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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

Bear Patrol in Glacier

Traverse the wildest part of the lower 48's last great grizzly hideaway.

by: Charlie Wood & Casey Lyons

St. Mary and other lakes are still hypothermically cold (Tomas Kaspar).
St. Mary and other lakes are still hypothermically cold (Tomas Kaspar).

The Hike
Raging waterfalls, sheer precipices, and glacially sculpted valleys define Glacier National Park. But ask any backpacker what tops his Glacier wish list and you'll hear about the chance to spot a grizzly bear in the wild. The best way to see it all, including a griz? Walk straight through the heart of the park on a 40.9-mile point-to-point beginning at St. Mary Visitors Center. You'll follow the St. Mary Lake shoreline on the Red Eagle Creek Trail for the first 7.6 miles before bearing right onto St. Mary Lake Trail. In another 7.3 miles, you'll reach Reynold Campground, crossing a series of hanging valleys with menthol-blue waterfalls. Camp here, then follow the 20-mile Gunsight Pass Trail through the berry- and bear-filled St. Mary River Valley. Through August, grizzlies come for the berries and stay for the cool air of higher elevations. Aspen give way to mixed-conifer forests as the trail winds around sky-blue Gunsight Lake and the postcard-perfect campsites on its east bank. You'll have fantastic views of Gunsight Mountain's double summit to the north. Descend into the Sprague Creek drainage and bear left onto the Snyder Ridge Trail to finish up at Lake McDonald.

The Crux
Seeing a griz without startling one in the Lower 48's most bear-dense park.

The Key
Make noise, be alert, and remove those earbuds. Bears are most dangerous when surprised, especially if they're with their cubs. In spots with short sightlines, make noise as you hike–clapping and singing both work. Be especially wary (and noisy) along Red Eagle and Sprague Creek Trails, and on switchbacks leading over and down Gunsight Pass where visibility is limited. Remember, when you're near rushing streams or in heavy winds, the noise will drown out handclaps or a little bear bell, but that Axl Rose impression of yours will probably do the trick.

The Way
From Kalispell, take US 2 30.8 miles to Going-to-the-Sun Rd., which leads 49.4 miles to the St. Mary Visitors Center. When your hike is done, pick up the shuttle from Lake McDonald back to St. Mary. Check the bus schedule at

Plan It
(406) 888-7800; Map: Trails Illustrated #215: Glacier National Park Waterton Lakes National Park ($12,

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star


Stuart Uram
May 12, 2012

Two years ago my wife and I got married on a scenic overlook area just west of St. Mary Visitor Center. The views around this lake are breathtaking and the boat tour our wedding party took was awesome. We saw moose swimming, black and grizzly bears (with cubs), and even caught a rare glimpse of a wolverene. We had a permit to bc gunsight pass but opted out for a different permit because even though it was late July Gunsight had just opened and was under questioable conditions ie. high water creek crossing, snow pack, and tougher than usual route finding. My only uncontrollable letdown of the trip was that the Swiftcurrent Valley trail was closed at the observation tower abt 1 1/2 miles past Granite Park Challete. My only advice for Glacier NP is to plan ahead and check the post boards daily for closed/trail conditions. Also if you have time to make it to Waterton Crypt Lake is an awesome day hike.

Jeff Norgle
May 12, 2012

Nice little blurbs about being prepared in bear country.


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