best day hikes
glacier national park
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. You can also view my favorite hikes on a Google map of Glacier.
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.
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 - sobering photos show that as recently as 1940 the ice completely filled the cirque - and the iceberg-filled lake.
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
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 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 parking lot).
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.
Trailhead: 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. 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.
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
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 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. 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 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. Recommended.
Glacier's grizzly bears
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. You won't run into a grizzly every day - or even most days - on trail, but sightings are not uncommon as several of the most popular trails cross prime grizzly habitat. 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 (an industrial strength pepper concoction that you can buy locally) 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 (these are easy to find, since although the Park Service discourages it the appearance of a bruin inevitably leads to a "bear jam") 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 the mountain.
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...
Practicalities: where to stay in Glacier National Park
Glacier can be visited year-round (and like any mountain area is doubtless most beautiful in winter), but roads and most services are only open during the summer. When my brother and I visited in August 2005, 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-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.
Climber's Guide 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.
photography, text and design by Phil Armitage