best glacier national park day hikes

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Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park
Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana

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 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.

Highline Trail, Glacier National Park
Hiking the Highline trail en route to Logan Pass
Grinnell Lake overlook, Glacier National Park
Looking down on iceberg-filled Upper Grinnell Lake

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.

Grinnell glacier overlook panorama 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

Trailhead: Grinnell Glacier trailhead, adjacent to the Many Glacier Hotel. From here it's an 11 mile roundtrip. It's also possible to take boats across first Swiftcurrent Lake and then Lake Josephine. Doing so saves about 3 miles of hiking. Either way, you're looking at about 1800 feet of elevation gain to the lake the Grinnell glacier.

Upper Grinnell Lake 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. This trail is extremely scenic but also very popular, especially 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 (depending on how much snow there's been the previous winter) it may be possible to hop across the outlet stream and reach the foot of the glacier.

Trail to Upper Grinnell Lake The trail to Upper Grinnell Lake

Its name nothwithstanding, you shouldn't go to Glacier National Park if seeing glaciers is your primary goal. 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, the Grinnell Glacier in Glacier is worth a look. It's probably the easiest glacier you can see in the park. 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.

Cracker Lake

Trailhead: The Many Glacier Hotel (the trail leaves from the corner of the upper parking lot).

Cracker Lake Glacier National Park 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.

Ptarmigan tunnel

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. 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 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.

Trail above Ptarmigan Lake, Glacier National Park
Past Ptarmigan Lake the trail ascends to the tunnel in sweeping switchbacks
Glacier grizzly bear on hiking trail
We stepped off the trail to let a grizzly bear descend!

The Ptarmigan Tunnel is a unique feature, but our hike was notable instead for a close bear encounter. Shortly after turning on to the tunnel trail from the junction above Ptarmigan Falls, descending hikers told us that a family of grizzly bears was foraging near the shore of Ptarmigan Lake. On hearing this my brother and I decided it was prudent to join a larger group of hikers, and together we pressed on. Soon afterwards, however, another descending hiker conveyed the altogether more urgent news that the bears were in fact coming down the mountain, on the trail, right behind him! Our group, now about 8 strong, scrambled off trail as far as we could - which was not very far - got our bear spray ready, and waited. Sure enough the bears - a mother with two playful cubs - marched by on the trail before heading off into meadows a short distance below us.

With a moderate amount of additional effort (about 4 more miles roundtrip from the junction above Ptarmigan Falls), Iceberg Lake can be visited as well. In principle, you could also 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

Glacier National Park Two Medicine Lake View from Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park

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.

Glacier National Park Swiftcurrent Lake Swiftcurrent Lake, toward 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.

Hidden Lake is shown in the photo at the top of this page. The 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.

Avalanche Gorge, Glacier National Park
Avalanche Gorge
St Mary Falls, Glacier National Park
St Mary Falls

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. Recommended.

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.

Wildlife viewing in Glacier National Park

grizzly bears on Glacier hiking trail
Bears seen descending the Ptarmigan tunnel trail
Bighorn sheep, Glacier National Park
Bighorn sheep in Glacier

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 (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.

In addition to bears, mountain goats and bighorn sheep are commonly seen in Glacier. Mountain goats frequent the hiking trail to Hidden Lake at Logan Pass, and the Goat Lick Overlook along U.S. Highway 2. Seeing sheep is more hit and miss, but I've seen them both along the Highline trail and on the trail to Upper Grinnell Lake.

Where to stay in Glacier National Park

Swiftcurrent Lake Swiftcurrent Lake, during a late-summer storm

Glacier can be visited year-round, but roads and most services are only open during the summer. On a first visit with my brother 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, 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. On a second trip with my wife we stayed in Kalispell to the west of the park. Kalispell was nowhere near as convenient a base as Many Glacier, but it still worked fine.

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).