By Michael Lanza
Glacier National Park sprawls over a million acres of rugged, glaciated mountains sprinkled with alpine lakes in the northern Rockies—most of it remote wilderness seen only by backpackers willing to hike into the backcountry for multiple days. Nonetheless, you can reach some of the best scenery in America’s 10th national park on dayhikes.
This story describes the 10 best dayhikes in Glacier, from popular hikes like Grinnell Glacier, the Highline Trail, Iceberg Lake, and Hidden Lake Overlook to some trails and mountain passes you may not have heard of but which reach areas of this iconic national park that are just as mind-blowing as the popular hikes—but not as busy.
I’ve created this list based on numerous trips dayhiking and backpacking all over the park for more than 30 years, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. Use this story as your guide and you will see the best of Glacier that’s accessible on a moderate to full day on foot.
For 2023, a vehicle reservation is required for four areas of Glacier National Park: Going-to-the-Sun Road, the North Fork, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier. Each location has unique details and requires a separate reservation from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. To drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the west side or to drive into the park’s North Fork area via the Polebridge entrance from May 26 through Sept. 10, 2023, you must purchase a vehicle registration at recreation.gov/timed-entry/10087086. A vehicle registration is also required for driving to Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the St. Mary (east) side at Rising Sun Check Point from July 1 to Sept. 10. See more info at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/gtsrticketedentry.htm. This is separate from a park entrance pass, which can be purchased at the park or before you arrive there at recreation.gov/sitepass/74280.
See also “The 7 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park” and all stories about Glacier National Park and backpacking trips in Glacier at The Big Outside, my expert e-guides to backpacking trips in Glacier and other parks, and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any trip you read about at this blog.
Please share your thoughts or questions about any of these hikes or your own favorites in Glacier in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
The Highline Trail
To Haystack Pass, 6.9 miles round-trip, about 500 feet both uphill and downhill.
To The Loop, 11.6 miles, 800 feet uphill, 3,000 feet downhill.
To The Loop, including the Garden Wall Trail, 13.4 miles, 1,700 feet uphill, 3,900 feet downhill.
The Highline Trail has a well-deserved reputation as one of the premier trails in Glacier as well as one of the best dayhikes in the entire National Park System. Staying above treeline, you’ll walk below the sheer cliffs of the miles-long Garden Wall, drinking up uninterrupted panoramas of Glacier’s severe topography. Sightings of mountain goats and other wildlife are common on the Highline—I’ve seen goats and bighorn sheep along it and once missed an encounter with a grizzly bear by minutes.
There are various options for hiking the Highline north from Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Many hikers venture a scenic mile or two out and turn around at will. Haystack Pass represents a good turnaround point for a moderate, nearly seven-mile out-and-back hike, with only about 500 feet of uphill and downhill.
You can also make a one-way, 11.6-mile hike from Logan Pass to the next shuttle stop west of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, The Loop, that’s much more downhill than uphill. That traverse brings you through Granite Park, where you can add two miles round-trip by walking up to Swiftcurrent Pass for a view down into the Swiftcurrent Valley to the Many Glacier area.
You can also add the breathtaking—in many ways—side hike to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. About 6.7 miles from Logan Pass, you’ll reach the Highline’s junction with the Garden Wall Trail, a relentlessly steep and strenuous, 0.9-mile (one-way), 900-vertical-foot path that leads to a notch at 7,500 feet in the Garden Wall, with a heart-stopping view from high above the Grinnell Glacier and the Many Glacier valley as well as the side valley leading to Piegan Pass.
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7.6 miles or 11 miles round-trip, 1,800 feet both uphill and downhill.
One of the most popular dayhikes in Glacier, for good reasons, the trek to Grinnell Glacier above the Many Glacier area involves a moderate amount of uphill and rewards you with sweeping views along much of the trail of the lake-filled Swiftcurrent Creek Valley, three glaciers, and the jagged cliffs of the Garden Wall. The trail ends at the glacial lake at the toe of the Grinnell Glacier—which, like glaciers all over the park, has shrunken significantly over the past century. Nonetheless, this hike provides the easiest access to the very edge of a glacier anywhere in the park.
If starting from the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead in Many Glacier, a half-mile west of the turnoff for the Many Glacier Hotel, the out-and-back hike is 11 miles, much of the trail ascending at a moderate grade. Cut 3.4 miles off the hike by taking the two short boat shuttles (about 20 minutes combined in each direction, there’s a fee) from the Many Glacier Hotel across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, with a quarter-mile walk on a trail through forest between the lakes.
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St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
3.6 miles, about 500 feet both uphill and downhill.
Two of the best and easiest-to-reach waterfalls in the park, St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls can be combined on an out-and-back hike that also delivers great views of long, narrow St. Mary Lake, flanked to the north and south by mountains rising thousands of feet above its often-windblown waters.
Begin at either the St. Mary Falls shuttle stop on the Going-to-the-Sun Road or the St. Mary Falls Trailhead a quarter-mile east of the shuttle stop on the Sun Road (adding two-thirds of a mile to the round-trip hike)—where there’s limited parking, so arrive early. From the shuttle stop, follow the St. Mary Falls Cutoff Trail downhill for a quarter-mile to a couple of trail junctions coming in rapid succession, first bearing right and then left.
At 1.2 miles from the shuttle stop, St. Mary Falls plunges about 35 feet in three tiers through a narrow gorge. Continue beyond it another 0.6 mile uphill on the St. Mary Trail/Continental Divide Trail, passing another long, unnamed cascade, and turn right onto the Virginia Falls Viewpoint Trail, within minutes reaching the base of the 50-foot main drop of Virginia Falls, which continues down through a small flume in rock and a lower cascade. Then backtrack to the shuttle stop.
3 miles, 550 feet both uphill and downhill.
Hidden Lake is the classic, short hike in Glacier with a huge payoff for little effort, with constant, five-star scenery and likely mountain goats sightings. From behind the visitor center at Logan Pass, follow the gently rising Hidden Lake Nature Trail leading southwest across the wildflower meadows known as the Hanging Gardens, with a 360-degree panorama of rugged mountains.
At 1.5 miles from the visitor center, you’ll reach the overlook of Hidden Lake, nestled in a deep cirque surrounded by the steep-walled peaks Clements, Reynolds, Dragon’s Tail, and Bearhat. Dress for weather—wind often blows across this high, exposed terrain. Hidden Lake Overlook is extremely popular: Get an early start to beat the crowds and—if you’re driving to Logan Pass rather than taking the shuttle bus—to ensure you find parking because that lot fills virtually every morning.
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9.2 miles, about 1,800 feet both uphill and downhill.
One of the classic mountain passes of Glacier National Park, Piegan will make you stop in your tracks and look around in disbelief. Hiking it from Siyeh Bend—the first stop east of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road—you begin along Siyeh Creek, enter forest, and a mile from the trailhead, turn left (north) onto the Piegan Pass Trail, part of the Continental Divide Trail. Less than two miles farther, turn left again at the Siyeh Pass Trail junction, soon emerging from forest.
The trail then rises at an easy angle toward Piegan Pass, already in view, as are the Garden Wall, the Piegan Glacier and 9,220-foot Piegan Mountain just across the valley to the west, and farther to the south, the Jackson and Blackfoot glaciers, the latter the park’s largest (though shrinking, like all the park’s glaciers). Reaching the pass, at 7,560 feet, you’ll get a better view of the Garden Wall, but continue a short distance beyond the pass for broader views down the valley of Cataract Creek toward the Many Glacier area.
If you’ve used the park shuttle bus, you can extend this hike to nearly 14 miles by turning onto the Siyeh Pass Trail on your return to cross beautiful Preston Park and Siyeh Pass at over 7,900 feet and make a long descent of about 3,400 feet to the Sunrift Gorge shuttle stop on St. Mary Lake.
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9.7 miles, about 1,300 feet both uphill and downhill.
Iceberg Lake, tucked in beneath towering cliffs in one of the most-visited and dramatic cirques in the park, is a popular hike with a moderate amount of up and down relative to its distance—not as hard as the distance might imply. Grizzly sightings are common in this area—I’ve seen them twice, including one that hikers watched from a distance for at least 30 minutes as it sat patiently at the bottom of cliffs across the lake, gazing up at a mountain goat out of reach on a ledge above it. In fact, the park sometimes closes trails in the Many Glacier area due to concern about bear activity.
Start at the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Tunnel Trailhead behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Many Glacier. The trail initially crosses open meadows with views of Mount Wilbur and the Ptarmigan Wall in the distance, then enters pine forest. About 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the trail reaches an overlook of Ptarmigan Falls and a clearing with rocks, then the trail junction where you’ll bear left for Iceberg Lake. The trailhead parking lot often fills early; you may have to park in front of the Swiftcurrent Inn and walk a quarter-mile to the trailhead.
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10 miles, nearly 2,500 feet both uphill and downhill.
The 250-foot-long Ptarmigan Tunnel, blasted through the cliffs of the long escarpment known as the Ptarmigan Wall in 1930 to enable travel on horseback between the Many Glacier area and Belly River Valley, is one of the park’s historic landmarks and most interesting manmade features in the wilderness—and a unique and spectacular dayhike.
While you’ll share the trail with plenty of dayhikers below the junction with the Iceberg Lake Trail—unless you get an early start—few dayhikers venture beyond that junction to the tunnel, giving you much more solitude and increasing the prospects of seeing wildlife like mountain goats. (Look for them on the cliffs of the Ptarmigan Wall and Crowfeet Mountain.)
From the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Tunnel Trailhead behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Many Glacier, hike the trail north, staying right at the Iceberg Lake Trail junction on the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail. (The side trip to Iceberg Lake adds four miles and about 500 feet round-trip—well worth doing if you have the time and energy for it.) The trail continues up the valley of Ptarmigan Creek, with the Ptarmigan Wall looming on your left and Crowfeet Mountain across the valley.
Just beyond pretty Ptarmigan Lake, the trail makes a couple of switchbacks and reaches the Ptarmigan Tunnel, at 7,200 feet, with a great view back down the valley. Be sure to walk through the tunnel—which is tall and wide enough for people on horseback—for the view on the other side from high above Elizabeth Lake and the Belly River Valley.
Want more? See “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes”
and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”
9.4 or about 13 miles, about 2,500 feet both uphill and downhill.
Rising to nearly 7,600 feet above Two Medicine, in the park’s southeastern corner, Dawson Pass deserves its rank among the best passes in Glacier. Standing there—not infrequently in strong winds—you’ll overlook the basin of Two Medicine Lake to the east, 8,520-foot Mount Helen to the south, 9,216-foot Flinsch Peak to the north, and a sweeping panorama of green valleys carved into classic U shapes by ancient glaciers, shockingly blue alpine lakes, and remote, icy peaks in the wilderness heart of Glacier. There’s a good chance you’ll see bighorn sheep and mountain goats, too.
From the North Shore Trailhead at Two Medicine, the Dawson Pass Trail traces the shore of Two Medicine Lake for about two miles; trim this hike by about 4.5 miles (to 9.4 round-trip, although without losing much of the 2,500 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss) by taking the boat shuttle across Two Medicine Lake (see http://glacierparkboats.com/tour/two-medicine/).
The trail begins climbing in earnest just beyond the lake’s west end, through Bighorn Basin, above No Name Lake, and across the south face of Flinsch Peak, before reaching that peak’s south ridge, where it makes several switchbacks up to Dawson Pass. Turn this hike into a loop of 17.5 miles (or about 13 miles with the boat shuttle) by following the Dawson Pass Trail north to Pitamakan Pass, also at nearly 7,600 feet, and you’ll hike one of the best alpine trail traverses in the park.
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