Glacier National Park is one of country's top backpacking destinations. With superlative mountain scenery and ample wildlife viewing opportunities, it is a tough park to beat. Many relish and others dread the idea of camping amongst the grizzly but if you make the choice to backpack here, you will most certainly be doing just that.
One trip we did was right in the heart of the park, starting at Logan Pass and walking along the Garden Wall to Granite Park Chalet Campground. This scenic route was literally full of bighorn sheep and mountain goats. From there, we hiked to Fifty Mountain Campground, one of the most coveted and tactically important backcountry spots in the park. The next stretch was to Flattop Mountain followed by our hike out on the fourth day where we walked over a huge pile of fresh bear scat full of berries just outside our last camp.
The whole circuit was 32 miles, picked up nearly 4000 feet and lost overly 6000! It was not an easy walk and being our first trip backpacking in the park, a bit harrowing but we were very glad we did it and happy to return to talk about it!
Upper Two Medicine is one of the more over-looked parts of Glacier National Park due to its remoteness but we met a ranger while backpacking who told us not to miss this magical and perhaps most spiritual part of the park. Lower Two Medicine Lake features a nice campground with lake views and many trails emanating from it. There is a boat shuttle to cut some of the longer walks down to more manageable lengths as most trails skirt the lakeshore initially.
One very nice hike is to Upper Two Medicine Lake. This trail only climbs 350 feet over its 5 mile length so a nice longish but not overly strenuous day hike. You can alternatively take the boat across the lake cutting the walk down to 2.2 miles but obviously not losing any of the climb which is all at the end. En route, you can stop at Twin Falls which is the end goal of many of the boat trip crowd as it is just under a mile from the dock and climbs only 75 feet. It is not overly impressive but worth the slight effort to stop if going to Upper Two Medicine anyway and makes a nice stop for a snack.
As pretty as Lower Two Medicine is, the smaller higher one is more stunning. Steep peaks rise on three sides, creating a near bowl effect. Be sure to not stop too early. We met one woman that was rushing to get back to the boat dock by a certain time and just snapped a quick shot of a small lake before turning around. We were very disappointed by where we thought we would be camping and were happy when the trail continued beyond what amounted to a pond compared to the “real” Upper Two Medicine. We laughed at her showing her photos to friends saying she had hiked up to Upper Two Medicine, imaging their faces while trying to look impressed by the pond. It was quite a sight when we arrived but even more so the next morning when the peaks were glowing. We were happy we decided to do this as an overnight trip rather than rushing up and down. There is a pit toilet at the campground if you need one
Lake McDonald is the largest lake in Glacier National Park at over 10 miles long, a mile wide and nearly 500 feet at its deepest. At over 3000 feet of elevation, it is still home to many species of native trout and there is a concessionaire renting canoes and the like for its exploration. There is also a trail that skirts its shores. Sadly, a massive forest fire has left the lake somewhat scarred and only time will heal those wounds.
We did not even stop at the lake aside from checking out the McDonald Motor Inn. The best shot I got of it was in the distance from the Garden Wall Trail.
The Grinnell Glacier Overlook is one of the top views in Glacier National Park but one that requires some effort to get to. If you are doing the Garden Wall as a day hike and get an early start, you can do this spur trail to the overlook fairly easily. It is just under a mile but climbs very steeply, it feels like about 1000 feet at that point but probably closer to 600. The view down at the Grinnell Glacier is fantastic as well as giving you a nice look into the valley you hike through to get right to the Glacier. You can see icebergs floating around in the powder blue waters of the glacier's pool along with lots of little people scurrying around on shore.
This is a very popular day hike for people staying at Granite Park Chalet and alternatively, you can hike there in a shorter distance (though much more of a climb) via The Loop Trail. Pick your poison, anyway you dice it, you will be climbing.
I will never forget looking down at this lake in 1994 and saying I wanted to hike to the glacier itself. Unfortunately, the Grinnell Glacier Trail was closed due to grizzly activity when I was there. On the 2008 trip, we had already done the hike so it was cool to look down at where we had been a few days earlier. We were none too smug though as we had to carry a full backpack each up to the overlook as you are not allowed to leave your gear on the main trail while doing the side trip. There were packs down there and we met a guy at the top who asked why we carried ours up as we gasped for air unable to explain that we were just following the rules!
You will come to the turnoff at around 6.8 miles from Logan Pass along the Garden Wall so you are looking at a 16 mile round trip hike to the Grinnell Overlook and back to Logan Pass. It is certainly a great hike and a good enough place to turn around, but get an early start to ensure an enjoyable and not too rushed trip.
If you can only do one hike in the park and want to stay close to Logan Pass, the The Garden Wall Trail is the one for you. This is part of the much longer Highline Trail that runs deep into the park. It mimics the Going-to-the-Sun Road but a few hundred feet up so if you do that section of road and are looking for turnouts that are just not there, try this medium difficulty hike.
The hike from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet is 7.6 miles and loses about 1000 feet in elevation before climbing up 800. You can drop down The Loop Trail from there, only 3.5 miles but a whopping 2200 feet. From that trail head you can catch a shuttle bus back to Logan Pass for free. If you are not interested in seeing the chalet and do not want to walk the entire length of the Garden Wall just walk a far as you feel comfortable with and turn back around, returning the way you came. This is one hike that is bound to look great and actually quite different in both directions. You won't use the shuttle and will also avoid the significant drop on The Loop Trail.
I did this as a day hike in 1994 and saw my first golden eagle flying right along the trail as well as mountain goat coming right at me. On the 2008 trip, my wife and I did this as the first leg of our four day backcountry trip. It was obviously a lot tougher with a full pack but still enjoyable till we got to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook! We saw tons of Bighorn Sheep and mountain goats, including one very cute baby with its mother not all that far from the start of the hike. Even if you are unable to do the full hike, I would suggest walking part of it. The views are amazing and there is great wildlife viewing opportunities.
Logan Pass is the highest point on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. At nearly 6700 feet and at this latitude, it can be a very cold place, especially if the weather turns sour. There is a huge but busy parking lot and Visitor Center located here. It is one place that pretty much every visitor to the park goes to so planning an early visit is a good idea. The Visitor Center has some interesting displays but on a busy cold day, it can be overwhelming. We stopped in to get a trail update before heading out for a four day hike into Glacier's backcountry but did have a small look at the displays and warmed up a bit.
Two popular trails leave from Logan Pass. The very popular Hidden Lake Nature Trail is 1.5 miles one-way and climbs less than 500 feet. This trail can be quite crowded so best to do it early. The other is one of the park's top hikes, The Garden Wall, explained in its own tip.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road gives access to many tremendous sites. Traveling from the east, one of the first is the park's second largest body of water, St. Mary Lake. Though second in size to Lake McDonald all the way on the other side of the park, it is perhaps the most scenic of any lake you can drive to in the park. At an altitude of nearly 4500 feet, it is 1500 feet higher than Lake McDonald and has a couple of gorgeous peaks as its backdrop. Though only ten miles in length, it is 300 feet at its deepest and its frigid waters rarely rise about 50 F!
I would have liked go get over here for a sunrise one morning but it was too far from Many Glacier Campground. We stopped en route to starting our four-day hike from Logan Pass and I snapped this shot about 9:30 AM, far too late at this latitude in the summer to catch early morning light.
While true that the Going-to-the-Sun Road is perhaps the most scenic drive in any US National Park, if you are physically able, you should hit Glacier's National Park's considerable trail network. One of the top hikes in the park is the one to Grinnel Glacier. There are not many places in the Lower 48 where you can walk up to a glacier with icebergs floating in the pool into which it is melting. Hurry though, it is predicted to disappear by the year 2030.
The hike is a mere 5.5 miles one way and rises only 1600 feet so certainly can be done by anyone in reasonable shape as a full day hike. Those in great shape could probably knock it out in a half day but no reason to rush as this is one gorgeous trail from start to finish. While the Grinnell Glacier is the highlight of the walk, the scenery en route along with the wildlife viewing opportunities make this a top notch walk and one of the most scenic in all of Glacier National Park. It is a steady but not overly steep climb that rises up above Lake Josephine and Swift Current Lake.
This is one hike you will not mind it being in and out as your walk back is quite possibly prettier than the walk up, offering what seems an endless view of turquoise lakes. Keep an eye on the surrounding hills and be rewarded with Bighorn Sheep climbing effortlessly, often fairly close to the trail. In season, berries line the trail as well but this also means grizzlies will likely be feeding in the area. It is for this reason that the trail is periodically closed. If a bear has been on the trail a lot and/or has been interacting with hikers, it is unsafe for the park to leave the trail open, for hikers and bears alike. It was closed when I was in the park in 1994 but was happy to finally get to do it on the 2008 trip.
Another killer hike in the Two Medicine area is the one to Pitamakan Pass. This nearly 7 mile trail climbs 2400 feet before opening up to the Continental Divide and sweeping views in all directions. This is an early morning hike and one that should be attempted only in fine weather. Even on the relatively nice day we did the walk it was so windy we nearly got blown off the trail. This is a 14 mile round trip hike with a lot of elevation change so should be attempted only by those very fit.
Not all hikes in the Two Medicine area are easy strolls to lakes. Some of the park's most strenuous hikes emanate from Lower Two Medicine Lake. One of the toughest is the one to Dawson Pass. This 6.7 mile trail climbs close to 2500 feet and brings you right up to the Continental Divide. Make sure to get an early start, pick a day with fine weather and a good forecast. This is not a place you want to be if the weather turns sour. We actually had a nice day but it was windy as all hell. You could literally see the divide of the weather on the Divide itself. You're looking at close to 14 miles round trip so make sure you are in great shape before attempting this hike.
Another relatively easy hike in the Two Medicine area is the one to Oldman Lake. This 5.5 mile trail picks up 1500 feet so certainly more strenuous than the walk up to Upper Two Medicine but you will not see any boat trip patrons and be rewarded with a fairly secluded alpine lake at which to have lunch if there midday. Come evening, backpackers will be cooking up dinner at the food preparation area which is close to a pit toilet if you need one.
We camped here the second night of our three-day hike in the Two Medicine area and walked out the 5.5 mile trail described, though all thankfully downhill!
We saw a bachelor herd of Rocky Mt Big Horn Sheep near St Mary's Lake. They apparently go down to the lake for the water and then back up on the mountain for the day. We happened to drive by just as about 15 of them were crossing the road. Pretty cool. The horns can weigh up to 30 pounds or as much as the rest of the bones in the body combined. The sheep live in gender groups, so you'll see either all ram or all ewes and lambs. Except of course during mating season.
Just past Lower Two Medicine Lake you will find the trailhead to one of the most interesting waterfalls I've see. The trail is level and short. In the spring as we saw it, the waterfall is a 40 drop. When the water level in the stream drops however the falls come out a cave about half way down. Look closely and you can see the second waterfall at the right in my picture.
This little spot off the side of the Going to the Sun road was so wonderful, small, impressive and a nice surprise along the road. I imagine when the road is crowded that this little spot might not offer the quiet solace it gave to me in May. But the jumbled rock, the swift water and the moisture laden vegetation couldn't have been better.
One of the more easily accessed hikes in the park, St Mary's Falls was at the end of a nice half mile hike into the forest and down to the river, it was very pretty and worth the trip. The falls drop 40 feet and are rimmed with richly colored red rocks and green moss. The water in the falls was an unreal aquablue, due to glacial sediments mixing with snow and glacial melt. The best view of the falls are from the well built wood bridge across the stream. We were there in the spring and the water was full.