Did you know that Glacier NP has just 25 glaciers left? When you compare that to the 150 glaciers it had in 1850 it makes you realize the incredible effect global warming is having on our fragile little planet. It’s estimated that by the year 2030 there will be no more glaciers left in Glacier… at which time the park will be forced to adopt a new name, GASP! For that reason, and so many more, Drew and I knew we couldn’t pass up the chance to visit this incredible place that’s all too quickly melting away. Avalanche Lake:
With so much beauty to see, so many mountains to explore and only 2.5 days to do it all, we were a bit overwhelmed with where to start. We had just been in Yellowstone for 3 days prior and had no phone service or wifi since Minneapolis, so our Glacier research was down to ZIL. Luckily we met a Ranger who knew exactly what we were looking for and a local who gave us the scoop on a backcountry hike that went along some epic goat trails (yep that’s right, goat trails) and that’s the story on how we found out about 2 of THE BEST hikes in Glacier National Park:
Hike #1: Two Medicine’s Dawson – Pitamakan Pass Trail (counterclockwise), 15 miles round trip + a 3-mile boat ride ($6.50 per person), or you can hike the entire 18.8 mile loop.
We awoke at 7am, made our picnic lunches, filled our CamelBaks, ate breakfast and rolled on in to the Two Medicine Campground which, in our opinion, was the most picturesque and well-laid-out campground in the park. Shortly after arriving, we found the wooden bridge (near campsite 100) that marked the beginning of our day’s grand journey.
It started out steep. We decided to go with the more gradual slope up Dawson first and ended with the steeper grade for the ride down Pitamakan. Before we knew it we had arrived to a breath-taking valley filled with flowers, chiseled peaks and cool, pine-scented breezes:
As the trail continued to ascend, we passed Old Man Lake (.3 miles off the trail) and were faced with relentless switchbacks that soon tested our lungs, hearts and minds, but what we saw at the top made every heart-pumping, muscle-burning step worthwhile:
We had no idea that we were going to be gifted with such beautiful sites. We had made it to Dawson Pass.
At 7,600 feet, we were sitting on the Continental Divide which falls upon the saddle formed between Mt. Helen and Flinsch Peak. The piercing-blue waters of Old Man Lake and Boy Lake left us mesmerized, and just before convincing each other to gather our things to continue onward (it was now 2pm), we were brought face-to-face with a thundering herd of Big-Horned Sheep!
They stared at us for a good, long moment before setting out to masterfully scurry across the steep mountainside. Notice the man on the trail in the photo below (!).
As we passed the pass… the ground transformed into a dramatic, rocky cliff trail reminiscent of what we were faced with when summiting Mount Whitney.
The views were gorgeous. We stopped for a few photo ops, hiked over the second pass, met another furry friend and admired the brightly colored flower fields that framed this incredible (and challenging) well-worth-it day.
Note: Because we wanted to make it to the dock in time for the last boat, which was scheduled to leave at 5:30pm, we actually ran down the trail for the last 2-3 miles just like this:
We ended up making it just in time, but it turned out that there wasn’t enough room for everyone on the boat. Luckily the boat made an extra trip, which is typical during high season, so we all had a way back. Moral of the story is not to worry if you are cutting it close, you will most likely make it back for the last-call boat if anything.
In total, this hike took us about 8.5 hours (including a 30 minute lunch break and multiple photo op stops), making for a full-day excursion. When we got back to camp we took a refreshing and COLD jump in the lake before preparing a delicious, always well-deserved, meal.
Hike #2: The off-trail, backcountry ShingriLa to Iceberg Lake hike in Many Glacier, 10 miles round trip. We started at 10:45 and ended at 7pm, with 3 long breaks in between.
The sketch above was the only map we had for this epic trail that took us up and over to Iceberg Lake along narrow and steep goat trails, a secret path known only by locals.
The key to doing this hike was being able to find the correct goat trail. We started off on the trailhead for Swiftcurrent Pass and kept our eyes peeled for the 2nd small footbridge, counting only the ones without railings of any sort. Once we passed both footbridges, we looked to the right and took the first narrow path through the wilderness, aka. goat trail, and bushwhacked our way into a sprawling meadow:
What happened next was a mixture of rock climbing, scrambling, guessing, backtracking and eventually, VICTORY. What’s important to remember when climbing up the rocky area near chimney glacier is to veer right at most of the questionable spots – this, along with some critical thinking skills, is what helped us find our way:
What we were gifted with next was beauty, sweet solitude, freedom for our toes and lunch. The great thing about backcountry trails is that hardly anyone, especially the tourists, know about them, so if you’re visiting during high season they are the perfect getaway.
The glacier water was incredible.
Note: Rangers, even in the backcountry permit offices, are not permitted to talk about backcountry hikes. Be sure to do your research (print out the map we featured above), get a climbing book or talk to a local before embarking on this, or any, goat trail journey.
After an hour-long break next to the serene, sparking waters, we prepared for one of the most intense downhill runs of our hiking careers. Shards of slate, otherwise known as scree, is what we would be surfing, sliding, rolling and skiing down. We somehow managed to successfully make it down the trail in the photo below (it was harder that it looks):
We had our first glimpse of stunning Iceberg Lake from the top of the scree and met a few more Big-Horned Sheep before making our way to the bottom.
The artfully scattered icebergs looked like jewels as they floated across Iceberg Lake’s turquoise-blue waters.As soon as we made it to the shore Drew couldn’t help but dive right into the 30 degree glacial pool!
You gotta watch this video, his face was priceless:
I don’t think even he could believe he did that!
From here the rest of the trail was a breeze. We followed the wide, packed-down, partially paved path that everyone takes to Iceberg Lake, which made us even more grateful for the secret trail we had shared with just a few other brave souls that day, though the views were nothing short of stunning the whole way back.
Tips for hiking in Glacier NP:
- Bring bear spray. Luckily we didn’t need it but for us the most important purpose it serves is peace of mind.
- Bring a bathing suit. The water is cold but if you’re hiking on a warm, sunny day you’ll want to join the other brave souls who are taking the polar plunge.
- Wear sturdy boots, especially if you are doing any backcountry trails, or running down miles of scree, ie. ShangriLa.
- Take a first aid kit and make sure it has moleskin and medical tape. I got a wicked blister and was lucky to find someone kind enough to share their supplies. Here’s a short video on how to properly bandage a blister 🙂