Highline Trail

This is a hike that you will not soon forget. It has it all. Glacially carved peaks and valleys, meadows loaded with wildflowers, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, occasional grizzly bears, hoary marmots, coyotes, and the tiny chance early or late in the season of wolverines. And, some of the oldest fossils preserved in any national park can be seen along the way.6 The commonly used superlatives seem to fall short when experiencing this route.

  • Glacier National Park, Highline Tail, Mountain Goat
  • Glacier National Park, bighorn sheep
  • Glacier National Park, hoary marmot
  • Glacier National Park, stromatolites

And, of course, the word is out. The Highline Trail is one of the most popular in the park. University of Montana researchers tell us that 500 to 1,000 people use this trail each summer day.3

Transportation Planning

There are transportation logistics to consider for this walk from Logan Pass to the Loop. One possibility is to leave your vehicle at the Loop (where you will exit) and catch a ride to the pass on a Glacier National Park shuttle. In the past, shuttles left the Apgar Visitor Center at 7am for the day’s first run.

If you want to get on the trail earlier, drive to Logan Pass and grab a parking spot. In July, the sun rises between 5:30 and 6:00 am, and I’ve seen the lot about two-thirds full by then. The downside of relying on the shuttles at day’s end when you’re tired is the potential for a long wait time to get a seat.

Opportunities for driving or using the shuttle system along the Going-to-the-Sun Road has been in a state of flux. I suggest visiting Glacier National Park Vehicle Reservation System and Glacier’s Shuttle System webpages for up-to-date information on schedules and ticketing.

Trailhead

At the end of the post, I’ll offer some variations of the Logan Pass to the Loop walk.

You begin at an elevation of 6,646 feet from Logan Pass. The trail starts on the far side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the visitor center parking lot. Once on the footpath, stop and take a deep breath. The fresh mountain air with the sweet, resinous scent of the stunted subalpine fir trees and the pleasing woodsy smells are the signals that it’s time to slow down and leave the world behind.

The Hike

Imagine several canvas wall tents to your left as you walk across the relatively level area at the start. From 1925 to 1928, workers blasted a shelf into the cliffs, which became the upper part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Logan Creek to the pass. Those tents housed the hardy souls of Camp #6. It took a day for packers and their strings of horses following the long-forgotten trail up the Logan Creek to bring supplies to the camp.5

A quarter-mile from the trailhead, you’ll get to experience a little of what the powder monkeys and route surveyors encountered in the 1920s. The path narrows somewhat and becomes a ledge in the rock face 100+ feet above the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s safe, and there’s a cable bolted into the rock for hanging on to should you desire. This is not a great place to run into a grizzly bear, as one hiker experienced.

The path gradually climbs along the Garden Wall for three miles and then steepens as it rises to the saddle between Haystack Butte and Mount Gould. This is a popular spot for folks to stop for a rest and grab a bite to eat. Some decide this is their turnaround location, which would give them a seven-mile day.

Glacier National Park, McDonald Valley
Haystack Butte, Mount Cannon, McDonald Valley, Glacier Wall (L to R)

Remember Camp #6 back at the beginning? Well, construction crews built Camp #4 in the ravine on the north side of Haystack Butte. It’s incredible the amount of stamina and strength required of the workers. Their day included descending the steep mountainside to the construction site, putting in a full day of extreme physical and exhausting work, and then climbing back up to their tents.5

After leaving the saddle, the footpath continues to climb, reaching its highest point at four miles and 7,300 feet. There is a gradual decline to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail at 6.8 miles. The overlook path leads to the top of the Continental Divide (Garden Wall) with views of Salamander and Grinnell Glaciers, Upper Grinnell Lake, Mount Gould, and Angel Wing. This side trip is 0.8 miles long, with over 900 feet of elevation gain. To do that on top of an already long day requires better than average physical condition.

Glacier National Park, Salamander and Grinnell Glaciers
Salamander Glacier and Grinnell Glacier with Angel Wing and Mount Gould in the background.

From the overlook trail junction, it’s a fairly level 0.7 miles to Granite Park Chalet. Great Northern Railway contracted to have this Swiss-style structure built of locally quarried stone in 1914. It’s now a National Historic Landmark.4 During the early 1900s, the Glacier Park Saddle Company treated visitors to over 50 miles of pristine Glacier backcountry on the famous North Circle trip. Granite Park Chalet was their first stop.5

The chalet generally opens the end of June and closes for the season the first part of September. If you’re running short on water, it is available for purchase or there’s a water source not far from the chalet. Be sure to purify it.

Glacier National Park, Granite Park Chalet with Heavens Peak
Granite Park Chalet with Heavens Peak

The last 4.2 miles of this trip drops 2,200 feet in elevation. If you have knee problems, you may want to reconsider this section. I know this firsthand. The footpath travels through the forest for just over a mile. Then the trail enters the area burned by the 18,702-acre Trapper Creek Fire of 2003. During that summer, dubbed the Summer of Fire, 135,000 acres of Glacier National Park burned (approximately 13% of the park’s total area). The Northern Rockies lost nearly three-quarters of a million acres that season.7

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 11.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,209 feet; Loss: 4,596 feet
Difficulty: 16.1 (strenuous)
(Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Estimated Walking Time: 5 hours 47 minutes
(Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Alternatives

If the trip described above is not for you, the following may be of interest.

  1. After resting at the chalet, return to Logan Pass the way you came. The total distance for this is 15 miles.
  2. Continue on past Granite Park Chalet to Swiftcurrent Pass, then continue on the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Many Glacier. The total distance is 15.2 miles – about the same as the out and back from Logan Pass. At Many Glacier, catch the Glacier National Park Lodges fee-based hiker’s shuttle to Saint Mary. From Saint Mary, use a Glacier National Park shuttle to return to Logan Pass. For more details, see my post for the hike from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn to Swiftcurrent Pass .

Safety Considerations

No one expects to sprain an ankle, or worse. Snow in July? C’mon. Well, in Glacier National Park, it happens. So do unexpected drops in temperature with high winds and rain. Starting a hike late in the day while underestimating the time required to finish is not all that rare of an occurrence. And then there is always the chance of an unexpected encounter with wildlife that goes badly. Most don’t expect to spend the night out in the wilderness when on a day hike. However, it is something that one should plan for.

If you’re relatively new to backcountry travel, I think the following might be helpful.

Ten Essentials

These should always be in a hikers pack and adjusted for the current season and hike difficulty.

  1. Hydration: Consume at least 0.5 liters per hour, more on hot days or more strenuous hikes. Pack an effective water filter and locate potential water sources on your map before starting longer treks. 
  2. Nutrition: Bring more nutritious calories than you calculate needing. Dried fruit, fresh fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, nuts, jerky, granola, etc., are good choices. Check out this calculator to dial in the calories you’ll need based on weight, walking speed, and slope
  3. Navigation: primary – map and compass, secondary – GPS with extra batteries; knowledge of how to use these tools is critical; knowing your walking speed in different conditions is valuable for estimating time to a landmark identified on your map (e.g., It looks like the trail junction is about one mile away. It’s getting dark, but I usually average about 3 miles per hour on this sort of trail. So, I should see the junction in about 20 minutes.) The goal is to stay found.
  4. Emergency Shelter: jumbo plastic garbage bag, bivvy sack, ultralight tarp
  5. Clothing: Layers – base, mid, insulating, and shell. Add and remove layers to manage body heat. Never wear cotton. Choose fast-drying synthetics or wool. Wear sturdy footwear. Your feet will thank you. Include light-weight gloves and a beanie.
  6. Headlamp and extra batteries.
  7. Firestarter: lighter, waterproof matches, cotton balls saturated with vaseline.
  8. First Aid: Remember, the kit is next to worthless without knowing how to use the items contained within.
  9. Repair kit: minimum of knife or multi-tool, duct tape, paracord 
  10. Sun protection: for skin, eyes, and head

Top Safety Concerns in Glacier National Park

New To Glacier National Park?

I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of this engineering masterpiece and the surrounding wilderness. See it here on Apple Books.

Notes

  1. Born, Steve. “The Top 10 – The Biggest Mistakes Endurance Athletes Make.” Hamer Nutrition. https://www.hammernutrition.com/knowledge/essential-knowledge/10-biggest-mistakes-endurance-athletes-make.
  2. “Dehydration.” Cleveland Clinic. 2019. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/9013-dehydration.
  3. “Examining Visitor Use Trends In Glacier National Park.” Glacier National Park Conservancy. Last modified April 14, 2021. https://glacier.org/newsblog/examining-visitor-use-trends-in-glacier-national-park/.
  4. “Granite Park Chalet & Dormitory.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified November 18, 1982. https://tinyurl.com/yc8w7x36.
  5. Guthrie, C.W. Going-to-the-Sun Road: Glacier National Park’s highway to the sky. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2006.
  6. Hunt-Foster, Rebecca K. “The Stromatolites of Glacier National Park.” National Park Service. Last modified , 2018. https://www.nps.gov/articles/park-paleo-fall-2018-stromatolites.htm.
  7. “The Fires of 2003: an anthology.” The Inside Trail, Glacier Park Foundation. Last modified , 2004. http://www.glacierparkfoundation.org/InsideTrail/IT_2004Win.pdf.

Howe Lake

Howe Lake, ridge, and creek are the namesakes of Charlie Howe, the first homesteader (1892) at the foot of Lake McDonald and the first white man to locate Avalanche Lake and Sperry Glacier.3

Howe Lake is an easy and worthwhile destination spring through fall. And it’s likely you’ll not find the trail crowded. If you’re looking for more to fill your day, there are a couple of options at the end of this post.

As always, please apply Leave No Trace principles.

Trailhead

From the T-intersection near the Apgar Visitor Center, travel northwest on the Camas Road for 1.3 miles. The Fish Creek Campground Road will be on the right. Drive for 1.1 miles on that road until it Ys. Bear left. 

The left fork puts you on the 100+-year-old Inside North Fork Road, which the Butte Oil Company carved through the timber in 1901. Although, at the time, calling it a road was probably a stretch. The unbridged, ungraded, and in places mucky route allowed the drillers to haul their machinery to the foot of Kintla Lake. Once the water froze, workers slid the equipment across the smooth surface to the drilling site.3,4

Drive 5.4 miles north on this historic and still somewhat primitive thoroughfare.

The Howe Lake Trailhead is on the right, and two small parking areas on the left. An interpretive sign, also on the left, describes the historic Matejka Homestead.

The Hike

About 13 percent of Glacier National Park burned during 2003, a record for the park. Lightning caused most of the fires that dry summer. Not so with the Robert Fire that burned this area. Careless humans started it. Snow finally put it out, but not until the flames had consumed 52,747 acres of timber.5

Helicopter used during Robert Fire, Glacier National Park 2003
Fire fighting helicopter carrying bucket over Lake McDonald with Robert Fire in the background. (National Park Service photo, Public Domain)

The trail leads you through young lodgepole pine stands, with widely spaced magnificent old larch trees that survived the inferno. Bright yellow glacier lilies and snow-white trillium put on excellent displays alongside the footpath in the spring. It’s impressive to see the healing taking place.

While you’re strolling along, be sure to make noise and have your bear spray where it’s quickly accessible. Know when and how to discharge it. We walked on top of grizzly bear tracks and dodged some scat during a May hike. On a separate trip, I encountered one of these powerful animals on the road just north of the Howe Lake Trailhead. Since the bruins use this area, it makes sense to be versed in bear safety.

At the Lake

Before you know it, the first glimpse of water comes into view through the trees, and arrival at the outlet soon follows. Howe Ridge is visible to the east. The crest is about 1,000 feet above the lake’s surface and crowned with a glacial moraine. Imagine this spot under at least 1,000 feet of ice. If it was 20,000 years ago during the Pleistocene’s Great Ice Age, that would have been the case.1,2

Howe Lake Glacier National Park
Howe Lake in May

The beaver dam across the outlet seems in pretty good shape. This is also true for the beaver lodge we spotted on the far side of the narrow channel connecting the lower and upper parts of the lake.

Howe Lake is an excellent place to see loons and other waterfowl. Be mindful that park service personnel prohibit fishing in the upper part of the lake until August to encourage loon nesting and protect their young until they attain fledging age. You’ll see the sign.

Common Loon
Common Loon (by John Picken CC BY 2.0)

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 3.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 240 feet; Loss: 108 feet
Difficulty*: 3.9, easy (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 1 hour 27 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
*Difficulty: 0-4.9 easy, 5-9.9 moderate, 10+ strenuous

Options

If you choose to go farther, the trail continues east away from the lake and intersects the Howe Ridge trail in a little less than two miles. Or, once you return to your vehicle, drive another mile and a quarter north to the Camas Creek road closure. There, you’ll find the trailhead to Christensen Meadows and Rogers Meadow. I suggest this option. You can learn more about it here.


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Notes

  1. Carrara, Paul E. ” Late Quaternary Glacial and Vegetative History of the Glacier National Park Region, Montana.” U.S. Geologic Survey. Last modified , 1989. https://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/1902/report.pdf.
  2. Raup, Omer B., Robert L. Earhart, James W. Whipple, and Paul E. Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
  3. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. Whitefish, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  4. Scott, Tristan. “The Road Less Traveled.” Flathead Beacon, May 11, 2017. https://flatheadbeacon.com/2017/05/11/road-less-traveled-2/.
  5. “The Fires of 2003: a synopsis.” The Trail Inside, Fall 2003. http://www.glacierparkfoundation.org/InsideTrail/IT_2004Win.pdf.

Apikuni Falls

The liquid snow of Apikuni Creek presents a spectacular show when the Earth drops out from beneath it. The water plummets 160 feet over 1.5 billion-year-old Altyn limestone, the oldest rock on the park’s east side.1,2

Trailhead

Apikuni Falls Trail leaves the parking area to the northwest and the Red Gap Pass Trail northeast. The parking lot is 2.8 miles west of the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Or, find the trailhead 1.1 miles east of the Many Glacier Hotel road junction if driving from the west.

Wildlife

For whatever reason, bears seem to like this area. The last time we hiked to the falls, a black bear sow and three cubs crossed in front of us within the first quarter mile. Although we were at least 150 yards away, she gave us an unflinching stare until the little ones entered the brush. The same day, both morning and afternoon, we saw a grizzly bear near the parking lot – luckily from our car. 

Glacier National Park grizzly bear
Grizzly Bear near Apikuni Falls parking lot

Several years ago, we exited the Red Gap Pass Trailhead after four glorious days in the backcountry. While walking back to the Swiftcurrent Inn and the truck, a grizzly bear sow and her cubs near the Apikuni and Red Gap parking lot caught us off-guard. Brush concealed her until she stood up with ears back and agitated. An alert Red Bus driver encouraged my hiking partner and me to pile into his empty bus. At the same time, he maneuvered his coach between the bear family and us.

I’ve seen several other bears on different occasions in the same general area. If you have spent little time in bear country, I recommend checking out the recommendations Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety webpage.

If you have binoculars with you, scan for bighorn sheep on the east slopes of Altyn Peak and near the falls.

The Hike

You’ll notice that I’ve rated the difficulty of the walk to the falls as easy. Compare this hike with 640 feet of elevation in a mile to the average increase of 490 feet per mile for Ptarmigan Tunnel or 430 feet per mile on the trek to Grinnell Glacier. Then why is it easy? 

I use distance and elevation gain to calculate the difficulty score using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Miles equation.3 If the trip were two miles uphill rather than one, it would rank as moderate difficulty. Climbing five miles with 640 feet of elevation gain per mile makes it strenuous. Apikuni Falls has an easy score, primarily because of low total distance (and energy expended).

During spring and early summer, the footpath starts out through a meadow loaded with color. Before you know it, you will enter the forest and start the climb. Along the way, a few side trails lead to spectacular views of the Swiftcurrent Valley and the peaks to the south.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier, Apikuni Falls Trail
Allen Mountain above Cracker Flats and site of Altyn-historic mining town.

The trail officially ends a short distance from the falls. Unofficial social trails proceed on to the base of the cascades. Beware of wet rocks and expect some light scrambling.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 2.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 640 feet
Difficulty: 3.3, easy (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 1 hour 7 minutes
(Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Notes

  1. “Apikuni Falls.” World Waterfall Database. Last modified December 11, 2018. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Apikuni-Falls-10170.
  2. Dyson, James L. “The Geologic Story of Glacier National Park.” Glacier Natural History Association. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glac/3/index.htm.
  3. Petzoldt, Paul K. Petzoldt’s Teton Trails. Salt Lake City, UT: Wasatch Publishers, 1976.

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