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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.

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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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