Glacier National Park

Click here for the complete Glacier National Park photo album

Located in the northwest corner of Montana, Glacier National Park is considered to be the crown jewel of the National Park System. Unlike many National Parks, Glacier is primarily a wilderness park. While several roads provide outstanding views and help provide a taste of the park, the incredible beauty of the park is best appreciated off the road on many of the excellent hiking trails.

The main road inside the park is the 50 mile Going-to-the-Sun road, a windy, twisty road built during the 1920's and 1930's that slowly makes its way over Logan Pass and connects the east side of the park to the west side. One of the world's most spectacular highways, it follows the shores of the park's two largest lakes and hugs the cliffs below the Continental divide as it bisects the heart of Glacier.

During the last ice age, huge glaciers scoured away the mountains, creating deep valleys and knife-like mountain ridges. As the glaciers gradually slid down from the peaks, they moved a tremendous amount of material in front of them, known as a moraine. As the ice age began to end, the glaciers in the lower elevations began to melt. The melting water collected in the depressions where the glaciers previously were, and trapped by the moraines deposited by the glaciers, formed massive lakes.

Today, Glacier National Park has few glaciers remaining, none that date from the last ice age. Some of these glaciers, such as the Grinnell Glacier, are relatively easily reached by trail. Others are situated in very remote and rugged corners of the park and are rarely explored.

We spent four days in the park and hiked some of the most beautiful trails anywhere. Wildlife is quite abundant in the park too. We saw mountain goats, bighorn sheep, ground squirrels among other critters. Grizzly bears are known to be all over the park, but we did not encounter any during our hikes. However, we read accounts of violent bear attacks on the trails that we were on that occurred a few weeks after our trip. It is hard to believe that there was a time when national park officials would encourage bears into campsites and garbage dumps in order to let park visitors get a closer look. It is unthinkable today where visitors are educated on avoiding bear attacks

Day 1 : Garden Wall Hike

View from Logan Pass Trailhead

The Highline Trail is one of the premiere hiking trails in Glacier National Park that begins at Logan Pass on the Going to the Sun Road and then runs north for a distance of 20 miles, following the Continental Divide.

The most popular and scenic part of the Highline Trail known as the "Garden Wall", starts from Logan Pass (~ 6000 ft) to the Granite Park Chalet, a distance of 7.6 miles. It runs primarily in the open at or just above the treeline. Upon reaching Granite Park Chalet,there is a cutoff directly down to the Going to the Sun Road but a few miles from the start of the hike.

Since it was a one-way hike, we left one car at the destination point and then drove on to Logan pass where we left the other car and walked on the trail back to the first car. The remaining days were out-and-back hikes that commenced from our campgrounds and hence did not require this maneuver.

The trail is relatively flat, has outstanding views and is a perfect place to view wildlife, especially bighorn sheep, mountain goats, grizzly bears and ground squirrels. July was the perfect time of the year for wildflowers as well and we were in for an amazing treat.

Carpet of wildflowers

The trail loses elevation gradually for the first quarter mile or so as it makes its way through a very nice, open, alpine meadow environment that is partially forested by some evergreens that somehow manage to grow up in this very harsh climate. It soon hits a very rocky point, as it makes its way around a cliff that is nearly right above the Going to the Sun Road.

After passing around this cliff, the Highline Trail makes a very gradual descent, staying above the Going to the Sun Road (which continues to get further and further below the hiker). The scenery is fabulous, with the mountains of the Continental Divide tower above you on the right of the trail. Meanwhile, to the left of the hiker, Mt. Oberlin, Mt. Cannon and Heavenís Peak dominate the skyline making for some outstanding views. And, directly in front is Haystack Butte, a flat-top, smallish mountain that marks the halfway point on the Highline Trail between Logan Pass and Granite Park Chalet. After about a mile of this gradual descent, and after crossing a number of seasonal streams (fed by snowmelt), the Highline Trail begins a gradual ascent until it reaches Granite Park Chalet. We had brief downpour on this section and it had us scrambing for our rain jackets. At the Granite Park Chalet, the trail decends steeply down back to the Going to the Sun Road where we had parked one car earlier in the day.

That night we camped at the Saint Mary campground by Saint Mary lake. Gale force winds made it very difficult to set up the tents and organize dinner. We had to literally stay in the tent to keep them down.

Day 2: Grinnell Glacier Hike

Grinnell Lake, Josephine Lake

The next morning, we continued east on the Going-to-the-Sun road which eventually exits the park. We turned north on Hwy 89 and back into the park through the Many Glacier entrance. The gale force winds continued creating large waves on Lake Sherburne where we stopped to take a look. The plan for the day - Grinnell Glacier Trail.

The Grinnell Glacier Trail is one of the most scenic hikes in Glacier National Parks. It is one of the more popular trails in Glacier National Park due to its incredible beauty and its fairly easy ascent. The out and back trail (6 miles, 1600ft elev gain), passes by crystal clear mountain lakes,towering mountains and ends at Upper Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier at the base of the continental divide.

Viewed from above, the Grinnell Glacier Trail lies very close to the Highline Trail and are just separated by the ridge that is the Continental Divide

The trail begins in the Many Glacier Valley and follows the shoreline of Swiftcurrent Lake for about a half-mile. It soon emerges onto the shores of Lake Josephine, following the lakes western shoreline and gradually increasing in elevation.. One is treated to beautiful views of Mount Allen, Lake Josephine and Mount Gould on this section Near the inlet to Lake Josephine, a spur trail leads down to Lake Josephine.

Following this, the trail travels through open countryside, with no obstructions to the incredible views.of Lower Grinnell Lake. It begins a gradual but steady ascent towards Upper Grinnell Lake. Mountain goats are commonly seen and bighorn sheep can also be periodically spotted. Much of this trail passes through prime bear habitat.

At the end of the trail are beautiful views ofa retreating glacier and a very cold, glacially fed high alpine lake. Upper Grinnell Lake is a relatively new lake, being formed by the melting waters of the Grinnell Glacier. The Grinnell Glacier has shrunk in size by more than 40% over the past thirty years and continues to shrink. Since Upper Grinnell Lake receives its water from melting glaciers, the water is milky white in color.

In addition to the Grinnell Glacier, two other glaciers are also seen from Upper Grinnell Lake. A long, thin glacier that meanders its way along the Continental Divide is called the Salamander Glacier. This glacier used to be connected to the Grinnell Glacier, but melting has caused the glaciers to separate.

The Gem Glacier, a small, square glacier can also be seen, which lies high along the continental divide by Mt. Gould.

Day 3: Iceberg - Ptramigan Loop Hike

Iceberg Lake

On Day 3, we decided to combine a hike to Iceberg Lake with a hike to Ptarmingan Tunnel. This is an incredibly scenic section of the park and and the wildflower display in certain sections was spectacular.

The Iceberg Lake Trail (4.5 miles, ~1200 ft elev) begins in the Many Glacier Valley of Glacier National Park.For most of its length, it passes through very open terrain, with only a few forested spots found in the middle section of the hike. Due to the open terrain, the views are unlimited. The trail itself ends at a lake called Iceberg Lake which lies in the shadows on the northern flank of Mt. Wilbur - receiving very little sun. The snowfields from its slopes drop ice chunks into the lake, some of which can take weeks to fully melt. Thus, even in July August, the lake has floating ice.

Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail

Halfway back on the Iceberg Lake Trail,there is a fork in the trail. The Ptarmigan Lake trail leads off to the right (or north) and climbs steadily through open forests for nearly a mile. It then levels off near the timberline, offering clear views of the gentle slopes of Crowfeet Mountain and the deep, narrow canyon carved out of the sedimentary rock by Ptarmigan Creek. Ptarmigan Lake lies in a barren cirque formed by the steep sides of the Ptarmigan Wall to the west and north and the gentle slopes of Crowfeet Mountain to the east. Ptramigan Tunnel, nearly 200 feet long, was blasted through rock in the Ptarmigan Wall in 1931 as a shorter route between the Belly River Valley and Many Glacier. From the north end of the tunnel, the view of Elizabeth Lake and the Belly River valley below is spectacular. After walking down the trail a short distance from the tunnel you can see the Old Sun Glacier on Mount Merritt off to the northwest.

Day 4: Two Medicine Area

Running Eagle Falls, Two Medicine Lake

On the fourth day, we visited the Two Medicine area of the park. The weather took a turn for the worse and we had some rain so we planned a short hike on the mountains overlooking the Two Medicine lake. We also spent some time at the Running Eagle Falls before it was time to head out of the park.

Google Maps

Link to GPS track overlaid on Google Maps for the three hikes - Gardenwall in red, Grinnell Glacier trail in Orange and Iceberg - Ptarmigan Trail in beige.

Click here for the complete Glacier National Park photo album