Hike Glacier National Park

Visitors to Montana's Glacier National Park can visit on the cheap or pay an arm and a leg -- but each way has its unique charms.
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Visitors to Montana's Glacier National Park can visit on the cheap or pay an arm and a leg -- but each way has its unique charms.

SAVE: $365

What you get

A 5-day, 32-mile self-guided trek into one of the Lower 48's last great ice cathedrals - with a touch of backcountry luxury thrown in. The tab includes 2 nights and all meals at a historic lodge, plus a Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle to the trailhead. But there's nothing soft about the hiking: You'll hammer over the Continental Divide at 6,946-foot Gunsight Pass, bag one of the park's highest mountains, and explore the nooks of an ancient glacier.

Why It's Cool

You're in the land of the endangered - so there will be something particularly poignant about the photos you'll nab of massive glaciers marching toward their global-warming-induced extinction, expected within 25 years. The highlight is Sperry Glacier, part of the Mt. Jackson area's ice mass, the largest remaining in the park. From the trailhead at Jackson Overlook, the hike rolls 6.2 miles past a series of moose ponds tucked into a subalpine fir forest and busts out into monkey-flower sheep meadows near Gunsight Lake - basecamp for 2 nights. The next day, pick a scrambling route up 10,052-foot Jackson peak. Then follow the trail to the stone-and-log ambiance of 92-year-old Sperry Chalet, where you'll feast on roast-beef dinners and fresh-baked bread. From there, you're 3.7 trail miles from a narrow rock stairway through a cliff into Sperry Glacier's airy realm. You'll see mountain goats roaming gouges left by moving ice and waterfalls spilling into a cirque; hold your breath and plunge into a rock-bathtub lake for a frigid, oxygen-zapping swim.

How to Do it

Nab a Gunsight Lake permit after April 15 (www.nps.gov/glac). Call (406) 892-2525 for the shuttle. Book rooms by March for Sperry Chalet (www.sperrychalet.com), open mid-July through mid-September.

SPLURGE: $4,707

What you get

Ten days of custom-guided backpacking that winds 80 miles across Glacier's remote northwest corner and along the Continental Divide. You'll pass thousand-foot cliff walls, mile-wide meadows, hanging ice, and rare trumpeter swans en route to 8,436-foot Swiftcurrent Lookout. The price (per person, double occupancy) includes gear and food (except for the trailside huckleberries) plus 2 nights at the Granite Park Chalet and a sherpa to haul up to 40 pounds of your stuff.

Why it's cool

The route links two of the park's most coveted backpacking trails - Boulder Pass and Highline - and boasts numerous other superlatives: the park's best pit toilet at Boulder Pass (overlooking Agassiz Glacier); the best backcountry campsite (with panoramic views from atop Fifty Mountain); and the best alpine traverse (the Highline clings precariously to the Continental Divide's cliffs). Carrying only a daypack, you'll have enough left in the tank to pull rainbow trout from Lake Francis below its 700-foot waterfall and slog up to the recently restored Porcupine Lookout for Montana's best view of Mt. Cleveland, the park's highest 10,000-footer. The guides whip up fresh meals - like pistachio-pesto pasta and vegetarian chili - and wake you with brewed gourmet coffee. At 91-year-old Granite Park Chalet, you'll dig into juicy oranges and home-cooked barbecued chicken, slide into linens, and try to digest 360-degree view of spires, icefields, wildflowers, and arrêtés. For the evening's entertainment you can watch grizzlies backdropped by a sunset smearing orange alpenglow across the Divide.

How to Do it

To guarantee chalet space, make reservations with Glacier Wilderness Guides during the winter. (800) 521-7238; www.glacierguides.com