Favorite things in and around Glacier National Park
- Alpine meadows filled with wildflowers
- View of the Grinnel Glacier from the Grinnel Glacier viewpoint
- Huckleberry Ice-cream at the east visitor center
- Barbecue in Kalispell
- Drive along ‘Going-to-the-sun’ road with views of Lake McDonald
Rightly called the Crown of the Continent, the Glacier National Park sits atop the country, capped in white, boasting of some of the largest and most magnificent glaciers in continental America, and with a landscape that is so varied that breathtaking in almost every trail one decides to hike.
Day 1 – Avalanche Trail (moderate, 5.6 miles length)
We reached the Glacier National Park early afternoon after a long drive from Seattle.. so we were looking to experience the park immediately, but with an easy trail. The Avalanche trail was the perfect way to start.
The Avalance trail starts out with an easy trail called the Trail of the Cedars, that is wheelchair accessible, and just a short distance east of the magnificent lake McDonald. (by the way, Lake McDonald, is such a central feature of the park – we literally drove past this beauty each morning and evening as we drove in and out of the park on the ‘Going-to-the sun’ road, which is another beauty and engineering marvel altogether). From the Trail of the Cedar, we continued to walk on the Avalanche trail, and at about 1.1 mile, we come upon the Avalanche creek. We walk along this creek for almost the entirety of the trail, and the creek gushes along with us. What a way to start exploring this beautiful park. The creek is a magnificent blue – a shade that I’ve never seen before in many spots where it collects into little pools. But for the most part, it crashes and gushes to make lovely white foams.
At 2.3 miles, we reach the foot of the Avalanche lake – which actually takes my breath away, simply because I was not expecting to see something so beautiful! The lake sits beneath the BearHat mountain, which is a commanding presence in that serene location. We just sit on the shore, overcome by the colors, the beauty, the serenity and the majesty of the mountains. A lot of other hikers are similarly mesmerized. After about 45 minutes of soaking it all in, we head back another 2.3 miles, along the creek, which has not stopped singing to us and telling us stories of the years gone by…
Day 2 – Highline Trail (difficult, 11.2 miles length)
We parked our car early at the Logan Pass car park. The Logan pass in a significant landmark in continental America – the great continental divide. As wikipedia describes it, it is the mountain range that divides the continent into two halves – geographically determining which way a drop of rain should flow. A drop of water falling a fist away could mean it is on its way either to the Hudson bay, the Pacific ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, via the various water streams that lead up to these great water bodies. How significant is that! And here we are, skirting this great divide, bumping along it for approximately 11 miles. The Logan Pass is an imaginary line along the Highland trail.
The trailhead begins just across the big Logan Pass sign, at an elevation of 6646 feet, and the first impression of the trail is one of pure terror. At about the first quarter of a mile, is the famous ledge that the Highline trail is known for – a narrow slippery section that is leaning over a steep cliff. Just the idea of what a fall means, makes my feet loose all their grip on the ground. Luckily, the thick rope lets me hang on it, and we start out. The narrow ledge lasts a short distance (maybe 3/10 of a mile) and I think the start sets the tone for what the trail needs – tenacity and an extreme love for nature that will make you endure the distance.
The entire trail after that is one of scenic wonder and spectacular views – every inch of the way. On the left, the entire valley sprawls and mountains patched with snow, and on the right, is the Garden Wall – rightly called so. Wildflowers abound! Yellow, purple, pink, red, blue, white, shades in-between. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and i find myself wishing for a garden as colorful as this one. All along, panoramic views of the glacial valley sprawls in front of us. Its amazing to think that all of this was a glacier at some point, and as the ice melted over millions of years, it carved this beautiful fertile valley. And even now, the landscape is changing. What a few generations later will behold is not what I am seeing today on the trail. That is a very humbling thought.
At about 3.5 miles, after a few switchbacks, which leaves me dizzy from an unstoppable exhilaration of majestic views, we have a companion. A fuzzy, shaggy mountain goat that makes it his mission to lead us on the trail. I almost want to hug him, but I realize he is not my domestic german shepherd who loves a cuddle, although the same size. We usually surround ourselves with animals – dogs and cats. But to be in close proximity of an animals out in the wild, is something else. It is primitive, and it is humbling. He stays with us a little short of a quarter mile, before parting ways.
Just around this mileage is also the Haystack Pass – which has a thick layer of ice as we cross it, careful with our footing. This pass makes for a fantastic break in the scenery. At the 7 mile mark, we reach the Garden Wall trail, and at this point, we have the option to embark on an insanely steep climb to view the famous Grinnel Glacier and the Salamander Glacier. The climb is approximately 1000 feet, and covered in about 7/10 of a mile. Our legs scream, and our heart rates are flying off the guage on our apple watch. Yet, slowly but surely, we get on top. It is absolutely worth every labored breath. The view is stunning! We stand atop a peak and can see Salamander glacier directly below us, and Grinnel glacier on our right. Right below it, is a serene alpine lake, formed by melting ice from the glaciers. If the walk did not, the wind at the top beats the breath out of our noses and lungs – it whips us around. Despite all that, we sit and gaze… at the beauty that nothing else I’ve ever seen comes close to. It’s easy to sit there – on top of the world, and just melt away into the nothingness that I always feel, when I behold such intense beauty. The wind kept us in check though.
We make our way back down, which in my opinion is a scarier feat, especially if one is afraid of heights. The small pieces of rock are racing with me and as I see them slide down way faster than me, my heart is constantly skipping beats. Back at the Garden Wall trailhead, we turn right, and continue on the Highline trail.
Just a little further, maybe about half mile from the trailhead junction, we reach the Granite Park trail junction. At this point, we find ourselves the first view of the famous Granite Park chalet, which is a small wooden cabin built in 1914 as a lodge inside the glacier. Now it just sells some snacks and has restrooms. For a 11 mile hike, 7.6 miles is still only a little over half-way there. But just the view is motivation to carry on. As we reach the chalet, we decide to use the restrooms and sit to catch our breaths as we bite into apples and protein bars. Squirrels are friendly and try to steal trail mix nuts instead of foraging from the trees. After allowing our feet to rest a bit, we continue on the trail towards ‘Going-to-the-sun-road’.
The Highline trail, this section called the Granite Park trail continues on, and the view is now dominated by the Heavens Peak, amidst pine forests. Our legs are screaming for rest, and our feet have gone numb after much protest. But we continue to talk loudly and clap our hands, since the sings for ‘bear habitat’ is a constant reminder of where we are. At 11.2 miles, we spot the road, and at 11.4 miles, the shuttle stop. I run to it, and sit to wait for the next shuttle that will take us back to the Logan pass car park. Right in front of me, Heavens Peak looms, applauding and dominating. I am beat, humbled, exhausted, exhilarated… that amazing concoction of emotions only after a beautiful long hike. Nothing can take that away.
Day 3 – Iceberg Trail (difficult, 9.7 miles length)
The Iceberg Trail is on the east side of the park, which means we needed to enter through the St.Mary visitor entrance, and get on to the Going-to the sun road. This road goes across the entire park, and we could have done that from the west entrance which was closer to where we were staying (in kalispell). But it would have meant an extra hour of driving due to the restricted speed. So instead, we drove outside the park, to get to the East entrance.
The trailhead to the Iceberg trail is very close to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn near the St.Mary Visitor Center, which is where we parked. The trail starts out in the midst of a cedar forest (which is what covers most of the park). This trail is known for its grizzly presence, and so we either try to stay with a group of hikers, or make noise while walking. At about 2 miles, we come upon the famed Ptamirgan Falls, and the trail cuts across these falls in a switchback. The section that cuts across is smooth eroded rock and makes for a brief sit-down or just some pictures. Continuing on, at about 3 miles into the hike, the forest opens up and we get our first view of what could possible be our destination. The next couple of miles has some of the best views on the trail. The wildflowers are intense at this time of the year, and there are waterfalls just about everywhere I turn my head to look. It’s just stunningly beautiful.
At about the 4 mile mark, as we get closer to our destination – which is the Iceberg Lake, we see peeks of the a serene blue, and chunks of ice on the wall of the lake. The remaining trail approaching the lake cuts through the most incredible alpine meadow full of wildflowers – of every color imaginable. It is just fantastic, and again, I find myself having an existential crisis. I find that I often get into this kind of wonderment when surrounded by such blissful nature. The flowers mesmerize me and I find myself unmoving for a while…
At 4.7 miles, we reach Iceberg Lake, and it has the capability of stopping you mid-sentence. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The Lake sits below Mt. Wilbur to the north, and Iceberg Peak and the Continental Divide on the left. The Lake receives little sunshine, therefore allowing for large chunks of iceberg to remain unmelted.. giving the lake its charm. We sit at the shore of the lake, nibbling on an apple, but mostly inhaling the beauty of the place. Shortly into our reverie, we hear a deep rumbling sound… I jump up thinking it may be an earthquake or something.. but no! It was a large chunk of ice, loosing up from the west wall of the lake, and crashing into the lake, with a pound thundering sound. The incident created intense water ripples across the lake.. what a simple, yet incredible event to witness! Again and again, I find myself extremely humbled by the powers that nature can have over me.
This is a view that makes it very difficult to turn back to go.. But at some point we have to. So after a good hour of soaking all this beauty in, we head back on the same trail.
About halfway along the trail, we encounter a small group of hikers coming our way, warning us that they spotted 2 grizzly cubs, a few yards ahead. Oh my god! This is a dream come true, yet the scariest experience for a hiker. I’m trembling with fear and excitement at the same time as we cautiously walk the few yards ahead.. making noise with thumping feet and talking loudly. We also try to catch up to a couple of hikers ahead of us to make sure we were in a group. And sure enough, to our left, we saw 2 grizzly cubs!! About 30 feet away from us. With trembling hands, I positioned my iPhone camera while continuing to walk at the same time, not daring to stop walking. And just as a clicked, one cub looked directly at me! I wanted to scream ‘thank you!’ but my mind was trying to imagine what mama grizzly would do if she found out what I was doing.. So we continued to quickly walk. For the rest of the trail, we continued to talk loudly, but thanking our luck for having seen these lovely creatures so close to us. What a humbling experience!! Comes close to nothing else.
Day 4 – Siyeh Pass Loop (difficult, 10.4 miles length)
This is not as popular as the Highline trail or the Iceberg trail, but in my opinion, this one has some of the best views and not as heavily trafficked as the other trails. It has an underestimated beauty about it, and frankly one of my favorite hikes of all time.
The trailhead is at the Siyeh Bend, which is 2.2 miles away from the Logan Pass visitor center. We park our car at the Logan pass car park, and take a shuttle to the Siyeh Bend trailhead on Going-to-the-sun road. The trail is supposed to be teeming with bear activity, and all the signs at the trailhead warn us to carry bear spray. Considering the previous day’s experience at the Iceberg trail, we will never take these signs lightly ever again!
The trail starts out along the Siyeh creek, and at about 1.1 miles, we arrive at the Piegan Pass Trail junction, at which point we keep left to continue on the Siyeh trail. At 2.7 miles from the trailhead, we reach the Siyeh Pass trail junction, after going through a dense cedar forest. A few yards ahead from the junction, it opens up to wonderful alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, called the Preston Park. The views are just fantastic here – the variety of wildflowers is unthinkable. However, this is the portion of the trail that is most frequented by bears.. so we are on the lookout with loud voices, thumping feet and some music as well. Till now, we haven’t seen any other hikers on this trail. So we are pretty much on our own. We pass by some purple poop on the trail, which is bear poop (after a hearty meal of huckleberry!).
As we walk along the trail cutting through Preston park, we were taken aback by the first friends we are seeing on the trail since we started. 4 horses with 1 rider!! They happened to be working on the trail up-keep and were returning from some trail repair work. Just one ranger on horseback, with 3 other horses trailing him with supplies. How fantastic!!
Continuing on, the meadows open up and we are dominated by views of the arresting Mt. Siyeh and Matahpi Peak. The Siyeh Pass is in between these two mountains. At about 3.5 miles on the trail, we cross the Siyeh creek again, and then shortly after, begin the ascent to Siyeh Pass. The final section consists of a series of switchbacks that climbs 700 feet in about 9/10ths of a mile, which is the toughest section of the entire hike. The views are breathtaking, but the climb takes away my breath even more. My Apple Watch tells me that my heart rate is at a whopping 164 bpm. I feel it ramming against my chest, yet I feel such thoughtlessness and intense serenity as we continue to climb. However, with still about half a mile to go from the top, I feel I cannot carry my bag anymore! I trudge on slowly, and the final switchbacks are dizzyingly beautiful, and roughly 4.5 miles into the trial, we reach the top of Siyeh Pass. As we get to the top, the wind beats against our ears. But the view is worth every sweat drop. The glacial valley – which is the Boulder Creek Vally, expands in front of us, and literally, every mountain peak in the valley is visible.
From the top, we decided to continue on the Siyeh Pass Trail, making it a one-way trail along the Sunrift Gorge. As we begin the descent, it is steep and marked by a series of switchbacks. We cover approximately 1500 feet in about 2.5 miles, and at this point, I’m so grateful that we decided to make this our descent from Siyeh Pass, instead of going up this way, which also could have been an option. However, as we climb down these crazy sets of switchbacks, we are commanded by a view of the Sexton Glacier to our right. The huge 68-acre glacier becomes even more dramatic in views as proceed down the trail.
At approximately 7.4 miles, the trail becomes a little more even, and find ourselves looking into St.Mary’s Lake. At about 8.8 miles, we climb down another short section of switchbacks, and just a little before w hit the 9 mile mark, we hear gushing water. We heard it well before we saw it. At 9.3 miles, we come upon the Baring Creek, which creates a beautiful waterfall in this section of the trail. The waterfall is so powerful that I feel little misty drops escaping from the waterfall and caressing my hot and flushed face. At 10,4 miles, we see the Going-to-the-sun road, and close enough is a shuttle stop. In humbled silence that always follows a long, difficult and beautiful hike, we wait for the shuttle, which then transports us back our parked car at the Logan Pass Visitor Center.
Day 5 evening – Hidden Lake Overlook Trail (easy, 2.7 miles length)
How could we not see the Hidden Lake in a visit to the Glacier National Park – which is the most photographed and featured landscape in this park?! so although our legs were screaming in defiance, we pushed them into obedience and into walking about 3 miles to witness the famed Hidden Lake.
After being dropped off at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, we allowed ourselves a brief rest, filled up our water bottles and stared out on the Hidden Lake trail, the trailhead is just adjacent to the visitor center. The trail is one of the most trafficked trail, and wheelchair friendly. The trail starts out with steps to a paved surface that then becomes a boardwalk for a short distance. Throughout the trail, we are surrounded by alpine meadows that about in wildflowers. Literally ever section of this trail is postcard worthy.
At 1.35 miles, we reach the Hidden Lake Overview, which offers astonishing views of the Hidden Lake and surrounding mountains. The Hidden Lake sits beneath the Bearhat mountain.. and has a mystical quality about it. Despite being surrounded by the crowds, nothing can diminish the serenity of the moment.
We walk back to our car, our legs numbed, but our souls more alive than ever.