Sunday Hikes: Highline and Swiftcurrent Trails

In late August 2017 Dad and I traveled to Glacier National Park for our “Epic Hike” of the year. We decided to hike about sixteen and a half miles from 6,647 foot Logan Pass along the Highline Trail and then cutting down to 4,500 foot Many Glacier as our ending point. Dad has already written his version of this hike (Dad’s Blog) but just like our Grand Canyon hike, we figured this hike is epic enough for two blogs.

We woke up early at 4:30AM in our Lake McDonald campground, packed up camp, looked at the stars, and headed off on our hour drive up to Logan Pass.


I snapped this blurry picture of the stars while dad put his contacts in.

On the drive up the mountains there was a lot of smoke from the nearby wildfires that consumed the mountains last fall. They had to evacuate the Lake McDonald Lodge a couple weeks after our visit thanks to these fires. The whole drive up I was keeping an eye out for deer, bighorns, and mountain goats but they eluded us in the dark forest. Once at Logan pass we double checked our packs and brewed some coffee before setting out on the Highline Trail.

logan pass


We started off on our hike as the sun was rising over the mountains in awe of the beauty the trail offered already. One of the first things I noticed was the clouds on the horizon that looked like wavy brush strokes of a painting in the sky.



Even in the first mile of the trail the views are insane, snow capped peaks, high granite cliffs, a sky that goes on forever, and valleys that sink down thousands of feet. Our eyes were peeled taking in the views and looking out for elusive mountain goats and bighorn sheep (both of which are notoriously seen on this trail, probably because the views are so great). In the first couple miles we saw so many signs of mountain goats (fur, tracks, and scat) that I was convinced we would run across one any second.




We crested a steep hill with many switchbacks and rested here for a moment to eat some breakfast. At the bottom of the hill we spotted a man hiking at a speedy rate and likened him to charlie the robot (from Scooby Doo Where Are You) because of the way he walked and how he kept a constant pace without stopping to take breath even once (like a robot). He passed us while we sat there eating peanut butter on a rock. We turned the corner to a whole new set of views, a pine forest directly below, some large creek or river flowing thousands of feet below, the snowy mountains looked bigger than ever. I wondered how many people had ever reached the peaks of these high mountains that seemed so inaccessible (although the garden wall we were on looks so high and lofty from below it was hard to imagine ourselves up there when looking up at the mountains later in the day).



All this was a little over halfway through the trail. Soon after we began to spot Ptarmigans all over the place. The high elevation chickens honestly don’t seem too impressive but they were the first Ptarmigans we had ever seen and the first wildlife of our trip (all the animals were playing a big prank and hiding from us I think). They hopped about and stared at us as we walked through the grassy hill that was their home.



This is where our first view of the Granite Park Chalet was (a backcountry primitive lodge, one of four chalets in Glacier NP). The Granite Park Chalet marked an unofficial halfway point for us as it was where we left the Highline Trail and began on the Swiftcurrent Trail through Swiftcurrent Pass, across the continental divide.


The Granite Park Chalet in the distance.


Big ol’ mountain across the valley.


A little critter that was hanging around the ptarmigan.

About a mile before the chalet there is a small spur trail that leads up to an overlook of Grinnell Glacier. Despite being a short .4 miles this was probably the most difficult section of trail because of how steep and gravelly the trail was. The trail ascended quickly giving way to more incredible views. Just before the end of the trail was Charlie the Robot sitting down and enjoying his lunch. He seemed much less robotesque now and was very friendly. He warned me that it was extremely windy atop the overlook and we chatted about our trips while waiting for dad to catch up. We hopped up to the top of the 7,510 foot garden wall and peeked down at the massive Grinnell Glacier and it’s iceberg lake. It was very windy but not as dramatic as Charlie had made it seem. This was the highest elevation we would reach that day. It was difficult to take pictures of the glacier because it was directly below us on the cliff.





We enjoyed the views and carried on down to the chalet. Just before reaching the chalet we spotted our first large animals of the trip! Deer! We took pictures of them and then continued on. The chalet was cool but didn’t have much to offer other than some more nice views from the front porch and a bathroom.





We left the chalet and hiked upwards through the Swiftcurrent Pass to the other side of the Garden Wall. I got a refill on water from some nice glacier fed ponds and we sat down on the trail to have a PB&J lunch. this is where we first heard the bear rumors. According to some hikers coming up from Many Glacier there was a large Grizzly on the trail. We thought “Oh cool it’d be great to see a bear!”. We kept hiking and we passed more hikers chatting about the bear. They said it had been chasing people up and down the trail. According to the man (I assume a bear scientist because of the authority and confidence in which he spoke about the bears motives) “You gotta get off the trail, the bear doesn’t want to eat you, it wants the trail!” I am not sure what a bear would want with a hiking trail or why it wouldn’t want a juicy human snack to go with it’s huckleberries but I wasn’t going to question the bear expert. We continued to hear bear rumors that kept getting a little bit more exciting each time. I think the last we heard there were two bears terrorizing hikers along the trail before getting on a plane for a bear retreat in Bali. We reached the end of Swiftcurrent Pass before the trail heads steeply downwards and opens up to the lakes below in the Many Glacier area. The view here was incredible and i immediately sat down to brew some coffee because a view this great needs some coffee to sip while you take it all in.


Grinnell Glacier.





Best cup of coffee ever.

After brewing and viewing we began the steep descent into the valley. There were very many switchbacks in the section that took us down quickly. The views of Grinnell Glacier were great and as we got lower than the glacier we saw waterfalls flowing from it down the cliffs. The view of the lakes in the valley stayed great until we reached the bottom and were in the trees and surrounded by huckleberry bushes.



Once we reached the bottom of our steep cliffside descent the trail was mostly flat and meandered alongside the lakes and through the huckleberry bushes. This is where the bears had supposedly been, but we missed them. The trail took us over a couple small bridges and past a cute little waterfall and the further we got, the more people we encountered. We reached the trailhead on the Many Glacier side and I couldn’t believe our hike was over already.




We carried our backpacks into the Many Glacier lodge where we waited on the shuttle that would take us back to our car. We looked around the gift shop and rested in the chairs in the lodge lobby. Dad decided to grab some ice cream from the gift shop and while he was gone I watched a tall man walk up to the counter to ask questions and then proceed to accidentally lean on his bear spray that for some reason the safety was off on and spray it all over the water fountain and not far from my face. After that he quickly snuck away and the entire lobby had to be emptied out for cleaning because of the bear spray. Dad and I took our ice cream and walked over to an area by the lakes and back before our shuttle finally arrived. We rode back up into the mountains aboard the shuttles and chatted with the bus driver who was very friendly and couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen any bighorn sheep and mountain goats on our hike because “they are always there”. We got back to our car and then went on to dinner and to find a campsite for the night.

Glacier National Park is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to and this hike is certainly one of my favorite hikes I have ever done! I look forward to the next time we get to visit Glacier and take in all the beauty it has to offer!

Thanks! – Josh

A Years Worth of National Park Wildlife

In the past year or so of blogging, Josh and I have been fortunate to see a lot of wildlife while visiting National Parks across the country. I thought I would share all of these in one place.

Frog in Death Valley NP

This friendly coyote tried to hitch a ride in Death Valley NP

Deer in Mammoth Cave NP

Turkey running afowl in Mammoth Cave NP

Postcard perfect Elk in Yellowstone NP

The blurry blob to the right of the letter E was an incredibly large porcupine

Bison in Yellowstone NP

This Roosevelt Elk in Olympic NP walked right down the trail towards me

Bighorn Sheep in Badlands NP

Bison in Waterton Lakes NP

This grizzly bear in Waterton Lakes NP was busy munching and never paid any attention to us

Deer in Great Sand Dunes NP

The Ptarmigan’s in Glacier NP were everywhere

This marmot posing in Grand Teton NP was our blog with the highest views all year

Black bear in Great Smoky Mountains NP

The jackrabbits in Joshua Tree NP were huge

This addax in Big Bend NP was making a huge racket

This deer was eating a banana peel by the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon NP

Tropical fish in Dry Tortugas NP

We didn’t get pictures of the moose in Rocky Mountain NP nor did we get a picture of an all too close encounter with a mountain lion in Joshua Tree NP.


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