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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)

The Trip
Crown of the continent
Thread high peaks on this challenging thru-hike from Two Medicine Lake to Lake MacDonald.

Three out of five BACKPACKER editors prefer Glacier's quiet, spectacular southern half to its busier, though marginally more dramatic, northern environs. This 62-mile route traces ridgetops the Blackfoot Indians revered as "the backbone of the world," along Dawson, Triple Divide, and Gunsight Passes to Sperry Glacier and Lake MacDonald. The route passes thundering waterfalls, glaciers, and the shores of some of the park's largest lakes. But you'd best arrive in shape for big-mileage days.

From tranquil Two Medicine Campground, stroll to the outlet bridge of Two Medicine Lake. Hike west on the Dawson Pass Trail to Dawson Pass (mile 6.2), then north along high ridgelines, where you'll find smooth trail above yawning Nyack Creek and views west to the gigantic banded limestone pyramids of Mt. Stimson and Pinchot Peak. Round the shattered horn of Flinsch Peak, and continue across a narrow spur of Mt. Morgan. (Caution: The track crosses gullies that can retain hard ice well into summer.) From there, it's an easy mile over 7,874-foot Cutbank Pass, then 7,664-foot Pitamakin Pass. Your day ends at Morning Star Lake, which sits between 2,000-foot cliffs and a broad spruce-filled basin at mile 13.6.

Day two's 13-plus miles lead deep into grizzly country. From Morning Star Lake, continue north on the Cutbank Pass Trail under the lopsided pyramid of 8,315-foot Medicine Grizzly Peak to an intersection with the Triple Divide Pass Trail. Turn left and climb up the open, U-shaped valley of Atlantic Creek to Triple Divide Pass, a broad saddle beneath sweeping sedimentary cliffs. Watch for bighorn sheep as you drop through a dense thicket of fern and beargrass to camp at Red Eagle Lake (mile 27.4). Three miles beyond Red Eagle, the forested trail spits you onto the shore of St. Mary Lake. Turn west and pass beneath small trailside cataracts pouring off Red Eagle Mountain, great for soaking swollen feet. Beyond the lake, cross the St. Mary River (with two campsites available at Reynolds Creek, mile 42.6).

In the morning, hammer 2.7 miles up steep trail cut through cliff outcroppings to Gunsight Pass. The route ahead goes through an area with high user demand and only two small campsites. If you've scored a camping permit, drop to nearby Lake Ellen Wilson; alternatively, continue over Lincoln Pass and into Glacier Basin and basecamp next to Sprague Creek.

On day five, tackle the 2.5-mile, 1,600-foot climb past Akaiyan Falls and Feather Woman Lake, and up the stone stairs of Comeau Pass to the Sperry Glacier Overlook, with its stunning rock and ice panorama. Have some mountaineering experience? Increase the challenge on day six with an attempt on the craggy, exposed class II-III East Ridge of 9,072-foot Edwards Mountain, which begins just west of Gem Lake at Comeau Pass.

Your final day includes a 6.7-mile plunge down to Lake MacDonald. From here, walk west along the road to Sprague Creek Campground ($20, first come, first served). A free hiker shuttle operates along Going-to-the-Sun Road, but you'll need a commercial shuttle (406-892-2525; to Two Medicine Campground.

>> Plan B: Lake isabel from walton ranger station Permits for your desired itineraries all taken? Try the four-day out-and-back along quiet Park Creek to Lake Isabel. The 16.9-mile approach up Park Creek Trail heads to a tight alpine cirque, where the spruce-ringed pool is surrounded by the stunning cliffs of Vigil Peak (8,593 feet) and Battlement Mountain (8,830 feet). It's a gentle 7.2 miles from Walton to Lower Park Creek campsite, great for late starters. Day two is mostly flat walking to a knee-deep ford near the patrol cabin at mile 14.6. Then the trail climbs gradually northwest to the lake. On day three either descend back down Park Creek or, if you've set up a shuttle, turn east at Upper Park Creek campsite, climb 3.8 miles to Two Medicine Pass, and descend to camp at Cobalt Lake, exiting via a 9.8-mile gradual downhill to Two Medicine Campground.

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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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