Trip Review: Glacier’s North Circle Loop (Modified)
Trip Overview & Specs
- Region: Glacier National Park — Northwestern Montana
- Date of Visit: August 3rd-8th, 2021
- Total Length: 70–75 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: ~12,000 feet
- AllTrails Link: https://bit.ly/3qz7yMz
A few years ago three friends of mine (shout out to Jeannie, Kate & Liv) posted some of the most unbelievable photos I had ever seen of a national park in the United States. Spectacular mountain passes, glacial blue lakes, abundant wildlife— I knew I needed to see this place. It turned out to be Montana’s Glacier National Park. So, deep in the depths of quarantine living at my parents’ house, I finally found the time to think through planning a backcountry adventure in Glacier. I can happily say the park, and the state of Montana in general, did not disappoint.
With that, I hope the following can serve as helpful and illustrative guide & narrative of one of my favorite backpacking trips ever to one of the most beautiful regions of the US.
Pre-Trip Planning & Process
Preliminary Research — Permit Application & Route Planning
In planning, I came across a number of appealing routes. Truthfully, from some of the blogs I had read, the western half of the park, particularly the area surrounding Bowman and Kintla lakes, was particularly captivating. However, with a bit more research the “North Circle Loop”, a 6 day, 5 night trek emanating from Many Glacier in the northeast section of the park, began to stand out as an all-star among Glacier’s multi-day backpacking trips.
In the application process, facilitated by a lottery that this year opened in March, I had the ability to list 5 itineraries that you are interested in, across a range of dates. I listed the North Circle Loop as my top itinerary, followed by other modifications of the loop and then by loops around Bowman & Kintla lakes. From what I had read, it is notoriously hard to get your exact chosen itinerary and that, even if you get it, conditions in the park can change your itinerary the day of (which we would later experience). Luckily, I heard back a couple weeks that, to my delight, I had gotten my first choice, and thus the planning began for the North Circle Loop.
*For any other prospective trekkers, I found the following blog posts to be helpful in my planning and itinerary development.
- North Circle Loop: https://backpackers-review.com/trip-reports/glacier-north-circle-backpacking/
- North Circle Loop: https://www.10adventures.com/backpacking/glacier-national-park/north-circle/
- Boulder Pass: http://enjoyyourparks.com/boulderpassglacierpark.html
- Bowman Lake to Kintla Lake: https://www.fantasiummedia.com/blog/backpacking-glacier-national-park
Getting to the Park
My good friends, Sam & Joe, and I spent two nights in Big Fork, MT to prep for the trip. Big Fork is a lovely town at the northern end of Flathead Lake and made for a beautiful and convenient starting point. I do use the word convenient lightly in that there are few affordable lodging options that are closer than 3–4 hours from Many Glacier, where we were starting our journey. We loaded up on food and gear in Kalispell, the closest major town to the park, and the next morning departed at 3:30AM for Many Glacier, where we would leave our car for the duration of the trip. Once to the park entrance, we spent a couple of sleepy hours on the famed “Going-to-the-Sun Road.”
Going-to-the-Sun Road is a legendary cross-park pass that leads you through some of the best views in the central / southern parts of Glacier National Park. Unfortunately for us, and likely many backpackers, we did most of the drive in the dark, further hampered by smoke blown in from fires in California & Oregon. However, we were blessed to see a couple of grizzly bears playing in a meadow near Saint Mary Lake, where we stopped to take in the ursine display.
Backcountry Permits & Itinerary Changes
We arrived to the Many Glacier Ranger Office at around 7:15am, 45 minutes prior to its opening. We had heard that if you didn’t find parking by 7:30am at Many Glacier you could be shit outta luck, so we tried to give ourselves a decent buffer. Even with that, there were about 3–4 groups in front of us, mostly those seeking walk-up permits.
A few observations about getting your permit the day of:
- For the walk-up groups, the rangers need to work with each group to find a route and itinerary that works for them, given the sites available and the group’s capabilities.
- Each group needs to watch a wilderness safety video which takes about 10 minutes.
- Onboarding each group took anywhere from 10–20 minutes.
- If you are in fact starting your trip that morning, and have a long first day, it is actually advantageous to be as far up in line as possible.
After speaking with one of the rangers, we quickly found out that we were going to have a change of plan, opening my eyes to the variability of backpacking in Glacier. Ptarmigan Tunnel, our planned path from Many Glacier to Elizabeth Lake, was unfortunately closed due to bear activity. As soon as we saw this, we realized there were two options: 1) drive north an hour to Chief Mountain (CME) and hike south to Elizabeth Lake through the Belly River Valley or 2) take the long way round and hike over Red Gap Pass, passing Poia lake, on the way to Elizabeth Lake. There are pros and cons to both of these routes, the former being shorter but requiring hitchhiking on the way back and the latter being much longer on the first day but nixing the hitchhiking on the last day.
Unsure of whether we’d be able to hitch a ride as three disgusting guys with huge packs on Day 6, and feeling the optimism of Day 1, we opted to drive 5 minutes to trailhead for Poia Lake, leading us up and over Red Gap Pass. This route added about 8–9 miles to our day, which was set to be 11.7 miles without the added mileage.
Day 1 — Many Glacier ➞ Elizabeth Lake (Head) via Red Gap Pass
- Length: 19–21 Miles
- Elevation: ~3000 Up | ~2500 Down
- Food Storage: Bear Hang
In order to take the route via Red Gap Pass, you need to first navigate to the Apikuni Falls parking lot, which hosts both the trailhead to Apikuni Falls and Poia Lake. We made the unfortunate mistake of not realizing that there were two trails and headed straight up to Apikuni Falls before realizing we were on the wrong trail. Nothing like a couple extra miles to make Day 1 a true marathon! Regardless of our mistake, the views of the falls were fantastic in addition to a furry friend that paid us a visit on the trail.
Once we got ourselves on the right trail, we found the start to be quite pleasant. The hike to Poia Lake (about 6 miles) is beautiful and goes through meadows, wooded cover, brush and provides views of some of Many Glacier’s peaks as you begin to wind your way up to the lake. There is a small campground there that looks like it has about three sites. We broke for lunch at the lake, which doesn’t have much of a beach, but enough to sit and cool our feet off. If I were to do this trip again, and had more scheduling flexibility, I would probably try to snag a night at Poia Lake before continuing on to Elizabeth Lake.
The meadow following Poia Lake is beautiful and looks like prime moose and bear country. We came across very fresh bear scat and the sheer density of the willows indicates to me that there were certainly some moose that we just couldn’t see from our vantage point. Wildflowers scattered the foreground, a theme that would delightfully persist.
Emerging from the winding river valley that feeds Poia Lake (with about 100 “hey bears” under our belts), we slogged up the switchbacks leading to Red Gap Pass, which start after about the 10 mile mark from the start of the trail. The hardest part about Red Gap Pass is mental — it’s challenging to determine your progress on the trail as you approach the pass. For a while, it felt impossibly far. However, about a half mile from the pass it becomes abundantly clear that you are about to summit, and we were able to power through to the epic, windy and hazy overlook.
Here, we caught a distant glimpse of the first of four (4) mountain goats we would see during our time in Glacier and also got up close with some unbelievably beautiful spring water stretches — the kind that remind me of when water touches desert in Arizona. Wildflowers, butterflies, lush moss and a huge variety of insects socialized as we lumbered down toward Elizabeth Lake.
The descent down from Red Gap Pass is aided by stunning scenery but tested everyone’s knees aggressively was a mental grind all the way down. Though we didn’t know it yet, there was a huge amount of edible berries on this section of the trail, thimbleberries in particular.
Thankful for the long days in northwestern Montana (light until 9:30–10pm), we arrived to Elizabeth Lake (Head) at around 7:30pm with about 1.5 miles to walk south on the lake’s west side to get to the “Head” where we were camping. The lake is impressive and the views from the trail are excellent, unlike other portions of the park where you end up being pretty deep in the brush when lakeside. You definitely want to DEET up here, especially in the evening — the mosquitos are aggressive. Upon arrival we quickly set up camp and found our way to our tents for much needed and deserved rest.
Day 2 — Elizabeth Lake (Head) ➞ Mokowanis Lake via Ptarmigan Trail and Stoney Indian Pass Trail
- Length: 11.4 Miles
- Elevation: ~378 Up | ~290 Down
- Food Storage: Bear Hang
Our party awoke to a refreshed perspective the following morning. I’ve never slept so well on a camping trip, thanks to sheer exhaustion. We resolved to enjoy a slow morning of oatmeal, freeze-dried eggs and mochas. Sam and I opted to take a swim and do some yoga on the rocky beach while Joe tried his luck with his fly rod — boy did he have himself a day, landing a beautiful artic grayling (see below). Elizabeth Lake (Head) provides an ideal fishing set-up — a cold stream flowing into a steep drop off, a nice place for trout and grayling to snack on bugs and other nutrients that get caught in the stream, while remaining in deep, cold waters.
We eased out of the campground around noon, noting that the hike to Mokowanis Lake was quite flat, giving us something to cheer about. The first half of the hike, until the river crossing at Cosley Lake, is extremely pleasant. Thimble berries, roaring rivers and a few impressive waterfalls dominate the scenery. Once we got past the river crossing, the brush was quite dense, but the berries persisted and provided a much needed snack.
We arrived to Mokowanis Lake in the early afternoon, around 3 or 4pm. We were quick to grab the remaining campsite and get our tents laid out. Some water from my camelback had unfortunately gotten to some of my clothes, which I laid out to dry. This is where we got our first taste of Glacier’s fickle weather. Slow to move due to the stunning views of the lake, rain clouds snuck up on us and quickly doused our relaxation plans, forcing us to make a mad dash to set up our tents and get what we could inside them before everything got completely soaked. We were fortunate that the rain let up after not too long and cleared up the air quality in the process.
Mokowanis Lake is utterly stunning, especially under the dramatic lighting of storm clouds. And Joe, again, had good luck with his fly rod, and was able to reel in what we believe was a cutthroat trout. Though he didn’t get to hold the fish, but he touched the leader so, “count it” we did.
Day 3 — Mokowanis Lake ➞ Margaret Lake ➞ Stoney Indian Lake via Stoney Indian Pass Trail
Length: 6.80 Miles + 3 Mile Side Trip
Elevation: ~2410 Up | 1080 Down
Food Storage: Bear Box
After spending the past few months feverishly studying the map of our route, I had noted that there were two lakes near the Mokowanis Lake campground that appeared to be the products of direct glacial run-off. A quick Google search rendered stunning photos of both Margaret Lake and Ipasha Lake — I knew that if we had the legs, a side trip to at least Margaret Lake would be in order.
To access Margaret Lake, and probably Ipasha, you continue down the Mokowanis Lake trail, where raspberries, thimbleberries and huckleberries are abundant. Getting to the lake aside, we were quickly rewarded with views of the falls descending down from Margaret Lake, which are wildly impressive. Hiking at least to the falls is highly recommended in my opinion.
As the trail continues, it begins to dissipate into a dry creek bed, which we happily scrambled up without packs on. The waterfalls here are somewhat reminiscent of Havasupai for any who have ventured to that special canyon in Arizona (high praise I know!). Sedimentary blue waters down a maroon staircase make for quite the view.
By the time you reach the top of the falls, it is pretty clear you are close to something special. There’s not much trail, just light signs of where humans and animals prefer to walk. Eventually, you we caught our first glimpse of Margaret Lake, which was a truly breathtaking sight. There did not appear to be a formal trail down to the lakeside that we could see, but there were signs of previous bushwhacking that we were happy to hobble through to get to our destination.
Skinny dipping quickly ensued and, to our surprise, the water was cold but not painfully so. We were able to swim out to the rocky outcrop in the image above and soak up the sun and the overarching awe of the place.
Fortunately, stellar views would continue to persist for our actual hike that day, though as great views often do, they would come at a hefty elevation gradient. Stony Indian Pass, though the shortest mileage of the trip, was easily one of our hardest days hiking, punctuated by consistently steep climbs and unrelenting switchbacks. Multiple hikers passing us on the way down reiterated that the ascent would suck, but that it would be worth it. And it was — with every ridgeline the views improved, yielding waterfalls in the foreground and revealing valley-bottom lakes in the background.
Once we reached Stoney Indian Pass, the descent to Stoney Indian Lake was quite friendly as far as descents go, though the blisters earned on Day 1 were really starting to make their voices heard. The lake is much smaller than both Elizabeth and Mokowanis Lakes, but beautiful in its own right. The campsites were all filled, but we were able to find space that worked fine for the three of us. Though the group’s energy was fairly depleted, I had used my camping mug to pick as many berries as possible throughout the day. At the food prep area, sing my Jet Boil, we reduced the berries, adding chocolate and our last remaining Pop Tart. The hereby christened “Wild Berry Crumble” did not disappoint.
Day 4 — Stoney Indian Lake ➞ Fifty Mountain via the Waterton Valley Trail
- Length: 8.20 Miles
- Elevation: ~2800 Up | ~1725 Down
- Food Storage: Bear Box
I’ll preface this section of the hike by saying it was certainly the hardest day, for a number of reasons. The hike to Fifty Mountain is as steep as Stoney Indian, but longer and unfortunately, heavy haze hampered our views. Much of this hike is spent in thick brush & cover, but with tons of ripe berries. The descent from Stoney Indian Lake until you begin to climb up to the pass would have been a dangerous place to encounter a bear, which we fortunately did not. We managed to pick our biggest batch of berries to date, which would prove useful that evening.
When you come over the pass on the way to Fifty Mountain, it offers a really unique terrain that we had not yet encountered and that I would describe as alpine meadow. The expanse was dominated by grasses, massive boulders and marmots who scurried across rock cover. We would later learn, thanks to our friend Jim, that much of the grass in the meadow was in fact wild onion / chives, which we happily munched on and chopped up in our freeze-dried meals later — anything to spice up another night of “Rice & Chicken.”
The Fifty Mountain campground is dusty but has phenomenal views of some of the best mountains in this stretch of the Rockies, which we got to appreciate in the morning once the haze had cleared. It’s also important to note that when we went, the creek that runs through the campground was mostly dry. There was a more abundant water resource about a half mile back up the trail, which we marched back to to fill up as much water as we could carry. Meanwhile, Sam continued to prove that he didn’t need much water to take a full bath. When life gives you lemons…
The night at Fifty Mountain turned out to be beautiful and with good company to boot. We reconvened with our friends Jim & Maria that we had met at Mokowanis Lake and connected with Craig, a kind 72-year old man who had embarked on a solo journey in the backcountry, putting all my aches and pains into perspective. We played the first of many games of Euchre and fended off overly aggressive mule deer before knocking off.
Day 5 — Fifty Mountain to Granite Park via the Highline Trail
- Length: 11.9 Miles
- Elevation: 1780 Up | 1910 Down
- Food Storage: Bear Box
The sky was moody on the morning of the 5th day, providing clear skies and dramatic lighting. The park as a whole looked both menacing and awe-inspiring as we packed up and hoofed off to soak up possibly the best views we had seen thus far.
We kicked the hike out of Fifty Mountain with a quick side trip to Sue Lake. Jim valiantly held things down with our packs allowing Sam, Joe, Maria and myself to ascend to the overlook unburdened by added weight. The wind howled as we made this quick climb that, like all side trips we had made thus far, was completely worth it.
As we had learned from previous days in Glacier, the park just doesn’t quit. It’s scale is hard to fathom at times. As we marched along the Highline Trail, clouds raced across the sky with equal pace, creating intriguing lighting and dramatic views while Queen and David Bowie powered us onward via Joe’s speaker.
When you reach Granite Park, there is a fork that either takes you to the campground or to the Chalet. The campground is located much further down at a pretty steep clip. We had hypothesized all day about what the Chalet might actually hold, and so once we had set up camp at the valley floor, Joe, Jim and I hiked back up to the Chalet to see what the hype was all about. We had heard there was a “snack lady” and we were in need of her services.
The Chalet turned out to be mostly cabins, toilets and a kitchen & hangout area. Though the general store technically closed at 5:00pm and was only supposed to serve guests of the Chalet (not the lowly campground), the its patrons were nice enough to take us in. All snacks were reasonably priced, a surprise, and as such we stocked up on chips, Snickers, peanut M&Ms and numerous other goodies. A guest at the Chalet noticed that we looked filthy and potentially malnourished and donated two freeze dried meals to our party — Pork Jambalaya! We found a picnic bench and watched as the clouds skirted across the sky, stuffing our faces with the fruits of our labor. We soaked in the best view of the day as Bird Woman Falls gushed in the background.
Granite Park was the coming together of many trail friends, notably Maria & Jim with whom we had now spent three nights and Renee & Brendan who we befriended at Stoney Indian Campground. Rain potential was high and Joe, getting a little bit of service on his phone, informed the group that the weather forecast called for rain starting that night and continuing all the way through our last day on the trail. Testing our luck, we feasted on the remaining food we had and worked through a few exhilarating, high-stakes hands of “rock poker.” None of us proved to be a match for Renee, who took home all the granite that Granite Park had to offer. We retired to our tents where, quite literally as soon as everyone zipped up for the night, the rain settled in — it wouldn’t let up until we were fully out of the park.
Day 6 — Fifty Mountain ➞ Many Glacier
- Length: ~8.1 Miles
- Elevation: 1109 Up | 2584 Down
Almost everyone woke up around 5am, the majority of us sleeping on full waterbeds below our tent floors thanks to the storm. We had originally thought we might be able to get out early and pack up during a break in the rain, but it became abundantly clear clear that it was going to be a wet pack out in addition to hike out. Thankfully, the energy in the group was positive, light and found humor in the wretched conditions. We did our best to pack up gear in our tents and apply rain covers, but in the end, everyone’s stuff got soaked from top to bottom. With no time for breakfast, our group of now seven trudged up and out of Granite Park and over the last ascent of the trip.
Hiking out in the rain created a very unique environment in which to appreciate the landscape we were in. In some places, visibility was dramatic and exciting. In others, there was no visibility whatsoever (see below), though you knew you were walking on a sheer cliff. Spirits remained high and the group sang and laughed over Swiftcurrent Pass and down into the Many Glacier valley.
During our descent, we came across an onslaught of bull moose. The first took in the sights at slightly higher elevation, and we managed to bushwhack our way around him. However, the second was a truly intimidating encounter. This moose, significantly larger than the first, deliberately rose from laying down to acknowledge our presence, perhaps 100 feet off the trail. We bunched up into a human caterpillar and scurried off to a more covered part of the trail, but I can say confidently that, given the way that the moose looked at us, it was easily the scariest wildlife encounter I’ve faced. A third bull became visible about 15 minutes later, but fortunately paid us no mind, happily munching on grass and birch leaves.
There aren’t many photos from this final stretch, largely due to inclement weather, but as we dropped below the cloud cover, it was clear that this was a region of the park worth revisiting. Waterfalls raged down the canyon walls, supercharged by the much needed rainfall, converging at the valley floor in an epic confluence.
We knew we were close to being done when we started seeing brave day-hikers draped in ponchos begin to pass us in the opposite direction on the trail and soon enough, a parking lot emerged. Our friends Jim and Maria thankfully threw us, soaked and exhausted, on the bed of Jim’s pick-up truck and gave us a ride back to the Apikuni Falls parking lot, saving us what would have been a brutal 2 mile additional stretch. Thankful for dry clothes, food, and the comfort of Joe’s enormous truck, we began the long drive to Whitefish, and then Bozeman, where we would spend the remainder of the week.
Every time I go backpacking, I learn something new about how to do it better next time, but also something about myself and the way I want to live my life. Below are a few takeaways on what I learned about backcountry exploration as well as ways in which a backcountry experience can teach you valuable lessons about life:
- Pack weight matters a lot. Our packs definitely could have been lighter on day 1 and our bodies would have been way better off if we had better optimized for weight. On shorter trips, this hasn’t hampered me as much, but definitely caught up to us in Glacier.
- Bears make camping a lot harder. Having to hang your food, store it and organize your pack to support only having food in the food prep area gets old after a while, but is of course immensely important.
- More food is better. Opt to bring more food than you think you’ll need as opposed trying to be too precise. Rationing is not fun and your body won’t like it either.
- No bear canister needed in Glacier. You don’t really need a bear canister at Glacier National Park at developed campsites. If I were to do this route again, I would choose to hang my food or store it in provided bear boxes.
- Always bring a fishing rod. Joe catching the arctic grayling and cutthroat trout were two personal highlights of mine from the trip and catching a great fish can completely change the way you feel about your trip.
Gear I Wish I’d Brought
- Rain pants — we were lucky that we got rained on the last day. Rain pants would have been the only way to keep boots dry.
Gear I Wish I’d Left Home
- External battery — we had two or three of these in our group, and only really needed one.
- Kindle / Book — I really didn’t have enough downtime or energy to read a book. The backcountry is an amazing place to socialize anyhow and I never read more than one page from my Kindle before passing out.
- Extra Jet Boil & Fuel — We never needed more than one Jet Boil for cooking and there wasn’t room to use more than one anyway. We also only used about half of one small propane tank, and the extra one ended up serving as dead weight. If something happens and your gear breaks or runs out, you can make freeze dried food with cold water if needed.
- Camera — I love my camera, but I keep finding that iPhones just knock it out of the park when it comes to photos. We brought two cameras and definitely would have been fine with just one, or none for that matter.
- Bear Canister — Cool piece of equipment, but in Glacier you just don’t really need one and they definitely add a lot of weight. They are slightly more convenient for food access IMO but the added weight sucks.
- Surround yourself with positive people. This was a really hard trip — definitely the most challenging that I have done. There were times when everything just hurt. Surrounding myself with people like Sam & Joe, in addition to our new friends Jim, Maria, Renee and Brendan, made the sucky parts really fun. Find people you can laugh through the pain with.
- Put yourself in positions where you can see a finish line. There were a number of passes where I could feel my mind giving up before my body. However, when I could start to see a summit or a pass and where the trail connected to it, my mind kicked back into gear and showed me what my body was capable of.
- Put yourself in positions where you can’t quit. In the backcountry you cannot quit. There is no one to bail you out and once you are out there the only way out is to finish the journey by some means. Sometimes getting in too deep forces you to push yourself out of your comfort zone, allowing you to reach new heights.
- Make friends on the trail. Making like-minded friends on the trail not only made the trip more enjoyable, but it also bailed us out a few times, whether with gear, food or campsite space.
- Play long term games. I found that the length of the trip gave us an opportunity to have some really special moments in addition to some more challenging ones. Had we gone for a shorter period, we might have only seen beautiful days or ugly days and it is important to have both.