Eye-Popping Awesomeness in Glacier National Park
Our NW Montana/Canada road trip continues! Currently, we’re up in Canada enjoying most-excellent MTB trails near Canmore. Jasper and the Icefield Parkway beckon to the north as September steams ahead.
The end of the NW Montana plains is a splendid sight as craggy peaks of green and white spike toward the moon. It’s the front range of the Rockies cracking the earth, a reward for miles of rolling hay fields. Welcome to Glacier National Park!
We pedaled through this gem in 2014 during our U.S. bicycle tour and I also roadtripped through last fall with my dad. Crazy as it seems though, I’d never done any of the iconic hiking for which Glacier is famous.
In an effort to maximize the crowds, we left my friend Keif’s wedding and arrived on the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park system. Thanks to a big berry season, encounters with bears also resulted in trail closures for three of the trails we had planned to hike.
This served to funnel hikers up a small number of trails. My guess is it is a devious plot by the Glacier Grizzlies (a rough, tattooed gang) so the bears could pick and choose the fattest, slowest tourists to gobble up. (I’m kidding – bears don’t eat people. They just scare the beejeebus out of them.)
We still found quiet and alone time in the park. Hiking 15 miles anywhere will get you that! While a favorite is hard to choose, we loved the Highline and Grinnell Glacier trails, both famous and highly trafficked for a reason: THEY’RE AMAZING.
Accessed right from our campground at Many Glacier (HQ for three of four nights we stayed in the park), Grinnell is a must-do. Get there before the glaciers are gone! If you can’t, don’t worry – Glacier will still be a stunning place even without the white stuff.
Grinnell starts out through pretty pine forest while skirting Swiftcurrent Lake, then climb climb climbs up to the glacier. Along the way, views open up big and loud like a Christmas present from a favorite uncle. The sparkling lakes line up toward the plains, sharp peaks surround the trail, and you might even spy a mountain sheep gnawing on some foliage.
At the top is a brilliant blue lake with icebergs floating in it, while Grinnell Glacier and the crest of the Continental Divide serve as the backdrop. Turn around and it’s an eye-popping view; stick your feet in the cold (SO COLD) glacial-melt water and your eyes will bug out a second time.
My advice: Hike a few hundred yards past the viewpoint to the glacier and find a flat, warm rock right next to the water to recline on. Soak in the majestic amphitheater and be stoked to witness such a fantastic place.
Before you turn around to hike out, check out the view to the east from the lake rim. Lower Grinnell and Swiftcurrent lakes spill through the deep valley and it’s possible to see the plains rolling all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
This splendid trail is perfect for experiencing Glacier’s west side. You’ll snag expansive views toward Lake McDonald and likely spot mountain goats or sheep as you hike beneath the western crest of the Continental Divide. If you’re up for a steep spur hike, huff your way up a 900’ climb to overlook Grinnell Glacier for a panoramic view of the Rockies.
Highline starts right on Going-to-the-Sun Road, either at Logan Pass or down a few miles at The Loop. Free park shuttles connect the two, making logistics simple for a ~15 mile point-to-point hike. By starting at Logan, you’ll avoid a steep climb up from The Loop…though the knee-pounding descent from Granite Chalet to end the day had me questioning that logic. Pick your poison! Either way, it’s sweet.
Our initial plan was to hike Highline to Granite Chalet, then connect to Swiftcurrent Pass and head east down to the Many Glacier campground. Unfortunately, a woman encountered a bear the night before our hike and Swiftcurrent was shut down. (She was apparently only scratched up and recovering nicely in the hospital. Yikes! Note to self: don’t pick berries alone at 8 p.m. in bear country.)
Instead, we shuttled at both the start and end of the hike and still had a marvelous day. Traversing the ridge above Going-to-the-Sun Road yields big views that just keep expanding. Any hiker worth their trail mix will love this trek.
About a mile south of Granite Chalet is the spur trail to overlook Grinnell that is worth doing. Pro tip: No matter how badly you’re gasping and want to sit down at the top of the spur, KEEP GOING.
Another five minutes of fun scrambling to the next cliff gets you to a 360 viewpoint of Swiftcurrent and Grinnell, plus a vantage west across the rest of the park. Another hiker mentioned this to me and it was worth it. At the top, you’ll be alone and grinning like Yogi Bear in a picnic basket.
Two Medicine Lake – Pitamaken/Dawson Loop
A few people told me that the 18-mile Pitamaken/Dawson Pass loop is the best hike they’ve ever done. We rolled in late and didn’t get a chance to do anything but a shorter loop near the lake, but this one is on my list. For you confident day hikers down for a big day with 3,300’ of elevation gain, hit it up and send me a picture!
Instead, I enjoyed a sunrise the next morning that had my jaw scraping the lake shore.
Shout Out for The Bob Marshall, Land of Solitude
Want to dodge the summer crowds? An hour south of Glacier is the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the fifth-largest wilderness area in the lower 48. The list of wild animals here starts with mountain lions and grizzlies and ends with “hike in large groups.”
The Bob just FEELS wild. Pre-blog in 2011 (when my life was a secret), I spent 10 glorious days backpacking and rafting there. I’ll admit to feeling more on edge at night there than anywhere else I’ve camped. Bivy sacks are basically tortilla shells for grizzly bears, after all.
This time around, Chelsea and I hit the Bob by driving 35 miles west from Choteau to hike Headquarters Creek Pass. (Thanks for the tip, Eric!) We trekked the entire eight miles completely alone as we switchbacked our way up to the pass. Pika popped in and out of rock slides doing their best squeaky-toy impersonations; spruce grouse blocked our way on the trail and eyed us as if to ask, “what are you doing here?”
Thanks to our wimpy bear bells, loud talking, and Chelsea singing to iPhone backup from Kanye, the Grizzly Gang didn’t make an appearance. Instead, we enjoyed a expansive views east over the Montana plains, followed by perfect wild camping by a stream in solitude broken only by curious deer meandering past. It was tremendous.
The Bob: Check it out.
Glacier: Check it out, but aim for the shoulder seasons.
I’ll leave you with another decent view from Glacier.
Aw man, we must get ourselves to this corner of the US one day. And soon, before you take all those glacier pieces with you! I had planned to visit several years ago, but too much snow. Or something. I can’t remember, but it was some sort of weather-related issue. Maybe I can convince Dave on that whole overlanding thing…
Jen Sotolongo recently posted…Why You Should Quit Your Job
TOO LATE. We cleaned out the lake with a huge helicopter scoop, sucka!
Overlanding mixed with bike touring works for us. I’d wager you three would enjoy it too. Let me know if you need me to lean on Dave about it.
So jealous! You scored a treasure out there! The bears had it out for us during our short visit, I’m afraid…. Every trail we encountered blocked due to bear activity. Glad you made it unscathed and with only telephoto lens shots of the wildlife :).
Yeah, crazy how many were shut down! Iceberg, Ptarmigan, Swiftcurrent, and (right before we arrived) Highline. You’ll be back!
Our rule is NO wildlife photos when the animal is charging us. Easy to remember, I think. Hope life down south is great!