Hike of the Week: Glacier North Circle

Hike of the Week: Glacier North Circle

This is a weekly series that highlights an outstanding day hike or backpacking trip. The goal is to inspire you to want to get out and see these places for yourself. I know for us, just seeing amazing photos and reading about a great hike is enough to get us motivated.

This week's hike is Glacier North Circle in Montana's Glacier National Park.

Why This Hike?

Glacier National Park is outstanding for many reasons, including a ridiculous density of wildflowers and grizzlies. The first is great, the second, not as much. The North Circle loop gives you a chance to see plenty of both and amazing scenery at every turn. This is truly one of the classic hikes in North America!

  • Distance: 52 miles
  • Type: Loop
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation gain: 12,000ft+
  • Best time to visit: July-September
  • We recommend 6-7 days so you have plenty of time to enjoy the trail and any other side trails you might want to check out.
  • The trail is well-maintained.
  • Highlights include stunning mountain views from the Continental Divide, crystalline alpine lakes, beautiful wildflowers, several waterfalls, and, of course, glaciers. There are lots of wildlife viewing opportunities too.
  • Permits are required and it is highly recommended that you make reservations ahead of time during peak summer months. Reservations can be made on the National Park Service website starting on March 1st (or 15th, depending on group size).

Before you pack your bags, keep the following in mind:

  • Be prepared for afternoon storms and snow later in the season.
  • Again, there are lots of grizzlies here! Know what to do if you encounter one and don't be afraid to take that bear spray!
  • Be ready for some significant elevation gain, especially on the third day.
  • Ptarmigan Tunnel can be closed late in the season while the trail is still very accessible. Make sure you inquire about this at one of the visitor centers before leaving to avoid getting trapped and having to go over Redgap Pass to complete the hike. This will add at least one day of hiking.
  • Dogs aren't allowed on the trail.

How Do I Get There?

Many Glacier is most accessible by flying into Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, MT. From there, you can rent a car or use the various ground transportation options to get to local accommodation.

The National Park operates a free shuttle service along Going-To-The-Sun Road that connects Apgar Vistor Center on the west side of the park to St. Mary's Visitor Center on the east side. From there, Glacier National Park Lodges operates a shuttle to Many Glacier. Both the start and end trail heads are a short walk from Many Glacier.

If you will be driving yourself from the airport, follow US-2 E to SE Boundary St in Browning. Follow State Hwy 464/Duck Lake Rd to US-89 N in Babb. Turn right onto US-89 N. Finally, follow Rte 3 for 12.5 miles. This will take you to Many Glacier Campground.

Map of Recommended Route

The following outlines our recommended route for the first portion of the JMT. As shown, we recommend a 12 day / 11 night itinerary, which means you’ll need a couple of weeks off to complete this section.

For even more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, click the "Open in CalTopo" button at the top of the map once it's loaded into view.

As shown, we recommend a 6-day, 5-night itinerary. The total distance is approximately 52 miles (84 kilometers). You could certainly extend the trip by spending an extra night or two and bag some of the incredible peaks in the area.

  • Day 1 – Swiftcurrent Trailhead to Granite Park Campground (7.6 miles) 
  • Day 2 – Granite Park Campground to Fifty Mountain Campground (11.9 miles) 
  • Day 3 – Fifty Mountain Campground to Stoney Lake Campground (8.2 miles) 
  • Day 4 – Stoney Lake Campground to Head Glenns Lake Campground (6.2 miles) 
  • Day 5 – Head Glenns Lake Campground to Elizabeth Lake Campground (7.8 miles) 
  • Day 6 – Elizabeth Lake Campground to Iceberg Lake Trailhead (10.5 miles)

When you arrive at the Glenn's Lake Head campground, we definitely recommend the one-mile side trip to Mokawanis Lake to check out the incredible waterfall there. It is a bit difficult to locate and will take some bushwhacking, but it's definitely worth it.

Glacier National Park also provides an excellent backcountry resource page which can be found here.

Trail Description

Day 1 - Swiftcurrent Trailhead to Granite Park Campground

The trek starts off relatively easily. But, you'll soon be hiking up, up, up, toward Swiftcurrent Pass. Enjoy several waterfalls, Swiftcurrent Glacier, Mount Grinnell, and, of course, plenty of lakes. If you have the time, you can take the side trip to the top of Swiftcurrent Mountain. From the pass, it's a little over a mile to your resting spot for the evening.

Day 2 - Granite Park Campground to Fifty Mountain Campground

Today you'll cover the popular Highline Trail, trekking across the Continental Divide. This gives you plenty of great views. But, be prepared for lots of elevation gain to get them! You should also ask about the condition of the Ahern Drift before setting out. That way you can be prepared!

Past Ahern Peak, Fifty Mountain and Iceberg Peak will come into view. Then, there will be a water crossing at Cattle Queen Creek. Eventually, you'll make a short descent to the Fifty Mountain Camp. If you have some time, you can take a ~3-mile side trip to the overlook of Sue Lake and Pyramid Peak.

Day 3 - Fifty Mountain Campground to Stoney Lake Campground

After heading out of the forest, you'll come across a beautiful meadow. Aside from seasonal wildflowers, there are lots of large boulders scattered throughout. You'll start heading down for several miles past here. This will take you to the Waterton Valley and River. After, climb up Stoney Indian Pass Trail leading to camp.

Day 4 - Stoney Lake Campground to Head Glenns Lake Campground

You'll start your fourth day with switchbacks. Enjoy some last views of Stoney Indian Lake and breathtaking views of the valley. Up ahead you'll see Mount Kipp and Raven Quiver Falls. You'll pass through another expansive meadow before reaching Atinsa Falls. After Paiota Falls, you'll head down more switchbacks and past Atsina Lake. Next is Glenn Lake and the Mokowanis Cascade. As you head down towards Glenns Lake, you'll come across Mokowanis Lake and Pyramid Creek Falls. If you have any energy left, you can get a closer look at Pyramid Falls and Margaret Lake before turning in.

Day 5 - Head Glenns Lake Campground to Elizabeth Lake Campground

Start your day off by crossing the Mokowanis River. After that, you get to enjoy the views along Glenns Lake for a few miles, then Cosley Lake. Past here, you'll cross the Mokowanis River yet again. There should be a cable there to help you across. Next, you'll follow the Belly River for a bit. After Dawn Mist Falls, the trail is relatively flat to the Elizabeth Lake Campground.

Day 6 - Elizabeth Lake Campground to Iceberg Lake Trailhead

After enjoying the sprawling Elizabeth Lake a little more, you'll cross a footbridge and head back into the forest. Hopefully you're not too tired of switchbacks by now. After leaving the Elizabeth and Helen Lake area, the trail gets rocky passing the Ptarmigan Wall. You'll keep along the wall a bit more after passing through the tunnel.

Next, you'll head down more switchbacks towards Ptarmigan Lake. Yet another side trip opportunity is available to Iceberg Lake. Past here, you'll come to Ptarmigan Falls and another bridge. After seeing Mount Wilbur and Iceberg Peak, you'll head into the woods again to finish your journey.

What Will I Need?

The trail is well maintained and the conditions are excellent. Weather is generally very good from July through September, however be prepared for afternoon storms and potential snow late in the season. As a result, a lightweight tarp could be a great addition to your pack. Water is plentiful and the insects aren't too bad, especially later in the season. If you go in the early part of the season when the insects are more numerous, treating your clothing and gear with insect repellant is recommended.

If you decide to go late in the season to avoid the crowds, be sure to pack a warm sleeping bag or quilt and an insulated sleeping pad. Temperatures can dip below freezing and could make for uncomfortable sleeping if you're not prepared.

Paria Outdoor Products Thermodown 15 Backpacking Quilt

lightweight quilt can keep you warm at night, as well as during the chilly mornings while you eat breakfast.

Water is plentiful, but you will still need to bring a filter (and a backup).

You'll also want a quality backpacking tent. Since you'll likely be bringing your trekking poles anyway, a tent that uses them as the poles is another option for shelter.

    If there's anything else you need to complete your pack, visit our full line of high-quality, affordable backpacking gear.

    Shop Backpacking Tents
    Shop Ultralight Tarps
    Shop Backpacking Quilts
    Shop Down Sleeping Bags
    Shop Insulated Sleeping Pads
    Shop Backpacking Pillow
    Shop Folding Trekking Poles
    Shop Titanium Cookware
    Shop Tent and Tarp Accessories

    Finally, to make sure you don't forget something at home, use our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!

    Resources

    Here are a few great resources to check out for more detail:

    National Park Service Permit Reservations
    Glacier National Park Shuttles
    Glacier Park Lodges Shuttle Service
    Trip Report by Don Geyer on NWHikers.net
    Video of the Route (posted by Todd Shampine on YouTube)

    Conclusion

    Have you hiked in Glacier National Park? If so, are there any other must-see areas of the park? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.

    Read Next

    If you're looking for more hike ideas, read our “Top 8 Backpacking Trails in Montana” round-up post. Also, the following Hike of the Week articles cover other great trails in the region.

    Hike of the Week: Alice-Toxaway Trail
    Hike of the Week: Titcomb Basin
    Hike of the Week: Teton Crest Trail

    For even more amazing backpacking trips, visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up like this one.

    The Trailhead - Interactive Map of Backpacking Trips

    Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.

    Hike of the Week USA Central

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