By Michael Lanza
Is it possible to find some degree of solitude backpacking in a national park as popular as Glacier? The answer is an unequivocal yes—even in Glacier’s relatively short peak season of mid-July through mid-September. And the strategies for doing so are remarkably simple and will not compromise the quality of your experience in other ways—in fact, encountering fewer people only increases the chances of encountering wildlife. This article describes five backpacking trips where you are virtually guaranteed to find solitude in Glacier National Park.
For backpackers, Glacier delivers one of the most unique wilderness experiences in the country, with scenery almost unmatched and a high likelihood of seeing a range of megafauna seen in few places in the Lower 48, including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and black and grizzly bears. I have enjoyed stretches of solitude on each of the several backpacking trips I’ve taken in Glacier over the past three decades—many of those years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog—including, most recently, while backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through the park.
Like most national parks, Glacier limits the number of people in the wilderness through its backcountry permit system, and many available permits get reserved in March for the entire summer; it’s best to submit a permit reservation application by March 15 for up to eight people, or by March 1 for a group of nine to 12 people. Read my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit” and “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Complete solitude is rare during summer because most available permits get used, but you can walk for hours, even on some popular trails that are farther from trailheads and see few or no people, and by avoiding the easily accessible, very scenic areas like Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, Logan Pass, St. Mary, and Two Medicine, which attract the most dayhikers and backpackers. Go after Labor Day and you’ll probably see fewer people than in July or August.
Keep in mind that you could certainly see a snowstorm in September. Check the forecast before you head out, and have warm clothes, waterproof boots, a warm bag, and a good tent. Snow at that time of year tends to melt away as soon as the sun comes out again, but be ready for any weather. And certainly carry pepper spray in grizzly country.
Learn more about obtaining a permit and planning a backpacking trip in Glacier—with expert tips on these specific trips—in my feature stories about a 90-mile backpacking trip in northern Glacier, part of which is a 65-mile hike that I consider the best backpacking trip in Glacier; a 94-mile traverse of Glacier mostly on the Continental Divide Trail; and my family’s three-day backpacking trip on Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail (which require a paid subscription to read in full).
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and backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier.
As I suggest in the very first of my “12 Expert Tips For Finding Solitude When Backpacking,” the best strategy for finding solitude in a popular destination like Glacier is to head to the less well-known areas of the park. The five trips described below all do exactly that, and every one of them has Glacier-caliber natural beauty and a high likelihood of seeing wildlife.
Want to explore Glacier on dayhikes? See “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Glacier National Park” and “The 7 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park.”
Tell me what you think of these trips, or offer your own, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Bowman Lake to Kintla Lake
The first backpacking trip I did in Glacier was a 39-mile, point-to-point hike from Bowman Lake to Kintla Lake in the park’s northwest corner, via Brown Pass and Boulder Pass. It’s a beautiful hike in a less-accessible corner of the park, going from forest and lakes to alpine terrain with views of peaks and glaciers and likely sightings of mountain goats.
The three high camping areas along the route—Brown Pass, Hole in the Wall, and Boulder Pass—are all excellent. I rode my mountain bike between the trailheads instead of arranging a vehicle shuttle; I recall it being less than an hour from Kintla (where I left our car) downhill to Bowman.
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Chief Mountain to Many Glacier
Arrange a shuttle from Many Glacier to the Chief Mountain customs station on the Canadian border, and hike from there up the Belly River Trail and Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail back to Many Glacier; an awesome 20-mile trip over two to three days. If you can, add the 8.6 miles (but not much elevation gain) out-and-back to Helen Lake, and camp there; the trail ends there, so you could have the place to yourself, and the lake sits in a deep mountain cirque below the soaring cliffs of Ahern Peak.
Even though Iceberg Lake is a popular dayhike, make the short side trip out to it, it’s well worth the time and putting up with the crowds (although dayhikers are generally there mostly during the middle hours of the day). See photos from these areas in my feature story “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier.”
I can help you plan your Glacier hike or any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Traverse Glacier on the CDT
The Continental Divide Trail traverses Glacier from north to south (you can hike it in either direction), and explores some of the richest scenery and loneliest corners of the park (as well as, to be sure, a few popular areas where you’ll see more hikers).
My downloadable e-guide “Backpacking the Continental Divide Trail Through Glacier National Park” explains all you need to know to plan and execute that trip—and it describes several shorter alternative itineraries that hit parts of Glacier that provide the best opportunities for solitude.
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After Glacier National Park, hike the other nine of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips.”
See my “12 Expert Tips For Finding Solitude When Backpacking” and all of my stories about Glacier National Park at The Big Outside. Read about the two Glacier trips that rank among “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 6 Best Long Hikes in Glacier National Park.” Note that most of those stories require a paid subscription to read.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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