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National Parks: Best Overall Park

Glacier National Park possesses scenery that'll suck the breath out of your lungs, quiet so intense you'll wonder if your ears still work, and enough wildlife to make a zookeeper drool with envy.

Glacier National Park Expedition Planner

The Highline Trail is one of North America’s classic high routes, and you’re almost guaranteed to see goats and sheep. It’s one of Glacier’s most popular and easily accessible hikes, however, so for wilder options, keep reading.

The trail: It’s a fast 7 miles from Logan Pass to Granite Park, where I usually spend the first night out. Here, glacier lilies by the millions yellow the summer slopes and grizzlies congregate to devour them.

Dominating Granite Park is the old stone visage of Granite Park Chalet. If you make reservations well ahead, you can rent shelter for the night in the adjoining bunkhouse, though it’s a tad pricey and scant on frills. It boasts four wood-plank sleeping platforms per cell and thin walls between rooms, and the outhouse has the loftiest views from here to Nepal. No meals. No showers.

Half a mile down the hill from the Chalet sits Granite Park Campground, strung along a narrow ridge with scenic views all around. Facilities include tent pads, a pit toilet, food-hanging poles, and little else. Don’t sweat all the bumping and crunching you’ll likely hear in the night; it’s (probably) just the local deer.

From Granite Park, it’s a speedy, knee-gnarling 4 1⁄2 miles down the Loop Trail, plummeting from tundra through dark, spooky woods (past bear mauling sites), back to the road. Loop to Loop: A sweet little 2- or 3-day adventure.

Of course, you can hike up the Loop to Granite Park, too. But having done it, I must warn that it’s not for weak legs or lungs.

Trail options: Jump onto the Highline Trail and bear north to Waterton Lake in Canada, or east to Many Glacier–two massively magnificent treks, each well worth a week and requiring a long road shuttle. For yet another multiday hike, try the Nyack/Coal Creek loop, along which you’re free to select your own campsites.

The Harrison, Lincoln, McDonald, Quarts, Logging, Bowman, and Kintla Lake Trails are outstanding, as well. All are relatively low in elevation and, therefore, open in spring and fall when snow chokes out the high-country trails.

Weather: As this is Glacier Park, snow generally limits high-country hiking to July through September. Earlier and later, the action (like the bears) is down lower. Along the western edge of the park below the mountains, two favorite dayhikes-both requiring an early start and all-day hiking-are Huckleberry Mountain (Doug Peacock country) and Numa Ridge. Cactus Ed Abbey spent a summer at the latter as a fire lookout, depressed by the “endless sea of green” and longing for his dusty deserts.

Camping: By necessity, most on-trail camping in Glacier is limited to designated sites; free permits are required and fires are rarely allowed. While you’re free to roam off-trail and camp where you will, this is not a nice place to be lost.

Bears: Don’t let the bears (or me) scare you off. Keep a clean, low-profile camp. Don’t hike at night. Carry bear spray (see “Packin’ Heat,” September 2000, for a review of bear spray). Stay alert. Relax. Enjoy. Be thankful.

Contact: Glacier National Park, (406) 888-7800; www.nps.gov/glac. You can request a copy of the free Glacier Backcountry Camping Guide, or read it on the Web. The Backcountry Permit Office is located at the Apgar Visitor Center.

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