Mount Gould and Swiftcurrent Lake
Glacier National Park, adjoining the Canadian border in
northern Montana, boasts breathtaking
glacial scenery, an extensive
trail system, and exceptional opportunities to see wildlife. You're more likely to see a grizzly bear
here than anywhere else in the lower 48 states. This page describes
the best day hikes and photographic opportunities I
found within the park.
Highline trail to the Grinnell glacier overlook
Trailhead: Logan Pass visitor center, on the Going-to-the-Sun road. This is probably
best done as a one way hike finishing at either The Loop (further west
along the road) or at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in the Many Glacier area. There's a
hiker shuttle bus service that makes this possible.
Iceberg-filled Upper Grinnell Lake, at the foot of the Grinnell Glacier
Hiking the Highline trail en route to Logan Pass
This was my favorite hike in Glacier National Park. From Logan
Pass the Highline trail briefly cuts across cliffs on
moderately exposed ledges, before traversing mostly
open hillsides above the road in the shadow of the
Garden Wall. There are great views out to the peaks in the
western half of the park, and good opportunities for
viewing wildlife - we saw mountain goats and sheep.
After almost 7 miles of mostly easy hiking, with Granite Park Chalet in sight
ahead, the trail reaches a junction with the Grinnell
Glacier Overlook trail. From the junction, it's a viciously
steep climb of a thousand feet
in less than a mile to a notch in the Garden Wall overlooking
Upper Grinnell Lake and the Grinnell Glacier. It's worth the
effort - the panorama here is as spectacular as any you'll find
accessible by trail in a US National Park. You can scramble,
cautiously, higher in either direction to get a better view
of the rapidly retreating glacier - as recently as 1940 the ice completely filled the
cirque - and the iceberg-filled lake.
The view from the overlook. The trail ascends from the right hand side of the frame.
Returning to the Highline from the overlook, it's possible to either
backtrack to Logan Pass (15 miles in all, this is what
we did), continue on toward Granite Chalet and descend to The
Loop further West along the Going-to-the-Sun road (13 miles),
or cross Swiftcurrent Pass and descend into the Many Glacier
area emerging at the Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge (17 miles).
Upper Grinnell Lake trail
Along the trail to Upper Grinnell Lake
You can also hike to the foot of the lake and the glacier themselves. Upper Grinnell
Lake is an 11 mile roundtrip from Many Glacier, though you can cut
off much of the distance (but none of the climbing) by taking a
boat to the head of Lake Josephine. This trail is extremely
scenic but also very popular - not just busy but actually
crowded if you happen to hike at the same time as a ranger-led
trip. From the shore the
lake and glacier are starkly beautiful, and late in the season it's easy enough
to hop across the outlet stream and reach the foot of the
glacier. If you're only going to see the lake once though,
it's the view from on high that you shouldn't miss.
Trailhead: The Many Glacier Hotel (the trail leaves from the corner of the upper
The almost unreal colors of Cracker Lake, set in a magnificent cirque
Cracker Lake occupies one of several spectacular cirques that can
be reached on easy day hikes from the Many Glacier area. The 11
mile round trip has 1100 feet of elevation gain and while
the trail itself is only moderately scenic - it's mostly in the forest
though there are some nice views across the flats at the head of Sherburne
Lake - the destination is stunning. Set beneath towering
cliffs, the milky turquoise color of Cracker Lake has to be
seen to be believed. It's a great spot for a leisurely lunch.
One downside of this trail is that guided
horse trips have pureed the first mile of so into a muddy
ditch, but it's not so bad with boots and the resulting
unpopularity of the trail means the lake is much less
busy than other destinations in the area.
Inside Glacier's Ptarmigan Tunnel
: Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, at the end of the Many Glacier road.
Blasting the Ptarmigan tunnel through solid rock to save hikers a few miles walking
is an environmentally dubious scheme that would doubtless fail
to pass muster with the National Park Service today, but which
must have seemed like a good idea in the 1930s (I don't know... perhaps this
was a Depression-era make-work scheme?). The tunnel, high up near
the crest of the Ptarmigan Wall above Ptarmigan Lake, can be
reached on an easy day hike (11 miles and 2300 feet of elevation
gain, but it seems easier than that) from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
Once you're through the tunnel there are good (though on the hazy day we did this not very photogenic) views
of the Belly River country from the far side of the tunnel, and
this, combined with the novelty of the tunnel itself, make for a
fun hike. It's enjoyable, but I'd recommend Cracker Lake or
either of the routes to view the Grinnell Glacier first.
Past Ptarmigan Lake the trail ascends to the tunnel in sweeping switchbacks
The entrance to the tunnel on the Belly River side
With a modicum of additional effort (about 4 more miles roundtrip
from the junction above Ptarmigan Falls), Iceberg Lake
can be visited as well. In fact we planned to do this, but after
encountering a family of bears
on the way up to Ptarmigan Lake, and narrowly missing a second
encounter on the way down, the thought of a beer in the safety of
the hotel won out. By all accounts though, Iceberg Lake is worth
seeing. Alternatively, you could continue on through the
Ptarmigan tunnel, descend almost as far as Elizabeth Lake, and
return over Redgap Pass to the Poia Lake trailhead (a near
loop of about 25 miles). This is a classic backpacking trip
that could be attempted as a monstrous day hike. It's probably a
bit too far to comfortably complete before dark in one day though.
Hikes in the Two Medicine region
Two Medicine Lake. The open slopes above the trail are good bear habitat.
The peaks of Glacier, from the foot of Lower Two Medicine Lake
The Two Medicine area, in the south-east of the park, is scenically
quite similar to Many Glacier - a beautiful lake ringed by forest
and jagged peaks. There's an auto campground but no lodges or motels
within the Park (the nearest accomodation is in the small town
of East Glacier), so the trails here are less busy than those
that start near Many Glacier or the Going-to-the-Sun road. If you
get the chance, most guidebooks recommend the 15 mile Dawson Pass
Loop, which crosses Dawson and Pitamakan passes and offers great
views of Oldman Lake. When we visited, that trail was closed due
to bear frequenting, so instead we hiked the easy 7 mile circuit
of Lower Two Medicine Lake. The trail passes close to two decent
but not outstandingly scenic waterfalls (Aster Falls and Twin
Falls - I took an unintended swim trying to photograph the latter...
it was icy cold and after all that the photos weren't anything special), and there's a good
chance of seeing bears on the open slopes north of the lake.
Best easy hikes in Glacier
The hikes above are all fairly long and at least moderately strenuous. Glacier also has plenty of easy and short day
hikes though, some of which are no less scenic. Some of the best walks are:
Hidden Lake, Glacier national park
Hidden Lake is a 3 mile hike from the Logan Pass visitors' center.
The trail - partly a wide boardwalk - crosses open meadows above the Pass
to reach a scenic lake overlook. Mountain goats are common along this
trail. Returning, there's a panoramic view of the Garden Wall and the
peaks surrounding the Pass. Highly recommended.
Swiftcurrent Lake at sunset
Swiftcurrent Lake. A flat 2.4 mile trail loops around the
lake, passing the Many Glacier hotel and the campground near the
Swiftcurrent Motor Inn en route. Best in the morning or evening
when the water is still, this is a lovely walk with views of
Mount Gould and the other peaks of the Many Glacier area
reflected in the lake. Highly recommended.
St Mary Falls, Glacier
St Mary Falls is less than 2 miles roundtrip from the trailhead
on the Going-to-the-Sun road just west of St Mary lake. This is a
beautiful waterfall - well worth spending time to photograph. It's
probably best to visit later in the day when the crowds aren't as
bad. With one more mile of walking you can also visit Virginia Falls.
Avalanche Lake and Avalanche Gorge
can be reached via a
4 mile round trip from the trailhead east of the Lake McDonald
Lodge. It's pleasant hiking along the creek, but there are
no views to speak of until you reach the lake. Avalanche
Gorge is a popular subject for photographers -
go late in the day to avoid direct sunlight on the water and
be prepared to wait to set up your tripod if you want the
classic (and cliched) image of very blue
water rushing through
the Gorge. Avalanche Lake itself is pleasant, but not one of the most
spectacular destinations in Glacier National Park. Worthwhile.
Sunrift Gorge. No hiking is needed for this one, but don't
miss the well-marked stop along the Going to the Sun road (near the west end
of Lake Mary). It's one of the most unusual gorges I've seen.
Hikes to glaciers in Glacier National Park
Grinnell glacier, melting out into Grinnell Lake
You shouldn't, in my opinion, go to Glacier with the main aim of seeing or hiking
to a glacier - there are altogether more impressive examples in the North Cascades (for example
on Mount Rainier) and just a few hours drive north in Banff National Park
(especially the Saskatchewan Glacier, which is
an awe-inspiring sight). That said, if you've never seen a glacier before you can hike to several glaciers in Glacier National Park
that are worth a look.
The easiest option is probably the hike to Upper Grinnell Lake described above (an easy day hike
if you take the boat). It's also possible to hike to the Sperry Glacier from Lake
McDonald (though that would be a long, tough day hike of some 20 miles), and there are a
number of less accessible glaciers in the backcountry that are still hanging on...
Grizzly bears in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is one of only a handful of places in the
lower 48 States where grizzly bears maintain a foothold.
More than 300 grizzlies live in the park, along with a larger number of black bears. The high density of
grizzlies, together with the (possibly unfortunate) reality that at least some of them are partially habituated to
humans, means that Glacier is one of the best places in all of North America to see bears. Apart from at a
handful of mostly remote Alaska bear viewing sites, where close and safe sightings
are almost guaranteed, I've had better luck in Glacier than elsewhere in the Canadian Rockies, the Yukon, or
national parks in Alaska.
When bears are "in residence" along a
trail the park service closes the area, but
otherwise it's up to visitors to watch out for bears and deal
with any close encounters. We carried bear spray and, especially after we'd seen some bears,
made plenty of noise while on trail. All this might
give the impression that traveling in Glacier is a nerve-wracking
lottery, but in fact catching sight of
bears in the wild is an unforgettable experience. We saw bears on half a
dozen occasions - mostly foraging in meadows within sight
of the road or grubbing around
on open hill sides in the Many Glacier and Two Medicine
area. Decent binoculars are very useful.
At closer range, we and other hikers encountered
the mother and cubs pictured above
just below Ptarmigan Lake, as they descended
the trail toward Ptarmigan Falls. This led to
some nervous moments, but having ceded the trail to the
bears they ambled by without paying us much attention
before moving off the trail into meadows further down
My first day hiking in bear country...
Practicalities: where to stay in Glacier National Park
Lobby, Many Glacier hotel
Glacier can be visited year-round, but roads and most
services are only open during the summer.
When my brother and I visited
we stayed in the Many Glacier Hotel, one of several
historic lodges that date back to the first large scale
tourism promoted by the railroads in the early 20th century. This vast faux
Swiss pile has an unsurpassable location on Swiftcurrent
Lake (the view at the very top of this page is from the veranda), and considerable charm.
For several days we could watch bears foraging on a nearby hillside from
our room. Modern, however, it is not. Despite
occasional moments quite reminiscent of the classic British
sitcom Fawlty Towers (an impromptu gusher of water emerging
from the ceiling of the bar during dinner didn't surprise the
manager in the least), this is a highly recommended place to stay.
Bookings need to be made extremely early to guarantee a
vacancy - ideally in the Fall for the following Summer. For the
hikes described above, you could also stay conveniently
in St Mary, while for the Two Medicine area East Glacier
would make the most logical base.
The nearest reasonably large airports are in
Great Falls (170 miles and four hours drive from
the East side of the park) and Missoula (150 miles
from the West side). In principle you could also fly
to the small airport in Kalispell, which is
very close to West Glacier, or even take an AMTRAK
train to East Glacier. If coming from Europe, you'll
find that getting to Glacier within one day via any
of these routes isn't that easy - your best
bet might actually be to fly to Calgary
170 miles to the North (though in that case be aware
that the border crossing isn't open 24 hours a day).
Glacier National Park home page
Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park, by Vicky Spring and Tom Kirkendall. We found this
to be the most useful hiking guide for Glacier.
Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks, by Erik Molvar. Another trail guide,
this one part of the dependable Falcon series.
to Glacier National Park, by J. Gordon Edwards. I'm not a climber, but the view
on the front cover of this book is almost enough to make me want to start...
Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, by
Stephen Herrero. If your thoughts run less toward the excitement of seeing a
bear, and more toward the gruesome possibility of being eaten by one, this is
supposed to be the definitive "what to do" reference. Good for scaring small
children around a campfire too, I imagine.
More photos and panoramas
from Glacier National Park, courtesy of my brother.