Glacier National Park
Key information: Glacier National Park
- Montana's Glacier National Park is theatrical and dazzling: a vast area filled with stunning vistas of sheer mountains, foaming waterfalls and startlingly blue lakes, spilling into the US from the Canadian Rockies.
- With hundreds of animal species as well as more than 1,000 different types of plant, Glacier's ecosystem is impressive and well-protected. Endangered species such as the grizzly bear and the Canadian lynx live here, as well as the remarkable mountain goats the area is famous for.
- From gentle short strolls to very difficult long scrambles, Glacier NP has walks for everyone. And the best bit? They are all stunning.
- This can be a tough place to walk, in high, remote mountains, on which you will often have to be self-sufficient. And, beware bears. Come prepared and take all precautions.
- Walkopedia rating84
- Natural interest17
- Human interest0
- Negative points2
- Total rating84
- Note: Negs: best trails popular
- Length: Variable
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
Stunning Rocky Mountains scenery, and a plethora of wild animals to thrill even the most jaded palate, make camping out in the backcountry of Montana's Glacier National Park a thrilling experience.
Described by the native Blackfeet as the "backbone of the world", the region's forest-coated peaks tower over the countryside, waterfalls crashing down their sides into the rivers feeding Glacier's myriad lakes. With heavy snow throughout the long northern winter, the park bursts into life for its short season, walkers freely roaming the 700 miles of glorious trails.
There have been humans living in this area since the native Americans moved there 10,000 years ago, but little evidence of human activity scars the wilderness. Camping here is basic, and seems even more isolated than Yellowstone's vast grandeur.
Known as the "Crown of the Continent" ecosystem, wildlife here is remarkably varied: with more than 1,000 species of plants, the range of vegetation is diverse, with some varieties found only in Glacier. The mammals here seem (appropriately) to step from the pages of a wilderness adventure - grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, wolverines and mountain lions are all found in the park in varying numbers, alongside less hazardous but equally interesting mountain goats (the parks official symbol), bighorn sheep, elk, moose, porcupine and mink. Birds of prey soar through the skies above the park, whilst geese, herons and colourful harlequin ducks paddle in the lakes and rivers.
Out towards the Great Plains, the Chief Mountain dominates the skyline; its 1,372m height may seem paltry against some of America's greats, but its steep sides rise alone from the flat ground, and it has a considerable impact on visitors and inhabitants alike.
Further in, the 53 mile long Going-to-the-Sun road, the only road to cross the park, attracts many people. There are gorgeous views over the vicinity, with a particularly fabulous vista overlooking Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, and it crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. 2010 was the 100th anniversary of the park, and to mark it the road has been reconstructed.
Unfortunately, global warming is making itself felt in Glacier NP. With only 27 of the numerous glaciers which gave the park its name remaining, it is estimated that by 2030 they will all be gone. The effect this will have on the environment here is unknown, although it seems doubtless that some of the animals dependent on cold weather will face difficulties with the rising temperatures.
Now is therefore the perfect time to enjoy this fabulous place, and hiking here seems a privilege. There are stunning multi-day treks, with steep climbs to high altitudes, basic camping in remote backcountry, and a variety of beautiful backdrops through which to walk. However, a sense of this isolated wilderness and its sheer, dramatic beauty can be achieved even on its shorter walks.
In addition, since the park was opened in 1910 there have been 10 deaths from grizzly bear attacks.
Day hikes are abundant, and this ideal hiking country, with its spectacular panoramas, ensures a superb experience on any trail. Do not let a search for solitude push you away from either the Grinnell Glacier or the nearby Iceberg Lake Trails, which are popular simply by virtue of being some of the best hikes in the park. However, as two of the best areas - Many Glacier Valley and Logan Pass - are generally busy, those in search of isolation may find a multi-day hike the best way to experience Glacier.
- The Grinnell Glacier Trail, beginning in Many Glacier Valley, follows a relatively flat path along the shorelines of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine before rising steadily towards Upper Grinnell Lake, an expanse of milky white water fed by the retreating Grinnell Glacier. This is a gentle walk and relatively easy option, as well as providing stunning views over three glaciers - but as a result is one of the more popular hikes.
- Iceberg Lake Trail is a great walk, with a stretch passing beneath the imposing Ptarmigan Wall, and a stunning final destination. Large chunks and slabs of ice float in the aquamarine water, whilst the 900m walls towering above cast deep shadows on the lake. Expect to see some ace wildlife: mountain goats cling to the cliff faces, pikas and ground squirrels play in the boulder fields, and grizzlies roam this area.
Perhaps the best known, and the best, multi-day hike is the North Circle (also known as the Highline Trail/Ptarmigan Tunnel Loop), which was set up (along with the Inside Trail and South Circle) in the early twentieth century to link tourist camps and hotels set up in the park by the Great Northern Railway. Over around seven days, the trail passes over snow-capped mountains, across the Chaney glacier, past still blue lakes and the beautiful Dawn Mist Falls, and through meadows saturated with colourful wildflowers. The Ptarmigan Tunnel is a particular highlight; a 120ft tunnel through the Ptarmigan Wall, with the path blown into the mountain on its upper stretches.
The Continental Divide Trail, an epic hike following the continental divide for 5,000km across the US, begins (or ends, depending on your chosen direction) in Glacier National Park.
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