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For backpackers, Glacier is the deep end of the pool. It’s a dazzling, exhilarating place that’s a little scary, a bit mysterious, and completely intoxicating in its raw wildness. Grizzly lurk there, winds howl through the jagged mountains, vast glaciers offer a humbling sense of scale. Most visitors hang tight to the wall, catching hanging gardens, and tumbling snowmelt. You, on the other hand, must dive deeper into the park’s million-acre backcountry. Your reward will be the hike of a lifetime in a wilderness without peer in the Lower 48. Ancient icefields, turquoise lakes, and wildflower-filled meadows await. Solitude beckons, with adventure close behind. Take a deep breath–it’s time to take the plunge.
Spend years scanning the map and you won’t find a more inspiring basecamp than Mokowanis Lake. Picture a quiet spur trail leading to a deep cirque surrounded by sheer rock walls and plunging waterfalls. This camp puts you in position to explore the source of those falls, the Sue Lake Bench, one of Glacier’s most magical high balconies.
All this can be reached by a majestic, 15-mile trek along the Belly and Mokowanis Rivers. The route begins with broad views of the Rocky Mountains rising abruptly over the forested foothills, then follows glacier-tinged snowmelt through a corridor lined by some of the park’s tallest peaks.
On your layover day, take the Stoney Indian Pass Trail past the thundering Mokowanis Cascades. Above Paiota Falls, turn south, off-trail, to a green ramp rising eastward from the base of Raven Quiver Falls. Ascend that gentle slope to the plateau above the falls, and wander the treeline terraces of Sue Lake’s shores. Here, stone spires fill the skyline while Chaney Glacier’s runoff plunges thousands of feet to color Margaret Lake strikingly blue.
Know the top-of-the-world feeling you have when a trail crests a high-mountain pass? Now imagine a trip where the exhilaration and views go on all day, for days on end. That’s the Jefferson Pass route. This alpine circuit threads a line among the lofty peaks and pinnacles of the park’s wild northwest corner.
Soon after you leave the trail at Brown Pass and ascend the ramparts of Thunderbird Mountain, it hits you: This is a mountain goat’s perspective of Glacier. Above, the summit and the jagged crest that leads to The Sentinel. Beneath you, 4,000 feet of air. Like the goats, you will need savvy route-finding skills and poise on steep snow and loose rock to complete this rugged 22-mile one-way, off-trail route. (To make it a loop, start and finish at Goat Haunt Lake, for a total of 34 miles.)
Rewards are rich for those that make it as far as Redhorn Peak. Here, a game trail, etched deep into the crest’s bedrock by countless hooves, winds its way south, offering sweeping, once-
in-a-lifetime views of the Livingston and Lewis ranges. Crest views fade, but the memorable solitude remains, as the route drops steeply beside Two Ocean Glacier’s runoff to the Waterton River.
Cut Bank Pass/Marthas Basin
If you’re looking for Glacier’s quietest backcountry, but prefer traveling on-trail, look no farther than the region known as The Nyack. Many hikers wonder about this seldom-seen southeast corner of the park and blink at the major ford that the traditional route requires. A mere handful know of the elegant, high approach from the east to this secluded wilderness and its jewel, the treeline cirque known as Marthas Basin.
Begin with a boat ride across Two Medicine Lake in a valley known for its reddish mountains, and ascend 2,500 feet to the broad saddle of Dawson Pass. Here, bighorn sheep often welcome hikers to the finest 3-mile skywalk a park can offer. After a day of gawking at the sheer east face of 10,142-foot Mt. Stimson, sleep north of Cut Bank Pass.
The next day, follow the rarely used path west to Marthas Basin. Set up camp at Beaver Woman Lake, at the foot of Mt. Pinchot, and wander over to Buffalo Woman Lake to count the 100-foot waterfalls. In the morning, climb 9,310-foot Pinchot to view a sea of high peaks, as well as a summit log with sparse, twice-per-decade entries. Total miles: 40 round-trip.