The Highline Trail – Glacier National Park
On the second day of our trip, the alarm went off at 3:45AM and we were out the door before 4:30AM. Remember when I said parking is intense at Glacier National Park? Well, parking at the Logan Pass Visitor Center – about half way on the Going to the Sun Road – fills up well before 7AM, sometimes even 6:30AM depending on the day. Parking here and early is essential if you want to experience the popular Highline Trail. Clearly, this trail requires a bit of advanced planning and there are a few more to consider.
The Highline Trail from Logan Pass to The Loop is 11.6 miles long with over 2,500 ft elevation gain. Hike is ranted as difficult more for the distance than the elevation gain since it is gradual over the distance. There is also the ability to add on the intense Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail which adds 1.2 miles more to the total journey – the 0.6 mile climb is notorious due to the 1000 ft elevation gain in the short distance.
Ok, here is the deal with this trail. It can be done as a one way hike (11.6 miles) or a there and back (15 miles) and can be cut at various spots. While the final destination is the Granite Park Chalet, some prefer to stop at the Grinnell Glacier Overlook but from what I have read, this seems to be reserved for those doing this trail as a there and back.
- One Way (+) shorter distance, full trail, new scenery on return (-) need to arrange for transport via shuttle
- There and Back (+) can complete without needing shuttle (-) may miss seeing entire trail, same scenery on return, longer
- People who visited in 2020 had no choice but to do the there and back because the shuttle was not operating and reviews were still positive.
- Whichever you choose, you will not be disappointed!
We had reservations for the shuttle but in order to use it, the reservation needed to be validated (get a colored wristband), starting at 7AM that day. Since we would be tackling an incredibly long hike, we would be starting the hike by 6AM so we would miss the validation in the morning and therefore not be able to ride the shuttle. I read that you can validate your reservation up to 72 hours ahead for this reason so I asked the park ranger who said it was not possible. When I told her the situation again, and emphasized that this is the most popular trail in the park and taking the shuttle is a part of this one way trail that requires a 6AM start time which is before the 7AM open, she shrugged and said that “maybe” the guy would let us but probably not. There was a gentleman sitting by the bus stop clearly with the validation/wristband power. I explained the situation – that we would not be at this bust stop at 7AM but instead an hour into the Highline Trail, he nodded and hooked us up with red wristbands for tomorrow. Was that so hard? Thank you sir! Please be mindful of steps you have to take to ensure you have a positive trail experience.
We drove the Going to the Sun Road in complete darkness, occasionally spotting lights of a car far in front of in the distance. We could tell we were gaining elevation but without a reference point, it was difficult to tell how high we really were. Driving in the dark certainly eliminated the fear factor that I read about since it is apparently a narrow road between rock and the edge. At one point we were able to count the line of cars we could see by their headlights. I had no idea how many parking spots we were all fighting for but I was certainly getting nervous leaving around 4:20AM was not early enough.
And after all that driving, we finally spilled into the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot along with all the other cars. I would say by our arrival at 5:50AM, the parking lot was about 25% full and only getting fuller every minute that passed – I think for sure it was going to be full by 6:30AM today. I can understand why people nap now before starting the hike – it was so dark and cold we were bundled and I purchased headlamps right before we left so we were good to go and got started on the trail just after 6AM. Since we were doing this as a through hike, the end at The Loop was 11.6 miles away. Let’s go!
The beginning started as an easy and flat trail. Since it was so dark, it was difficult to see the peril of steep cliffs and drops offs that I read about. The path was wide and there was even a garden hose for a railing for several minutes of the trail. Though the garden hose disappeared rather quickly, more quickly than I thought it would, the sun began to lighten up the sky as we got our first look into the environment arising from the night.
I recalled being at Lake McDonald wondering what it was like to be in those mountain tops and here we were – the Highline Trail literally takes hikers along the tops of the mountain peaks. One advantage of being up and out this early was to witness how the sky changes in the morning and reveal the mountain tops – just look at the colors in the sky.
This walk was just views all over the place – a few miles in and so far, the trail was very pleasant! I read advice from someone to not rush through the hike but to make sure to look around for wildlife. Shortly after thinking about this, I looked up and spotted a large big horned ram grazing and then he looked right up and stared at us. It was incredible to be staring at this giant ram – the horns were amazing. We did not stay long as with each second that passed the ram’s stare felt like it was piercing our soul so we grabbed a photo and moved on. I took what I thought was a great picture with the Nikon but it ended up blurry (disappointing!). I was hopeful we would see more.
The trail started to journey gradually up and the views continued to just be amazing. The terrain would vary from in and out of the trees to large rocky walls, to miles of grass and wildflowers. Oh, and the occasional poo – just nature reminding us that the animals are there.
And then there was an actual reminder – we saw hikers in front of us walking the opposite direction and they said there is a big horn ram on the trail following them. They would turn around to see if he was still there, and the ram would stop, but the second they turned around to continue on, the ram would keep following – a curious ram! Kevin had the idea to make noise to scare the ram of the trail since there were now so many of us against one ram and it worked like a charm. I wish I got a video of this cause it was pretty darn hilarious. The ram moved down the mountain and we were able to continue on our way.
Three hours later, we reached the Grinnell Glacier Overlook between mile 7 and mile 8. Labeled as 0.6 miles with an 1000 ft gain, I read this was a pretty terrible part of the trail but completely optional and completely worth it for the view of Grinnell Glacier at the top. We did not come all the way here to not attempt this so off we went.
And I have to say, this was really tough and as many people alluded, I think it is definitely longer than 0.6 miles which makes a big difference during this all out climb. I would literally count to ten, twenty, or thirty steps to force myself up before taking one of many breaks. About halfway up the climb, a group of big horned ram were just chilling and enjoying the morning. These guys I got a photo of!
But eventually, I had to stop taking photos and continue the climb. It took me almost an entire hour to get up this part! Way longer than I would have liked and pretty embarrassed to admit but it is what my body allowed me to do. When we got to the top two things happened – this view and the polar vortex.
It was so beautiful and so cold – the wind was so strong and so arctic that it made it difficult to tolerate. Kevin noted where all the people were huddled and the rocks were breaking the wind. We selected our rock and enjoyed being off our feet. Wow, that was pretty crazy, the view was epic, and the thought of going down that hill was terrifying. We were starving so we took this opportunity to enjoy the glacier and eat our lunch.
Once again, those way to friend chipmunks knew it was lunch time and got so close to us – literally on our shoe – in hopes of a feeding. Please do not feed the animals!
Even though we were behind a rock to break the wind, it was still really cold so we did not stay up here long after we finished eating. We started the journey down which ended up being less terrifying – though still scary especially at the wet rock parts – than I thought it would be and we made it down in good time. When we arrived back at the trail sign, almost two hours had passed since we started this optional part of the trail. It certainly added a lot of time and achy muscles to this trail but it was worth it.
Shortly after, we arrived at the chalet. Nothing was open when we were arrived so we used the bathrooms and continued to The Loop, which was still 4 miles away. Kevin did the quick math and according to our watches, this was going to be at least 14 miles of hiking – this would definitely be our longest trail to date.
The rest of the trail from the Chalet to The Loop was all downhill through switchbacks. There was a point where Kevin noted a larger bird – looked like a pheasant – and while we discussed the bird a lady a few feet away corrected us – “actually, it is a grouse”. The way she said it, it was as if the pokemon music was set to start and we were about to go to poke battle. We could not stop laughing.
At this point, fall was starting to show its colors and the leaves were starting to change to yellow and orange.
This was starting to feel like the longest 4 miles of the entire trail despite all the downhill speed we had. Eventually, a sign indicating The Loop Trail parking area at the Going to the Sun Road was near – another burst of energy to get us through the final stretch.
And then the Going to the Sun Road appeared as we exited The Loop Trailhead at 1:30PM. The Highline Trail took us 7.5 hours for 14 miles – crazy!
With jello legs, we made our way to the bus station and waited in the sun for the bus to pick us up. As we got our wristbands on, groups of people indicated being unaware of the reservation system – even though it is plastered everywhere – on signs, the website, the visitor centers – everywhere. Reading is hard folks! The signs also indicated that buses can be full and I already told Kevin that if there was only one spot, I would send him to get the car and pick me up on the way down – I did not want to wait! The shuttle comes every 15 – 30 minutes and lucky for us, a bus arrived after 15 minutes with only two open spots. Even though other people were waiting, we were there first and had no problem hopping right on.
It was certainly a longer bus ride than I recall driving at 5AM in the morning but wow was this epic. You did not have to hike one trail in Glacier National Park – you could simply drive the Going to the Sun Road and have the most stunning views of the park. Thank god it was pitch back in the morning as this was some crazy driving. Road to Hana prepared us well but seeing this shuttle navigate the road with no problem meant we would be ok.
When we arrived at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, we could not believe how crowded it was and how many cars were circling for a spot. We had a shark that was willing to wait while our legs settled into the seats. With someone eager to take our spot, we drove away to start our descent down the Going to the Sun Road.
This trail really highlights the beauty of Glacier National Park and if you are able, is a much for your visit. Later in the trip, we visited the beginning of the trail again and was surprised to see that the Grinnell Glacier Overlook was closed due to ice conditions so be mindful to always check trail conditions before starting the trail.