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Best Hikes Ever: St. Mary to McDonald Lake, MT

Hike lake to lake through bear central in Glacier National Park.
st_mary_glacier_Blackley_445.jpgStart this cross-glacier route at St. Mary Lake. (Pat & Chuck Blackley)

Even without the grizzlies, this park’s alpine scenery alone would deserve a spot in our top 10. But with the densest bear habitat of any park in the Lower 48, Glacier is THE place to hike with that spine-tingling sensation of being watched. For a 40.9-mile safari through the heart of Glacier, hike from St. Mary Visitor Center to Lake McDonald (“Bear Patrol,” October 2008). Following the river valleys and topping Gunsight Pass, this route cuts through the berry- and bulb-rich feeding grounds bears frequent. Make noise when nearing blind corners and approaching babbling streams, and use this hike’s high points to your advantage: Scan the surrounding terrain for browsing bears. And should you strike out on bear sightings (unlikely), you’ll still relish “truly grand topography that makes you feel out there in a way that even the Tetons or Cascades can’t match,” says Jonathan Dorn, who hiked here in 2006.

Do it Take the Red Eagle Creek Trail, following the shoreline of St. Mary Lake for 7.6 miles, then bear right on the St. Mary Trail. Cross a series of hanging valleys draped in waterfalls before arriving at Reynold Campground at 7.3 miles. Next day, follow the 20-mile Gunsight Pass Trail up the St. Mary River Valley, where bears congregate for the berries and cool, high-elevation temps. Camp at Gunsight Lake, then descend into the Sprague Creek drainage and follow the Snyder Ridge Trail to Lake McDonald.

Resources

Driving Start at St. Mary’s Lake Visitor Center. Return on the park shuttle from Lake McDonald.

Map/book Trails Illustrated Glacier National Park/Waterton Lakes National Park ($12, natgeomaps.com); Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks, by Erik Molvar ($12, falcon.com)

Contact (406) 888-7800; nps.gov/glac

Trip ID 12591

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