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Top 10 hikes in Glacier National Park

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Top 10 hikes in Glacier National Park

Each year nearly three million people visit Glacier National Park in Montana to enjoy some of its 740 miles of hiking trails. Most visitors keep within the trails of Going-to-the-Sun Road but some venture further into the wild, traipsing through alpine meadows, dense woodland and backcountry roads. Glacier offers a range of trails for all ages and experiences, starting with easy day hikes that are as pleasant as a walk in the woods to more strenuous multi-day trails to challenge experienced hikers.

One of the park’s biggest draws is wildlife viewing. Glacier has one of the highest grizzly bear populations in the country but it’s also great for spotting lynx, mountain lions, goats, wolves, moose, bighorn sheep and more than 260 bird species. It’s up there with nearby Yellowstone in terms of scenery with pristine glacier-fed lakes, steep mountain peaks and meadows that burst with paintbox-colored wildflowers in summer. If you’re planning to visit but don’t know where to start, here’s a guide to the top 10 hikes in Glacier National Park.

1. Highline Trail

Great classic hike

Difficulty: moderate | Distance: 11.6 miles | Duration: 7½ hours one way

A Glacier classic, the Highline Trail contours across the face of the famous Garden Wall to Granite Park Chalet — one of two historic lodges only accessible by trail. The summer slopes are covered with alpine plants and wildflowers while the views are nothing short of stupendous. With only 800ft elevation gain over 7.6 miles, the treats come with minimal sweat. The trail presents stunning early views of Going-to-the-Sun Road, snowcapped Heaven’s Peak and the white foaming waters of 500ft Bird Woman Falls.

From Granite Park you have four options: you can retrace your steps back to Logan Pass; continue along the Continental Divide to Goat Haunt (22 miles); head for Swiftcurrent Pass and the Many Glacier Valley (7 miles); or descend to the Loop (4 miles), where you can pick up a shuttle bus to all points on Going-to-the-Sun Road. To get there, take the Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle or car. Start at Logan Pass Visitor Center and finish at The Loop. This trail has restrooms, drinking water and a ranger station.

Scenic views of Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park © Getty Images/iStockphoto

2. Dawson-Pitamakam Loop

Great for camping and spotting grizzly bears

Difficulty: difficult | Distance: 18.8 miles | Duration: 8 hours round-trip or drawn out as a multi-day trip

This lengthy hike can be squeezed into a one-day itinerary if you’re fit and up for it. Alternatively, it can be tackled over two or three days with sleepovers at the No Name Lake and Oldman Lake backcountry campgrounds (permit required). Blessed with two spectacular mountain passes and teeming with myriad plant and animal life, this is often touted by park rangers as being one of Glacier’s hiking highlights.

As the hike is a loop, you have a choice of two routes. Progressing clockwise and tackling Dawson Pass first packs the 3000ft elevation gain into one sharp segment. Head anticlockwise and the same ascent is more drawn out. Walking clockwise, you’ll be entering prime grizzly-bear country (rangers have actually used it as a study area), so be on guard and make plenty of noise. To get there, take the East Side shuttle or car. This trail has restrooms, drinking water and a ranger station.

3. Sun Point to Virginia Falls

Great for families and picnics

Difficulty: easy | Distance: 7 miles | Duration: 4 hours round-trip

Handily served by the free park shuttle, myriad trailheads along the eastern side of Going-to-the-Sun Road offer plenty of short interlinking hikes, a number of which can be pooled together to make up a decent morning or afternoon ramble.

If you take the busy St Mary Falls Trail, you’ll climb undemanding switchbacks through the trees to the valley’s most picturesque falls, set amid colorful foliage on St Mary River. It’s approximately 7 miles round-trip to Virginia Falls and back. The easy hike takes about four hours. To get there, take the Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttler or a car. This trail has restrooms and picnic sites.

Family on the shore of Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park
Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park © Getty Images

4. Avalanche Lake Trail

Great hike for all ages

Difficulty: easy-to-moderate | Distance: 4 miles | Duration: 2½ hours round-trip

This low-commitment introduction to Glacier hiking pays big dividends in the form of a pristine alpine lake, waterfalls and cascades. The 2.3-mile hike is relatively gentle and easily accessed by the shuttle. It’s, therefore, invariably mobbed in peak season with everyone from flip-flop-wearing families to stick-wielding seniors making boldly for the tree line.

The 4.6-mile round-trip trail starts on Going-to-the-Sun Road and follows the paved Trail of the Cedars to a signposted three-way junction where you’ll head right. At Avalanche Lake, relax on the lakeshore (there’s a pit toilet nearby) with a pair of binoculars, keeping a lookout for birds and other wildlife, before heading back down. While the walk might be mellow, you still should be prepared with bottled water, layered clothing and bear spray. To get there, take the Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle or car. This trail has restrooms, drinking water and picnic sites.

5. Iceberg Lake Trail

Great for families and swimming

Difficulty: easy-to-moderate | Distance: 9 miles | Duration: 4½ hours round-trip

Deservedly, one of the most popular of Glacier’s hikes, this 9-mile there-and-back takes you to the eponymous deep glacial cirque surrounded by 914m vertical walls. The sight of icebergs floating in the lake’s still waters in the middle of summer is breathtaking. It’s not unusual to see a few brave or foolhardy souls take a plunge. Bears are often sighted on this trail, so check at the ranger station before setting out and take all of the usual precautions.

Starting steeply, the trail packs most of its elevation gain into the first few miles. The ascent above Many Glacier Valley is fairly gentle and the approach is mostly at or above the tree line, affording awesome views and passes meadows filled with wildflowers. To get there, take the East Side shuttle or car. This trail has restrooms, drinking water, and picnic sites.

Couple enjoying the view in Glacier National Park
Views of Grinnell Lake © Getty Images/iStockphoto

6. Grinnell Glacier Trail

Great for views and lake cruises

Difficulty: difficult | Distance: 10.6 miles | Duration: 5-7 hours

This relatively strenuous trail takes you to the emerald waters of Grinnell Lake, passing Swiftcurrent and Josephine lakes along the way. Depart from Many Glacier Hotel, where you have the option to put your feet up and take a ferry service across the lakes, shortening your hike by about 7 miles. Or start from the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead.

The first two miles are pleasant and level but the trail gets a bit more difficult beyond the lakes. As you climb you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of Grinnell Lake and Angel Wing, before venturing further up to Upper Grinnell Lake, Salamander Glacier and Grinnell Glacier. To get there, take the Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle. This trail has restrooms, drinking water and picnic sites.

7. Piegan Pass

Great for wildlife, glacier views and wildflowers

Difficulty: moderate-difficult | Distance: 12.8 miles | Duration: 6 hours

A popular hike among Glacier stalwarts, this trail starts on Going-to-the-Sun Road at a handy shuttle stop on Siyeh Bend just east of Logan Pass and deposits you in Glacier’s mystic heart, Many Glacier, with transport connections back to St Mary or even Whitefish. It also bisects colorful Preston Park, one of the region’s prettiest and most jubilant alpine meadows.

At the 4½-mile mark you’ll reach Piegan Pass on a saddle between Piegan Mountain and Mt Pollock. Some people turn around and retrace their steps here, but the savvy descend on the pass’s north side to Cataract Creek in the Many Glacier Valley. To get there, take the Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle or car. This trail has backcountry campsites.

Fall Colors at Redrock Lake in the Swiftcurrent area of Glacier National Park
Fall colors at Redrock Lake in Glacier National © Getty Images/iStockphoto

8. Swiftcurrent Pass Trail

Great for wildlife

Difficulty: moderate-difficult | Length: 7.2 miles | Duration: 6 hours one way

This popular trail can be linked up with the Loop or Highline Trails to make an arduous one-day, or slightly less arduous two-day, hike. After meandering through the Many Glacier Valley, this 7.2-mile trail climbs up to the Continental Divide and passes waterfall vistas, Redrock Lake and Bullhead Lake. The switchbacks are numerous and the path – precariously cut into the side of the mountain – can be vertiginous.

At the Divide, those still with energy can go for the real glory, ascending another 1.2 miles to Swiftcurrent Lookout, offering one of the park’s most tower-topping views. Returning to the pass, head the final 1 mile down to the Granite Park Chalet for a welcome rest (remember to book ahead if you wish to stay overnight) or to link up with other trails. To get there, take the East Side shuttle or car. This trail has restrooms, drinking water and a ranger station

9. Hidden Lake Overlook Trail

Great for families

Difficulty: easy-to-moderate | Distance: 3 miles | Duration: 2 hours round-trip

For many Glacier visitors, this relatively straightforward hike is the one occasion in which they step out of their cars and take a sniff of the sweet-scented alpine air for which the area is famous. Starting at the busy Logan Pass Visitor Center, the hike ascends gradually along a raised boardwalk (with steps) through expansive alpine meadows replete with monkey-flower and pink laurel. Rain or shine, this trail is a hit with everyone – from adventurous toddlers to spry septuagenarians.

Just before you reach the overlook itself, you cross the Continental Divide – probably without realizing it – before your first stunning glimpse of deep-blue Hidden Lake (and a realization of what all the fuss is about). Hearty souls continue on to Hidden Lake. To get to the trail, take Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle or car. This trail has restrooms, drinking water and a ranger station.

A young girl hikes over a suspension bridge in Glacier National Park, Montana.
Crossing the suspension bridge at Glacier National Park © Getty Images/Aurora Open

10. Gunsight Pass Trail

Great for wildlife, fall colors and camping

Difficulty: moderate-to-difficult | Distance: 20 miles | Time: 2 days

This two-day 20-mile sojourn (doable in either direction) into Glacier’s backcountry offers tremendous views, including of glaciers clinging high on ridges and spectacular alpine lakes with abundant wildlife. It also affords you the opportunity to stay in the park’s historic Sperry Chalet. Truly bionic hikers knock out the trail in one day, but with copious snowfields, glaciers and lakes to marvel at, two days might be more appropriate.

Highlights of day one include crossing the suspension bridge above St Mary River and the vistas from Gunsight Pass and Lincoln Pass . While day two brings you the mossy forest of cedar, hemlock, grand fir, larch and yew that leads to Going-to-the-Sun Road. To get there, take the Logan Pass shuttle or car. This trail has backcountry campsites.

Permits: You do not need a permit to day-hike the park’s trails, but overnight backpackers do need one (May to October only). Half of the permits are available on a first-come, first-serve basis from the Apgar Backcountry Permit Center, St Mary Visitor Center and the park’s ranger stations. The other half can be reserved in advance online.

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Source : Lonelyplanet

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