By Michael Lanza
There are two immutable truths about backpacking in Glacier National Park. First, from its stirring landscape, where glaciers hang off muscular mountains and sheer cliffs soar above deeply green valleys dappled with lakes and waterfalls, to almost certain sightings of wildlife like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and grizzly and black bears, there’s really no place in the continental United States quite like Glacier.
Second, it’s one of the hardest backcountry permits to get in the National Park System. But Glacier adopted a new wilderness permit reservation system in 2023 that improved on what preceded it and made changes again to the system for 2024 that greatly improve it, bringing equity to the process and eliminating the frantic scramble for a permit that the 2023 changes had spawned
In this story, I will offer tips on how to maximize your chances of getting a permit to backpack in Glacier, sharing expertise I’ve acquired from several trips there over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
And remember this: The permit system preserves a wilderness experience for backpackers in Glacier (as well as protecting the park from overuse). That’s a major reason why Glacier ranks among “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips.”
Starting in 2024, Glacier National Park will hold two lotteries at recreation.gov/permits/4675321, for early-access times to reserve a backcountry permit: on March 1 for large groups of nine to 12 people and on March 15 for standard groups of one to eight people (details below). Glacier makes 70 percent of backcountry campsites available for permit reservations and 30 percent of campsites available for walk-in permits no more than one day in advance during the backpacking season.
See my expert e-books “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 plan a very enjoyable backpacking trip in Glacier—including tips on maximizing their chances of getting a very hard-to-get permit and an itinerary customized for them. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can do that for you.
Please share any thoughts or questions about this story, or your own tips, in the comments section at the bottom. I try to respond to all comments.
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Apply on Specific Dates in March
For backpacking permit reservations during the peak season of early summer into early autumn, Glacier National Park conducts two early-access lotteries at recreation.gov/permits/4675321, on March 1 for large groups of nine to 12 people and on March 15 for standard groups of one to eight people. The lotteries offer the best chance of reserving a backcountry permit for backpacking in most of the park, especially the most popular trails or an itinerary of more than one or two nights. You can enter a lottery anytime during its 24-hour period and all applicants have an equal chance of being selected.
Standard group lottery winners will get a date and time between March 21 and April 30, 2024, when they can apply for a permit reservation. The recreation.gov system shows availability in real time; you will either find availability for your dates and campsites and complete the process with a permit reservation or fail to get one.
Large-group lottery winners will receive special instructions for applying for a permit reservation. The park issues just five reservations for large-group permits every year; other large-group permits must be obtained on a walk-in basis.
After the early-access reservation period closes, general reservations open for all remaining backcountry campsites on May 1, running through Sept. 30, although most backcountry camps will book very quickly. Glacier imposes a daily hiking limit of 16 miles for reserved permits.
There is a non-refundable $10 fee for a lottery application or any permit issued plus $7 per person per night, which can be refunded if canceled more than seven days prior to the trip start date at recreation.gov/permits/4675321.
See nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry-reservations.htm for more information and instructions on using Glacier’s permit page at recreation.gov/permits/4675321.
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Be Flexible With Your Dates and Itinerary
I’ve backpacked several times in Glacier over the years and I’ve failed to get a wilderness permit just once, for a reason I understood when I submitted that application (under the park’s previous permit system, which did not process applications in real time like recreation.gov): I sought only one specific itinerary and our dates were fixed, not flexible. I decided to just throw a hail Mary pass for a trip I wanted and see if I’d get really lucky. I didn’t. In a park like Glacier, that will almost guarantee you don’t get a permit—unless you have one of the earliest lottery time slots to make a reservation.
As I write in my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” the single most-effective strategy for maximizing your chances of getting a permit for a popular trip during its peak season is to have flexibility with your dates and itinerary.
Plan your preferred route in advance and begin the permit reservation with a specific, day-to-day itinerary sketched out—but also enter the process with a range of possible starting dates and at least a couple of itinerary options. Familiarize yourself with the park’s Wilderness Camping Guide at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/upload/Wilderness-Campground-Map-2023.pdf, which lists all backcountry campgrounds with their three-letter and displays a map that provides trail segments distances in miles and shows three-letter trailhead codes in red type.
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At recreation.gov/permits/4675321, click the blue “Check availability” button and start by selecting an area of the park, each of which has a list of backcountry campgrounds. (Refer to the Wilderness Camping Guide, above). Choose dates, enter the group size (maximum eight for a standard group), and build an itinerary by selecting available camps night by night for your dates. If you complete an itinerary, click the Book Now button immediately to secure your trip details; you then have 15 minutes to complete the form and purchase the reservation.
See my story “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites” for my two favorite backcountry camps in Glacier.
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Try for a Walk-In Permit or Last-Minute Reservation
You didn’t make a permit reservation but you hope to go backpacking? There is a last resort: a walk-in (or first-come) permit, issued no more than a day in advance of starting a trip.
As noted above, Glacier accepts reservations for approximately 70 percent of available backcountry camps, leaving about 30 percent for walk-in permits. However, some walk-in sites will be claimed by backpackers on multi-night trips that started ahead of yours, so the availability is generally less than 30 percent on any random day.
Naturally, there’s high demand for walk-in permits. Show up at a park permit issuing station at least two hours before it opens to get a spot near the front of the long line that will form. Go there with primary and alternative routes in mind. Bring warm clothes, a headlamp, a hot drink, and something to read (or a park trail map to study). There are permit stations at Apgar, St. Mary, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Polebridge. See nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm.
You might get lucky and score a permit to start the same day. But expect to have to wait a day—if you’re fortunate enough to get a walk-in permit.
Lastly, some people with a wilderness permit reservation will cancel prior to their trip, for a variety of reasons. If you don’t have a reservation and are considering or planning to go to the park and attempt to get a walk-in permit, you can still frequently check recreation.gov/permits/4675321 for availability created by a cancellation.
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Go in Late Summer
Glacier accepts backcountry permit reservations for trips starting between May 1 and Sept. 30—dates that more than span the entire prime hiking season in the Northern Rockies, which begins when higher trails become mostly snow-free, around mid-July, and usually runs through mid-September, when temperatures, especially overnight, can dip below freezing and early-season snowstorms are possible.
But good weather often prevails through much of September and sometimes into early October. On my most recent backpacking trip in Glacier, a seven-day hike in the second week of September 2023, two friends and I saw rain just on one afternoon and the following morning and otherwise had partly cloudy or sunny days, cool but not freezing nights and mornings, and hiked at times in short and T-shirts.
In the second week of September 2018, friends and I enjoyed six straight sunny days and clear nights in Glacier, with morning temps in the 30s and 40s and afternoons in the 50s to 60s Fahrenheit and with cold wind at some passes. We also heard elk bugling almost every morning and evening because September is the rutting season. The week before we arrived, the park received cold rain in the valleys and heavy, wet snow at higher elevations. Fortunately, it had all melted by the day we arrived (and delivered the benefit of greatly tamping down a wildfire in the area, mostly eliminating smoke from our trip).
Although I have not seen statistics regarding demand for backcountry permits in Glacier based on dates, it likely reflects statistics I’ve seen for other popular, mountainous national parks in the West, where demand is highest from early or mid-July through August and tapers in September. While weather may turn cold and wet, September dates likely offer a better chance of getting a permit—especially a walk-in permit if you can go on short notice with a good weather forecast.
Be aware that the park’s free shuttle buses along the Going-to-the-Sun Road typically operate from sometime in June until the first or second week of September and some park facilities, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road, as well as concessionaires and services outside the park, shut down for the winter generally between mid-September and mid-October.
See all stories about backpacking in Glacier at The Big Outside, including “10 Backpacking Trips for Solitude in Glacier National Park,” “Déjà vu All Over Again: Backpacking 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-books “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.