Highline Trail | Glacier National Park, Montana
Wolverine biologist Jeff Copeland says that the Highline Trail may be the best, or at least the most accessible place in the world to see a wolverine. I can attest to that - I still savor my ten-minute sighting of this wild critter in 2002.
But even if you don't see a wolverine, the Highline Trail has to be one of the best day or overnight hikes in America. It's a relatively easy hike next to the Continental Divide through splendid scenery and amazing rock gardens filled with wildflowers and wildlife, in Montana's Glacier National Park.
Think of the Highline Trail as a spine trail which provides lateral branches to the northern corners of Glacier National Park. Here's your options:
LOGAN PASS TO GRANITE PARK aka Garden Wall: Starting at the Logan Pass Shuttle Stop, find the trailhead on the other side of the Going-to-the Sun road. The trail tucks into a narrow cliff band above the road, sometimes shared by mountain goats who claim the right of way. When much of the Highline Trail is eminently hikable in mid-June, park rangers won't open the trail if the beginning section is too icy (thankfully).
If you're in moderate condition, you'll overcome any concerns about fitness for alpine travel on the 7.6 mile hike to Granite Park Chalet. The trail climbs 700 feet over 6 miles before dropping 500 feet to Granite Park Chalet. This historic stone chalet, completed in 1915, continues to provide exquisite, rustic accommodations. If you're backpacking up the trail, Granite Park Campground is an overnight gem.
GRANITE PARK TO LOOP: This is not officially part of the Highline Trail, but it's a popular day hike loop back to the giant switchback, known as the Loop, on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Here you can catch the shuttle bus east or west. From the chalet, this stretch of trail swoops downhill 2,200 feet in elevation over four miles, a bit of a knee cruncher but not too bad. Huckleberries often abound in August. Eat all you want, but park rangers ask that you please don't take home more than a quart.
GRANITE PARK TO MANY GLACIER: The north-bearing Highline Trail skirts the west side of the Continental Divide. But if you leave the Highline and climb east from Granite Park, you'll cross the Divide into the headwaters of Hudson's Bay at Swiftcurrent Pass. The views from the pass and beyond are breathtaking. It's a few hundred feet climb from Granite Park, then a steady 1,700 foot descent to Swiftcurrent Lodge in Many Glacier Valley. This segment of trail is 7.6 miles. It's a fantastic but rather grueling day hike from Logan Pass.
GRANITE PARK TO FIFTY MOUNTAIN CAMPGROUND: The northern section of the Highline - 12 miles - starts and ends in the backcountry. This gem of a trail is pretty much limited to backpackers or heavy-duty day hikers. At the junction with the Swiftcurrent Pass/Many Glacier trail, stay left. Five miles from Granite Park, you'll find a trail heading east to the low saddle of Ahern Pass, which provides an awesome view of Helena Lake down below. This is near where I spotted a wolverine. When you pop over the ridge into the alpine bowl that nests Fifty Mountain Campground, you may never want to leave ... at least if it's not snowing or raining. From camp, we watched in the distance a grizzly sow and cub on the Continental Divide, just below a massive bull moose with only one horn. That was one lopsided dude!
DESCENDING FROM FIFTY MOUNTAIN: All good things must come to an end, at least in the wilderness of Glacier, so you'll probably need to return to civilization. From Fifty Mountain, you have two choices in addition to backtracking: 1) Return to the Going-to-the-Sun Road via Flattop Mountain Trail, 12 miles, or 2) Go to Canada and Waterton Lake. It's a 10.5 mile trek and a 2,400-foot descent to Goat Haunt on the southern, U.S. end of Waterton Lake. You can catch the International tour boat back to Waterton townsite or hike another 6.7 miles along the lakeshore.
Highlights and Best Features of this Trail
You'll enjoy something new and exciting with every twist in turn as you traverse through cliff bands, over ridges and into alpine basins on the Highline Trail. For wildlife lovers, it's almost always a winner. I've seen grizzly bears (at a safe distance), mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and moose, in addition to wolverine.
Constant batter with your hiking partners is a good idea, or sing yourself a song to let wildlife know you're around. Likely they already know, but everyone appreciates a "no surprises" policy. One time I passed 150 feet above a grizzly sow and cub before a hiking companion noticed. We were all cool. Grizzlies on the Garden Wall
If you appreciate wildflowers, you'll discover a diverse bouquet tucked into rock gardens and fresh spring seeps. And before you spreads the amazing panorama of glaciated valleys and jagged peaks that define Glacier National Park.
The Highline Trail actually means different things to different folks. Technically speaking, it's an 18.5 mile, high-elevation path connecting Logan Pass, Granite Park and Fifty Mountain Campground. But unless you're returning to Logan Pass or planning to just stay in the wilderness, you'll be connecting with other trails to get back to civilization.
19.6 miles from Logan Pass to Fifty Mountain Campground