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Hiking GuidesMontana

Hiking Guide: The Highline “Loop”

The Highline "Loop" in Glacier National Park

Overview

Often referred to as the Highline “Loop”, this end-to-end route runs somewhat parallel to the Going-to-the-Sun Road but at a higher elevation. Geographically, it follows along the western side of the Continental Divide. The word “loop” denotes its usual endpoint at Loop Trailhead.

From beginning to end, the trail offers views of Glacier National Park’s landscape that seem too good to be true. If you only have one full day to explore the park, grab your day pack and do this hike!

Views of the Lewis Range from the Highline Trail
Views of the Lewis Range from the Highline Trail

Most hikers start at Highline Trailhead, across the road from the Logan Pass parking lot. From here, the route is mostly downhill with one significant climb over Haystack Pass. This 11-mile hike is one you will never forget.

There is an optional one mile (two miles out and back) spur trail to Grinnell Glacier Overlook that is definitely worth making the extra effort for.

From the overlook, you will get an excellent view of the retreating Grinnell Glacier, Upper Grinnell Lake (complete with floating icebergs) and Mount Gould which rises to an elevation of 9551 feet.

The Grinnell Glacier Overlook
The Grinnell Glacier Overlook

Remember, this is grizzly and black bear country. During our trip, we saw a black bear next to Going-to-the-Sun Road. When I hiked the Highline, a missing person sign was posted at the trailhead. If you encounter an aggressive bear, bear spray is the best deterrent.

Quick Facts

  • Distance: 11.5 miles (13.5 if you hike to Grinnell Glacier Overlook)
  • Hike Time: 6-7 hours
  • Elevation Gain: 2030 feet
  • Elevation Loss: 4410 feet
  • Fee: $35 for a 7-day pass to Glacier National Park
  • Dogs: No
  • Difficulty: Hard

Hiking the Highline Trail

Kim dropped me off at the Logan Pass parking lot at 4pm. I used the pit toilet at the southern end of the lot then started my hike from Highline Trailhead.

The Highline Trailhead
The Highline Trailhead

The trail starts out as a high traverse below what is called the “Garden Wall”. This is a steep mountainside that gets a lot of snowmelt runoff from the high peaks above it. The Garden Wall gets its name from the bunches of wildflowers that thrive here.

The Garden Wall is covered in flowering plants. Pictured: Fireweed
The Garden Wall is covered in flowering plants. Pictured: Fireweed

0.3 miles into the hike, the trail becomes narrow with an exposed drop off on the left and cliff walls to the right. I had heard that this section was scary, especially for people with a fear of heights. For safety, the park has fixed a cable here to hold onto.

A cable is fixed to the rock wall next to a portion of the Highline Trail
A cable is fixed to the rock wall next to a portion of the Highline Trail

I didn’t use the cable, nor did I find this quarter-mile long stretch of trail to be particularly frightening. I am the type of person that feels a healthy dose of trepidation around cliff edges. As an example, Angel’s Landing in Utah gives me the heebie-jeebies in a few spots, but this didn’t.

A rosy spiraea wildflower
A rosy spiraea wildflower

Until mile 3.2, the trail continues to traverse the Garden Wall at a similar elevation with some ups and downs. Here, it crosses a bowl-like ravine with a creek that runs down to Big Bend, a notable stop on the Going-to-the-Sun Road below.

A yarrow wildflower
A yarrow wildflower

After this, the trail ascends steeply via a couple switchbacks to Haystack Pass, elevation 7024 feet. Here, there’s an unsigned junction with the Haystack Butte climbing route (to the left) and Mount Gould climbing route (to the right). Continue straight to stay on the Highline Trail.

Haystack Butte, elevation 7486 feet

From here, the trail continues its traverse of the Garden Wall. Over the next 0.5 miles, you will gain 200 feet and reach the highpoint of your journey, assuming you don’t take the spur trail to Grinnell Gulch Overlook.

Mount Oberlin to the left and Lake McDonald in the distance
Mount Oberlin to the left and Lake McDonald in the distance

After crossing Alder Creek at mile 6.6, the Granite Park Chalet comes into view. This historic building was erected in the early 20th century. If you plan ahead, you can pre-order food from their rustic kitchen and have it waiting for you when you get there. You can also make reservations to stay. Otherwise, the chalet is worth stopping by to see.

The smaller of two buildings that make up the Granite Park Chalet
The smaller of two buildings that make up the Granite Park Chalet

At mile 7, you will reach the junction with Garden Wall Trail. This is the one mile spur trail with 1000 gain/loss to Grinnell Glacier Overlook. I can’t recommend it enough!

The Garden Wall Trail is steep and rewarding
The Garden Wall Trail is steep and rewarding
Looking down on the Grinnell Glacier
Looking down on Grinnell Lake and the Grinnell Glacier

About 2/3 the way up, I saw a distant herd of bighorn sheep at the top of a scree slope, below a cliff band. On the way down from the overlook, they were smack dab in the middle of the trail. I yelled, “Hey sheep!” a few times to get them to move. At first, they didn’t budge but with some persistence they got out of the way. Once they were above me, I had a good angle and was able to capture some shots.

Bighorn sheep above the Garden Wall Trail
Bighorn sheep above the Garden Wall Trail

From the Highline-Garden Wall junction, it’s 0.8 miles to the chalet.

On my approach to the chalet, the lighting was starting to soften and the wildflowers were unbelievable.

Just before the chalet, there is another junction. To the right, the Highline Trail continues for miles and miles toward Fifty Mountain. Bear left onto the Granite Park Trail to continue down to Loop Trailhead.

Here, the forest becomes thicker and the mountain views are impeded. However, the wildflowers more than make up for it!

At this stage of my hike, it was getting dark and I was running late to meetup with Kim at the bottom. All I wanted to do was photograph the wildflowers but I had to make haste.

I did manage to get this photo of a couple bear grass flowers
I did manage to get this photo of a couple bear grass flowers

At mile 11, you will reach the final junction. Bear left here to continue up to the Loop Trailhead. This would be an easy one to miss and chances are you will be tired when you reach it, so be sure to watch for it.

Map

Location

From West Glacier, follow Going-to-the-Sun Road for 2 miles, then turn right at the intersection to stay on it. Continue for 22.2 miles, then park at the Loop Trailhead lot.

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