Montana Trails

Backpacker’s All-Time Favorite Hikes in Glacier National Park

Whether you have a day, a weekend, or a whole week, there's a hike for you in Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park–home to grizzlies, moose, some of the few remaining glaciers in the American Rockies, and sweeping views across the continental divide–is a dreamed-of destination for hikers across the globe. But with 734 miles of trails in the park, finding the best route to make use of your day, weekend, or week can be tough. Check out this list for some options at any time scale.

Best Day Hikes

Whether you’re on your way through on a cross-country road trip, live nearby, or just prefer to strike out from a frontcountry base camp, Glacier has plenty to offer within just one day’s hike.

 

Best Dayhike for Views : Highline Trail

Trace the Continental Divide on this 11.8-mile point-to-point. You’re unlikely to find solitude, as it’s one of the busier trails in the park, but you’ll barely notice the other hikers when the horizon fills with Mt. Cannon, Mt. Oberlin, and Heavens Peak. There are only a few climbs along the trail, with a total elevation gain of just under 2,000 feet. The biggest challenge–at least for hikers with a fear of heights–is the .3-mile section of trail that follows a narrow ledge along the cliffs known as the Garden Wall. Ranging from 6-8 feet in width above a sheer hundred-foot drop to the road below, the ledge is an adrenaline rush for some and a nightmare for others, but the crossing is well worth the expansive views of Rocky Mountain summits from the meadows on the other side.

Best Dayhike for Wildlife: Ptarmigan Tunnel

Named for the 250-foot tunnel  through the alpine ridge known as Ptarmigan Wall (built by the CCC in the 1930s for horseback park tours), this 10.7 mile out-and-back runs through perfect grizzly habitat. The first part of the trail runs through intermittent meadows and pine forest, where hikers might spot elk or (for the very lucky) lynx, as well as the grizzly and black bears that frequent the area. Just before mile 3 the trail takes a right, away from the junction leading to Iceberg Lake, and climbs quickly above treeline to a series of waterfalls and Ptarmigan Lake. Above the lake is the tunnel itself. At the other end is a whole new view: Natoa Peak, jagged Crosley Ridge, and the wide green expanse of the Belly River Valley, complete with the blue jewel of Elizabeth Lake. Make sure to keep your bear spray handy even when just admiring the views, though.

Best Weekend Trips

A weekend escape opens a whole new world of backcountry possibilities in Glacier. Even with just one night to spend out in the woods, you can find a fascinating corner of the park to spend time in; and if you’re willing to brave some elevation gain, you can even get some solitude.

Best Weekend Trip for Peakbagging: Swiftcurrent Mountain

Swiftcurrent Mountain is topped by the highest lookout in the park, with views of 48 major peaks, four glaciers, and 9 lakes. Start on the Swiftcurrent Pass trail, winding through a series of lakes (keep an eye out for moose). Views of Mt. Grinnell and the Swiftcurrent Glacier poke through between the shoreside forest. Bullhead Lake, the third in the string, offers a clear look at Swiftcurrent Mountain’s often snow-capped summit from the shore. Continue up to the pass itself, then drop over the western side to Granite Park Campground to set up camp. The 2.8-mile round-trip climb to the peak (the side trail starts just after the drop over the pass), which is the highest maintained trail in Glacier, can make either a great evening finish to day 1 or a sunrise start to day 2.

 

Best Weekend Trip for Lakeside Napping: Cracker Lake

Most backpackers heading to Cracker Lake notice the color first, even before the peaks ranged above: the glacial silt suspended in the water turns the lake a vivid turquoise. Watch the sunlight strike out even more colors from the waves at the lake’s far end, where the trail runs down to meet the shore. For a more mountainous panorama, drop your gear at one of the three backcountry campsites before retracing your steps to the rocky outcrop partway down the lake, where you can perch 100 feet above the shoreline and take in the sight of 10, 014 Mt. Siyeh above the south end of the lake, with cliffs dropping from the summit to the water 4,000 feet below. 

Photo: “Hole-in-the-Wall Backcountry Campground” by GlacierNPS is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Best Multiday Trip: Bowman-Kintla Loop

This 47.5-mile horseshoe in the park’s remote northwest corner has something that’s rare on many Glacier hikes: solitude. Start at Bowman Lake, following the shore through thick, lush forest. Beneath the crystalline water pebbles tumbled from the peaks above showcase an astonishing variety of colors, from deep red to pale green. Abandon the lakeshore for the mountains with a climb up to Brown Pass, heading all the way up to the Continental Divide before dropping into a hanging valley. The second pass on the route, Boulder Pass, is even higher, but the views of knife-edged ridges, sharp summit pyramids, and long snow-fed waterfalls are well worth the switchbacks. It’s hard to pick a highlight on this route, but camping in the glacial cirque known as Hole-in-the-Wall is a definite contender, with mountain views right from the tent. Finish up by dropping past Upper Kintla Lake to Kintla Lake. Make sure to arrange a shuttle from Kintla to Bowman before starting your hike, whether you drop a second car there yourself or find a local ride; commercial outfitters aren’t allowed up to Kintla.

Permits

From May to October Glacier charges a $7 per night per person backcountry camping fee. Half of the sites in every campground are reserved for walk-in permits, but none are issued after 4:30 pm, and the sites can also be taken by multiday backpackers. Online reservations are available, but can be difficult to get later in the season, and charge a reservation fee. 

Info Glacier National Park