Sunday Hikes: The Highline and Swiftcurrent Trails in Glacier NP

Josh and I wanted to do an “Epic Hike” again this year similar to our Grand Canyon hike last year.   Somewhere far away, beautiful, and at least 15 miles in length was our criteria.   We settled on Glacier National Park in Montana as our destination and chose to hike the Highline Trail from Logan Pass to the Granite Park Chalet and then through the Swiftcurrent Pass down the Swiftcurrent Trail to Many Glacier.

This hike presented some tactical difficulties in getting back to our vehicle.   This would be a one way hike leaving at Logan Pass in the center of Glacier NP and ending at Many Glacier which is 15.1 miles away on foot taking the most direct route and 39.4 miles apart by car.   After some research, were able to find a pay shuttle ($10/person) from Many Glacier to the St. Mary Visitor Center where we could hop on the free shuttle back to Logan Pass.   The catch was that the last shuttle from Many Glacier to St. Mary left at 445pm.    When arriving at St. Mary we would catch the last shuttle of the day from St. Mary to Logan Pass.

Partly because we were very excited and partly because we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss that last shuttle, we decided to wake up at 430am.   We were staying at the Fish Creek Campground on the west side of Glacier NP.   When the alarm went off, we hopped right up and packed up our campsite quickly.   Our campsite was very near Lake McDonald so we walked over to the lake to admire the stars as it was still very dark.   I was amazed to see that I could see the stars reflected in the lake and even pick out the Big Dipper constellation reflection.

Sunrise at Logan Pass

To go from Fish Creek to Logan Pass, you must take the famous Going to the Sun Road.   There was no traffic at this hour and despite the short distance (31.8 miles) it took about an hour to arrive at Logan Pass on the winding road.   As we waited for the sun to rise, we packed our backpacks and Josh brewed some coffee.   Along with a few other small groups of hikers we hit the trail at 6:46am.   We were wide eyed looking for the Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep that frequent this area.   We saw signs of the animals everywhere:   prints in the mud, scat, and even white fur but we never did see any of the goats or sheep.   From what I heard later it is almost impossible not to see them but we managed to do so.

The Highline Trailhead at Logan Pass

Typical views on the Highline Trail 

The Highline Trail follows along what is known as the Garden Wall, which is the highest part of Glacier NP.   The views were as breathtaking as you could imagine and our spirits were very high.   We would alternate between passing through fir trees and rocky areas.  About 2/3 of the way down the Highline Trail, we started seeing lots of Ptarmigan’s which are small fat birds the size of a chicken.   Mountain chickens we called them.  We also passed several deer.   Quicker than we could believe we could see the Granite Park Chalet in the distance.   We were excited for the great time we were making as we had outdistanced the other hikers that had started around the same time we had.

Our first views of the Granite Park Chalet off in the distance

Wildlife on the Highline Trail – deer and ptarmigan 

Shortly before arriving at the Granite Park Chalet, there is a spur trail called the Grinnell Glacier overlook trail.   It is only 1.2 miles round trip so we jumped at the chance to check it out.   Wow!  This trail goes straight up and it helps to channel your inner mountain goat to get to the top.   At the top though the view is amazing as you look down at Grinnel Glacier and two alpine glacier fed lakes with ice floating in the them.   You feel like you are on top of the world here.   After soaking in the view for a bit, we quickly descended back to the Highline Trail and a short .8 miles away we arrived at the Granite Park Chalet.

Grinnel Glacier overlook

The Granite Park Chalet is a swiss style chalet as this area was promoted originally as the Alps of America by the railroads.    You can stay here if you reserve way in advance, surprisingly it seemed to be mostly locals who had booked it up.   We thought about getting some drinks/snacks but the prices were nuts.   $5.50 for a water bottle for example.   Luckily we had brought plenty of supplies.  After checking the Chalet out, we then progressed up towards the Swiftcurrent Pass where Josh refilled his Lifestraw with snowmelt.

The Granite Park Chalet

Headed toward Swiftcurrent Pass

During this section of the hike we had our first occurrence of what I call “Trail Gossip”.   Trail Gossip is spread by backcountry hikers and probably has a kernel of truth in it, but as the day goes on the tale becomes more and more fantastic.

“Did you hear about the grizzly bear eating huckleberries down in the valley?”   This progressively turned into “Did you hear about the grizzly bear on the Swiftcurrent Trail?”  One lady advised us to “hurry down so we can see the grizzly bear also…..there has been two sightings just this morning.”   We marveled at their enthusiasm and continued on our way debating about whether we really wanted to see a grizzly or not.

As we then crossed through the Swiftcurrent Pass, we were astonished by the view on the other side.   We just stopped and soaked it in.   Josh decided to brew more coffee and we sat is mostly awed silence.   Off to the right, we could see the Grinnell Glacier from the opposite side with 3 waterfalls flowing down the mountain face feeding into a series of turquoise lakes that stretched through the valley as far as we could see.   Just astoundingly beautiful–a picture couldn’t do it justice.   A few hikers came through hurrying on their way to see the bear in the valley.

Panoramic view from Swiftcurrent Pass

Josh making coffee and soaking in the view

We could see the trail down below but we couldn’t see how in the world we were going to get down there without rappelling down the mountain.   The trail worked it’s way over towards the waterfalls and then had a very extensive series of switchbacks that brought us almost vertically down to the valley floor below.   As we entered into the valley, a couple of hikers asked, “did you hear about the grizzly bear that chased hikers down this trail this morning”.   We chuckled and listened as they discussed knowledgeably “when the grizzly wants the trail, you just have to give it to him.”

Snowmelt from Grinnel Glacier

We then passed through an area of trail that snaked through dense huckleberry bushes on both sides.   We could see the distinctly purple bear scat in the trail so I think that a bear had been hanging out here much of the day.   We didn’t see it though.

Prime Grizzly habitat 

The Swiftcurrent Trail feature beautiful clear blue lakes

The Swiftcurrent Trail in this area then goes right beside the first glacier fed lake.   It looked amazingly clear and it was getting hot enough that I considered taking a dip, but thought better of it.   Surprisingly, the trail veers away from the lakes the rest of the way in, although you can often hear rushing water off to your right.   This area was more wooded and as we got closer to Many Glacier, the more day hikers we came across.  We finally passed Swiftcurrent Lake and came up to the Many Glacier trailhead.   We had completed the total 16.4 miles and safely made the last shuttle by 90 minutes.   We grabbed a soft serve ice cream and waited in the air conditioning until some rookie hiker accidentally discharged his bear spray while talking to the ranger.   We all ended up outside then as they aired the building out.

The shuttle arrived a few minutes late, we enjoyed a lively crew as we motored down the rough road to St. Mary’s Visitor Center where we only had to wait about 15 minutes to get the free shuttle back up to Logan’s Pass.   We then drove back down the mountain to the St. Mary’s Campground where we wanted to quickly put up our tent and go searching for somewhere to eat dinner.  Unfortunately, the kind lady at St. Mary’s campground advised us that because of bear activity that we could not tent camp in the campground today.   She was able to refund our payment and recommended privately owned Duck Lake campground just outside the park which turned out to be a really nice place.

It was a long and rewarding day for sure.   I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.   Thanks for reading and I hope you get to take in the beautiful sights of Glacier NP soon.   rk

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