By Michael Lanza
The morning sun wouldn’t make the climb over Mount Grinnell and find its way into the valley of Swiftcurrent Creek for a couple of hours yet, so we hiked quickly without breaking a sweat in the chilly air. No one else was on the popular Swiftcurrent Pass Trail when we set out shortly after dawn, and this trail was new to us; so it felt like we were the first people to walk into this small but spectacular little crease in the mountains of Glacier National Park.
There was a good reason for our early start: We had a big day ahead of us—one of the finest long days of hiking one can do in this flagship national park (a judgment I make based on several visits dayhiking and backpacking much of Glacier over the past three decades, including 10 years I spent as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog).
At the head of the valley, we gazed up at several ribbon-like waterfalls free-falling hundreds of feet down cliffs. We zigzagged up through switchbacks toward Swiftcurrent Pass, looking back down the valley at lakes flanked by the upright meat cleavers of Mounts Wilbur and Grinnell. After crossing the pass, we descended across alpine slopes strewn with wildflowers, with a sweeping view of mountains rolling to distant horizons, to the stone buildings of the Granite Park Chalet.
But with more than seven miles in our legs that morning, our day was just half complete. We headed south on the Highline Trail, across alpine meadows, with the miles-long Garden Wall’s cliffs rising above us like a giant blade sprung from the earth. In places, the trail was blasted out of cliff, with a sheer drop-off to one side. We marveled at uninterrupted panoramas of Glacier’s severe topography, where peaks appear to have erupted from the ground and then instantly frozen in place, leaving vertical walls of heavily stratified rock.
We finished that dayhike at 6,646-foot Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road—a bit over 15 miles from Many Glacier, where we’d started out early that morning. That outing left me with a few strong impressions: First, that it must be one of the most drop-dead gorgeous dayhikes in the national park system. Second, that given the distance and amount of climbing and descending, it wasn’t that hard.
And finally, that Glacier, long recognized as a premier park for backpackers, is a great place for a trip consisting of long dayhikes or trail runs from one or more base camps. You can see a lot of this park’s amazing scenery on day trips—especially if you have the legs for 15 miles or more per day—carrying only a light pack, and enjoy real food (and perhaps a bed) every night.
The seven dayhikes described below range from 13 to 20 miles, and each has a longer option. All offer amazing scenery; they vary mostly in the degree of logistical complications and popularity. Tick them all off and you’ll bite off a big chunk of Glacier in an unforgettable week, assuming an extra day or two for bad weather—or maybe a much-deserved rest. Start early for any of these hikes—but avoid hiking in the dark in grizzly country (another reason to make sure your entire party has the strong pace and stamina required for long, strenuous dayhikes).
While you should not underestimate the strenuousness of long tromps through the mountains, Glacier’s well-built and moderately graded trails—mostly pitched at a not-too-steep “horse grade,” for pack animals—are ideal for long-distance hiking and running. Elevations are moderate—you’re rarely above 7,500 feet, and the highest points on the routes described here barely top 8,000 feet.
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The park’s free and frequent shuttle operating on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and private shuttle and taxi services greatly ease trailhead transportation logistics. See nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/shuttles.htm. And there are spots like Many Glacier with quick and easy access to high country from a grand hotel, an affordable motel, or a campground.
Key planning step: To drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road between 6am and 5pm or to drive into the park’s North Fork area via the Polebridge entrance between 6am and 6pm, from May 27, 2022, through Sept. 11, 2022, you must purchase a timed ticket at recreation.gov/timed-entry/10087086. See more info at nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/gtsrticketedentry.htm. This is separate from a park entrance pass, which can be purchased at the park or before you arrive there at recreation.gov/sitepass/74280.
See my expert e-guides to backpacking trips in Glacier and other parks and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any trip you read about at The Big Outside. Click on any photo to learn more about that hike.
Please share your thoughts or questions or suggest your favorite hikes in Glacier in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Logan Pass to Many Glacier
This is the usual direction of travel for the hike described above because it’s primarily downhill. (I’ve done it in both directions—going in the uphill direction is certainly harder, but the scenery keeps getting better.) The Highline Trail’s 7.6 miles from Logan Pass to Granite Park is one of the park’s most popular walks, so to avoid the hordes, start shortly after sunrise, which is also the best time for seeing wildlife. I’ve seen mountain goats and bighorn sheep on this stretch of trail—and once missed by minutes an encounter with a grizzly that sprinted right past other hikers on a section so narrow they barely had space to lean out of the bear’s path.
Do not pass up the side trip up the Garden Wall Trail to Grinnell Glacier Overlook, which diverges from the Highline Trail about 6.7 miles north of Logan Pass; it’s a relentlessly steep ascent of 900 vertical feet in 0.9 mile, but the footpath ends at a notch in the Garden Wall high above the Grinnell Glacier and a chain of lakes spilling down a lush valley framed by spectacular mountains and rock walls. That will fire you up for the hike from Siyeh Bend to Many Glacier (below).
The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail from Granite Park to Many Glacier, also 7.6 miles, is also fairly popular but much quieter than this hike’s first half. Watch for wild goats and sheep at the pass. The descent east off the pass into the glacial cirque forming the headwall of the Swiftcurrent valley is breathtaking. The trail ends in the parking lot adjacent to the Swiftcurrent Motel and its restaurant, a pretty good pizza and pasta joint; minutes after finishing, you can order a celebratory beer.
By the Numbers 15.2 miles, with about 1,000 feet of climbing and more than 2,000 of downhill. Adding the 1.2 miles and 1,000 feet up to Grinnell Glacier Overlook makes the total hike 17.6 miles with 2,000 feet of uphill and 3,000 feet of downhill.
Getting There The hike begins at Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and finishes at the end of Many Glacier Road, which is off US 89 about 11 miles north of St. Mary, on the park’s east side.
See my story “Descending the Food Chain: Backpacking Glacier National Park’s Northern Loop” for more photos of the Highline Trail.
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The Loop to Ahern Pass
This hike offers a scenic payoff similar to the Logan Pass to Many Glacier route, but with fewer people—partly because you’ll climb 2,200 feet in the first four miles. It also provides the most direct route to Granite Park, where you’ll head north on a section of the Highline Trail that receives much less traffic than the stretch between Granite Park and Logan Pass, but also has constant views of the mountains and a chance of seeing mountain goats and bighorn sheep. The hike gets much easier after Granite Park, mostly contouring with little ups and downs.
The Highline Trail traverses a spectacular cliff face above Ahern Creek right before reaching the last 20 minutes of uphill to Ahern Pass, at 7,100 feet. From the pass, you’ll look down 2,000 feet to Helen Lake, which nestles in the cirque at the head of the Belly River Valley, beneath the soaring walls of Ahern Peak and the Ptarmigan Wall. It’s one of the park’s great backcountry views, and far enough out there that you’ll rarely see more than a handful of other hikers, if any. From Ahern Pass, if you walk just minutes uphill to the north, you’ll gain the crest of Ahern Peak’s southeast ridge for a look at the mountain’s massive east face. If you’re up for a much more strenuous side trip from the pass, look for the faint use trail leading east along the Ptarmigan Wall; it climbs a steep 2,200 feet to Iceberg Notch, which offers a dizzying perspective from high above Iceberg Lake.
By the Numbers 17 miles, with about 3,000 feet of up and down. Alternatively, begin at Logan Pass, go out to Ahern Pass, and then finish at The Loop, which bumps the distance up to 20.6 miles but reduces the amount of uphill by about 2,000 feet.
Getting There The out-and-back hike begins on the Granite Park Trail at The Loop, the major hairpin turn about nine miles west of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
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Dawson Pass-Pitamakan Pass Loop
While other trails on this list run for miles high above the treetops, perhaps none equal the sensation this one inspires of soaring like an eagle through the mountains. This roughly 17.5-mile loop from the Two Medicine North Shore Trailhead over Dawson and Pitamakan passes—both of which reach nearly 7,600 feet—stays high above the forest for several miles, and delivers panoramas of remote, icy peaks in the wilderness heart of Glacier, green valleys carved into classic U shapes by ancient glaciers, and shockingly blue alpine lakes. Good chance you’ll see bighorn sheep and mountain goats, too.
Shorten the loop by about 4.5 miles (although without losing much of the 2,500 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss) by catching an early boat shuttle across Two Medicine Lake (see http://glacierparkboats.com/tour/two-medicine/); take the boat and hike to Dawson Pass first in order to get off the alpine traverse, which is exposed to severe weather, earlier in the day. Shortest option: Dayhike 9.5 miles (with the boat shuttle) out-and-back to Dawson Pass—although you’ll miss most of the alpine traverse that makes this dayhike so unique, the stroll to Dawson Pass is certainly a five-star outing on its own.
By the Numbers 17.5 or 13 miles (with the boat shuttle), with about 2,500 feet of up and down.
Getting There Start at the Two Medicine
North Shore Trailhead, in the park’s southeast corner.
See my story “Wildness
All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier” for more photos of the
Dawson Pass Trail connecting Dawson and Pitamakan passes.
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Contact Glacier National Park, nps.gov/glac.