After leaving Orcas Island in Washington State, we headed back east to visit Glacier National Park. It’s a sad moment in a road trip when you realize you’ve started returning, even if it’s taken you three plus months to get there. We stumbled into a fantastic backpacking loop thanks to the best ranger staff we’ve come across so far. I don’t want to spoil my power rankings, but this park is up there on our list of favorites.
Glacier National Park’s landscape has wide, flat alpine meadows surrounded by sharp, steep mountains, which formed as massive glaciers slowly wore away the sides of the cliffs. It borders Canada’s Waterton National Park, and the two parks have been managed together as an International Peace Park since 1932. In addition to stunning mountains, prairies, forests and lakes, Glacier is one of the few places in North America with large carnivores like Grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves.
Getting There and Getting In
Glacier gets over 2 million visitors per year, despite being a little out of the way. To get there, you can take the long drive, or fly to Kalispell or Missoula. You can also take the AmTrak to East Glacier. Unless you found some sort of tour company, I would recommend getting a car. There’s a few shuttles that run across the park along Going-To-The-Sun-Road, but while we were there waits were up to an hour and the full drive takes two hours, so it will likely take a while. There’s also a private shuttle run by the Xanterra resort company that’s a little more extensive, but it’s $20 a person and only runs three times a day.
Fees are $25 to enter the park, and campground fees are ~$23. There are 13 campgrounds, most of which are first-come-first-served, though almost all were full when we rolled in at noon on a Tuesday. One challenge with arriving late like that is that sometimes the campsites with availability are a long drive away. We usually won’t drive too far and risk arriving to find all the sites already taken. The park has a great page showing availability and yesterday’s fill times.
Here’s a general map of the park, with our backpacking route right in the middle. I drew in the main route through the park, Going-to-the-Sun Road, in orange. We were told that the west side is less crowded, lower elevation, wetter, and greener and the east side is generally higher, cooler, and windier. East has more open vistas but is more crowded. The Going to the Sun Road crosses the park up over the Livingston Range, and is only usually open from June to September.
We didn’t arrive until almost noon on a Tuesday, and the majority of “front country” (car camping) spots were already full. One campsite near us had just hit capacity. There were some about an hour away, but we were skeptical they’d be available when we arrived so we headed straight to the backcountry office. Since you hike to backcountry camping spots, they’re always less crowded. The rangers were the most helpful and organized group we’ve met so far on the trip. In about an hour, we had permits for a 3 night, 45 mile loop. The trails are extremely well marked, so you can hike with the park newspaper map instead of purchasing the detailed topographic version. We watched the mandatory 14 minute bear safety video and rented some bear repelling pepper spray from the store next door.
Glacier runs a lottery for backpacking permits, so if you really want to plan a trip, you can complete a complicated form and pay a $30 per trip reservation fee, in addition to the usual $5 per person per night, to get everything organized in advance. Some campsites like Hole in the Wall, which we didn’t see, are apparently hugely popular. If I came back, though, I still wouldn’t bother to do advance planning, and would just go with whatever the rangers recommended.
Rush Packing – Unfortunately for us, by that point it was already 2pm, and we weren’t packed for a backpacking trip. Over the next 2-3 hours, we pulled everything out of the backseat and trunk, and planned and packed for our trip. The only thing we didn’t have in the car was enough water purification tablets. We checked one of the (poorly stocked) stores in the park and ended up driving 10 minutes out of the park to a real outfitter.
Side note: After living out of the car all summer and recently completing a few backpacking trips, we were able to pull off the difficult feat of packing for a 4 day trip in 2 hours. Gear wise, we know we need the sleeping basics (tent, sleeping bag, headlamp), and extra layers in case of wet or cold. From there, we threw in a bunch of snacks, oatmeal, all the lunch supplies we had, and dinners of backpackers meals or ramen noodles with dried and canned chicken. (Dump the canned chicken in a bag and eat it the first day, it’ll be fine.)
Bear (And Other wildlife) SAFETY
Glacier has black and Grizzly bears. At all the campsites, there are bear boxes or bear hanging poles. In other parks, like Yosemite, you’re required to have a bear-proof canister, which holds all your food and trash. When you’re not hiking, you leave the bear can a few hundred feet away from your camp so a bear attracted to the smell won’t be attracted to your camp. All of these help with bears, but also keep bugs and other critters out of your food.
With the Grizzlies at Glacier, it was very different. Each campsite had a food preparation area. The rangers insisted that all food should be unpacked, prepared, and stored at the prep area, and never be brought to your campsite. Each area had a bear box or a bear hanging area. The nice thing about this setup, while terrifying, was that we didn’t have to worry about fitting all the food into a can and could just string up a small sack over night.
The key preventative measure against a bear attack is to hike loudly so you don’t accidentally sneak up on a bear, especially when coming around blind turns, into meadows, near loud water, or when you’re traveling against the wind. By hiking loudly, I mean clapping, carrying on a loud conversation, and occasionally just yelling nonsense when you stumble across fresh bear scat in the trail. This can be annoying as it makes it impossible to be alone with your thoughts. I also have doubts that it actually works, but more on that later.
The key defensive measure against Grizzly bears is bear repelling pepper spray. Pepper spray comes in an aerosol can in a holster, so you can clip it right to your pack. In the extremely unlikely case that you see a bear, somehow piss it off, and it charges you, you blast the bear in the face with the spray and hope to be standing up wind. Fun fact: we were accidentally exposed to bear spray in Yellowstone by a kind gentleman upwind from us who was “just checking if worked”, and then informed us, “spray more dangerous than bear!”.
While the rangers won’t rent you spray, there’s a store right behind the backcountry office where you can get a can for $5 a day. If you have to use it at all, you pay the full $60 price tag. Each can is only good for 6-8 seconds of peppering, so it’s essentially single use. You can’t bring it on an airplane and you have to be careful leaving it in a hot car. We heard horror stories of people who’d totaled their car when the heat caused the cans to rupture. Renting wasn’t much cheaper, but we figured it was easiest.
After our whirlwind day of driving and prepping, we were finally parked and ready to go by about 5:45 pm. Our first campsite was only 6 miles from the road, which we hoped to cover in less than 3 hours, but we would definitely be cutting it a little close with daylight and we didn’t leave any room for errors like getting lost. Lucky for us, the route was easy. In another great backpacking innovation, your permit lists your start and end days for the hike, plus the total elevation you travel up and the total you travel down. This is another reason we felt comfortable without a topographic map.
Our first night’s campsite, Flattop, was nothing special. It was in an area that had been ravaged by forest fire and has not really regrown. We did have the place to ourselves, though. Each has a helpful map showing where you eat, sleep, and poop. (Yup, that’s the first human poop reference on the blog. It’s probably about time.)
Leaving Flattop the next morning, we headed towards the Stoney Indian Campsite, just on the west side of the Stoney Indian Pass. We were lucky to snag a reservation at this campsite. It’s one of the most popular, but they don’t allow advanced reservations there until August as the pass is usually blocked with snow.
This second day’s hike was my favorite of our loop. We spent most of the day in beautiful meadows. The hiking was moderately challenging, so the reward to effort ratio was one of the best we’ve had at any park. We had mostly sun during the day, too, though we did hike our last two hours up to camp in the rain. Worse, that last part of the trail had waist-high foliage, so even after it stopped raining, our pants and shoes still got soaked as we walked.
The total hike from Flattop to Stoney Indian camps was 14.6 miles, with only 2,670 feet up and 3,365 down. I really, really wish I had the stats for some of our prior hikes so I could tell if this really was easier, of if we’re just getting into better shape or getting more distracted by the views. We did the whole thing in about 8 hours with a few stops.
It was all worth it when we got to camp, right on Stoney Indian Lake, and the sun came out. There is almost nothing better than changing out of dirty sweaty hiking clothes at the end of the day into your dirty but dry overnight clothes, and putting on flip flops instead of hiking boots.
On our third day of hiking, we traveled 14.4 miles to Elizabeth Lake. Our first main intersection on the trail was the Mojawanis junction and campsite, where we stopped at for a quick sandwich. Leaving there, and hiking loudly and cautiously, we were surprised to hear someone large rustling through the underbrush nearby, possibly kicking down trees. I called out more specifically, and we started to get nervous when no one answered. Adam went around a small bend in the trail to see, looked under a log, and then starts a calm-sounding monologue… “That is a laaaaaarge bear… we are going to slowly and quietly go back where we came from.”
So, we retreated back around the turn, and decided to give the big fellow a few minutes to get out of our way. I hadn’t actually seen the bear, so it seemed like a good plan to resume our hike, and simply walk past the bear if he was still there. Adam got the bear spray out and I had my camera in my hand.
Then this happened…
The bear is shown approximately to size, as I remember it, and we both retreated immediately when he popped his head up. Just like in the (borrowed) photo above, the bear did not look angry, but he looked humongous and we were NOT about to mess with him. We promptly retreated back down the trail. I did not take any photos. Brutus, as we later learned he was called, continued to ignore us.
Back at our safe-feeling portion of the trail around the corner, we stood around for a while and continued to assess our options and listen for the sounds of Brutus getting closer or going away. It was a rough 15 minutes. But it was only 15 minutes until a ranger on a horse with a mule train came down the path and said he hadn’t seen any bears. I thanked him profusely and we continued hiking past the spot, clapping and cheering for the ranger for the next section of the trail.
After the bear incident, we continued on our way, and warned a few incoming hikers they might also get to see the Grizzly. It started raining again, and we were passed by a ranger who played a severe weather alert on his radio for us. Thunderstorms and high winds were rolling in, probably within 30 minutes, and we were still 2 hours from camp. Fortunately, we were in a wooded-ish section of the trail, so we had a little cover, but we still got thoroughly soaked and quite cold. The cold wasn’t too bad while we kept moving, but the wet squish of wet socks and boots got old very quickly.
Finally, as we approached the Cosley Lake crossing, the rain stopped for a bit and the sun came out. This crossing is especially fun because you wade through a slowly flowing lake on big, smooth rocks. Unlike some of our other glacier-melt crossings, the water was not too cold. If we hadn’t been expecting to be rained on again any minute, we would’ve loved to sit and enjoy the beach and the view for a little while longer.
Don’t get me wrong, this was still a fantastic hike, and we did get some more clear moments at the Dawn Falls just before reaching Elizabeth Lake. The second part of the hike was very flat and enjoyable, too.
Our campsite at Elizabeth Lake was just off the water. One annoying thing about tents and science is that water will condense inside the tent if it’s warm inside and cold and wet outside. The inside walls of the tent also become damp to the touch, so it’s easy for the edges of your sleeping bag to get wet and cold. We were worried about that seepage, especially since we didn’t pack our sleeping pads, so we added all the protection to the bottom of the tent that we had. That included one hefty trash bag and Adam’s poncho. In retrospect, we may have been slightly under-prepared for the cold and damp, but our makeshift solution kept us warm-ish enough to sleep and relatively dry.
On our last day of hiking, we headed up the mountain from Elizabeth Lake. We had randomly managed to hike the loop the right way, because we got the easy side of the Stoney Indian Pass and the hike away from this campsite. Other hikers at our site said the hike to the lake was emotionally tough because you could see it but it still took a long time to get down to camp.
As we came up from the lake, the next section of the trail took us up a long, winding red-rock path to the Ptarmigan Tunnel. The tunnel is only 250 feet long, through a thin rock wall, and saves you from a 1,700 foot climb over to Many Glacier, our ending point.
In the winter, they close the doors to keep the tunnel from filling with snow. From this point of the trail, we had 5 miles left, including a large loss of elevation as we came down from the pass. As soon as we crossed through the tunnel, we started to see many more day hikers. By this point, we were excited to get back to civilization, and the gray weather was still slightly spoiling the views, so we hurried along to Many Glacier, our ending point.
At this point, we weren’t quite back to our car, so we stopped for a cup of coffee. We’d figured we could take private shuttle down about 20 miles to St. Mary’s, where the free park shuttle starts. However, since we had 2.5 hours to kill, it made sense to try our luck hitching a ride down the mountain. It took about 45 minutes but we met a really nice ex-cop from Dallas who wasn’t scared off by Adam’s beard and was going our way. We switched to the public shuttle, which was pretty slow, but made it back to our car by about 5 pm to leave Glacier and find a place with hot showers and cold beer.
If you are still reading, and haven’t figured it out, I think I can safely spoil my power rankings and reiterate that this was our favorite park of the trip! Here’s some of my favorite other shots from the trip: