Glacier National Park, Montana

With its stunning beauty, Glacier National Park should make it to the life’s list of all serious backpackers. While there are hundreds of miles of trail to partake, the three listed below should give you a good sampling of what is available. The Bowman Kintla hike is a horseshoe through the very northern-most part of the park. The Gunsight Pass Trail is an east-west traverse from St Mary valley to Lake McDonald. The Nyack loop circles the only area of the park with at-large camping.

The Maps. The adjacent map is the park service overview map highlighting the location of the three hikes. The topographic maps (1:24,000 scale), Google Earth images, photos and trail descriptions are shown on their respective pages:

Bowman-Kintla
Gunsight Pass Trail
Nyack Loop

Backpacking At Glacier. Except for the Nyack area, all backcountry camping is restricted to designated campgrounds. In all cases, including Nyack, a permit is required for overnight back country camping. We came in from Kalispell so we got our permits at the Backcountry Permit Office in Apgar. The rangers were very helpful and when logistics and trail problems began to make our Nyack hike look improbably, they stepped in to suggest alternatives and helped construct a new itinerary.

Each backcountry campground is comprised of a food preparation area constructed of sitting logs, a hanging bar or pole for food and maybe your pack (bear canisters are not needed), an outhouse and a several tent pads placed a distance away from

everything else. The number of tent pads vary at each campground with about half given out as reservations and the remainder held for walk ins. Depending on the campground, the pads can be anywhere from 20 feet to several hundred feet from each other. The Glacier Backcountry Guide shows the general location of each campsite and lists the number of tent pads available.

The NPS will allow up to 2 tents per tent site. However, many can’t even hold even two small tents. If you have 2 tents under your permit, you should either make sure you arrive at camp early so you can pick one of the larger tent pads or consider breaking your party into 2 permits. While the latter will ensure you of plenty of room for the tent, it may restrict your ability to get the itinerary you want.

Backcountry camping at Glacier is a social event. Because of the food preparation area system, you will be cooking and eating with everyone else in the campground. And due to the number and proximity of the tent pads, you will see people all the time. If you are used to wilderness backpacking where you set up when and where you want and are willing to hike to the next lake to avoid another party, you may find this disconcerting. However, everyone else is in the same boat and most of the people we met seemed genuinely nice. We will be going back to the wilderness next year, but were glad we got a chance to get back to Glacier and see some of the best scenery in the USA.

Background. Glacier National Park was established in 1910 due to the efforts of people like George Grinnell, for whom the Park’s largest glacier was named. As a national park, there is tons of information readily available about the history and geology so rather than regurgitate it, check out these links;

Park History
General Geology of Glacier National Park
Stratigraphy of Glacier National Park
Geologic Map of Glacier

There are, however, a few things not in the usual literature. If you are going to hang around the West Glacier, the West Glacier Bar on the north side of the street just past the railroad underpass as you turn off Highway 2. It appears to be the local hang out for summer employees and it had Big Sky IPA on tap. The West Glacier restaurant next door is okay, but we thought the Glacier Highland Restaurant on Highway 2 next to the Conoco station had much better food (near the turn off, across from the train station). If you need last minute gear, there is an outdoor shop about a mile west of the turnoff to West Glacier. They had plenty of fuel options for your stove (but call ahead of time if you have a weird stove).

Credits: Many thanks to Ellen Blickhan at the Park information desk for helping with some of the plant identification and background about the Butte Well and the spruce budworm.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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