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Ask Me: Looking For a Moderate, Three-Day Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park

Posted On May 17, 2016 at 10:06 am by / Comments Off on Ask Me: Looking For a Moderate, Three-Day Backpacking Trip in Glacier National Park

Hi Michael,

We are planning a trip to Glacier National Park in August. We would like to take a short (two-night) backpacking trip while there. We are a couple in our late 50s and will be bringing our 20-year-old daughter. We have done a little backpacking, but are not very experienced. We are in good shape, though I don’t want anything really strenuous (unlike my husband and daughter). I read your piece about the Gunsight Pass Trail, and that sounds pretty good, but if you have other ideas I would love to hear them. We will be car camping and dayhiking the rest of the time (a total of a week), maybe staying in a lodge or hotel a couple of nights.

Thanks, love your blog!

Merriam, KS

Hi Clare,

Mountain goats, Gunsight Pass Trail, Glacier National Park.

Mountain goats, Gunsight Pass Trail, Glacier National Park.

The Gunsight Pass Trail (lead photo at top of story) would be my first suggestion for a two-night trip, and try to spend your first night at Lake Ellen Wilson (one of my 25 favorite backcountry campsites); but get an early start that day. It’s quite beautiful hike and the trail is well graded, never terribly steep, which makes it less strenuous. Hike east to west, from Jackson Glacier Turnout to Lake McDonald Lodge, because the hardest part is the big hill from Lake McDonald to the campsite near Sperry Chalet; that section gets steep, and it can be a hot climb, much of it exposed to the sun. Going down it can be a knee-pounder and will tire your quads, so use trekking poles. (See my “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”) But it’s easier to descend it on your last day, when your pack is lightest, than to climb it on your first day, when your pack is heaviest.

If you’re willing to add a third night, spend two nights at Sperry campsite or Sperry Chalet (you don’t carry camping gear if you stay at the chalet) and dayhike out-and-back to Sperry Glacier, where you cross high terrain scoured by ice that has receded, and you reach an overlook of one of the park’s larger glaciers. When I’ve (twice) hiked the Gunsight Pass Trail, I’ve seen mountain goats in the Gunsight Pass area and near Sperry Glacier.

My next suggestion for an overnight or three-day trip would be the 15.2-mile hike from Logan Pass to Many Glacier, taking the Highline Trail to Granite Park and then the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail to Many Glacier. As an overnight hike, you split the trip into two even days of 7.6 miles, spending the night at the campsite at Granite Park or the Granite Park Chalet. It’s rolling ups and downs the first day and mostly downhill the second day, and one of the most scenic hikes in the park for its entire distance. (There’s a shuttle service operating between Many Glacier and the St. Mary Visitor Center, where you can catch one of the park’s shuttle buses back to Logan Pass.) If you have the energy for it, the side hike to Grinnell Glacier Overlook (adding 1.2 miles and a steep 1,000 vertical feet up and down) on the first day brings you to a spectacular viewpoint.

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Granite Park Chalet, on the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.

Granite Park Chalet, on the Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.

Add a third day to that trip by taking an out-and-back dayhike from Granite Park north on the Highline Trail, as far as you feel like going, and spend another night at Granite Park. The trail stays above treeline for more miles than you’re likely to walk on a dayhike, with long views of the mountains. If you’re up for a nine-mile, round-trip hike, which doesn’t have much elevation gain and loss, you can reach 7,100-foot Ahern Pass, high above Helen Lake and looking down the Belly River Valley. From Ahern Pass, if you walk about 10 minutes off-trail up the southeast ridge of 8,749-foot Ahern Peak (it’s not very hard), you’ll get an even more dramatic view of the glacial cirque below Ahern Peak.

If any of you are feeling really energetic and adventurous, from Ahern Pass, if you look closely you’ll see an unofficial trail (a “use path” created by hikers, but not maintained by the park) leading east-northeast, steeply uphill; it ends at an airy notch in the cliffs high above Iceberg Lake. From Ahern Pass, simply backtrack on the Highline Trail to Granite Park.

The Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.

The Highline Trail, Glacier National Park.

Another very worthy side hike on that Granite Park trip is 8,436-foot Swiftcurrent Mountain, a steep climb on a trail of 1,250 feet in 1.4 miles from Swiftcurrent Pass, leading to one of the best 360-degree panoramas in the park. You could do this on the day you hike from Granite Park to Many Glacier, or do it as a shorter dayhike on the middle day of a three-day trip, returning to spend that second night at Granite Park.

Watch for mountain goats and bighorn sheep along the Highline Trail and at Swiftcurrent Pass; you’re more likely to see wildlife if you start out earlier than most hikers. From Swiftcurrent Pass, you’ll descend east into a glacial cirque where waterfalls pour off towering cliffs, and eventually end up in the flatter terrain of the Swiftcurrent valley. The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail ends in the parking lot adjacent to the Swiftcurrent Motel, where you could have rooms waiting; its restaurant is a pretty good pizza and pasta joint.


You can find more photos from these trails and information in my stories “5 Perfect (Big) Days in Glacier National Park” and in all of my stories about Glacier and Ask Me posts about Glacier, which are also listed on my All National Parks Trips page.

You may also want to read my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit” and this Ask Me post with tips on getting the Gunsight Pass Trail permit specifically, and scroll through my Ask Me pageAll Trips pagesskills stories, and gear reviews for answers to any other questions.

Thanks for writing and for following my blog.


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—Michael Lanza

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