above: part of the Highline Trail
We woke up early for our big day. Incidentally, we found a great web site with details about all of Glacier’s hikes… here’s Hiking Glacier‘s information about the Highline-Loop Trail. We headed out nice and early and had an easy drive (no tourist traffic yet!), arriving at The Loop parking area around 8AM. We knew that the free Glacier shuttles started running at 7AM but what we didn’t realize was that during the first hour it’s an express shuttle from the park entrance (Apgar Visitors Center) to Logan’s Pass, skipping all the stops in between. The shuttle that stops at The Loop starts at 8AM from Apgar which meant it wouldn’t arrive at The Loop until around 8:40AM. Fortunately, at 8:20AM one of the express shuttles saw us and nine other hikers waiting at The Loop and pulled over to let four of us on, filling all the remaining seats. We had been the first at the parking area so we were first on the shuttle while most of the others had to wait another 20 minutes. We arrived at Logan Pass, used the restroom, and hit the trail just before 9AM.
Near the beginning of the trail is its most famous section, where the trail is carved into the side of a mountain. The path is about four feet wide with a nearly vertical drop-off several hundred feet down to the Going-To-The-Sun Road below. There’s a cable attached to the wall to hold on to for extra security. Well, in truth it’s not a cable, it’s a long series of green rubber garden hoses all screwed together end-to-end!
Since I have a fear of heights I had been a bit nervous leading up to the hike, but wanted to try it anyway (Kathie of course had no concerns). Strangely (and happily) I had no problems at all with the cliff-hugging section! Once we finished the cliff section we looked back to see what we had accomplished. Below you can see another hiker making his way along the cliff at the far left side of the photo, while the morning sun was starting to peek around the mountains.
Since the cliff is famous and is fairly close to the visitors center, there were quite a few visitors traveling the trail. However, many aren’t interested in a 12 mile hike, so after the cliff they start turning back to the visitors center. The further we progressed, the fewer people we saw along our way, though there were still a fair number of people who stuck it out for the whole hike. I’m starting to sound like a broken record (for those who remember what records are) but the views along the trail are just amazing! We had to stop often for a “scenery break” to look around and admire the landscape for a few minutes before moving on.
At the top of a long uphill switchback we arrived at Haystack Pass. Sitting on a rock along the trail was a young mountain goat, whose mother was grazing nearby on the opposite side of the trail. A hiker in front of us who obviously knows a bit more about this kind of thing than we do advised us not to proceed along the trail just yet, since we would then be between the mother and her kid. The mother seemed peaceful enough, but not wanting to tempt fate we followed her advice and waited until the kid caught up to mom along the other side of the trail.
In addition to the mountain goats, we saw a variety of smaller critters all along our hike. There were plenty of ground squirrels (which we still refer to as squeasels; see our Pinnacles National Park blog entry for why), chipmunks, and hoary marmots all along the trail. One marmot was chilling out on a big rock getting some sun, and I’m pretty sure it was posing for photos! The trail is known for black bears and grizzly bears, but fortunately we didn’t come across any. It’s also well known for bighorn sheep and I was a little surprised not to spot any all day.
Halfway through the 12 mile hike we were feeling pretty happy with our progress! We found a nice flat rock to sit on and eat our lunch while enjoying the views. We also passed a side trail which led steeply up the side of the mountain to our right. It climbs 900 feet in just six-tenths of a mile, to the top of the “Garden Wall” which divides the east and west halves of Glacier Park. From the top of the wall you can look down on the Grinnell Glacier in the eastern part of the park. It’s supposed to be an amazing sight, but we knew better than to push ourselves too hard. Besides, in a couple days we’d be hiking to Grinnell Glacier ourselves and would see it up close!
Finally at the 8 mile mark we arrived at the Granite Park Chalet for a much-needed bathroom break at the pit toilet nearby. The chalet was built in 1915 and has eight guest rooms, but no other facilities like electricity or running water. For $180 per night we could have rented a room here… as long as we brought our food, water, and other supplies with us! The only amenity is a propane stove in the shared kitchen.
We happened to arrive at the Chalet just as a park ranger and a team of horses were dropping off supplies of packaged goods (you can buy bottled water and snacks at the Chalet). In our world of Amazon Prime, with UPS and FedEx overnight shipping, seeing deliveries by horse is another reminder of how remote some of these places are.
The last part of our hike was four miles of non-stop downhill hiking in direct afternoon sun. We spent much of the time concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other! Descending 2,400 feet over four miles gets hard on the knees after a while, especially since we were already tired from the first eight miles of hiking. Previously this section was through a dense forest, but a massive fire a few years ago burned away all the trees, making for a very hot and dusty end to the hike. At one point the team of horses came past us heading back to the main road, having completed their delivery of supplies up to the chalet. We thought about hopping on the last two horses for the rest of the way down but figured the ranger wouldn’t approve so we trudged on.
At long last we arrived back at our car at The Loop, feeling exhausted but excited to have completed this amazing hike. Since it was afternoon the area was teeming with tourists looking for a place to park their cars, so we quickly vacated our spot and headed on back to camp to take care of the dogs, get some dinner, and stay off our feet for a while!