Chief Mountain Trailhead to Many Glacier
August 18 – 22, 2014
Carol and I had been considering a backpacking trip in Glacier National Park for years. Every time I’d get close to committing to a hike there, I’d find another destination that had better weather and no grizzly bears. So it took us a while but we eventually found ourselves on the ground in one of the wildest and most remote places in the lower 48.
Backpacking Glacier National park is not hard – the trails are actually not overly difficult and the average altitude is much lower than the Colorado Rocky Mountains or the Sierra’s in California. The difficulty lies in getting to the park and obtaining a backcountry permit.
After weeks of research, I decided that we would hike the parks Northern Loop. The route would leave the historic Many Glacier Lodge and head north through Ptarmigan Tunnel and then continue towards the Belly River Trail. We would climb the epic, glacier-lined Stony Indian Pass, pitch our tent at the Fifty Mountain campsite, and spend a night near the Granite Park Chalet before returning back to our starting point.
Great plan, right?
A few months after submitting the Backcountry Permit Request, I received an email congratulating me on receiving a backcountry permit. Unfortunately, the route that the park authorities selected for us was (to be kind!) ridiculous. I got out the map and quickly saw that the approved route had us going back and forth down one trail, sometimes only moving one mile between campsites!
Most people would probably bail at this point, but Carol and I decided to press on with our plans. We decided to fly to Great Falls one day earlier than originally planned so that we could drive up to the park and see if we could snag a better route in person.
August is the busiest backpacking month in Glacier. We arrived at Many Glacier (driving from Great Falls, Montana) in the early afternoon on a Friday and entered the Backcountry Office. There must have been a lull in activity, as we were the only hikers in the office. The office ranger took pity on the miserable route that we were assigned and hooked us up with a route that was very near to the one we had originally requested! The only hitch was that we had to find a way to the Chief Mountain trailhead, which was one hour north-east of Many Glacier.
We checked into the Many Glacier Lodge and I immediately began to search for a shuttle bus or taxi that could take us to our starting point early the next morning. Unfortunately, the only shuttle bus wouldn’t leave until 1 pm, and there are ZERO shuttle van companies or taxis at Many Glacier. But luck was again on our side, as our hotel bellman offered to drive us! He had the next day off, so we worked out the details and began our last-minute preparations for our adventure.
Day One – Chief Mountain to Glenns Lake Head (13 Miles)
Jack the bellman met us at exactly the appointed time and took us to our trailhead exactly one hour later. It is always a little weird being dropped off in the wilderness, and this time we had the added strangeness of being within ¼ mile of the Canadian border! We were truly entering the backcountry.
It’s always good to have an easy first day when hiking at a high elevation. We entered the trail at around 8,000 feet, and would descend 2,000 feet over 13 miles. We would mostly follow the Belly River valley and then later hike along Cosley Lake and Glenns Lake, heading southwest across the northern section of the park.
Walking in grizzly country is spooky. You could encounter a bear around any turn. We each carried a can of pepper spray in a holster and we kept up a loud conversation (when we run out of things to talk about we ruminate on our childhoods), clicked our trekking poles, or sang. Our technique must have worked, because we never saw a bear on the trail (but did have one in our campsite – more on that later).
Under a mostly cloudy sky, we hiked downhill through small stands of Aspen, crossed flower-packed high-country meadows, and marveled at the three different groups of mountains that peered down upon us. We lunched near the Belly River footbridge and then began our walk along the lakes. Soon after leaving Cosley Lake, light rain began to fall. The trail turned north at Glenns Lake Foot and we entered a very overgrown section of trail. It wasn’t long before our boots and pants were soaked. Gore-Tex is great stuff, but it is not totally waterproof!
We spent the last hour of our hike walking in a soaking wet forest. As much as we love hiking, we are always elated when we reach our evening destination – and the Glenns Lake Head campsite looked like heaven!
Upon reaching a campsite in Glacier National Park, the hiker is expected to remove all food from his backpack and hang the food from the provided food pole or put it in a bear box. The idea is that if a bear does enter the campsite, he will only visit the food area and not bother the campers’ tents.
Each campsite provides a nice communal cooking area with food storage options and a pit toilet.
We enjoyed a nice dinner of couscous burritos, homemade beef jerky, and Fritos. Glen Lake Head was the only campsite that allowed a fire, and under a damp sky we enjoyed a bit of warmth (and S’Mores!) from a small campfire.
We went to bed early and the bears left us alone.
Day 2 – Glen Lake Head to Kootenai Lake (11 miles)
We broke camp early and warmed up quickly as we began the climb to Stony Indian Pass. The sky was clearing and we enjoyed the quiet morning. We soon heard a waterfall in the distance, and as we rounded a bend, we saw at least five waterfalls pouring from underneath a glacier! We took our time and reveled in the heavenly view that was before us. Our faces were covered in smiles as we saw meadows filled with deer grass and glacial ponds. To our rear, we had a heart-stopping view of the Glenns Lake and Cosley Lake, now 1,000 feet below us. We pressed on and easily reached Stony Indian Pass. This place is as beautiful as anything we’ve ever seen – and we had it totally to ourselves!
We began the multi-switchback descent to Stony Indian Lake and rested for lunch when we reached the lakeshore. After a short break, we continued to descend – and just as I began to belt out the classic garage rock tune “Wild Thing,” another hiker emerged from around the bend. It never fails – you are alone for hours and as soon as you do something silly, a crowd materializes from nowhere!
For the next 3 miles we trudged downhill through chest-high foliage. Thankfully, the plants were dry, but this section was not very enjoyable.
We reached Kootenai Lake in the early afternoon. Just after dinner we watched a bull moose feed in the lake. Hours before dawn on the next day, I heard the moose walk right by our tent and enter the lake. As wolves howled in the near distance, I remained snuggled in my sleeping bag, safe and happy.
Day 3 – Kootenai Lake to Fifty Mountain (9 Miles)
Wet shrubbery soaked our pants and boots for the first three miles of this hike. We didn’t complain, because the sun was out and we were surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, and raging rivers. We would spend the entire day climbing – heading up to about 9,000 feet elevation at the Fifty Mountain campsite.
At mile three the foliage diminished and the trail was much drier. We hiked through a boulder-infested meadow and laughed as marmots scrambled from rock to rock. The landscape was laid barren back in the 1990’s by a massive forest fire, and the remains of burned trees are everywhere. I had hoped to spot a bear or mountain goat in this open meadow, but I guess my singing scared them all off.
We reached the campsite without incident, stored our food, and set up our tent. We had to scout around a bit to find the water source (it is about 200 yards northeast of where you’d expect it to be).
This campsite is quite popular because it is not only immensely beautiful, but it is the only place to camp for 20 miles. Unfortunately, a juvenile grizzly had been visiting the site all summer. We were told by other hikers that some idiotic camper cooked sausage and dumped the grease on the ground, which attracted the bear. We did see this bear while preparing dinner, and with just a little noise we scared it off. I thought I’d be nervous about sleeping with a bear in the area, but surprisingly, I slept like a baby.
Day 4 – Fifty Mountain to Granite Park Campsite (12 Miles)
This is the reason we came to Glacier National Park. This hike would take us on the famous High Line Trail, which is part of the Continental Divide Trail. We would hike over glaciers, through waterfalls, and see some of the most beautiful scenery our country has to offer.
This large slab of glacial snow was fairly slushy for us, and we had no difficulty at all crossing safely. After the drift, we hiked along a ledge for another mile. Hikers who are afraid of exposure should consider another route.
Carol and I watched as a thunderstorm began to build in the mountains to our west. With just one mile remaining in our day’s hike, lightning struck just above me on the mountainside. With nowhere to hide, we picked up the pace and eventually reached the Granite Park Chalet, where we enjoyed a cold soft drink while waiting for the storm to pass.
Day 5 – Granite Park Campsite to Many Glacier Lodge (12 miles)
The sky was heavy with clouds. Visibility was limited to about ¼ mile. I put the camera away and we began our hike towards Swiftcurrent Pass. We were both happy and sad about being on our last day, and I was disappointed that the poor weather obscured our views. Suddenly we rounded a corner and were rewarded with a massive view of the entire Grinnell Glacier Complex. Waterfalls streamed from the cliffs, pouring into the lakes that lay thousands of feet below.
We trekked along an exposed, narrow cliff trail for an hour and eventually began to encounter day-hikers who were doing an out-and-back hike from the Many Glacier Lodge. We stopped by a small lake and enjoyed our last trail-side lunch. We talked about how lucky we were to get a chance to do such an epic hike. Carol and I agreed that this had been the most (potentially) dangerous hike we’d attempted, but we had enough experience to know how to avoid disaster.
We picked up our packs one last time and began walking the last 2 miles, heading back to civilization.