If you look at a map of the USA, Montana hangs like a big sheet fluttering from the 39th parallel. Temperatures drop to just below freezing in winter and rise to a high of around 30C/85F in July – not uncomfortable for our few days of hiking at the start of summer.
According to the US National Park Service there are eight parks in this vast state; some famous names such as Yellowstone, Big Hole, Big Horn Canyon, Fort Union and the very well-known Little Big Horn Battlefield. All have incredible backpacking trails ranging through deserts, lakes and canyons to mountains and glaciers. We picked the Glacier National Park in the extreme northwest – so close to Canada you can almost smell the poutine!
Glacier National Park is famous for, you might have guessed; glaciers, mountains, lakes and over 700 miles of hiking trails. We were searching for space and solitude not people; but grizzly bears, wolves, bison and wide-open spaces.
Glacier National Park Backpacking Guide
We flew into Kalispell Airport and rented a car for the short drive to Lake McDonald and our first campground at Fish Creek. Just before the campground is the Apgar Visitor Center with a small café. Here we got all the park permits and trail maps. A surprisingly good campground in among the pine trees with delightful views of the lake.
It felt really peaceful, a great choice for our first night to plan the trails. Lake McDonald is truly stunning. Most incredible are the colored stones and pebbles along the shore – all the colors of the rainbow – seemingly positioned by someone wanting the perfect Instagram picture, they are apparently entirely natural.
Lake McDonald to Snyder Lake
We woke and packed up early and set out on the trail along the edge of Lake McDonald. Our plan was to reach the backcountry campground at Snyder Lake, around 2000ft above sea level, before nightfall. A hike of around 15 miles in total. The trails here are very clearly marked and well maintained and there are plenty of smaller side trails and loops so it is easy to plan a route and unlikely you will encounter many other hikers on the same route.
The first 10 miles along the shore of Lake McDonald were staggeringly beautiful – if a little busier than we expected. An easy level trail with endless opportunities to take in the vistas of the lake. We arrived at the lakehead just in time for lunch then took a short detour to see McDonald Falls and the Sacred Dancing Cascade. There is a visitor lookout, but it is not easy to get a good view of the falls due to the thick vegetation, but it’s worth the detour.
Just around from the lakehead opposite Lake McDonald Lodge the Gunsight Pass Trail leaves the road and heads through dense forest east along Snyder Creek. A couple of miles along the trail splits with the left spur slowly rising up to Snyder Lake. The forest becomes thicker and fuller along this part and there’s a real chance of finding bears so, spray at the ready, we clamored our way on – half hoping to see a grizzly but mostly wanting to arrive without an encounter.
After a few more miles we arrived at Sperry Chalet and our campground for the night. A delightful alpine ground nestling at the edge of the forest with stunning views of the surrounding mountains, their snowy peaks glistening in the setting sun.
Highline Trail to Granite Park
Across the center of Glacier National Park runs the romantically named Going-to-the-Sun Road, slowly winding its way between the mountains to the highest point at Logan Pass. A few weeks ago the road was still closed from winter snows. Now it’s open and we plan to hike the famous Highline Trail which begins at the pass.
Following a very good breakfast at Sperry Chalet we packed up and hurried back down the trail to Lake McDonald Lodge where a shuttle bus service operates along Going-to-the-Sun Road. It took just under an hour to reach Logan Pass on the shuttle; definitely a ride worth experiencing, as it climbs higher through the mountains you get to see the landscape unfolding and expanding.
At Logan Pass we found the Visitor Center with information on the alpine meadows, forests and conditions of the trail. The Highline Trail starts here and cuts along the mountain sides for just over 11.5 miles mostly above the treeline giving full panoramic views of the huge glacial valley. Occasionally it dips into alpine meadows but much of it is precarious mountain ledges, known as the Garden Wall. It is a difficult trail needing all the proper equipment and plenty of caution.
Around halfway we took a short detour trail for a chance to climb up and see the Grinnell Glacier in all its splendor. Definitely worth the steep, rugged path for a chance to stand on the edge of a glacier with all its colors and icy coolness. A couple of miles before the end, at over 6000ft, was our campground for tonight at Granite Park. A truly magnificent location with zero facilities – but we found a small stream where we could fill up with water. This was the remote beauty we had been hunting for and we spent a beautiful night under the stars.
We awoke for our last full day in the Glacier National Park to see the sun breaking across the mountain tops. Today was our longest hike, just over 30 miles. We headed north up the valley to Goat Haunt then due west along Oison Creek to the campground at Bowman Lake.
The entire trail to Goat Haunt was empty of hikers other than us. The quietness, sense of solitude and discovery made us feel like intrepid explorers. Most of the route was well-marked and maintained, just as we found everywhere. The mountains here in the west of Montana are majestic and inspirational in their natural landscape.
The sun was beginning to set as we reached Bowman Lake and started to hear the chatter of other people relaxing on its crystal serene waters. We arrived with achy bones, sore feet and an absolute desire to return to this extraordinary place.
by Michael Anderson at GlobalGrasshopper.com
This Glacier National Park backpacking guide was published in June 2021.
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