Considered the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park deserves to be explored at least once in a lifetime if not every season. While attractions like the Going-to-the-Sun Road are a good launching point for this elevated terrain in northern Montana, if you are going out of your way to visit this iconic natural resource, hiking the trails is probably of high priority. Backcountry Permits go for advanced reservation in March and serve as the best way to connect the passes, campgrounds, and views you intend to see. Don’t know where to start your trip planning to Glacier? Check out these backcountry and front country recommendations.
Filled with vibrant ecosystems, an abundance of wildlife and burly mountain passes, Glacier is a great place for backpackers to find themselves in magnificent surroundings. The Continental Divide Trail spans the entire length of the park before finding its northern terminus at the Canadian border, and the Pacific Northwest Trail begins in Glacier and proceeds to head 1,200 miles west to the Washington Coast. National Scenic Trails aside, Glacier has seven backcountry areas, 65 different backcountry campgrounds, and numerous trailheads to choose from. Check out this map for an overview of the trail system.
North Fork and Goat Haunt Area
Found within the northern wilderness of the park, Boulder Pass is one of the most popular overnight routes available in Glacier. Typically, Boulder Pass backpacking routes begin at the Kintla Lake trailhead in the North Fork Area of the park. From there, hikers straddle the shore of Kintla Lake, proceeding 18 miles to Boulder Pass. Appreciating the views is easy the entire way, especially at the Hole-in-the-Wall basin. From Boulder Pass, hikers can either go another 10 miles to the Goat Haunt Ranger Station or make a half-loop with 15 miles to the Bowman Lake Trailhead.
Stoney Indian Pass
Belly River and Many Glacier Area
The Belly River and Many Glacier Area of the park affords many hiking opportunities, including the sought-after Stoney Indian Pass. A popular way to experience this high-alpine pass is through a multi-day trek starting from the Chief Mountain Customs trailhead on the eastern edge of the park. Finishing at the Goat Haunt Ranger Station, the total travel length is just under 30 miles. A gradual incline to begin the trail passes by numerous alpine lakes and the climb up Stony Pass allows hikers to really earn the views.
Saint Mary and Lake McDonald Area
Coming in at roughly 20 miles and beginning near the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Gunsight Pass can be done as an ambitious day hike, but 2-3 days really lets hikers take in the scenery. With over 7,000 feet of elevation change, the pass is no cake walk, but views such as the turquoise waters of Gunsight Lake make it well worth it. In addition to hikers, Gunsight Pass is always popular with resident mountain goats (who deserve some space).
Two Medicine Pass
Two Medicine and Walton Area
Departing from the Two Medicine South Shore trailhead in the southeast portion of the park, the one-way distance to Two Medicine Pass is just under eight miles. This hearty trek isn’t recommended for first-timers though. Those who take on this hike climb their way past iconic landscapes like Rockwell Falls and Cobalt Lake before hitting big views at the pass. To extend the trip into a multi-night excursion, hikers can continue to the Lake Isabella Campground or head into the Walton area of the park, where the Nyack/Cold Creek Camping Zone offers undesignated camping opportunities.
Crossing the heart of the national park and spanning for 50 miles, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is a centerpiece for nearly everyone’s travel to Glacier. Numerous trailheads and points of interest can be found off the shoulders, as well as stunning landscapes that make it hard to concentrate on the road. Driving your personal vehicle isn’t the only way to travel, and it’s not even the recommended course of action. Instead, Glacier’s free shuttle system is a great way to ride.
As the largest lake in the park, this massive glacial reservoir is another iconic image for anyone’s visit. Easily accessed from the Going-to-the-Sun Road and surrounded by upright Rocky Mountain peaks, Lake McDonald is an award-winning photo easily taken by accident. Miles of hiking and backpacking trails surround the 10-mile lake. For those looking to enjoy the water in style, the century-old Lake McDonald Lodge offers rustic accommodations with a modern appeal.
For a more strenuous day hike with all the views, the Highline Trail is a point-to-point highlight reel of iconic Glacier landscapes. Both ends of the hike are accessed from the Going-to-the-Sun Road and made logistically easy thanks to the free shuttle. The trail travels nearly 12 miles between the Logan Pass Visitor Center and “the loop” section of the Going-to-the-Sun road. Hikers straddle the narrow edge of the Garden Wall before passing many viewpoints, including the receding and well-photographed Grinnell Glacier. The Highline Trail can be split between days thanks to the century-old Granite Park Chalet lodging found along the way.
Trail of the Cedars
As a required stop with any visit, the Trail of the Cedars is less than a mile long and easily accessible thanks to a well-constructed boardwalk trail and paved hiking route. Easily one of the most popular trails in the park, for good reason, ancient avalanche-avoided trees line the route and the moving waters of Avalanche Creek can really leave a great impression on you. This mile-long trail is worthy of a pit stop along a larger journey. If hikers find themselves underwhelmed by the scenery (they won’t), the trail continues for another 1.9 miles to Avalanche Lake.