from the pass down to the base of the waterfall. We were forced to sit down mid-trail dozens of times. Which was too bad, because personally, this was the most mesmerizing portion of the whole trip. South and North of Piegan pass were just jaw-dropping. Too bad I had my head down so often. All the animals hid too. The next day, to the tunnel, it snowed up and down lol. Mountain sunny though by Gable Creek.

        With all that being said though, never have I been anywhere that was so big, beautiful, raw and deserving of the word ‘breathtaking’ in my life. Unforgettable journey. So when I saw you had another Glacier trek of greatness AND it takes me back over Piegan – I’m bait, line, sinker. Anyways, long story long, the trek was incredible, I appreciate your material and I CANNOT WAIT TO GET OUT THERE AGAIN!!!

        • Wow, Shane, that’s quite a story and a good demonstration of how late September can be a good time in northern mountains but you certainly better be ready for anything. I’m glad you guys were and you have a story you’ll tell forever. Thanks again for buying my e-guides and it pleases me to get such a positive review of them from you.

          Good luck with your Glacier permit application this year. Piegan Pass is amazing every time—I can testify to that—and hopefully you’ll have weather that permits you to crane your neck up and around at those incredible peaks.

          Safe travels.

  2. Are the Campsites in Many Glacier that are reserved for Backpackers free? Or do you still have to pay the $23 for a regular car campsite? Some buddies and I are doing this exact trip this upcoming August if we can get the permit. Also wondering if you have any tips on getting permit besides the ones listed on your other blog post. Currently the plan to get the permit is just to spam the permit office as soon as the Clock hits 12 on the 15th of March. There are 8 of us going and we are all going to submit a permit application as soon as they go online. One of us would have to get it right? – Thanks in advance for any response.

    • Hi Ian, good question about whether you pay for the walk-in backpacker sites at Many Glacier; I don’t recall whether we did, and I just scanned the park website for an answer, but found no clarification. Call or email the park’s backcountry desk to find out. Maybe you can reserve one in advance and have the cost covered in your backcountry permit.

      I don’t have more advice on getting the permit beyond what you’ll read in this story:

      Include multiple itinerary options, such as reversing direction, flexibility on dates if you have it, starting midweek, and alternative campsites. Good luck.

    • Hi Joshua, great question. See The Itinerary section above, it notes that there’s a campground at Many Glacier Many Glacier for car campers, which has campsites reserved for backpackers who have a backcountry permit. We camped there; it was really the only option, but we were happy to grab a real dinner and beers at the motel across the road, which has pretty good pizza and pasta.

  3. Good stuff. Thanks for writing. We plan to visit this summer and do Many Glacier Loop. It is my son’s college grad present. Looking forward to it.