Glacier National Park: Highline Trail

There are so many hiking options in Glacier National Park that it was really hard for us to decide where to go the day after we got back from our backpacking trip. Since we didn’t have the dogs with us, we wanted to make sure we took full advantage of it and chose a day hike that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. And because Glacier is so big and we didn’t want to do a lot of driving, we were caught between staying in the Lake McDonald area or checking out Many Glacier, Two Medicine or Polebridge area – all of which had numerous hikes we wanted to do. To help make our decision we stopped by the visitor center. The ranger there was really helpful; she gave us several suggestions along with a really useful handout, “Day Hikes in Glacier” – ask for one when you’re at the park.

With the ranger’s help we decided on Highline Trail, a quintessential Glacier hike. Instead of going the popular way of starting at Logan Pass and hiking towards Granite Park Chalet and out the Loop trailhead, we did it in the opposite direction. The ranger recommended that direction because the section at the Loop gets really hot later in the day and there’s less downhill this way (Jerud and I both prefer climbing). The other plus of doing it in the suggested direction is that we got the first part of the trail pretty much all to ourselves, which wouldn’t have been the case if we hiked it the other way. She also highly recommended that we take the Grinnell Glacier overlook spur trail.

Our hike from the Loop trailhead was quiet with Heavens Peak (8,987 ft.) dominating the view across the valley. We pass four hikers right away as we steadily climbed up the trail through an old fire swept forest that was started by lightening back in 2003.

Opposed to our previous two days of trying to ward off any bears, we kept our fingers crossed and hoped that we could catch a quick glimpse of a bear. Our “hey bears” quieted, while being careful not to potentially startle any bears. But despite our crossed fingers we never did see one. Instead we saw numerous smaller sized wildlife animals: the ptarmigan that we just couldn’t keep up with going uphill, numerous Columbian ground squirrels with their mouths full of leaves and sticks, and several lazy hoary marmots. Towards the later half of our hike we saw a mountain goat with a tracking collar around its neck and at the end of our hike where the wire handrails are located, we saw a mama goat with her kid – surrounded by photographing hikers. Our hike ended with sightings of a herd of bighorn sheep up the side of the mountain across from the Logan Pass Visitor Center. A few were stuck in the parking lot, trying to navigate around parked and moving cars while herds of tourists were trying to photograph them. All the while a ranger was desperately trying to convey to these tourists the dangers of these animals.

Yes, even the furry hoary marmot can be dangerous.

The views after Granite Park Chalet on the trail were breathtaking. The views opened up and we could see mountains miles away along with lakes and a river snaking through the field below us. The wildflowers took over the landscape on each side of the trail, adding superb colors to the scenery. Seeing all this we understood why this is such a popular hike.

We realized when we arrived at the sign for Grinnell Glacier overlook that the ranger wasn’t lying when she said it would be a short but steep hike up the talus covered trail. There were only a handful of other hikers on the trail with us. Arriving at the gap at 7,520 ft., we looked below us to see The Salamander (glacier) several feet below our trail runners spreading down Garden Wall into Upper Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier.  The Continental Divide runs along the Garden Wall. Without having seen Grinnell Lake and Glacier from below, we still decided that this view without a doubt would beat the view from Grinnell Glacier trail. After sitting behind some rocks to block the wind while we ate lunch at this overlook, we decided to continue on the spur trail to see where it led or how far before it faded away. Turned out the spur trail continued around a peak to another gap along the Garden Wall. The view opened up a lot more from this second gap, enabling us to see the entirety of Grinnell Lake and Glacier, along with Lake Josephine, Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Sherburne that all sit northwest of Grinnell Lake. We also saw the start of Grinnell Glacier on Mt. Gould. And could see all the way out to Saint Mary Lake to the east, and Lake McDonald to the west, both sides of the continental divide.

Stunned by this unexpected view, we sat here mesmerized by the glacier patterns, solitude and wildness of the area.

When we finally decided to head back to the actual spur trail, we were so glad that we had the opportunity to appreciate the views in peace before the crowds arrived. While the rest of the way down Highline Trail was beautiful, it was constantly walking past hikers coming from the other direction.

Tips on Hiking Highline Trail:

  • We recommend starting from the Loop Trailhead because of all the reasons mentioned above.  Having minimal long stretches of downhill towards the end of our ~13 mile hike (11 miles without the spur trail and extra spur section we did) was a major plus for our knees. It’s pretty much a consistent downhill from Granite Park Chalet to the Loop Trailhead.
  • Another benefit of starting from the Loop trailhead is that you end at Logan Pass where the park buses that bring you back to Lake McDonald area are all empty so there’s less waiting to do unlike at the Loop trailhead where the bus is almost full by the time it gets there.
  • Utilizing the park’s public bus system is the way to do it. It’s free, you can nap on it after a long hike, and you save gas.
  • If you start from Apgar Visitor Center, get there at least 30 minutes before the first non-express bus arrives (the express bus doesn’t stop at the Loop trailhead).
  • If you plan to hike up the spur trail bring extra layers, it’s chilly up there with the wind.
  • We brought – and drank – 3-liters of water each and would have enjoyed some more (and I’m not typically much of a drinker).
  • Like most long hikes on a hot summer day, bring either some kind of drink that has flavor to it, like Skratch or Nuun, or some juicy fruit, like oranges.

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