Glacier National Park Traverse

In 2018, I hiked about 183 miles through Glacier National Park’s majestic backcountry—from the notorious Nyack/Coal Creek area to the remote 30-mile Boulder Pass trail. This was one of the most beautiful and challenging backpacking trips I’ve undertaken. Glacier is a very special place and, barring a few very popular areas, you can be sure that there will be relatively few people, wildlife galore, and mind-blowingly spectacular mountain vistas… As far as I’m concerned, a trip of this kind is the only way to really see the “crown of the continent.” It’s certainly far preferable to spending your time in Glacier driving bumper to bumper along the increasingly crowded Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Here’s the itinerary for what I’ve taken to calling the Glacier National Park Traverse (GNPT).

0. Permits at Two Medicine
1. Two Medicine to Upper Nyack
2. Upper Nyack to Middle Fork Flathead River
3. Middle Fork Flathead River to Coal Creek
4. Coal Creek to Beaver Woman Lake
5. Beaver Woman Lake to Atlantic Creek
6. Atlantic Creek to Reynold’s Creek
7. Reynold’s Creek to Many Glacier
8. Many Glacier to Elizabeth Lake
9. Elizabeth Lake to Waterton River
10. Waterton River to Kintla Lake
11. Hitching Out

As you can see in the map, the full traverse completes the loop to Bowman Lake and then heads south on the Highline Trail to Granite Park and the Garden Wall before ending at Logan Pass. Unfortunately, I ended my trip a few days early thanks to disintegrating trail runners and a slowly emerging pain in my right leg’s tibia anterior. The last 50+ miles of my original itinerary would have taken me through all seven of the park’s sub-regions. The shorter version of the trip I completed still took me through six of the sub-regions.

Like any national park, Glacier’s trails are very well defined and well maintained, with one important exception: the Nyack/Coal Creek area is deliberately unmaintained and is extremely overgrown in places. Sometimes the trail is difficult to follow and there are plenty of fallen trees to climb around. Also, there are no footbridges over rivers and streams, so this is probably not a section of the park you should contemplate hiking until early to mid-August, when the violence of the spring snowmelt has subsided. However, because the area is less popular with backcountry hikers, it was convenient for me to begin my trip here. Many of the campsites still had room when I casually walked into the permit off at 3.00 PM the day before I set off… and if a desired campsite was already full, this is the only section of the park where undesignated camping is allowed (with a permit). This meant that I was able to secure the first few sites I needed with very little trouble—and without having to arrive at the permit office by 4.00 or 5.00 AM, as many people do these days. Glacier’s permit system can be a bit daunting to navigate but, once you lock in the first few days, competition drops off. As I discovered, most people only spend a few nights on the trail; very few plan a two-week trip and 14 nights is the maximum allowed in a single season.

Date

Section

Mileage

Aug. 1 Two Medicine North Shore Trailhead (TNE) – Upper Nyack (UPN) 17.5
Aug. 2 Upper Nyack (UPN) – Undesignated Camping near Nyack Creek Trailhead (NCE)* 15.4
Aug. 3 Undesignated Camping near Nyack Creek Trailhead (NCE) – Coal Creek Campground (COA) 11.8
Aug. 4 Coal Creek Campground (COA) – Beaver Woman Lake (BEA) 10.5
Aug. 5 Beaver Woman Lake (BEA) – Atlantic Creek (ATL) 18.8
Aug. 6 Atlantic Creek (ATL) – Reynold’s Creek (REY) 25.7
Aug. 7 Reynold’s Creek (REY) – Many Glacier (MAN) 15.8
Aug. 8 Many Glacier (MAN) – Elizabeth Lake FT (ELF) 14.8
Aug. 9 Elizabeth Lake FT (ELF) – Waterton River (WAT) 21.9
Aug. 10 Waterton River (WAT) – Kintla Lake HD (KIN) 24.6
Aug. 11 Kintla Lake HD (KIN) – Bowman Lake HD (BOW)** 13.4 (6.3 from KIN to KLE; 7.1 from BLE to BOW)
Aug. 12 Bowman Lake HD (BOW) – Waterton River (WAT) 15
Aug. 13 Waterton River Campground – Granite Park Campground 22
Aug. 14 Granite Park Campground – Logan Pass (take the shuttle out) 8

* The Nyack/Coal Creak area is the only section of Glacier National Park in which undesignated camping is allowed with a permit. However, you’ll have trouble finding a decent spot and the park ranger who issued my permit insisted that I use something called a WAG bag to pack out feces. In the end, I didn’t end up using it, as I passed plenty off pit toilets at campgrounds along the way.
** I had originally planned to hitch a ride on the gravel road from Kintla Lake to Bowman Lake—but instead ended my trip and hitched all the way down to Apgar. Becauase of this, the mileage listed here does not include the gravel road and assumes that anyone who plans to turn this into a loop would hitch a ride to Bowman Lake—if only because the mosquitos in this area are the absolute worst I experienced anywhere in the park.