Glacier National Park Backpacking Trip – What a Place!

Glacier National Park

I went to Glacier National Park  in the latter half of September with 3 other members of my backpacking club (Northeast Ohio Backpacking Club), all of whom had been to Glacier at least once before. Our plan was to acclimate with a couple of day hikes, then do two 5-day, 4-night backpacking trips, separated by a night at Many Glacier lodge for recuperation and resupply.

We had decided to drive (rather than fly) from Ohio, going straight through without stopping overnight. We left at 6 PM on September 13 and arrived in West Glacier at about 8 PM the next day, a 28-hour marathon. Our plan had been to camp for 3 nights at Apgar, one of the few campgrounds still open. However, Apgar was full, so we ended up in the Glacier Highlands motel in West Glacier for our first 3 nights. I highly recommend their restaurant if you are ever in the neighborhood (try the Razzleberry pie a la mode for a real treat).

On Sunday the 15th, the day looked beautiful and we decided for our first day hike to take the Highline trail from Logan Pass to the Garden Wall. We looked too quickly at the map and estimated this to be about 10 miles roundtrip. With our side hike up a spur trial to the top of the Wall, overlooking Grinell glacier, it ended up being more than 15 miles. So a bit more than we had bargained for. Nevertheless, the views were fantastic and the weather ideal and even a bit warm.

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We saw two bears, one black bear from about 100 yards away and a grizzly from about 40 feet. This latter encounter was too close, but fortunately the bear was more interested in browsing than us, so we were able to move on without incident. We had purchased bear spray, but ironically did not take any on this day hike. Lesson learned. We also had our first sighting of a goat, resting up above us at the Grinell overlook, numerous marmots, an eagle, and a group of sheep. We started to realize that we were going to see a lot of wildlife on this trip.

The next day we slept in a bit, stopped in the backcountry office to get our permits, and chose an easy 6-7 mile roundtrip day hike to Avalanche Lake and back. Less dramatic than the Highline trail, but we enjoyed the cedar forest, as well as a very attractive stream drainage with numerous waterfalls and water-carved rock cuts. At the lake there were no less than 4 waterfalls feeding it from a higher bowl, with its own lakes. Once back in West Glacier, we spent some time making final gear choices for our first backpacking segment, and getting packed up. The forecasted weather included some pretty cold night-time temperatures, so I decided to add an additional fleece layer to my kit.

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First Backpacking Segment

This was an end-to-end 61 mile segment that required a shuttle. We met our shuttler and left our vehicle at the Lake McDonald Lodge and he brought us to the Two Medicine Lake campground trail head on the other side of the park. Our first day, 9/17, was a spectacular hike up to Dawson pass, then a fairly level ridge walk to a great overlook above Cut Bank pass, then a descent to Morning Star Lake for the night after 13+ miles. We had great weather and views. The large valley you can see all the way from Dawson to the overlook is quite stunning.

As best I can tell, any Glacier pass on a good weather day is worth the trouble. We saw a large group of sheep just below Dawson pass and spent some time just watching their behavior. We also saw numerous spruce grouse ambling down the trail in front of us and a few goats on the heights in the distance. At Morning Star there were lots of moose tracks by the lake shore, but we saw none. Had rain on and off beginning about 10 PM and continuing through much of the next day, which was a 14+ mile hike over Triple Divide Pass to Red Eagle Lake (head). Weather prevented any views at the pass, but our first snow (1-2″) and temps into the low 30′s got our attention.

Set up a tarp to shed the rain falling during both breakfast and dinner, which helped keep our spirits up and let us relax and enjoy our meals despite the conditions. Two grizzly cubs were sighted above us at one point, but we never saw momma grizz. On 9/19 we had planned our longest day of hiking, 19+ miles to Gunsight Lake. Fortunately, the rain had stopped and conditions gradually transitioned into a very nice day; we did not have much elevation change. Part of the hike was along the south shore of Saint Mary Lake and by beautiful Virginia and Saint Mary waterfalls near the west end of the lake.

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The park staff was starting to roll up suspension bridges by this time, and we had one boots-off stream crossing as a result. We saw 2 elk and lots of elk, moose, and bear tracks on trail. We got into Gunsight around 7 PM, got set up and had a headlamp dinner as the full moon rose in a clear sky. After dark, a large group of mule deer came through the camping area on the way to the lake. The 20th was another great Glacier day beginning with another stream crossing, then a big up to Gunsight Pass that was very scenic with wonderful views back towards the Lake and the mountains beyond.

We stopped for a snack at the stone shelter at the top of the pass. From there, we had a very scenic hike down into another valley with the trail overlooking Ellen Wilson Lake. Saw a number of goats from a bit closer up as we headed to Sperry Campground. At Sperry, the water source is small pond and the cooking and eating area is small but with a great view directly west into the sunset over Lake McDonald in the distance.

Toward late afternoon as we were basking in the sun on the rocks around the pond, we were surprised by a group of goats that came up to our location and hung around the rest of the evening, coming very close and having little fear of people. Sad in a way to see animals that acclimated to people, but it did make for some great goat pictures. Took a few dozen, I’m sure. Our final day in this segment was a gradual long downhill hike to Lake McDonald Lodge and our vehicle. We then drove to the east side of the park and had a nice lunch at the St. Mary’s lodge on our way to Many Glacier Lodge, where we stayed the night and resupplied.

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Second Backpacking Segment

The night of 9/21 at Many Glacier was very windy with clouds scudding across the sky and whitecaps whipped up on the lake by the lodge. The forecasted weather was not good, but we proceeded as planned the next morning to get back on trail. Our plan was a loop hike of 50+ miles.

We began at the Swiftcurrent trail head, just up the road from Many Glacier lodge, headed for Cosley Lake. Our path was a steady gradual ascent to the Ptarmigan tunnel, cut right through the rock of the Ptarmigan Wall. There once was a glacier in the bowl below the wall, and vegetation has begun to change the stony landscape. At one point in our trip (Saint Mary visitor center) we viewed a sobering model of the park showing scores of glaciers that existed in the past and decreasing in size and number to the present day, with 2020 now estimated as the year there will be no more glaciers in the park.

Climate change illustrated in a very sobering way. Winds were whipping at us all day, but we did have great views on both sides of the Ptarmigan Wall, as well as sightings of moose, elk, goats, and a golden eagle. By the time we approached Cosley Lake and removed our hiking footwear for a crossing of the exiting stream, rain had begun to fall. Unfortunately, it would continue on and off for the rest of our trip, although there were enough respites for some good views of valleys under threatening skies as well as peaks with new dustings of fresh snow. At Cosley we hunkered down under our tarp to cook dinner and shelter from the rain and blustery winds that penetrated even into the group of pines that protected the cooking/eating area. The next day we headed up to Stony Indian Pass.

I really began to miss Gore Tex socks I’d forgotten to pack, as my feet were sloshing in wet socks in my shoes. As we got higher, the precipitation changed to sleet and then to snow at the pass, with temperatures dropping down to the low 30′s. But the cloud layer was high enough that we still had some good views, made more dramatic with the threatening skies all around us.

We stopped for the night at Stony Indian Lake and had an early dinner, with the winds finally dying down, though rain continued on and off. Very happy to get my feet into dry sleeping socks, catch up on journaling, and do a bit of light reading (Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, Kindle edition on iPhone).

The next day, 9/24, was a longer hike to Fifty Mountain. We had a bit of respite from the rain that allowed us to eat breakfast and pack up, but rain resumed within an hour of getting back on trail. As we hiked, we gradually ascended, temperatures fell, and snow was falling by the time we got to the camp.

A highlight of this days hike was a grizzly sighting during a brief respite from the precipitation. We and the bear were both in a large high meadow that allowed for good behavior observation from a safe distance. As we hit the sack, we were hoping that the weather might break the next day. No such luck, though only 2-3 inches of snow fell overnight.

Our original plan for 9/25 had been to hike up another 500 feet or so of elevation to the Highline Trail just below the Continental Divide and take it to Granite Park, returning on 9/26 to Many Glacier via Swiftcurrent Pass. The potential problem with this plan was that all of this trail would be at relatively high elevations, was already snow-covered with unknown depths of snow, with additional snow actively falling as we pondered our options at breakfast.

Morning temperatures were in the high 20′s. In the end, after much debate and reflection, we decided to opt for safety, descending to Packers Roost via the Flattop Mountain trail, 12+ miles. We saw numerous fresh bear tracks in the snow both on and off the trail. We became very vigilant and noisy so as not to surprise any “ursus horribilis”.

As we descended, the snow changed back to rain, but did not let up at all, helping us feel good about our decision. It turned out that Logan Pass had now been closed due to the snow. This meant that we had to find a more circuitous way back to the other side of the park and our vehicle. We ended up splitting up and hitchhiking back down the Going to the Sun Road to West Glacier, where we stayed the night, renting a car the next day to shuttle ourselves back to our vehicle, and a final night in St. Mary Lodge.

Ironically, as we said goodbye to Glacier and began our long drive back to Ohio on 9/27, the weather dawned crisp, clear, and beautiful, with sun glinting off all the new snow on the heights. I know I’ll be back.

Notes on Gear for this Trip

In terms of equipment, I spared my knees as usual with Gossamer Gear LT4 trekking poles. For a pack, I decided to christen my Gossamer Gear Mariposa Ultralight Backpack and give it a good test. It worked well with the extra insulation and food I carried, amounting to a total pack weight of up to about 25 pounds with food and water at the beginning of each segment. I also tried out GG’s new inflatable back pad, which made for a very comfortable carry. I particularly liked the Mariposa’s long external pocket on one side to carry my half of our shared shelter, which consisted of a cuben tarp and the fly, stakes, and large GG polychro groundsheet we used with a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 that I shared with another member of our party.

We used the cuben tarp as a shelter over our eating/cooking area in bad weather. This turned out to be a great decision. My sleep system was a NeoAir pad and Jacks R Better Sierra Sniveller quilt. I did my meal prep in a Stanco aluminum grease pot using a Caldera Cone and either ReadyFuel gel (dinners) or Esbit tabs (breakfasts and extra hot drinks).

I used Aqua Mira for water treatment. For trail and camp and sleep wear, I had Rail Riders Ecomesh shirt and pants, light merino base layers, a light fleece top, a Marmot DriClime jacket, Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer wind shirt and down jacket, Possum Down sleeping socks and beanie, and a Dri Ducks rain suit. I hiked in New Balance shoes, which come in my 4E foot size, unlike most other brands. I forgot to bring my Rocky Gore Tex socks, which turned out to be a mistake. Otherwise my choices worked well. I did bring an Olympus weatherproof stylus camera and small binoculars, as well as my iPhone with Gaia GPS app for USGS topo maps and location-finding.

This post was contributed by Trail Ambassador Rob Kelly. You can follow more of his adventures at QiWiz.net.

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9 Responses to Glacier National Park Backpacking Trip – What a Place!

  1. renegadepilgrim December 3, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    I did the Bowman-Kintla Horseshoe this summer, in August and it was amazing! I love GNP so much. Glad you had such a great time!

  2. Jacob D December 3, 2013 at 9:58 pm #

    Sounds like you had a great trip out there Rob. Nice photos too! Cheers!

    - Jacob.

  3. Gary Dunckel December 6, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    That was a well written account of a rather ambitious GNP itinerary, Rob. You make a great Trail Ambassador!

  4. heather-lee December 6, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    hi there.
    It’s a beautiful area – I spent some time over the border in Canada a couple of years ago and loved hiking the area. I am from Australia though so the bears spooked me a bit ! :)
    I’m just wondering if you carry any spare charge for your iphone, as you say you do some reading and use it for GPS/ location finding ??
    I frequently do 9 – 15 days remote hiking (or bushwalking as we call it here) without any resupply and am looking at options to recharge my iphone whilst out – without adding too much weight.
    My other adventures are 3 – 6 days solo for which I’d like to have the charge incase I need to contact home or rangers.
    Would appreciate any suggestions – thanks :)

  5. DaveC December 6, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    Good job on knocking off the two classic trips in Glacier in one trip. You got the best and worst of September weather, too, along with a bunch of the best BC campsites. My mom and I were a day behind you for the second half of your first backpack.

    For readers who aren’t familiar with the park and want to come backpack, planning ahead is higly recommended. Even the autumn season is becoming crowded, and applying for a permit in advance is recommended.

  6. James December 6, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    Sounds like a gorgeous part of the world!

    I am an Australian and was interested in the gear you carried as I recently completed the Appalachian trail and did some of the PCT last year. In terms of best gear:

    For shelter, I have switched to a hammock which means I don’t need to carry an extra tarp and can cook in the rain. I also like the marmot driclime jacket – it is great even in snow! Instead of a sleeping bag I use a Wilderness Equipment quilt (beautiful quality) but would use the Steripen over the Aquamera.

    For extended IPhone battery life, I use the Trent Power Rock Case with Extended Rechargeable Battery Juice Case 2100mAh for iPhone 4S. It lasted 10 days of listening to podcasts and music (Airplane mode On). However I haven’t yet checked out the cooking systems that also generate electricity!

    All the best…

  7. Rob Kelly aka QiWiz December 10, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    @ heather-lee – I can get by for a weekend without a recharge. For longer trips, I bring a rechargeable external battery. I have a smaller/lighter one for 3-5 day trips and a larger/heavier one for longer trips. The one I would use for 9-10 days is a New Trent 7000mAh. I can get 2.5 full recharges out of it with my iPhone 5. There are more capacious models (more mAh) available, but this one has met my needs well at a 6-7 oz weight penalty.

    @ James – in Glacier, you have to camp in permit-specified designated campsites that hold 1-2 small tents. I would not attempt to use a hammock without checking that this is allowed, as in most cases you would have to hang outside the designated site.

  8. DaveC December 11, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Hammock don’t work well in Glacier. Perhaps 1/3 of the sites have enough trees, and those are the less interesting ones for the most part. This being GRIZZ country, you also have to cook in a designated area well removed from where you sleep, which eliminates the dual use of your tarp.

  9. Grover Caldwell December 18, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    Picture yourself standing on the Continental Divide overlooking a crackling glacier that feeds a string of sparkling turquoise lakes. That is only part of the panorama you’ll enjoy from Glacier Overlook, a no-nonsense notch on a section of the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park named the Garden Wall. Approached from the west, Glacier Overlook offers a window looking east over a glacier and a trio of subalpine lakes. To reach the stellar overlook, Garden Wall Trail climbs a thousand feet in one mile. If that sounds intimidating, there is more tough news. The bottom of Garden Wall Trail is located 6.8 miles up Highline Trail from the trailhead at Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road. While Glacier Overlook is not easily reached, the views are worth any effort.

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