The Highline Trail
I’ve never been one to do the touristy thing – that one thing that everyone says you have to do. Too many selfie sticks being waved in your face, too many people who don’t know what deodorant is, too many parents yelling at their kids to stop climbing on the centuries’ old statue. This is particularly true when I go to a National Park – I want to appreciate it in its natural state, not surrounded by the masses. But I made an exception for Glacier’s spectacular Highline Trail, and I’m so glad that I did.
The Highline Trail is not only Glacier National Park’s most popular hike, but one of the country’s most famous trails. And with 11ish miles full of epic mountain vistas, it’s not hard to see why. Glacier is one of the most amazing places to visit in the US, and there is no better way to see the park’s wide array of wildlife, alpine flowers, and endless ranges of snow-covered peaks. As a result, nearly a million people hike a portion of the trail every year.
So what is it like? Worth the hype or nah? Are the crowds manageable or just irritating? Can anyone do it? What do you need to know before embarking on the Highline Trail?
To make things easier for those who are here just for the facts, the need-to-know section is first, followed by my family’s honest experience hiking the Highline Trail.
Things to Know Before Hiking the Highline Trail
- If you start from Logan Pass, the trail is mostly downhill with a few uphill sections.
- As a weightlifter, dancer, and someone who works out regularly, I’m in good shape. I’m also only 25, which helps too. I’d rate most of this trail as easy, for someone similar to me. What got me wasn’t the trail’s difficulty, but the heat.
- My parents are definitely not couch potatoes, but they’re also not gymaholics like I am. They’d probably rate this as moderate for it’s length, uphill sections, and the last terrible, awful 4 miles.
- If you read our experience on the trail, that will give you a better feel for if it’s a good hiking option for you.
Time to complete: Between 6-9 hours
- Depends on your speed, how much you stop for breaks, and if you do the optional side trail to Grinnell Glacier Overlook.
Where to start: You have 2 options:
- Start at Logan Pass and end at the Loop parking lot on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. From Logan Pass, it’s 11.4 miles mostly downhill with just a few uphill sections.
- Start at the Loop and end at Logan Pass. From the Loop, most of your trip will be uphill.
Where to park:
- Regardless of where you start your hike, the easiest thing to do is to either leave your car at Logan Pass or the Loop parking lot. Then you can use the Going-to-the-Sun shuttle at either the end or the beginning of your hike.
- For example, we parked at Logan Pass and started our hike there. Then at the end, we picked up the shuttle at The Loop and took it back to Logan Pass.
- Just make sure to check the shuttle schedule here so that you know what time the last shuttle comes.
- If you are hiking in July or August, make sure to start before 8:30 AM because the parking lots fill up very early.
What to pack:
- LOTS OF WATER – 2 liters minimum. The entire trail is exposed (i.e. in the sun). There are limited places to filter water. The Granite Park Chalet does have water that you can purchase, but it’s 7 miles from Logan Pass. The 4 miles between the Chalet and the Loop parking lot are steep, dusty, and devoid of any water sources. Be prepared.
- Rain jacket – Weather in Glacier can be unpredictable. Since the hike will take most of the day, you want to be prepared just in case a rain shower pops up.
- Bandaids for blisters, just in case
What to wear:
- Layers – a jacket that can be stuffed into your backpack, light hiking pants, or even those weird zip-off pants that are normally dorky but are totally socially acceptable in this situation.
- At this elevation and with no humidity, the temperature can fluctuate a lot throughout the day.
- The morning will be chilly (in August, it was around 48 degrees when we started our hike), but once the sun rises, it can get pretty hot. It was in the mid-90s when we finished our hike around 5:30 PM
- Hiking boots/sturdy tennis shoes, socks that go above your ankles
Related: Glacier’s other popular hike, the Iceberg Lake trail
Going into it, I had my reservations. Don’t get me wrong, despite the hordes of other hikers I feared would be on the trail, I was THRILLED we were actually going to do the Highline Trail. I knew its stellar reputation and had drooled over countless photographs taken from the trail; it had been something I had wanted to do for years.
But 11 miles is no leisurely stroll through the garden. My parents hike, but in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, our normal stomping grounds, day hikes are rarely longer than 5 miles without connecting several different trails. Whenever we’ve traveled internationally, we regularly walk 8, 9, 10 miles worth in a single day to explore a new city. But that’s with lunch breaks, museum tours, etc. sprinkled throughout the day. How was one continuous 11 mile (or so I thought) slog going to work out?
The original plan had been to do the whole thing. But our kayak tour instructor the day before had warned us about how hot and dry the last section of the trail can be, so we rethought our plan. We decided to just hike down a way and maybe turn around when we felt like it, and skip that terrible sounding final section.
I had heard that the Highline Trail, and all of the parking lots along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, can get crowded early in the day, so we set out before sunrise to beat as many other hikers as we could. We parked at Logan Pass at 7:30 AM and there were already a few dozen other cars. The tourists were already here.
About a quarter of a mile from the trailhead at Logan Pass, we arrived at the infamous Ledge, the section of the Highline Trail known for terrifying hikers afraid of heights. The trail here is only about 6-8 feet wide, and the edge drops straight down more than a hundred feet to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Because the trail is so popular, the park service has actually installed a railing along the worst section of it.
I am going to throw this out there though – this is the only part of the trail with a railing, but it is not the narrowest or steepest section of the trail. It’s just the part that deters the most people because it is right at the beginning of the trail. If you’re afraid of heights, the Highline Trail probably isn’t for you. But if heights don’t bother you, don’t let the narrow trail deter you! You will be rewarded with some of the best views in the United States.
For the next several miles, the trail follows the Garden Wall, a steep rock face famous for being covered in a plethora of wildflowers in the summer months. The trail here is relatively flat, shaded by the mountain wall, and offers a never-ending source of incredible views across the valley. It’s an exceedingly pleasant piece of trail.
The trail was so pleasant in fact, that about 2 miles in we started talking about our plan for the day. My mom and I tell this story somewhat differently.
My calm, rational version goes something like this:
Me: “This is really a lovely hike!”
Mom: “Yeah! Do you think it’ll be this lovely the entire way?
Me: “I’ve never done this trail before, but I think so. I know there are a few uphill spots, but nothing horrible.”
Mom: “If we were to turn around now, would it be all uphill?
Mom: “Then maybe we should just keep going!” (She doesn’t like uphill)
My mom’s version:
“So that’s when Maggie says – “We’ve already gone 2 miles, we only have 9 more to go, so let’s just DO THE ENTIRE THING!””
See, whenever either of us tells this story, it’s with the perfect hindsight knowledge of how that entire day went. And it wasn’t all quite like those first 2 miles. But we’ll get there, don’t worry….
We were certainly not the only ones on the trail, but this early in the day everyone was going the same direction. Despite the constant jingling of bear bells hanging from backpacks, the crowds I had been worried about were not as terrible as I had expected. Everyone we met was a hiker and was there to soak in Glacier’s beauty.
About 2.5 miles from Logan Pass is the first uphill section of the hike, as the trail approaches Haystack Pass. I read in an official Glacier National Park hiking guide that this is the only uphill section, but that is a lie. It’s not strenuous, but it is the first of several uphill parts.
For me, this was not difficult. My parents stopped to rest a couple of times through this section, but everyone was still feeling good when we got to the top, and even managed to take a decent picture!
It’s still a long way from being the halfway point if you’re heading all the way to the Loop, but this is a really popular place to stop for lunch. There were several large groups strewn all over the rocks with their PB&Js and bottles of sunscreen. But we decided to get away from the crowds and keep going.
From Haystack Pass, the trail dips a little bit before continuing uphill for a ways. It crosses several mini waterfalls fed by snowmelt, covered in clusters of purple, fuchsia, orange, and yellow wildflowers. If fairies were real, they would live in these idyllic water alcoves that are all along the trail.
The trail eventually evens out as it continues its trek across the steep slope, giving tired hikers some more freedom to appreciate their surroundings. On the Highline Trail, it often feels as if the entirety of Glacier National Park is open to you for your visual consumption. Snow-capped and glaciated peaks in every direction. The Going-to-the-Sun Road so far below the trail you can’t hear or see it. The path perched so precariously on the side of the mountain that there is literally nothing – no tree, no bush, no boulder – obstructing the incredible view.
At every turn, we were either crossing another stream, wandering through a field of new flowers, or oggling at yet another mountain peak. Mountain goats scampered along the ridge high above, and marmots trundled along the trail with us as if we weren’t there at all. Snowfields were glistening above, and below!, the trail, with the massive rock face that was the Garden Wall an ever-present entity just to our right. Not a single foot of the Highline Trail was less than spellbinding.
At one point, the trail made its way through an avalanche field, a slope strewn with broken rocks tossed aside each winter by sheets of snow barreling downhill. It’s not the kind of place where we expected to be suddenly surrounded by high pitched chirping. My parents and I kept looking up into the sky or at the tops of the trees below us, convinced it was some kind of very talkative bird. But then we saw him – perched on a boulder, a ground squirrel. Chirping. And apparently, all of his friends hiding in the rock field were singing back to him. We had hiked right into the middle of a ground squirrel symphony!
Grinnell Glacier Overlook
So far, this was a pretty fabulous walk in the park – literally. But at the 7 mile point, that changed. This is where the Grinnell Glacier Overlook side trail shoots off. If you Google this trail, as I did before doing the Highline, you will see that everyone says that the Overlook side trail is strenuous. Everyone. No exceptions. But who I am to listen to the advice of the hordes of people who hiked it before me?
I thought “it’s only 0.6 miles. I can do anything for 0.6 miles!” It didn’t matter that I could actually see most of the trail, as it wound its way straight up the gravel cliff above the main Highline Trail. I wanted to see a glacier up close and personal and knew I’d regret it if I didn’t do this little side trail.
Because it’s optional, my parents made the wise choice to wait at the bottom for me. Since it would only be a 1.2 mile round trip, we figured I’d be up and back in 30 minutes. So they found a rock under a skinny tree in the shade while I proceeded to hike to a glacier.
0.6 miles uphill is one thing. 0.6 miles straight up 1000 feet, with lungs not use to that elevation, is an entirely different matter. Especially when it turns out that the signpost is wrong, and it’s actually closer to a full mile, one-way.
I walked (hiked, climbed, dragged myself up) for 30 seconds, and then rested (i.e. gasped for air) for 2 minutes. Repeat. Repeat an endless amount of times. And it wasn’t just me. Every person crazy enough to attempt the trail with me was in the same state – the marathon runner hiking just in front of me, the athletic college boys behind me – everyone was dying. Many people turned around and went back down, and I didn’t judge them at all.
And all the hikers on their way back down just kept saying the same thing to every breathless, red-faced hiker going up – “it’s hard, but the view is worth it!” Honestly, if any of us thought the view wasn’t going to be worth it, WHAT WERE WE DOING ON THIS TRAIL?!
Eventually, I did make it to the top. And the view was pretty incredible. The overlook is perched in a notch on the Continental Divide, right above the Salamander and Grinnell Glaciers. It offers an impressive view looking east over the Swiftcurrent Valley, and if you hike a little bit south on the face of Mt. Gould, you can see all four of the valley lakes (Upper Grinnell, Grinnell, Josephine, and Swiftcurrent).
Going back down the trail took a fraction of the time, but required even more focus since what goes straight up goes STRAIGHT back down.
What were my parents doing all this time? Making friends, a.k.a. playing with chipmunks! Two of the furry entertainers had decided that they thought my dad’s backpack was pretty awesome, and spent most of the time running around it, trying to figure out how to get inside. One of them even put his paws on the end of the water hose and put his mouth to it! Clearly, that little bugger knew how these backpacks worked!
After my jaunt up to the glacier, all three of us were getting weary, and the afternoon sun was definitely warm. But the views were still spectacular, so onward we went. Another three-quarters of a mile from the Overlook trail junction, the Highline Trail ends up at the Granite Park Chalet.
At one point, Glacier National Park had 9 of these back-country chalets, all dating from the early 1900s. They were places people could backpack to and have a more rustic overnight stay in the park, but not quite as rustic as tent camping. After the 2017 Sprague Fire burned down the Sperry Chalet, the Granite Park Chalet is the only one of these places remaining in the park.
For Highline hikers, it’s a beautiful place. And not just because it’s in a beautiful setting, and the log buildings are charming and make you think you’ve suddenly landed in Switzerland. But because it has a bathroom, sells water and snacks, and has an indoor lounge where you can sit and rest your feet before embarking on the last section of the trail.
The Loop Trail
From the Granite Park Chalet, it’s 4 more miles to the Loop parking lot. Here, the Highline trail actually branches off, and continues on for another 15ish miles to the northern park boundary. But this is when most Highline hikers, including us, turn onto the Loop trail.
Even though we were tired, up until this point all three of us agreed that the Highline Trail was absolutely spectacular. And on a day a little less hot, we would have thought the same thing for the next part of the trail too. But, despite being from the South, none of us like heat. The last four miles, the same ones our kayak guide has warned us about, the same four we decided to ignore when we chose to complete the entire trail, were a completely miserable four miles. Not because they were difficult, but because they are the hottest and driest of the whole trek.
For 4 miles, the trail descends through a burned area, meaning there are no trees to provide shade, no streams for fresh water, no bushes to offer any kind of cover whatsoever. The area was burned in 2003, so some of the underbrush has come back, but just enough to make you feel like you are in a very green desert.
The area is the least scenic part of the trail. Which actually says a lot about the rest of the trail, because it’s definitely still scenic – the commanding Heavens Peak is in view across the valley the entire time, and it is beautiful. Before the fire, when this was a heavily forested area, you wouldn’t have been able to see it all.
But the forest isn’t there now, and most hikers hit this section at the heat of the day, mid-afternoon. And, the trail goes down nearly 2000 feet in those 4 miles. It’s a dry, dusty, hot, toe-cramping, knee-bouncing downhill slog. And the only thing to do is to keep walking, in the hopes that you will eventually make it to the end.
I lost track of the mileage. But at some point that felt much farther than four miles, we finally ran into some other hikers, three girls around my age and a mom. One of the girls was clearly dehydrated, something that’s very common when hiking here. Oddly enough, their misery helped to distract us from our own misery. We weren’t dehydrated, just really hot. We stuck with them for a little bit in case they needed help, until we met up with even more hikers.
We just kept walking, and walking, and trudging along past dry streams and dead, shadeless trees. Then, when all of us came to the conclusion that something must be wrong, we had to have gone more than four miles, maybe we missed a turn – the trail did something unspeakable. It began going up. “Up?!? We’re supposed to go down!! The parking lot is below us!”
My mom’s spiky hair was drooping. My dad, who’s never met a trail he didn’t like, had been silent for a long time, a clear sign he was as ready to be off this trail as we were. And I was so hot in my athletic capris that I was minutes away from tearing them off and running down the mountain in underwear. (Ok not really, but heat does things to your brain and that was a really tempting thought). Up was not something we wanted this trail to do.
And then – there it was. The parking lot. We’d done it. The Highline Trail, one of America’s most scenic and famous trails, had been conquered.
Here’s the kicker – the 11-mile trip actually clocked in at 16 miles. 16 miles!! The trek from Logan Pass to the Loop parking lot, between the additional Grinnell Glacier side trail and not-100%-accurate trail postings, is far more than 11 miles. My parents deserve some kind of award. So that moment when we decided to not turn around after 2 miles, because we only had 9 left to go? Yeah. Ha ha.
Worth it? 100%. The views on the Highline Trail are unsurpassed by any other hike I’ve ever done in the park.
Difficult? As I said, it was the heat that almost did us in. The trail itself really isn’t hard, but if it’s summertime, be prepared for those last four miles. We weren’t expecting that section to be as draining as it was.
If you’re thinking about doing the Highline Trail during your trip to Glacier National Park, I hope this has been helpful to you!
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