Backpacking Glacier Park

Amy Silbernagel McCaffree

Hiking two miles an hour into the wilderness with forty pounds on your back creates its own type of Zen state. And the most pure way to explore Glacier National Park (GNP), in Montana, is by venturing into its backcountry. Only a five-hour drive from Spokane to West Glacier, GNP is not for the casual backpacker. There are over 700 miles of trails, drowning is the number one cause of death in the park, and you must view the National Park Service’s 14-minute video on bears, mountain lions and personal safety before receiving a backcountry permit.

To start planning your Glacier trip, first go to the park’s Web site: I also recommend consulting a guidebook to help plan the most enjoyable backpacking route for everyone in your group. We used Vicky Spring’s Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park (Second Edition), published by Mountaineers Books in 2003.

Applications for advanced backcountry campground reservations are accepted starting April 15, with a $30 fee. Although this is recommended to get your most desired campsites (there are only about 4-5 sites per campground), a permit can also be obtained 24 hours in advance since about half of the sites are kept available for walk-ins. Regardless of when you get your permit, there is a $5 visitor fee per person, per day. If you want to drive through the park, you’ll also need a $25 vehicle permit, good for seven days.

The National Park Service divides Glacier Park into eight different backcountry areas: Belly River, Goat Haunt, Many Glacier, Lake McDonald, North Fork, St. Mary, Two Medicine and Walton. (Spring’s guidebook categorizes them somewhat differently.) My husband and I chose the Belly River, located in the northeast section of the park, which is primarily accessed from the Chief Mountain Trailhead—located only 500 feet from the Canadian border off Chief Mountain International Highway (Hwy 17). When the higher elevation trails like the Ptarmigan Tunnel or Redgap Pass are accessible, you can also hike to the Belly River area starting from Many Glacier.

To reach the east side of the park, you can drive from West Glacier to St. Mary along the über-scenic and historic Going-to-the-Sun Road. But be aware that traffic during peak tourist season (July and August) is slow and often bumper-to-bumper. Because the pass wasn’t yet open when we visited in June this year, we drove around the perimeter of the park on Highways 2, 49 and 89 to St. Mary Lake, only an additional 39 miles from West Glacier.

Any of the drive-in campgrounds would make for a good stop the night before a backpacking trip. We chose the Rising Sun Campground, which was closest to our trailhead (although still 43 miles away). Day one in the backcountry consisted of hiking 8.8 miles to our first destination, Cosley Lake Campground. The first two miles of the trail descend 800 feet to the river valley then pass through aspen groves and grassy meadows with views of Chief, Gable, Sentinel and Bear Mountains.

When we got to the Gable Creek Camp at 6.2 miles, where many backpackers choose to stay their first night, we turned at the junction to cross the Belly River suspension bridge. Although most trail junctions we encountered were well marked, it’s best to equip yourself with a map and compass (and even a GPS).

Each of Glacier’s backcountry campgrounds have the same basic layout: a designated food preparation area that all campers must use, a food storage area consisting of a cable strung between trees (each group is required to carry 25 feet of rope for hanging food and other odiferous items), a pit toilet, and a limited number of marked tent sites. (Some campgrounds have food storage lockers because of flying squirrels.)

Summer days are long at Glacier, especially in June when it only gets dark enough for a headlamp around 10:45 p.m. (MDT). We slept well and ate even better, thanks to the delicious, easy-to-make meals from As far as wildlife encounters, mule deer, birds and ground squirrels were the most common animals seen along the trails and at campgrounds.

Day two was a 5.8-mile trek from Cosley Lake Campground to Elizabeth Lake, where we had reservations at the head campground. The trail requires fording the river at the ranger-named “Cosley Lake Outlet Safety Cable.” We were expecting a knee-deep crossing, but the cold, swift-moving flow was nearly four feet deep at one point, rising to our mid-torsos.

Day three included some lake fly-fishing at a cove protected from the strong wind. Arctic grayling and rainbow trout were busy there, making for a productive hour of catch and release. After completing the 5.1 mile hike to the green and lush Gable Creek Campground (completing more or less a loop from this point on day one), we savored the panoramic views from the meadow at the Belly River Ranger Station – the residence of a husband-wife ranger pair this summer.

Day four was a six-mile hike out, for a trip total of 25.7 miles. And a seven-hour drive later, we were home in Spokane, planning our next trip to Glacier for some more backcountry bliss.

When You Go:

THE MOST DIRECT driving route from Spokane is I-90 east to Exit 33/St. Regis. Turn left onto Highway 135, heading northeast. Follow the network of two-lane highways to Kalispell. Then take Highway 2 to Columbia Falls and continue to West Glacier.

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