Hiking Overview: Glacier-Waterton National Park

Glacier National Park, Montana

  • The new Glacier Park shuttle system makes for convenient trailhead access along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Plus, it means that day hikes don't have to mean loops and out-and-backs. Check with the park for schedules.
  • Take the 9.8-mile, round-trip hike to Iceberg Lake from the Swiftcurrent Inn near Many Glacier. The bluest of alpine lakes at trail’s end may or may not have icebergs, depending on the season.
  • The Quartz Lake loop from Bowman Lake Campground leads almost 13 miles from Bowman Campground in the northwest around and between the crystalline Lower, Middle, and Upper Quartz Lakes.
  • If you don't mind crowds, follow the boardwalk from the Logan Pass Visitor Center one and a half miles to the Hidden Lake Overlook. Then ditch the crowds and head another 1.5 miles down to the lake itself. Watch for exhibitionist mountain goats.
  • A 6.8-mile out-and-back along McDonald Creek shows off an old pack trail, peaceful rivers, exploding whitewater, and a couple of intense waterfalls.

More than 730 miles of trails through Glacier and 190 miles through Waterton provide many opportunities for both short hikes and extended backpacking trips. So get outta the car! Even a simple summer afternoon hike gives visitors glimpses of the park that scenic drives can't match.

Because Glacier/Waterton is so huge, a good way to get a handle on the different regions is to think about the Continental Divide. The area to the west of the Divide is an echo of the Pacific Northwest; it's rainier than the east side, and has a lower general elevation. The Lake McDonald area , as the western gateway to the park, is the most developed area. Hikes here are pleasant, but because of heavy forest, you'll catch very few views until you reach the treeline. The North Fork area to the north is particularly reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. Hikers can go for a long way along the forest floor before they can see above the treetops. The Southern Sector is a wild, seldom-visited part of the park. Hikes here tend to last for several days since hikers need to transverse at least seven miles of foothills to reach the peaks of the divide. This is a good area for horse packing. Trails frequently connect to the Two Medicine area on the other side.

East side of the Divide the land is drier and generally higher. It's perhaps typified by the Many Glacier area, which was originally developed as "America's Little Switzerland." Think soaring alpine peaks and crystalline lakes, especially Lake Sherburne. Two Medicine to the south of Many Glacier on the other side of the of the Hudson Bay Divide, features equally dramatic peaks, lakes, and waterfalls. North of Two Medicine, the St. Mary area is made very accessible via the Going-to-the-Sun Highway. This area has many services and facilities, as well as opportunties for casual hikes and lake boating.

Jumping back over Many Glacier, the Belly River Country is one of North America's great wilderness areas. This region is accessible only by trail. Hikers here find themselves surrounded by ridges covered with spruce and lodgepole pines, witnesses to abundant wildlife, especially on the valley floor where elk and deer forage. There is no Belly River Ranger Station. You must already have a permit before venturing into this area. The Highline and Waterton Lake area lies at the northern edge of Glacier, along the Continental Divide. Highline is closed to horse traffic from Logan Pass to Granite Park. This area offers short hikes and longer hikes into Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. On the map, Waterton looks more developed than Glacier (it even has a golf course!), but it is possible to get away from the development into country that is high and rugged and isolated.

Park concessioners offer shuttles for hikers. Rocky Mountains Transportation operates shuttles to all major trailheads on the Going-to-the-Sun Road from July 1 through Labor Day. Shuttle schedules are available at bus stops and visitor centers, or you can make reservations by calling 406-862-2539. Glacier Park, Inc., offers a morning Hiker's Shuttle from the Many Glacier Hotel to trailheads at Siyeh Bend, Logan Pass, and the Loop. Hikers should inquire at the Many Glacier hotel desk.


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