Ask Me: Where to Backpack For Solitude in Glacier National Park
Thank you for such a comprehensive site. It is a joy to read and inspires so many travel dreams! I was pouring over all your entries on Glacier but I still have a remaining question. A friend and I just decided to go to Glacier in mid-September and would like to do a backpacking trip for two, or perhaps three nights. We would appreciate something beautiful, somewhat challenging, but most of all, solitude. It seems we are quite late to get a reservation on top trails and it seems like a good opportunity to take a much less traveled trail for a few nights. I am just having a hard time finding one. Do you have any suggestions?
We are both fairly fit and have done overnights in the Pacific NW. I live in Berlin, though I am originally from Seattle.
Thank you very much!
All the best,
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As you know, Glacier National Park, like all national parks, limits the number of people in the backcountry, and most available permits do get snapped up for the summer by spring; it’s best to submit a permit reservation application by March 15 for up to eight people, or by March 1 for a group of nine to 12 people. You should read my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.” Given there’s only two of you, you could get a walk-in permit for a variety of areas of the park the day before you want to start hiking. This page at the park’s website provides up-to-date campsite availability. My story “How to Get a Last-Minute, National Park Backcountry Permit” offers tips on doing that.
Complete solitude is somewhat rare because most available permits get used, but you can walk for hours, even on more popular trails (that are farther from trailheads) and see few or no people. Going in mid-September means you’ll probably see fewer people than in July or August, too.
My suggestions below all make solitude a priority; every one of these hikes will have Glacier-caliber natural beauty and the chance of seeing wildlife.
1. The first backpacking trip I did in Glacier was a point-to-point hike from Bowman Lake to Kintla Lake in the park’s northwest corner, via Brown Pass and Boulder Pass. I rode my mountain bike between the trailheads instead of arranging a vehicle shuttle (I recall it being less than an hour from Kintla downhill to Bowman). It’s a beautiful hike in a less-accessible corner of the park.
2. Get a shuttle (http://ift.tt/2tLxb0m) from Many Glacier to the Chief Mountain customs station on the Canadian border, and hike from there up the Belly River Trail and Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail back to Many Glacier; awesome trip, two to three days. Get to Helen Lake if you have time, and camp there if you can; the trail dead-ends there, so you could have the place to yourself, and the lake sits in a deep mountain cirque below the soaring cliffs of Ahern Peak. Even though Iceberg Lake is a popular dayhike, make the short side trip out to it, it’s well worth the time and putting up with the crowds (although there should be fewer people in September).
3. Take the free park shuttle bus to The Loop, west of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and hike from there north on the less-traveled Flattop Mountain Trail, then return south on the Highline Trail to finish either at The Loop or go all the way to Logan Pass; I’d do the latter, but it may take four days rather than three. The Highline is popular, but the farther out on it you are, the fewer hikers you’ll see (except in camps), and it’s hands-down one of the most spectacular trails in the park. (The lead photo at the top of this story was taken on the Highline Trail just north of the Fifty Mountain backcountry campground.) Plus, you’re going at a quieter time of year.
4. Accessible, very scenic areas like Lake McDonald, Many Glacier, Logan Pass, St. Mary, and Two Medicine attract the most hikers, including dayhikers. While I have not hiked in the very southern part of the park, I expect any of the loop hikes that are possible from Summit/Marias Pass or Walton on US 2 get far fewer backpackers than better-known areas of the park. If solitude is your primary goal, go someplace you don’t read any articles about.
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Keep in mind that you could certainly see a snowstorm in mid-September. Check the forecast before you head out, and have warm clothes, a warm bag, and a good tent. Snow at that time of year tends to melt away as soon as the sun comes out again, but be ready for any weather. And I always carry pepper spray in grizzly country.
See all of my stories about Glacier National Park, including all my Ask Me posts about Glacier and my feature stories about a 90-mile backpacking trip in northern Glacier and my family’s three-day backpacking trip on Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail (which is one of my top 10 favorite backpacking trips) and my favorite, long dayhikes in Glacier.
Have a great trip. Thanks for writing, let me know how it goes.
Thank you so much for your email! I really appreciate it. You are putting so much good energy out in the world! I was just doing a backpacking trip in the Carpathians in Romania. It was so very beautiful, and I am even more excited for Glacier!
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