A few places in this world need no exaggeration. One is Glacier National Park, a million-acre World Heritage Site that repeatedly tops surveys as America's favorite hiking park. Here in the wild northern Rockies, the extraordinary is ordinary. Craggy spires thrust high, etching timeless wilderness skylines. Hulking icebergs stud turquoise lakes. Golden glacier lilies poke through melting snow. Mountain goats scamper across impossibly steep slopes while grizzlies forage for berries in the meadows below. And from everywhere comes the thunder of falling water and the roar of wind over ridgetops.
For backpackers, Glacier has long been both a paradise and a proving ground. But its extensive trail network is seeing more traffic, especially the Highline and Continental Divide trails, and paths in the western and northeastern parts of the park. During the summer, even remote paths can be busy--and permits can be a hassle. To help you avoid the crowds, we headed to Glacier's southeastern quadrant, an area of high, rugged wilderness that earned the park an early nickname: Crown of the Continent. The trips we've mapped aren't for the faint of heart--or quad--but they're among the finest we've ever taken.
1. Five Pass/Red Eagle Loop
Follow a historic abandoned trail across the true crown of the continent.
Glacier's steep ridges tend to rule out loops across the Continental Divide, particularly in the southern section of the park. But this 6-day, 54-mile counterclockwise route from Two Medicine is a thrilling exception. It breaches four magnificent trailed passes--Pitamakan, Triple Divide, Cut Bank, and Dawson--and features a stout cross-country traverse of Red Eagle Pass with its miles of spectacular tundra beneath a cirque of towering peaks. Prior to World War II, Red Eagle was one of Glacier's most popular destinations, but the war led to trail maintenance cutbacks that have allowed the area to revegetate. Following the now-intermittent game trail is a significant challenge and this hike's crux.
The climb from Red Eagle Lake to its namesake pass requires bushwhacking, routefinding, several knee-deep stream crossings, and steep climbing on a goat path, but the vast alpine plateau near the pass yields fine camping. The real work comes as you descend to Nyack Creek; after navigating down to timberline, you must negotiate steep slopes covered with slide alder and deadfall for 3 hours. Then, more reward: excellent hiking along turquoise Nyack Creek, meadow-tenting at the base of Cut Bank Pass, and sublime vistas between Cut Bank and Dawson Passes. A word of caution: This route offers some of the finest high-country hiking in Glacier, but the Red Eagle crossing requires backcountry expertise, strong legs, and good weather. We strongly recommend you transcribe or download our GPS waypoints from www.backpacker.com/hikes.
2. Gunsight Lake to Almost-a-Dog Mountain
Journey past glacial basins and secret lakes to a summit with commanding views.
Open with a bang: Gunsight lake makes for a breathtaking first night's campsite--especially if you take a dip in the always-chilly water.
The Piegan/Blackfoot tribe of the northern plains gave distinctive names to many Glacier peaks, and this 3- to 4-day trip climbs one of the most colorful: the straightforward but strenuous Almost-a-Dog Mountain. The broad summit offers postcard vistas westward across the polished glacial slabs of Jackson and Blackfoot Basins, with their elegantly twisted sedimentary layers and shrinking yet still massive icefields. Along the way, the route passes glaciers, waterfalls, and tundra slopes that occupy rarely visited country.
The 31-mile out-and-back starts on the popular Gunsight Lake Trail, then diverges southeast from the lake on a faded track to Blackfoot Basin. From here, you'll cross steep moraine and tundra to Almost-a-Dog Pass, which in turn leads along talus ridgeline to the 8,922-foot summit. Gunsight Lake, at mile 8.5, makes an excellent first camp, though fit, determined hikers can make it an additional 3.2 steep and rugged miles to undesignated camping on the polished rock slabs of Blackfoot Basin. Scenic creeks, ponds, and waterfalls crisscross the vast slickrock bowl, which makes a fine destination in its own right. The climb to Almost-a-Dog Pass (mile 14.25) follows rocky ledges and glacial moraines before heading up tundra ramps to the broad saddle and its precipitous cliff-edge view. From there, a mile of steep talus takes you up Almost-a-Dog's southwest ridge. This trip can be combined with our Red Eagle Pass route, but crossing airy Almost-a-Dog Pass to get there is recommended only for experienced mountaineers and scramblers.
3. Redgap Pass/Yellow Mountain Traverse
Trace high, rarely trodden goat trails to broad ridgeline vistas.
Glacier's ubiquitous mountain-goat paths present tantalizing invitations to peakbaggers and other highwire fans--but these game trails typically come with a bit of danger. Not so on this dramatic 30-mile out-and-back, which makes for a fine 3-day trip with two nights of camping at pristine Poia Lake. Called "the red scree strolls" by J. Gordon Edwards in his historic Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park for the terrain they cross, goat tracks are usually steep, loose, and very exposed; this track is solid and--while often steep--never life-threatening. The route follows superb trail to Redgap Pass (mile 10.4), offering vistas of Ptarmigan Wall and gargantuan Mt. Merritt. From the pass, you'll climb gently rising mountain-goat trails along the broad ridgelines of Seward and Yellow Mountains to the latter's seldom-visited 8,966-foot summit. While afternoon lightning storms and a lack of water are concerns, footing is not.
The hike's off-trail portion begins at the Redgap Pass cairn. Look 100 feet south for a faint path that quickly firms up, traversing the south face of Seward Mountain to Seward Saddle. Beyond that, go a quarter-mile around either side of Pt. 8,325 to reach a red talus pass. Just ahead (east), the rock turns to gray ridgeline marked by a prominent goat trail. Do not follow the trail, which ends at concealed cliffs. Instead, go to the right of the ridge, descending east-southeast 300 feet through short ledges and timberline trees to the top of a tan talus slope at the base of the cliffs. Contour east along the margin to reach open terrain. From there, it's 2 miles across broad slopes to Yellow Mountain's hidden summit. Note: If you lack strong routefinding skills, consider turning around at Redgap Pass.
3 Big Dayhikes
Get maximum Glacier exposure--fast.
Mt. Siyeh Climb the Lower 48's highest escarpment
At 10,014 feet, this peak is one of the park's highest, but it's a moderate climb by Glacier standards: only 4.23 miles with 4,200 feet of elevation gain, along with routefinding challenges and a bit of Class III scrambling. The views are worth it, with grand panoramas of the Garden Wall, Upper Grinnell Lake, and the pyramidal summits of Logan Pass. The scene beneath your toes is even more memorable: Siyeh's 4,200-foot north face is the tallest vertical cliff in the Lower 48. Bring a helmet and a 30-foot rope for hauling packs. Start from Siyeh Bend, 2.8 miles east of Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Follow signs for Siyeh Pass until just beyond a pond at mile 2.61. Then head north through open forest on a multiuse trail and climb the farthest right streambed gully (12U 0305267E 5399659N) up the eastern flank of Siyeh's south face. Use GPS to find the key gully (12U 0305242E 5400027N) for scrambling back down through the cliff bands.
Logan Pass to Sperry via Floral Park See it all on the park's premier dayhike
Take all the gorgeous photos you've ever seen of Glacier, merge them, and that might do justice to this 19.5-mile cross-country trip. Begin on the Logan Pass boardwalk, strolling 3 miles to Hidden Lake's outlet. Ford the stream, then hug the lake's west shore to its southwest end. A game trail angles up through scree to a saddle north of Floral Park. Once there, stay southeast until easier terrain lets you drop to Mary Baker Lake and Floral Park. Continue south into the Sperry Glacier Basin and ascend gradually along the glacier's foot; aim for Comeau Pass between Mts. Edwards and Gunsight. There you'll find tiny Gem Lake, then a stairstep trail that descends 2.5 miles to Sperry Chalet and 6 more miles to Lake McDonald Lodge on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Grinnell Glacier/Highline Loop Link two renowned trails in bear country
On this 14.2-mile epic, you'll climb past lakes, waterfalls, and the park's biggest glacier to the Garden Wall, then descend through the best wildlife habitat in Glacier. You'll need an ice axe, helmet, and possibly crampons, since you connect the Grinnell Glacier and Highline Trails via a snow gully. The best time is June, when solid snow fills the gully. Going this direction lets you see cornice conditions before committing. From Many Glacier picnic area, hike 5.5 miles to Upper Grinnell Lake and its namesake glacier. Round the lake's northern end and climb the snow gully to the saddle atop the Garden Wall. There you'll hit the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail and descend steeply .8 mile to the Highline Trail. Turn southeast and traverse 7 relatively flat miles through excellent bighorn and mountain-goat habitat to the parking lot at Logan Pass. You'll want two cars and an early start for the shuttle.
June 15 to September 15. Snow, river crossings, and closed campsites complicate earlier travel.
Steep trails, loose rock, slick snowfields, and unbridged river crossings combine with Glacier's formidable weather to make hiking here an activity for the well-prepared. Take a well-stocked first-aid kit and bear spray, and leave your itinerary with a friend who will know what to do if you're delayed. Bears and cougars are present, making food storage and noisy travel critical. (The park loans bear canisters; inquire when picking up your permit.) Mountain goats may seem tame, but approaching them might get you gored. Give all wildlife plenty of room.
Permits & Regulations
The reservation process goes like this: Acquire a Backcountry Camping Guide from www.nps.gov/glac/activities/bcguide1.htm for the rules and procedures, then a Backcountry Camping Application, which must be submitted by mail or fax along with your payment. The reservation fee is $20 (nonrefundable); backcountry campsites cost $4 per night. Reservations are accepted April 1. Walk-in requests begin May 1, and a certain number of sites are kept open for day-of-trip requests. You may pick up your permit one day before departure. Unclaimed permits free up at 10 a.m. on the day of departure. The park can be very proactive about closing areas, so plan on being flexible.Map USGS 1:100,000-scale topo Glacier National Park (1998 waterproof edition) is available from park visitor centers for $10.
Call (406) 888-7800 or visit www.nps.gov/glac.