Glacier National Park has always been high on our bucket list, so when I was trying to pick a place we could explore for an entire month, I figured it would be a good choice. Under normal circumstances, I would have booked a week or two on the east side of the park and then a week or two on the west side of the park so we’d have plenty of time to see everything, but given our current goal of keeping things simple, we decided to just pick one campground for the entire month. I found a commercial park on the west side, booked a month, and figured we were all set.
Unfortunately, however, just a few weeks before our planned arrival, the National Park Service announced that it would be closing half the park for the Summer.
The entire eastern side of the park borders the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. In consideration of the toll the pandemic has taken on various reservations across the country, the community’s tribal council decided they did not want to open their entrances this year. GNP’s management amended the park’s operations to respect the tribe’s wishes.
So, this was (and is) the park’s operational status:
Sadly, some of the park’s most beautiful scenery and best known hikes are on the East side, but such is life. As you can see, the Going to the Sun Road, which is the main scenic route that traverses the park, was open almost the entire way, and that road provides access to plenty of excellent trails.
In addition to losing access to half the park, visitors also lost access to the shuttles that typically ferry tourists and hikers between various scenic locations and trails. That meant everyone who came to the park was left to vie for a limited number of parking spots at trails, overlooks, and other points of interest.
In practice, this meant the park’s Twitter feed often looked like this:
Not only were parking lots and roadways routinely shut down for overcrowding, but, oftentimes, they were shut down early in the day. Notice the time stamp on this tweet:
However, thanks to Kevin & Laura’s patented “All ‘Yay!’ No ‘Boo!” National Park Exploration Strategy,” our experience was more like this:
Nobody on the road…
Nobody on the beach…
I feel it in the air…
The Summer’s out of reach.
The sun goes down alone…
…except for this goat, whom I have named “Hal.”
That’s it. That’s the whole trick.
Do the exact opposite of what everyone will tell you you HAVE to do when visiting this (and every other) national park:
and, instead, go late.
Honestly, the number of people who will give you the polar opposite advice that we will give you is astounding. If you visit NPS’s website or Twitter feed, their staff will tell you to go early. If you talk to your campground neighbors, they will tell you to go early. If you read reviews of trails, hikers will regale you with tails of just how early they got to the trail and how crowded the parking lot was when they left.
Everyone, and I mean every one, will tell you you HAVE to get to the park at the crack of dawn in order to avoid complete and utter misery.
But listen to me:
These people are crazy and they’re going to ruin your life.
The problem with the “get up early” devotees is they think people want to get up early.
They do not.
No one wants to get up early.
Even if you’re a person who naturally wakes up early and likes mornings (a personality type I will never understand), who the hell wants to schlep out at 5:00 a.m. to go for a hike?
No one. That’s who.
Additionally, the “get up early method” is like a drug. It starts small, but then the need grows and grows and grows until you’ve lost all control.
One minute it’s “we’ve just gotta be in the park by 9:00 a.m.” Then, it turns into “we just gotta be in the park by 8:00 a.m.” Then it’s 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. and pretty soon, people are sleeping in their cars trying to be first on the trail.
Not only does this advice make for miserable mornings, but it makes the whole problem worse! With everyone showing up within a couple hours of sunrise, parking lots are packed, trails are overrun, and everyone ends up unhappy.
Hogwash. All of it.
Here’s our time tested and clinically proven advice: Go to bed and when you wake up the next morning, look at your clock, and, no matter what time it says, smile, roll over, and go back to sleep.
You can thank us later.
The thing people never seem to appreciate about Summer in the North is that it’s light out REALLY late. During our visit to this area (July/August), it didn’t get dark until after 10:00 p.m.
Take advantage of it!
Depending on where we were going, we would head into the park between 2:00 p.m., for hikes on the far side of the park, and 6:00 p.m., for sightseeing on the near side. (Keep in mind it takes almost 2 hours to drive from one side of the park to the other on the Sun Road.)
Of course, it goes without saying that you have to research the area you’ll be visiting, you need to know your hiking pace, you need to pay attention to the time, and you need to be prepared with appropriate food, gear, and supplies (including flashlights) should anything go wrong. There is, admittedly, more risk with our methods, but at the end of the day, I think we can all agree that plunging to one’s death from the side of a cliff while hopelessly lost on a mountaintop in pitch blackness is a small price to pay if it means you don’t have to drive in circles for three hours looking for a parking space.
The Highline Trail
So, what does listening to our advice get you when it comes to hiking? Well, first, you won’t be grumpy because you’re sleep deprived and still feeling the effects of road rage. But second, you’ll enjoy fabulous views, lightly trafficked trails, and great light for photography.
The Highline Trail is typically a point to point trail where hikers start at Logan Pass – which is the highest point along Going to the Sun Road – hike about 12 miles, to a place called the Loop, and then take a shuttle back to Logan. None of that was possible this year, so park officials turned the two ends of the trail into out and back hikes.
The thing is, unlike so many trails that require a lot of trudging before you get to the great views, on the Highline Trail, the scenery is stunning from the first moment you step foot on the trail.
The only downside of this trail is it’s a bit unnerving if you’re afraid of heights. There’s one section at the beginning where hikers walk along a path carved into the side of the mountain. The path is reasonably wide and there’s a cord to hold on to if you want it.
but it is, admittedly, a rather long way down…
The nice thing was, as usual at the national parks, many visitors avoid challenging hikes, and those that don’t avoid them usually start earlier than us, so as we headed away from Logan Pass late in the afternoon, the crowds thinned while the views kept getting better.
We hiked about 3.5 miles out to Haystack Pass and then came back for a total of 7 miles. The other option was to hike to Granite Park Chalet, which is about 7 miles from Logan Pass, but turning the hike into a 14 miler would have required us to leave much earlier, which would have required us to deal with a lot more people. We were happy to give up some additional views in exchange for peace and quiet on the trail.
Speaking of peace and quiet, or a lack thereof, the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail is on the “must see” list for just about every visitor to GNP. That means there are a ton of people, even if you go late in the day.
There are so many people, the goats help with directing traffic:
while sheep patrol the parking lots:
It’s not a long trail, just 3 miles total, and the elevation isn’t particularly tough either. The trail starts on a series of boardwalks before transitioning to open fields…
The challenging part is those open fields are covered in snow throughout much of the Summer.
Because the snow melts and refreezes every day, it’s basically slushy ice which can be extremely slippery.
Reading about all this beforehand, I picked up a set of hiking poles which were incredibly helpful. If you don’t already have some, I’d suggest grabbing a pair for this hike (assuming there’s snow when you visit). If you lose your footing and go sliding down one of these slopes, like this guy did, you’re gonna have a bad day. On the other hand, if you were born part mountain goat, like Kevin, you won’t need them.
Speaking of which, it is endlessly amazing to me how hard it is for people to prepare for a visit to one of these parks. Behold:
Anyway, assuming one of these yahoos doesn’t crash into you and send you careening off the mountain, you’ll get to enjoy gorgeous landscapes, friendly wildlife…
and, eventually, the hidden lake in all its glory.
While this was one of the most crowded trails we visited while at Glacier, it was absolutely worthwhile. If we were to visit again, we’d simply make a point of going even later in the evening.
Located on the east side of the park, the Siyeh Pass Trail is a tough but rewarding 10 mile trek. It has three relatively distinct sections. In order to get to the Siyeh trail, hikers trek a portion of Piegan Pass first. That trail begins next to a creek before heading up into the forest.
This whole section is a reasonably do-able, consistent, upward incline.
Siyeh Pass then breaks off from Piegan and transitions into a wonderland of wildflowers and beautiful mountain views…
So many flowers…
Finally, it becomes a joyless, barren, hellscape of endless switchbacks that made us hate our very existence and question why we don’t just sit on our couch eating potato chips like normal people.
This is the view as you transition from the meadows of flowers to face the mountain you’re about to climb. If you look really closely, you can see part of the trail carved into the rock face.
As you start climbing, the greenery turns to brown-ery.
The views looking back are very nice
But pretty soon, you’re in switchback purgatory…
and because there’s no vegetation up there, you have no frame of reference for where you are… Every time you think you’re at the top, you turn the corner and there’s another godforsaken switchback.
The preceding two photos were taken 15 minutes apart. And there’s a reason I took two pictures of the same boring trail – because I couldn’t believe after 15 minutes of huffing and puffing and swearing and griping, that I was still looking at the exact same thing. After a while, you start wondering if you’re just walking in circles because nothing has changed and there’s no end in sight.
Somehow though, eventually, we made it to the top and there was this view…
Which was, objectively, pretty impressive.
Of course, as we’d been starting our ascent up the mountain, we’d run into another hiker who was on his way back down. He strongly suggested that when we reached the top, we keep going a few hundred yards to check out an additional viewpoint. By the time we got up there, we were ready to be done, but we figured “we hate everything right now; why not hate something else?” So, off we went… more ups and downs…
…until we got to another viewing area where we could see a small glacial lake hidden among the mountains.
The views on the way back were made better by the setting sun…
We took one last look at the incredible wildflowers….
and headed for home.
Of course, looking back, it was a pretty great trail and we’re glad we did it. The end really was a tough slog, but the fields full of colorful flowers and the views at the top made all the gasping worthwhile. Plus, we only ran into a handful of other hikers – none of whom were wearing crop tops.
In part II of this Glacier National Park round up, I’ll share some info about our “honorable mention” trails, a couple great finds outside the park, our less-than-stellar campground, and our most important hiking app.
Until then, stay well and enjoy your extra shut-eye.