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Backpacker Magazine – August 2008

Glacier National Park

Scramble up class III peaks and cross late summer snowfields on this strenuous but straightforward trip through Montana's big-mountain country.

by: Steve Howe

Beargrass Along Highline Trail (Cathy & Gordon Illg)
Beargrass Along Highline Trail (Cathy & Gordon Illg)
Dawson Pass Above Nyack Valley (Kirkendall-Spring)
Dawson Pass Above Nyack Valley (Kirkendall-Spring)

Entrance Strategy

>> Getting there The nearest major airports are in Great Falls (200 miles east) and Missoula (156 miles southwest). Glacier has two main entrances: the bustling West Glacier, accessed from Whitefish and Kalispell, and the tranquil east side via St. Mary and East Glacier.

>> Season For low traffic and easier reservations–but snowier passes and higher river crossings–head to Glacier in mid-June (bring gaiters and an ice axe). July is best for wildflowers. The tundra turns to glorious tones of rust and gold by mid-September.

>> Best frontcountry campground Two Medicine Campground on Two Medicine Lake practically sits on the trailhead for your trip, ensuring you get an early start. It's 15 miles from groceries and restaurants in East Glacier. ($20, 99 sites, first come, first served)

>> Pre-trip breakfast Glacier Village Restaurant (406-226-4464), on Main Street in East Glacier, opens at 6:30 a.m. for espresso, homemade pastries, and box lunches that you can rebag for your pack.

>> Gear shop Get pepper spray and a holster at Sportsman & Ski Haus on US 93 in Whitefish, outside the West Entrance (406-862-3111). It's your grizzly country equivalent of peace of mind.

>> Permits Go to nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm for an application, campsite map, trail mileages, and charts that show open reservation dates. Half of all backcountry sites are held for walk-ins, but reservations ($30/party) are recommended. Applications are processed beginning April 16. Backcountry office: (406) 888-7857 from March 15 to October 31



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Tim Culbertson
Sep 02, 2014

We completed this trip this past week. The southern half of Glacier does not disappoint – this is a stellar trip with great views and a great experience of the park. We found out that due to a careless backpacker, one of the critical campsites in popular Northern Loop trip of the park is closed for the season, so this trip was probably as good as you could ask for this year.

A few updates & words of advice:

1. This trip is not appropriate for beginners, but I think that’s pretty obvious. The elevation profile of this itinerary is no worse than what you find on strenuous east coast trails. In fact, with all the switchbacks, I found the elevation somewhat easier.

2. We flew into Missoula, which was a hike up to the park. Kalispell is super-close, but much pricier. Great Falls is also closer and possibly a better choice. The trick to this trip is leaving a car at Lake McDonald and shuttling to Two Medicine. We had a local friend drive us. The park shuttle does go from Lake McDonald to St Mary, then you need a commercial shuttle (www.glacierparkinc.com, $30) down to Two Medicine. Due to the scheduling of the commercial shuttle and the slowness of the park shuttle, this shuttling plan will likely take an entire day.

3. Two Medicine campground has potable water and bear boxes. It also has a permit office. All backpackers must be present to watch a 15-minute safety video when you pick up permits.

4. This article incorrectly identifies your last night as “Sprague Creek”. The campsite they’re thinking of is “Sperry”. This is 0.4 miles from the Sperry Chalet. The chalet books by October each year, but you can make dinner-only reservations after that. The campsite’s water is lousy, but the chalet lets you use their portable water spigot.

5. We didn’t get this article’s exact itinerary on our permit application, though the route was identical. Here was our itinerary which worked out great:
Day 1: Two Medicine to Atlantic Creek; 14.2 miles; 2560 elev up, 2270 elev down
Day 2: Atlantic Creek to Red Eagle Lake (Head); 10.7 miles; 2000 elev up, 2680 elev down
Day 3: Red Eagle Lake (Head) to Reynolds Creek; 15.2 miles; 400 elev up, 500 elev down
Day 4: Reynolds Creek to Gunsight Lake; 4.9 miles; 500 elev up, 0 elev down
Day 5: Gunsight Lake to Sperry Campsite; 7.1 miles; 2790 elev up, 1560 elev down
Day 6: Sperry Campsite to Lake McDonald; 6.4 miles; 0 elev up, 3430 elev down

In addition, Florence Falls and the Jackson Glacier trail were well worth doing on Day 4, and the Sperry Glacier trail was worth doing on Day 6.

Chuck Ross
Apr 26, 2012

Gunsight Pass, August 24-26, 2011: We were lucky enough walk in to the backcountry office and get a trail permit for this hike in spite of the massive avalanche on Fullisade Mtn that had wiped out part of the trail. We had the recommended ice axe and crampons and were glad we did - this late in the season, a steep snowfield between Gunsight Lake and the pass was almost as hard as ice, and might well have been the last glissade you ever took if you couldn’t self-arrest. No matter when you go, monitor the trail conditions before you go, talk to the rangers, and be prepared. Oh yeah – it was spectacular, and we had almost the entire trip to ourselves!

Kathryn Harvey
Jul 27, 2011

Just back from Glacier 7/23/11- many higher trails and backcountry camps still closed due to snow so forcing lots of hikers to camp at lower level sites. Get your permits early and be flexible. Hiked and camped at Kintla Lake and Upper Kintla Lake - beautiful. Snowed in the mountains above us one night. Saw black bear on the trail and at camp. Beautiful flowers.

Jim Hall
Jul 21, 2011

Going to Sun Road opened LATEST ever last week July 12. Did Loop Trail to Granite Chalet (all up hill.) Last mile over snow. Coming down saw 3 Griz on ridge to east. Great flowers. Saw several deer close up.


Did the Pegan Pass Trail part way (four hours in) and it was over snow (July 14)about 95% of the way. Most snow ever seen at Glacier. Saw goats and two rams west of creek just starting out.

Did short Apikuni Falls hike and it was worth it. Don't let mile+ up fool you. Up hill. Lots of snow around falls. Be sure and safely climb on and see pool at base of falls.

Did hike at Bowman Lake area. Nice ride up to this NW area but hike was not worth it.

As of July 15 rangers said Highline Trail likely would NOT be open this summer at all. Too much snow.

Swiftcurrent Trail was nice, but just too many folks first couple miles. Great views and flowers and even snow for last snowcone before heading back to Georgia.

Avoid Avalanche Lake Trail unless you head out EARLY. Every body and his brother hikes that trail mid morning on.

In fact suggest early start on all trails in Glacier. Great cabins to stay at in Coram just on Highway 2 7 miles from park (west side). Peaceful Escapes by a store. $80 a night and brand new with kitchenettes even. Eat nearby at Glacier Grill. Great food and service.

Scott Sanders
Sep 05, 2008

I was there on the CDT project last summer and can't wait to return. The mountains at sunset are too beautiful to describe.

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