By Josh Gonzalez
Out of the many great hiking locations I have been to, my most recent adventure led me to the beautiful Glacier National Park. If you ever find yourself in this great national park, here are two of my favorite trails.
We arrived near Glacier National Park, Montana late at night. It was our first official stop on our trans American-Canadian road trip. Glacier National Park is situated right on the border between the US and Canada, and anchors the great Canadian Rockies to the US. We quickly set up our rooftop tent on the banks of a fast-moving river alongside other overlander rigs and vanlifers.
We were just outside Columbia Falls, Montana, a small town on the outskirts of the park. The date was August 15th and the morning air was brisk when we awoke. Being this far north, bringing a light fleece or puffy jacket would be smart. The weather changes fast with systems moving through these mountains regularly.
I pulled out my trusty MSR Windburner from the mess of gear in the trunk of our recently converted 2000 Jeep Cherokee to Overland Vehicle. I quickly made oatmeal and instant coffee to get the day going. We were all slow to start this morning since we had been driving non-stop the past two days from Ohio to make it here on time and in line with our large itinerary.
Our hike of the day was the famous Highline Trail, a long traverse overlooking the entirety of the west glacier valley down to Lake McDonald, and we quickly readied our gear to get an early start. We left our awesome free campsite for the entrance to Glacier with our National Parks Pass (good for a whole year and well worth the investment). Entering the immense park, we began our drive alongside Lake McDonald. As we traveled into the mountains, the road changed from a lakeside drive to a series of long switchbacks making our way to the Logan Pass Visitor Center. Going-to-the-Sun Road is a site in itself.
The final stretch was a long traverse with steep drop-offs to the right of the mountain. The views were remarkable in every direction. The deep greens of the alpine foliage in contrast to the bald rocky tops of the mountains left a Jurassic Park like impression. Every couple of minutes you would turn a bend a see a glacial waterfall pouring down into the valley feeding the lake. After a 45-minute drive from our campsite we made it to the crowded visitor center. Needless to say, the earlier you arrive the better. It took us 20 minutes of looping around the parking lot for a spot to open up for us.
Highline Trail begins via Logan Pass and is a 15 mile out and back trail with a 2,578-foot cumulative elevation gain. There are two locations to choose where to start. If you are looking for a more gradual hike, I recommend starting from Logan Pass where the elevation change is negligible throughout the first 11 miles. Once you hit Granite Park Chalet, the trail drops 2,200 feet in 4 gradual miles of switchbacks to the Loop Trailhead. Here a park shuttle can pick you up and drive you back to your parked vehicle at Logan Pass.
If you like elevation gain, then beginning from the Loop Trailhead to gain the immediate 2,200 feet, break at the Chalet for tea, and then coast through the traverse to the visitor center would be just as fine a hike. Because much of this route passes through prime grizzly bear habitat, it’s extremely important for hikers to make a lot of noise, carry bear spray, and hike in groups. It’s also a good idea to check with a ranger on the status of recent bear activity before proceeding on any hike in the park.
We left our campsite early in the morning to begin our drive to East Glacier, which is roughly a 2-hour cruise through northern Montana skirting the outer borders of the park. If we thought West Glacier was scenic, we were soon blown away again by the approach to the park entrance. The huge granite domes of the mountains flank Lake Sherburne creating an amphitheater of rock and forest.
After arriving, we quickly passed historic Many Glacier Hotel to the trailhead and began to ready our day packs. Upper Grinnell Glacier begins from the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, located roughly one-half mile past the turnoff for the Many Glacier Hotel. You can shave 3.4 miles off your round-trip hike by taking the two shuttle boats across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. The round-trip length of the trail is around 7.6 miles and the total elevation gain from the beginning of the trailhead is 1,840 feet. Most of this is gradual throughout the trail with the steeper sections towards the end. Hiking the trail, you pass through large swaths of alpine meadows with numerous wildflowers.
The wildlife is also abundant throughout the park. Walking alongside Lake Josephine we noticed a pair of moose grazing on the opposite shore and when we approached the final sections of the trail, a family of mountain goats, unabashed by hikers, came right up to the trail to say hello. Just like Highline trail, this too is grizzly bear territory, so it is important to follow the proper protocol when hiking. Carry a canister of bear spray per group and remain together throughout the trail.
Once you pass over the final ridge, Grinnel Lake fills the vista. The light blue glacial lake is littered with small to large icebergs breaking off the glacier. A small trail from the overlooks leads you down to the banks of the lake for a closer look. This is also a very notable example of climatic change in these environments. In 1850, at the end of what has been referred to as the Little Ice Age, Grinnell Glacier, combined with The Salamander, measured 710 acres in surface area. As of 2005, it has shrunk to less than 200 acres and continues to recede.
As you prepare for your trip, I suggest obtaining appropriate gear. The trails above the tree line become tricky to navigate the more rocky it gets. Trekking poles help increase your sure footing and balance in these tough sections. Most of the trails can be done in a day, so a lightweight day pack between 16-22 liters is perfect for a trip to Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park