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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Hiking the Highline Trail

Rick Morgan


Glacier National Park has over 700 miles of hiking trails. Some easy and some a real challenge but from what I can tell, most provide amazing scenery. The Highline Trail is one of the premier trails in the park (and considered by many one of the best trails in the US). While it is possible to get on the trail and hike to Canada the most popular section is known as the “Garden Wall” and is a 7.6-mile hike from the tip of Logan Pass to the Granit Park Chalet.


 I got up early and caught the express shuttle to Logan Pass – the jumping off point for my hike. (Taking the shuttle is really the best way to get to Logan Pass as the parking lot fills early) My plan was to hike to the Chalet and then take the Loop Trail to the “Loop”, a hairpin turn on the Going-To-The-Sun road where I could catch a shuttle back to Apgar campground. The total hike would be 11.6 miles.

I have done a fair share of backpacking and hiking in the Colorado Mountains. So, I found the hike itself pretty easy to moderate. It was mostly flat with only a couple of long gradual climbs and corresponding descents. However, much of the hike is at or above tree line so the panoramic views from this hike were beyond description – really spectacular (even in the haze of smoke from fires in the surrounding area and neighboring states).

This hike is also great for viewing wildlife, including grizzly bears, big horn sheep and mountain goats. While I didn’t see any grizzly bears or big horn sheep, I did spend time watching several mountain goats traversing the sheer cliffs. At this time of the year it is the amazing wildflowers as much as the animals that draw hikers.


Hiking alone is never a good idea - a lone hiker went missing in July of this year and was never found. This hike is very popular and I was never totally isolated or alone.


Once you reach the Granite Park Chalet you can either go back to Logan Pass by backtracking over the same trail or do as I did and take the 4-mile Loop Trail to the “Loop”. The Chalet was built in 1914-15 by the Great Northern Railway to provide comfortable lodging to backcountry visitors to Glacier National Park. A woman in one of the groups I hiked with recalled visiting the Chalet in the 50’s and 60’s where Gourmet meals were provided. Today, while bedding is provided, you typically need to pack in your own food and water. Nonetheless, I have to believe that spending a Montana star filled night in the Chalet would be magical.


After a short lunch stop at the Chalet I headed down the Loop Trail. My stop at the Chalet was intentionally short. Looking out across the valley it was clear to me that a pretty good storm was headed my way and I wanted to get down as quickly as possible. And down it is with a 2000 ft. vertical drop. Thankfully, I have good knees.

JoAnne and I had just watched a PBS video on “The Night of The Grizzlies”. On August 13, 1967 two 19 year old girls were killed by grizzly bears in two unrelated and separate incidents. Up until these two deaths there had not been a bear related death in the history of the park. One of the girls was camped in a primitive campground just down the trail from the Chalet. It was hard not to think about this tragedy as I hiked down the trail 45 years later.

Unlike the Highline Trail much of the Loop Trail is in thick forest – or what was thick forest. Most of the hike now goes through area ravaged by the 2003 trapper fire. I found the change in vegetation and the regeneration taking place to be interesting but certainly not as spectacular as the trip up.



As I started down I caught up with another couple. The women asked me if I thought we would make it down before the storm hit - my response, “not likely”. I was right. About 30 minutes into the hike it started to rain. I stopped to put in my rain gear. My hiking companions had none. The weather got significantly worse. The wind really picked up, the rain came down in sheets and there was plenty of lightening and thunder. Luckily, I was prepared but my fellow hikers were not – they were soaked and cold. Yes, we all made it down to the “Loop” but it was a good reminder to me to always be prepared when hiking in the mountains  (or anywhere for that matter) for the quick and crazy weather changes that can occur.

It’s a cliché to say that pictures don’t do justice to the magnificent scenery on this hike –anyway here are the rest of my pictures.