Eight Extraordinary Days in Montana's Glacier National Park
Often referred to at the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park is a world unto itself. Spread over more than one million acres of glacier carved peaks and valleys, the park's pristine turquoise lakes, millennia old glaciers, ancient forests and abundant wildlife attract visitors from all over the world every year. The park's 700 miles of hiking trails provide its travelers with one dramatic view after another. In addition to its large population of Bighorn sheep and mountain goats, Glacier also boasts the largest population of grizzly bears anywhere in the continental US - it's believed that more than 1,000 live inside the park's boundaries. Navigating the park along the Going-to-the-Sun Road is a major highlight of the park and a true modern marvel. Spanning more than 50 miles and crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, it slices through the park providing big views at every turn. The adventure below highlights many of the park's most impressive features and offers up endless wows. You'll hike up mountains with breathtakingly beautiful summit views, out to the shores of stunning turquoise lakes and get up close to world renowned glaciers. The best time of year to go on this adventure is late June through July when the wildflowers are in full bloom and the peaks are still snow capped. No special vehicle requirements are needed for this adventure.
Day 1: Many Glacier
Grinnell Glacier (11 miles/2,200')
After arriving at Kalispell Airport and getting your vehicle rental, set your GPS to Columbia Falls and visit one of their grocery stores for food, drinks, bear spray and whatever else you may want for the next several days. Bear spray can also be rented inside the park at Glacier Outfitters in Apgar Village. If you choose to rent from inside the park you must reserve it online at least 48 hours ahead of time on their website. Next, make the two hour drive to the Many Glacier Campground and set up camp for the next few nights before making the drive to the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead for your first hike. You'll initially be hiking through forest, along the southern end of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. At roughly three miles you'll have an incredible view of Lower Grinnell Lake, pictured below. The falls in the distance are Grinnell Falls.
At this point the views are relentless. Continue along the rocky dirt trail, steadily gaining elevation as you push on to Upper Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier. Between Lower Grinnell Lake and the end of the trail you'll pass a small waterfall on your right that cascades down onto the trail. Start to keep an eye out for mountain goats to your right about this time. At about the four and a half mile mark the trail steepens along a series of small switchbacks and at roughly five miles you've hit the shore of the amazing Upper Grinnell Lake. It's fairly common to see mountain goats and Bighorn sheep near the lake.
The remains of Grinnell Glacier can be seen along the Garden Wall, the massive rock wall behind the lake. Looking at the lake, turn to the right and look up. You'll likely find a few hikers on the cliffs above. On day five you'll be standing on those cliffs looking down during your Highline Trail hike. Before you head back to the trailhead be sure to grab another amazing view that a lot of people don't take advantage of. When leaving the lake you'll notice a few unmarked trails leading away from the lake. Taking one of those and staying left of Grinnell Creek eventually leads to a rocky cliff that Grinnell Falls flows over. The view is incredible. You can see Lower Grinnell Lake, Lake Josephine, Swiftcurrent Lake, and Lake Sherburne, in order. After you've taken it all in head back to camp. If you have time, sunset over Swiftcurrent Lake from the deck of the Many Glacier Hotel or along the lake's shore are amazing. Sunrises are even better.
Day 2: Many Glacier
Iceberg Lake (4 miles/500')
Ptarmigan Tunnel (11 miles/2,400')
If you're up before sunrise and have a clear morning it's highly recommended that you drive a couple minutes over to Swiftcurrent Lake and view the sunrise from the shore. As mentioned above, they're amazing. If you're in the mood for a fresh cup of coffee, Heidi's Snack Shop & Espresso in the downstairs area of the Many Glacier Hotel offers that as well as donuts, snacks, sandwiches, cold drinks, beer, and wine.
Today has a good amount of miles to it, so plan accordingly. Ptarmigan Tunnel and Iceberg Lake, two amazing hikes in the area, share a trail for the first 2.5 miles, so tackling these puppies together has always made a lot of sense. We recommend Iceberg Lake first. Starting at the trailhead behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, the trail has a steep incline right off the bat, but it's brief and then becomes much easier. The first few miles are prime grizzly territory. The last time we hiked this we saw a grizzly on hillside to the right about two miles in. Around 2.5 miles you'll get a brief glimpse of Ptarmigan Falls and roughly a quarter mile later reach the Iceberg Lake junction where you'll hang a left. At this point you'll be hiking with the massive Ptarmigan Wall to your right. Ahead of you you'll see a cirque dotted with snow patches and just below this is Iceberg Lake. When you arrive at the lake, Mount Wilbur will be the prominent peak to your left and Iceberg Peak to your right, both towering around 3,000' above the lake. Because of this, the lake receives little sunlight allowing ice to accumulate in the lake. The earlier in the year you go, the better chances you'll have at viewing icebergs on the lake. Come late August or September, your chances diminish significantly. The photo below was taken from the top of the Ptarmigan Wall in mid-July.
After enjoying the views of the lake and maybe even hopping onto one of the icebergs, head back the way you came. At the split where you hung a left to get to Iceberg Lake, head the opposite way, left towards Ptarmigan Tunnel. Once you've passed the split, Ptarmigan Wall will be on your left and a steep half mile ascent soon follows Another mile or so and you'll reach a number of waterfalls along Ptarmigan Creek just before beautiful Ptarmigan Lake. Crowfeet Mountain is the prominent peak to the right of the lake. There's a small path leading down to the lake where Bighorn sheep and mountain goats frequently visit. At this point you can see the final stretch of the trail leading up a set of switchbacks on the backside of the lake. From the back end of the lake up to the tunnel it's roughly a half mile and 500' of elevation gain. At the top of the switchbacks and before entering the 240' long tunnel once used for early park tours, look back for an amazing view. Ptarmigan Wall is to the right of the lake followed by the peaks of Mount Wilbur, Grinnell Mountain and Mount Gould, from right to left. On the other side of the tunnel an even more incredible view awaits. Views of Natoas Peak, Elizabeth Lake and Crosley Ridge are all in front of you. To your far left is Mount Merritt and its Old Sun Glacier.
After enjoying the views return to the trailhead the way you came. A decent option for dinner is Swiss Lounge in the Many Glacier Hotel. They have very good chili, a decent burger, and some solid beers on tap.
Day 3: Many Glacier
Apikuni Falls (1.8 miles/500')
Swiftcurrent Lake kayak
Cracker Lake (6 miles/1,400')
If you're interested in a chance to view moose in the park, you'll have no better opportunity than taking a short half mile walk over to Fishercap Lake. Moose sightings here are very common. Bring binoculars if you can and get there within an hour of sunrise for your best shot.
After a walk to Fishercap Lake hop in your vehicle and drive 1.5 miles down Many Glacier Rd until you reach the clearly marked Apikuni Falls Trailhead on your left. The short, moderately steep trail runs parallel to the Apikuni Creek, passes through a meadow and forest setting before ultimately reaching a rocky outcropping and the base of the 100' waterfall. There are a few viewpoints of the falls along the way such as the one pictured below.
Head back to camp and pack up before the short drive over to the Glacier Park Boat Company located at the Many Glacier Lodge. Here you can rent a canoe or kayak on a first come, first served basis to paddle Swiftcurrent Lake and even out to Lake Josephine if you choose.
You should have plenty of time to prep your gear at this point for a trip out to our favorite lake in the park, Cracker Lake. A backcountry camping permit is required for an overnight stay at the lake and since the permits are highly sought after, should be purchased well ahead of your trip. You'll begin your backpack at the Cracker Lake Trailhead located at the southern end of the Many Glacier Lodge parking lot. The trail has zero views until you reach the lake, but it's worth it a thousand times over. Once you reach Cracker Lake, Mount Siyeh, the prominent peak above at 10,014' towers in the distance and waterfalls cascade down Allen Mountain to the right of the lake. The view is drop-dead gorgeous. The trail continues along the left side of the lake where several short spur trails lead to the shore. The backcountry campsites are at the far end of the lake.
Day 4: Many Glacier & Rising Sun
Cracker Lake return (6 miles/200')
Glacier Park Boat Company St Mary Lake
St Mary & Virginia Falls (3 miles/400')
Sunrise from the front of Cracker Lake is absolutely incredible and we highly recommend waking up for it. Mornings here can be chilly even in the warmer months and snow tends to hang around a little longer near the backcountry campsites than anywhere else around the lake. When you're ready to head back, return the way you came.
If you're a coffee drinker, didn't bring any camp coffee, and Heidi's didn't do it for you, Glacier Drip Coffee & Espresso is a great option thirty minutes down Many Glacier Rd on the way to the Rising Sun area. If you're pushing lunchtime, Frog's Cantina has pretty solid burritos and Rising Sun Pizza, right next door to Frog's, has solid pizza. A quarter mile down Rt-89 just past Going-to-the-Sun Rd and the park's entrance is St Mary Grocery where you can resupply if you need to.
Next, head on over to Glacier Park Boat Company at the Rising Sun boat dock along St Mary Lake tand jump on board one of their scenic cruises. They run every couple hours, require a reservation and are 100% worth checking out. It's a great way to get a different view of the area and get off your feet for a bit.
Across the road you'll find the Rising Sun Campground where you'll camp the next three nights. Set up here and then check out St Mary & Virginia Falls. There are two ways to get to the trailhead. You can test your luck and drive the five miles to the trailhead where parking is limited or drive to the Rising Sun boat dock across the street from camp and pick up the west heading shuttle to the trailhead. The latter is much easier. St Mary Falls, a three tiered waterfall is about three quarters of a mile and downhill from the trailhead. The plunge pool has a gorgeous emerald green hue to it. Lower Virginia Falls is a little more than a half mile farther followed by Upper Virginia Falls. Lower Virginia Falls is a great way to cool down if it's a hot day. Return the way you came when you're done.
A great nearby spot to catch sunset from is at the Wild Goose Island Lookout located about a mile west from camp. There's a fairly large parking lot for it, but surprisingly we've never found more than a couple people here for sunset. From the lookout, there are a number of unmarked trails leading down to the shore which we highly recommend. Taking one of these will add on about a mile round trip. St Mary's shore is made up of small stones of varying color and a really great place to relax at. It's worth noting that the opening scene from the 1980 movie The Shining was filmed via helicopter over St Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island.
Day 5: Logan Pass
Highline + Grinnell Glacier Overlook (15.5 miles/2,600')
Start today off no later than 8AM with a short drive along Going-to-the-Sun Rd to the Jackson Glacier Overlook. There's a moderately sized parking lot on your left and the overlook is obvious. After, drive five minutes to Logan Pass Visitor Center, the starting point for the Highline Trail. This is a point-to-point hike starting at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and ending at The Loop. Once your hike is complete you'll take the free park shuttle from The Loop shuttle stop back to the Logan Pass Visitor Center. Bring bear spray.
From the visitor center, walk across Going-to-the-Sun Rd, and begin on the dirt trail from there. At just over a quarter mile into the trail you'll walk along a cliff high above the road for a few hundred feet. The next roughly 6.5 miles you'll be hiking along the Garden Wall, a steep alpine ridge along the Continental Divide heavily covered in seasonal wildflowers and lush greenery. The views along this section are absolutely breathtaking. Every step is flat out beautiful. Wildlife is abundant on the Highline Trail and you're all but guaranteed to view mountain goats, Bighorn sheep, and if you're lucky a grizzly bear below.
At roughly 6.5 miles you'll arrive at a trail junction with a steep trail to the right. It's a mile long each way, gains just short of 1,000' in elevation, and brings you to one of the best views in all of Glacier. Standing on top of the Garden Wall you'll have views of Grinnell Glacier, Upper Grinnell Lake, Lower Grinnell Lake, Lake Josephine, Swiftcurrent Lake, Lake Sherburne, Mount Gould, Mount Siyeh, Allen Mountain, Cracker Peak, and a ton more. On day one we mentioned being able to potentially see hikers on the cliffs of the Garden Wall above Upper Grinnell Lake. Well, this is that spot.
After you pick your jaw off the rocks, head back down the spur trail and resume the Highline Trail for another mile until you reach Granite Park Chalet, a historic backcountry hut with reservable beds a pit toilet, snacks, water, etc. If you've run out of water this is a good place to refuel and take a break before the last 5.5 miles and 2,000' descent to the end of the trail. The miles after the chalet are known for its frequent grizzly bear sightings, so be aware of this. When you reach Going-to-the-Sun Rd you've completed the Highline and should walk down, not up the road to the shuttle stop. The park shuttle typically runs every fifteen minutes and there are bathrooms at the stop.
Day 6: Logan Pass
Mount Oberlin (4 miles/1,500')
Hidden Lake Overlook (3 miles/500')
Today's hikes start at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and come with more amazing views. This area of the park is considerably cooler than most others in the park, so bring layers. A 15-20 degree drop in temperature from those at Rising Sun Campground can be expected. Starting at the unofficial but well-worn trailhead to the right of the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail, follow the steep trail marked with cairns 1,500' up to the summit of Mount Oberlin where you'll have incredible views of the Garden Wall to the east and Clements Mountain to the south. There's rock scrambling involved in this one and those with a severe fear of heights might think about taking a pass.
Towards the end of the day a great place for sunset is from the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail that, like the Mount Oberlin Trail from earlier, starts at the Logan Pass Visitor Center. This is a very popular trail, but the crowds greatly diminish past the overlook area which is where you'll want to go. The photo below is where you'll find solitude and an even better sunset view. The overlook area in general is loaded with mountain goats and Bighorn sheep, and the last time we hiked this we had a mountain goat walk right up to us.
Day 7: Logan Pass
Mount Siyeh (8.5 miles/4,100') or Piegan Pass (12.5/2,000')
There are two great options for today and both start at the Piegan Pass Trailhead at Siyeh Bend. First, the Mount Siyeh Climbing Route, an unofficial trail with Class 2 & 3 scrambling leading to possibly the greatest view in all of Glacier. While there is no technical rock climbing involved, mountaineering experience is recommended. Those with any fear of heights should not attempt. The trail begins at the Piegan Pass Trailhead and picks up the Siyeh Pass Trail about 2.5 miles in. From there on out it's prime grizzly bear territory. Winds here can be fairly intense in this area, so bear spray isn't going to be very helpful in the event of a bear encounter. From the base of the summit, around 3.2 miles into the hike, to the summit you'll gain more than 2,600' in just under a mile making it the most challenging mie in the park. Once at the 10,014' summit you'll have a mind-numbing view of Cracker Lake nearly 4,000' below. It's a big challenge, but those willing to tackle it will likely find it to be the highlight of the trip.
The second option for the day is fairly longer, has more in terms of logistics, but comes with half the elevation of Siyeh. Like the Highline Trail, this point-to-point hike utilizes the park's shuttles to take you back to your vehicle, only this hike you'll use two different shuttles. The trail begins at Siyeh Bend along Siyeh Creek and soon enters a dense spruce and fir forest. This thins out before the Siyeh Pass trail junction where you'll turn left. Roughly three miles in you're above the treeline with outstanding views in every direction. Mount Siyeh is to the right and Jackson, Piegan and Blackfoot Glaciers to your left. Roughly 4.5 miles in you'll reach the top of Piegan Pass with the Garden Wall to your left. Angel Wing, Bishops Cap and Mount Gould dominate the view and sights into Many Glacier Valley seem to go on forever.
The trail descends from here ultimately ending at the Many Glacier Lodge where you'll pick up your first shuttle with the Many Glacier Hiker's Shuttle. This operates on a first come, first served basis, comes with a nominal fee and will take you as far as the St Mary Visitor Center. Shuttle times vary and are posted inside the Many Glacier Lodge and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. From here you can take the free NPS shuttle along the Going-to-the-Sun Rd back to your vehicle at Siyeh Bend.
After either of the day's hiking options, drive 5.5 miles west of Siyeh Bend to the Big Bend Overlook, a scenic overlook with the best view of all the park's driveable overlooks. Here you'll have an incredible view of several peaks and the tallest waterfall in the park, 492' Bird Woman Falls.
Immediately after the Big Bend overlook you'll encounter Weeping Wall, a natural waterfall seeping out from the side of Haystack Butte and the Garden Wall onto the road. This occurs seasonally and your best chances of viewing are June through early July. After, drive 25 miles west to Apgar Campground where you'll camp for the night.
Glacier Guides whitewater rafting
Avalanche Lake (6 miles/700')
It's your final day in the park and you shouldn't leave without a sunrise from the shore of Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park. An easy quarter mile walk from the Apgar Campground will get you to the southern end of the lake where you'll have a gorgeous view of the lake backdropped by countless mountain peaks.
Enjoy whitewater rafting or a scenic float this morning or afternoon with any of the local outfitters. We recommend Glacier Guides. They offer half and full day scenic floats and Class 2 & 3 whitewater rafting trips down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Both are worth the price tag and highly recommended.
At some point after rafting make sure to hike out to Avalanche Lake, a beautiful subalpine lake with no less than six waterfalls cascading down from the surrounding peaks. Start at the Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail where you'll pass through a dense cedar forest, along Avalanche Creek, and ultimately the lake. Along the way you'll pass Avalanche Gorge, a narrow gorge along Avalanche Creek with brilliant emerald colored plunge pools.
A lot of people think the trail ends at the shore of Avalanche Lake, but if you continue along the right side of the lake you'll find a bit more privacy. You can also follow the trail to the far end of the lake where the crowds thin out even more and the waterfalls are loud. The lake, which is full of cutthroat trout and ripe for anglers, is fed meltwater from the Sperry Glacier located above the far end of the lake. The prominent peak to the right is Little Matterhorn and to the left, Bearhat Mountain.
After, head back to camp and enjoy your last evening in paradise. And that's Eight Extraordinary Days in Glacier National Park. Have a blast, be safe, and make some memories!