The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park

By Michael Lanza

The three bighorn sheep lifted their heavily horned heads to gaze at us, but never budged from their beds of grass amid boulders on a mountainside above the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. The mountain goats we saw on various occasions gave us little more attention than that. And fortunately, the grizzly bear sow with two cubs in tow that passed within about 30 feet of us—an encounter of less than 10 seconds that is etched into my memory forever—gave us no more than a passing glance.

While I have backpacked over much of this amazing park, that trek gave us the definitive grand tour of Glacier, including must-see spots like the Highline Trail and the Ptarmigan Tunnel, the Many Glacier area, the Garden Wall, and Gunsight Pass. Besides an array of wildlife, two friends and I frequently saw an ocean of mountains spreading out before us, long escarpments of Glacier’s signature soaring cliffs, and some of the prettiest of the park’s 760 lakes.

We even enjoyed an unexpectedly high degree of solitude for long stretches of a multi-day hike—something I have learned, over three decades of backpacking all over the country—including more than 10 years running this blog and for many years previously as a field editor for Backpacker magazine—is a rare treat in popular national parks like Glacier.


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Bighorn sheep along the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park.
Bighorn sheep along the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to this trip.

Our 90-mile hike also took advantage of the park’s free shuttle bus system, easing trip logistics and enabling us to split the trip up into 65-mile and 25-mile segments—and there are excellent variations for shortening the 65-mile leg, too.

If you want to take this or any backpacking trip in Glacier this summer, the date to apply for a backcountry permit reservation is March 15. (More on that below, along with my recommendation for a second, five-star, multi-day hike in Glacier, and links to stories to help you plan a trip in Glacier.)

All of the route options and need-to-know planning details for the 65-mile portion of this hike are explained in detail in my downloadable e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park.”

Would you like to have my expert help planning all the details of your backpacking trip in Glacier, including figuring out a hiking itinerary that’s ideal for your party and showing you how to maximize your chances of getting a highly coveted backcountry permit? See my Custom Trip Planning page for details.

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A backpacker on the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park.
Jerry Hapgood backpacking the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan this trip.

Our 90-mile hike began with the 65-mile route known as Glacier’s Northern Loop, a horseshoe-shaped circuit from near Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Many Glacier, Ptarmigan Tunnel, Stoney Indian Pass, the Highline Trail, and finishing at Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. That was followed immediately by a roughly 25-mile overnight on the Gunsight Pass Trail, including an optional side trip to the Sperry Glacier, one of the park’s largest.

Check out the gallery of photos below from this trip.

Click here now to get my expert e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park.”

Read my story “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop,” about that 90-mile hike, including more photos, and my story about a shorter and easier, family backpacking trip on the Gunsight Pass Trail. Most stories about trips at The Big Outside require a paid subscription to read in full.

Want to take this trip? Check out my expert e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park,” which tells you everything you need to know to plan and successfully pull off that 65-mile hike of a lifetime. And see a menu of all of my e-guides.

Get full access to my Glacier stories and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!

 

Backpack the CDT Through Glacier

If you’ve already backpacked in the areas of Glacier described above, or you’re just looking for a different route that delivers a similar, full Glacier experience, see the photo gallery below, which includes some of the dozens of images in my story “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier,” about a 94-mile traverse of Glacier that follows a customized variation of the Continental Divide Trail through the park. In fact, both trips are equally spectacular, but the CDT traverse requires a longer and more complicated shuttle between trailheads.

My e-guide “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park” provides all the necessary details, plus my expert tips for pulling off that customized CDT traverse of the park, including shorter variations on the route.

See “5 Reasons You Must Backpack in Glacier National Park.”

Act now if you want to backpack in Glacier this summer: The park begins accepting applications for backcountry permits on March 15 for groups of up to eight people. 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.”

Get my expert e-guides to backpacking Glacier’s Northern Loop and the CDT through Glacier.

One of America’s flagship national parks, Glacier is a must-do destination for backpackers because of mountain scenery unlike anywhere else, remoteness, and a rare variety of wildlife. That’s why I consider it one of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”

Want my expert help planning your trip in Glacier or any trip you’ve read about at this blog? See my Custom Trip Planning page for details.

See “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Glacier National Park” and “The 7 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park” and all stories about national park adventures at The Big Outside.

The Big Outside helps you find the best adventures. Join now to read ALL stories and get a free e-guide!

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9 thoughts on “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park”

  1. Hi Michael,

    Can you point me to the new updated restrictions on only going clockwise for the Northern Circle? I can’t find them. We are concerned about logistics bc we are trying to leave September 20th. I feel like going counterclockwise from Swiftcurrent and then ending back at Swiftcurrent via Granite Park might be best bc then we won’t have to rely on a shuttle which seems not reliable in late September. I’m just concerned about shuttle service if we do your itinerary and park at Logan Pass and end at Siyeh Bend.

    We are also considering going to Hole in the Wall and I really can’t decide on the two. Any opinion? I think I will do north circle as our first choice, then Hole in the Wall area, then as a plan c I’ll do Gunsight Pass.

    Reply
    • Hi Kristen,

      Thanks for buying my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park.” That’s an amazing hike.

      Yes, the limitations on certain popular backcountry campgrounds can be hard to find. See details in the top left section of the park Wilderness Camping Guide. It indicates that Granite Park must be part of an itinerary of at least two nights from July through September (excluding Many Glacier or Two Medicine); and Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Reynolds Creek must be part of a backpacking itinerary of at least three nights. Plus, Many Glacier and Two Medicine cannot be used as a first night of a multi-day itinerary.

      The combination of those rules means you’d have to hike the full route I describe in that e-guide, from Logan Pass to Siyeh Bend, clockwise. But your idea of starting and finishing a shorter loop at Swiftcurrent/Many Glacier is a good one and there’s no restriction against you hiking it counterclockwise. It’s also popular and probably one of the harder itineraries to get a permit for, but worth trying. The park shuttle on Going-to-the-Sun Road only operates through Labor Day weekend.

      I’ve backpacked the horseshoe from Bowman Lake to Kintla Lake via Hole in the Wall, it’s beautiful up there. That’s a good backup plan, as is Gunsight Pass, a trail I’ve backpacked twice, it’s arguably the best short backpacking trip in Glacier.

      Good luck with your permit application!

      Reply
      • Well we didn’t score the North Circle Loop or Hole in the Wall, but we did get an alternative itinerary of the Dawson-Pitamakan Loop. Slightly disappointed at the shorter itinerary, but we are still excited and thankful to just get something and will do some epic day trips on the extra days now.

        Reply
        • Hi Kristen,

          Congratulations on getting a permit for Glacier and while I can appreciate the disappointment over failing to get as long a trip as you hoped for—I also drew a Glacier permit for a much shorter trip than hoped for this year, but I decided to release it because it wasn’t the kind of trip we wanted (and I’ve already been to Glacier several times)—you do have a very nice hike coming up. Plus, when you pick up your permit at the park, you can ask about any campsite availability that would enable you to extend your trip by one or more nights. You might get lucky.

          Enjoy it! Thanks for keeping in touch.

          Reply
  2. Just a three quick questions as I am filling out my Glacier permit for the March 15th opening.
    1) Is Stoney (STO) to Helen Lake (HEL) too far in a day? It looks like its above 16 miles?

    2) I was going to look at adding an extra night going up to Goat Haunt? Do you Recommend? Brings it up to 7 nights.
    Logan > Granite > Fifty > Goat Haunt > Stoney > Helen > ELF > Many > Sybeh

    3) Would you recommend a side trip to Cracker Lake after Many Glacier ? It looks like its too far 12.1miles out and back in total, and then getting back to Siyeh Trail Head – 18 miles in total?

    cheers

    Reply
  3. Hi Michael,

    I’m submitting some itineraries for a Glacier backcountry permit and had a few questions:

    1) Is Stoney (STO) to Helen Lake (HEL) too far? It looks like its above 16 miles?

    2) I was going to look at adding an extra night going up to Goat Haunt? Do you Recommend? Brings it up to 7 nights.
    Logan > Granite > Fifty > Goat Haunt > Stoney > GLenns> Helen > Many > Siyeh

    3) Do you think its possible to add on a trip to Cracker Lake? Its 6.1 miles, so there and back might be an issue?

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hey Michael,

      Good to hear from you again and thanks for asking some good questions.

      Stoney Indian camp to Helen Lake is 17.8 miles and Glacier imposes a limit of 16 miles per day on permit reservation applications. Higher mileages are allowed only with walk-in applicants. You could conceivably make the change when you pick up your permit, if Helen Lake is available then, and it may be since it’s so remote and one of the two campsites there is held for walk-in permit requests. Most of that day’s hike from Stoney to Helen is downhill and flat, so strong backpackers could reach Helen from Stoney in a day. For your permit, I recommend you list either the foot or head of Elizabeth Lake for that night, to avoid your permit request being rejected for not adhering to the 16 miles/day rule.

      As far as I know, there hasn’t been a decision made yet about whether the border at Goat Haunt will open in 2022. See nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm for current info. If it’s open, sure, I’d go there.

      I believe that because you wouldn’t need to use transportation to add Cracker Lake to your itinerary as a camp, you could apply for it. I think that’s the only way you could add it.

      I hope that helps. Good luck getting a Glacier permit!

      Reply
  4. I have been portaging Ontario for a week or more all of my life!! Alone or with my wife of 33 years!! I started in Montana in 2015 with 4 trips including a visit to Yellowstone!!
    Reading your story thrilled us and I could envision your lifetime of backpacking thrills of sights and sounds that come in the wild!!
    Thank you for sharing this with us and others!!!
    We are planning Yellowstone for a week this year and Glacier next year!!!
    Please share more and thank for your help blog!!
    Dan and Fiona

    Reply