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Help me get ready for a summer trip to Glacier NP
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Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
Help me get ready for a summer trip to Glacier NP on 01/02/2014 08:36:56 MST Print View

Hey all,
In need of your wisdom if you've spent time up in Glacier during summer conditions, or any comparable wilderness in that area.

I am serving as master planner and trip guide for a group of 4-5 friends (+ myself) headed up to Glacier NP for ~1 week, this summer, hopefully in early July. We plan on doing a bit of car camping, a bit of fishing, and hopefully at least 2-3 nights of proper backpacking.

For my part, I have a pretty good bit of experience leading trips through winter high desert locations, and summer high mountain locations (only NM and CO), with groups of my peers of roughly this size, and am not afraid of the challenges of gear planning, assessment of the group's physical condition, and maintaining general backcountry common sense. However, I've never been nearly as far north as Glacier, so some of my previous experience may be inadequate here. I need your feedback on these few things, both due to my unfamiliarity with Glacier itself, and also weather and wildlife conditions in that part of the country, versus the lower rockies or southwest deserts.

Up to now I have done virtually no research at all on my own, contrary to my usual style. I figured I would cut through some of the complexity of searching out good info myself, and start by asking the veterans here on the forum :-)

So, questions:

When to go
Is aiming for early July actually too early? Our group (and myself) is not up to the task of technical travel across snow or ice. I've also heard that during snowmelt season, the mosquitos get insane -- is this true? We want to avoid both of these things if possible. I realize that predictions on any of this is entirely variable on a yearly basis ... but give me your best shot. Is it reasonable to aim for early July? Will the competition for permits be crazy? Make your recommendations or help me understand here.

What we need to see
As I said, we'd like to do at least 1-2 nights of car camping or easy hike-in camping, 1-2 days of fishing and possibly day-hiking, and 2-3 days of real backpacking. We've never been to Glacier before, and we want to make the most of it. Our group will be in decent physical condition but I am the only seasoned backpacker, and Austin TX is basically at sea level for the purposes of acclimation. So, I would estimate 10 miles/day would be the absolute maximum we could do, and certainly less than that would be prudent at the beginning of our itinerary. I am working hard to get everyone's load down to (hopefully) 12-18 lbs/person base weight. Even then, we'll be battling the altitude, at least for the first few days.

So, if we have a week to see the best of Glacier, and hopefully avoid the very worst of the crowds (if there are any), where would you go? What's a good 15-20 mile backpack loop? What's are some things we need to see?

What the weather will be like / gear recommendations
As I said, my experience makes me fully confident for handling winter high desert conditions (cold / dry / lows in the teens) or summer lower rockies (wet + dry / temperate / windy / lows in the 30s). But, I don't know what summer in Glacier is like. Give me some intel on this, anyone? What kinds of daytime weather, and overnight temps, should we prepare for? Is there anything like a monsoon season in that part of the country? Give me the rundown. With this info I should be able to make good recommendations for our sleep and clothing systems, for everyone in the group.

Wildlife precautions and so on
Tell me about bears, and so on. I've only hiked as far north as the Denver area, so "real" bears have not been a concern. I am confident in my ability to do a group-bearbag-hang, and got lots of good practice with that last summer. But iirc Glacier is a more wild place than the very popular Indian Peaks wilderness outside Boulder, etc. What do I need to know about wildlife precautions if I've never been in a place as wild as Glacer?


That should certainly get me started, if you could answer even 1-2 of those. Or all of them :-)
Thank you!

Gary Dunckel
(Zia-Grill-Guy) - MLife

Locale: Boulder
Re: ...summer trip to Glacier NP on 01/02/2014 09:45:33 MST Print View

Ian, your request is pretty hard to reply to--there are so many considerations here. My advice is for you to buy Erik Molvar's Falcon guide book, read it, then come back to us with specific questions. However, here are some thoughts:

Early July isn't the best time to be in GNP, really. Several great places aren't accessible that early, due to snow pack. For instance, the Northern Boundary trail, the Garden Wall, and Gunsight Pass. The bugs (mossies and flies) can be fairly nasty then too, but manageable. The nice thing about July is the amount of daylight you would have. It doesn't really get dark until maybe after 10 PM, due to being that far north around the summer solstice. Weather is hard to predict. You likely will have highs of 65-80*F, and lows of 35-50*F. There isn't really a sort of monsoon season in Glacier, but you could get socked in for a week of rainy weather (not likely, though). The area that melts out soonest is the Belly River in the north, and perhaps the lower elevation forested lakes in the west--Kintla, Bowman, and Logging lakes (if there isn't a heavy snow pack that year, which would be slow to melt along the shaded trails)

You will each want to carry a personal can of pepper spray for griz deterrant. You can't fly with these, so you'll buy them there, then drop them off at a permit office or visitor center when you leave, so that someone else can maybe use them. The backcountry rangers like when you do that--free bear spray for them, and they'll certainly use it. Be sure to watch the bear video when you get there, even if you don't do any backpacking. You need to get educated on how to act if you meet a bear. The beautiful Many Glacier area is a major haunt for griz, and they use those trails too. Always carry your spray, everywhere you go. Learn how to use it. And don't believe the common addage, "You won't see a griz on this trail--there are too many people hiking on it." My only true face-to-face griz encounter happened 2 years ago while hiking to Iceberg Lake, when 150 others were also hiking there. Also, BPL member Rob Kelly and his mates saw one at quite close range when they did a day hike along the popular Garden Wall last September. And watch out for any moose you see. Keep an eye on them as you pass them, give them a wide berth, and don't stop at close range to pop a lot of photos. You just don't know what they'll do, and they can get pretty goofy if they feel you're invading their space. They're a lot bigger than you are, and they can deliver a world of hurt if they're mad at you. Mothers with babies are the most dangerous, just like a bear with cubs.

There's almost no way to avoid the crowds in GNP during July and August, especially on day hikes. You won't see a lot of folks on the trail when backpacking, but you will share campsites with others. Each party will have its own tent site, but you share the food prep area, the bear food pole, and the outhouse/privy. Car camping sites in/near the Park fill up fast, but the ones at the western lakes don't see much demand. I don't fish, but you might be able catch some at those lakes.

Backcountry campsites reservations can be hard to score. The best thing to do is to apply for those now, and get in line for the lottery drawing in April-May. Then, if you don't get what you want, try to score them once you arrive. Half of the slots at each campsite are held until 24 hours in advance of the trip, but these also are quite competitive. You'll need to get to a backcountry office before 7 AM to try that.

I'm sure others will offer better advice than this. But buy that book, and then come back with specific questions. We'll try to help.

Edited by Zia-Grill-Guy on 01/02/2014 09:49:58 MST.

Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
Re: Re: ...summer trip to Glacier NP on 01/02/2014 09:50:27 MST Print View

Thanks Gary! This is a great start, and I will pick up that guide book or at least definitely do more diligence on my part in order to form some more specific questions.

Meanwhile, if anyone else has ideas / answers, let them fly.

Mark Ries
(mtmnmark) - M

Locale: IOWAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!
Re: Help me get ready for a summer trip to Glacier NP on 01/02/2014 09:52:49 MST Print View

There are a lot of novels about glacier on here already. Aclimation I don't think will be a problem it never has been for me its not really very high. Bear bags are easy as they have poles and boxes. If your group of six sticks together and is attacked by a bear you will set a record. You don't have enough time. I'd skip fishing glacier is not known for being great fishing anymore but does have some fair areas you just don't have much time. I'd try to educate everyone b4 you get there rather than when you get there I wouldn't want to bring 5 newbies out at once anywhere let alone glacier. Glacier is a magnificent place to be a tourist its what got me backpacking. Try to get a truck and 12 ft truck camper back and forth over going to the sun road 5 or 6 times and a small car and backpack looks real good

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: Glacier on 01/02/2014 11:08:12 MST Print View

Early July has its downsides. Some high passes will still be snowy, and in certain areas the bugs can be quite horrid. However, if your alternative is going in late July or in August early July might be better. The park is never quiet when the Sun road is open, but the crowds are a lot, lot worse in August. Getting your choice of BC permits will be easier the earlier in July you go.

If you can swing the first half of September, that would be the best. The passes will be melted out, the weather is usually excellent, and the crowds are quite a bit less. The backcountry is still rather busy however, and this gets worse every year.

All that said, the first piece of advice is to study the permit system and get your reservation request in on time. This is mandatory for any summer visit. Counting on swinging a walk-in permit with a large group and a 10 mpd preference is asking for a very sub-standard route. Do not do that.

What follows is my suggestion for a ~week visit for a group of first timers in early July.

-Reserve your first night at the St Mary campground. Today. It's not the best, but you can reserve it in advance and you'll want to, as the campgrounds fill up quickly. St Mary and Rising Sun tend to be a bit windy, which means less bugs. If time allows that first day drive up the lake and hike to St. Mary and Virginia Falls.

-Get up early on day two, break camp, and try to snag a spot at Rising Sun campground on your way up to Logan Pass. Hike to Hidden Lake. Play in the snow, look at the goats, get used to the altitude, etc. The Highline will likely still be closed due to snow. If not, and everyone is feeling ambitious, do that this day instead. You can ride the shuttle back up to Logan, but be sure to check the schedule, and don't miss the last bus.

-Day three, Many Glacier. Dayhike to Iceberg and/or Grinnell Lakes. Return to camp earlish and prep for the backpack. If you care to eat out, Johnsons is ok. The Park Cafe changed management over the winter, which will hopefully improve the abyssmal service and mediocre food. Avoid Two Sisters and the Cattle Baron. The dining room at the Many Glacier hotel is decent, pricey, but quite the unique experience. On that note, the cabins at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn are nice and quite affordable, and come with free showers (in a separate building). A good option either before or after your backpack.

-The name of the game with backpacking in early July will be avoiding the problematic passes while at the same time camping above 5000' when possible to avoid the bugs. Suggestions follow in order of priority.

-4 days. Belly to the Loop via Stoney Indian Pass, 50 Mountain, and Flattop. Camp at Cosley Lake, Stoney Indian, and 50 Mountain. Stoney will have snow, but it won't be in any places where a fall will be dangerous. The last 3-4 miles up to 50 will have snow, but that will only provide a modest route finding challenge. Logistics will entail booking a pay shuttle or hitching from St Mary to the Chief Mtn TH, and taking the park shuttle back from the Loop to St Mary, with a bus transfer at Logan.

-3 or 4 days. Two Med to St Mary via Pitamakan and Triple Divide Passes. The scenery is almost as good on this one, but the camps are lower and less spectacular. A pay shuttle runs from St Mary down to Two Med.

-3 or 4 days. Belly to Many via Redgap, with an out and back up to Mokowanis Lake. This might be the hardest permit to get, as the Belly is snowfree early, has many campsites, and the rangers like to shoehorn folks in there. The bugs can be rather bad in the lower sites. Cosley Lake gets good wind exposure. Liz Lake foot can have bad bugs but is nice enough that it makes up for it.

Note that none of these loops start on the west side. That is because low altitude bugs are much worse over there.

Bears aren't worth too much concern. Follow the food precautions and make noise headed into problem areas (brushy bits along streams, sub-alpine meadows and tree groves) and you'll be fine. FWIW I almost never carry spray.

Feel free to ask more question here. Email me (dave at bpl dot com) when the trip comes to fruition and maybe we can meet up.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: Glacier on 01/02/2014 11:11:57 MST Print View

One last note: 4 versus 5 people will make a difference. The BC campsites are max of 4 people to a site, so having 5 will require 2 sites and make reservations a bit harder to get.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
On the way on 01/02/2014 11:18:44 MST Print View

Ian I don't know beans about Glacier but have you considered stopping in Yellowstone on the way up? The geysers and hot springs were okay but not something I'd make a special trip to see. But the wolf watching was awesome. Probably need a couple days to make it worth your while though so time might be an issue.

Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
Re: re: Glacier on 01/02/2014 11:18:51 MST Print View

Thanks Dave, had a feeling you wouldn't disappoint on this thread :-)

I'll look into your (and everyone's) suggestions; it seems I have plenty of runway laid out for me now, requiring some more diligence and some judicious group discussion.

Anyone can feel free to add to whatever's been noted here, and for my part I'll certainly post more questions here as they become relevant.

Dave, will definitely email ya later in the spring when we've got a solid itinerary.

Ian Schumann

Locale: Central TX
Re: stuff on 01/02/2014 11:24:36 MST Print View

Looks like there were a few more posts on this while I was reading / writing.

Dave, it looks like we're going to have a minimum of 5 people, almost certainly. Max of 6. So I guess we'd better be prepared to fight for those permits, and/or have some well-laid backup plans in place.

Luke, hadn't considered Yellowstone for this year. We are intending to fly up and rent a car (although I haven't necessarily considered where we'd fly to), so stopping anywhere "along the way" hasn't been in our minds.

That being said, and given our relatively inflexible time window and larger group, I wonder if anyone has some good ideas for Plan B(s), if permitting doesn't work out at Glacier. For our own sake, several members of our group will be moving away from home (Austin) or out of the country later in 2014, so this trip is meant to be a memorable kind of last hurrah for us. I wonder if the Tetons might allow for a similarly memorable trip, or if there's something else in the northern Rockies (etc) that we should have our eyes on. I believe we seized upon the idea of Glacier simply because somebody heard it was the most amazing place ever.

Thoughts? Kind of an unreasonably wide question, I know.

John Klinepeter
(johnzotk) - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies, USA
GNP Suggestions on 01/02/2014 11:52:14 MST Print View

I have never found mosquitoes to be a big problem in GNP. Certainly take bug dope and a netted tent or tarp. I carry a head net but it is used rarely, perhaps once per year.

To put the snow depth into perspective realize that some years the Going to the Sun Road is not opened until early July.

Most of the backcountry campgrounds have 4 or 5 pads for tent pitching. At 4 people max per pad, 2 tents max per pad the real estate is valuable. Your chances of getting reservations are improved by sleeping 2 persons per tent, 2 tents per pad.

Many of the tent sites are quite small. To the extent that it is possible use a smallish two person tent. Don't obsess over this point or buy a new tent.

The Belly River suggestion above is excellent for early season use. The camps are fairly close together so splitting your group into two might make it easier to obtain reservations (when you fill out the reservation request you are asked for slight variations on your preferences) and still reasonable to assemble during the day for exploring. Another possibility for an actual loop trip (depending on the snow condtions on the higher portion of the loop) is to venture into the Quartz Lake area in the NW part of the Park. There is a very nice car campground at the trail head--you could spend your entire alloted time backpacking and car camping/day hiking in this one area. Another relatively low elevation possiblity is the Atlantic Creek/Morningstar Lake area though I am uncertain when they typically open those camps and it would be difficult to make a loop hike in this area.

One handy-dandy hint to save yourself some time when you pick up the permit is to watch the required video at home at your leisure rather than spending that 15 minutes at the permit office. See here:

Stephen Komae
(skomae) - MLife

Locale: northeastern US
Glacier NP video on 01/02/2014 12:06:38 MST Print View

The four of us did Glacier last year in August. We drove from Denver (a long drive).

This is a heavily edited video of our trip, should give you an idea of the conditions. At the end of the video is a list of all our campsites.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Backup Plan on 01/02/2014 12:08:52 MST Print View

Well if you're flying here's another idea. Fly into Jackson Hole and rent a car. From there spend some time in Yellowstone. Car camp and spend a couple day's watching animals in the Lamar and Hayden valleys. Since critters come out more in the morning and evening you could spend the middle of the day fishing. I'd make animal watching the priority though. After a couple days drive up to Montana and hike in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: Backup Plan on 01/02/2014 12:15:41 MST Print View

If you all bring your passports, then you will have the option of driving into Canada and hiking in via Waterton Lake. This could give you better flexibility if the park is busy when you get there.

Another good back-up plan is to consider hiking into the Cirque of the Towers in the Winds. This is possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Glacier permits on 01/02/2014 13:24:32 MST Print View

Ian, the permit app for Glacier will give you the opportunity to list three preferred routes, as well as provide space to specify additional information (max daily mileage, inflexible time frame, etc). The office collects all the apps put in by the date, shuffles them, and then starts at the top, emailing confirmations as they go.

Point being, if you end up low in the pile and get offered a crap itinerary, you'll have time to make other plans if you like.

Presuming you'll fly into Great Falls, there are some good backpacking options in the Bob which do not require permits. So you could buy tickets now, content that you'll be able to backpack regardless.

Whatever you do, do not go to Quartz in June or July. That drainage has the worst skeeters in the park.

Yellowstone could be a decent alternative. Backcountry permits are much easier to get, especially if you apply in advance. Bugs in certain areas of Yellowstone in early July are absolutely horrific. Late July in Yellowstone could be an excellent bet.

Edited by DaveC on 01/02/2014 13:25:59 MST.

John Martin
(snapyjohn) - M

Locale: Pacific NW
Glacier on 01/03/2014 14:39:49 MST Print View

I went with family in August and it was sooooo crowded finding a campsite was difficult. I went back after school was back in and what a differance. We had 5 people and that ment finding backcountry sites were challanging even then. What we ended up doing was getting an undesirable campsite for three days and hiking from there out in multiple directions and coming back to sleep. It worked out just fine. Ask for campsites in close proximity to the other then just stay at the one if you can pull it off. Be flexible there is amazing hikes as a car camper and there are amazing back country hikes. if you had a month you would not see it all. I am hooked going back this year to do the Canada loop we missed out on. get there right as park opens if you want a spot. if you get there after noon you may find all full ask everyone when they are leaving you will find spots even when it says full if you ask enough people. Good luck.

Donna C
(leadfoot) - M

Locale: Middle Virginia
Re: Glacier on 01/04/2014 15:34:58 MST Print View

I went there towards the end of August, where crowds were clearly leaving. After 6 days in the backcountry, my friend and I stayed 3 more days car camping and doing day hikes. We ended up staying at Two Medicine campground. We arrived there by 8am and found a great site. This campground does not take recervations, and it does not have showers. For that, we went into East Glacier ( 12 miles) and went to the hostel that offered a hot shower and clean towel for $5. If you want to shuttle to St Mary's area from there, it is $10 one way per person. There is a schedule posted. It doesn't run often because of the distance, so you will have to plan accordingly. If you want to take a chance of getting a site in other campgrounds, and don't have reservations, the most popular ones fill up by 8am. Two Medicine by 10am. Check the ranger stations in areas like Apgar and they will tell you how fast things are filling up, and also if you can reserve if possible. I think you can't reserve that day...but not sure. But if you finally get a plan, and don't want to chance it, reserve as soon as possible.

As far as backcountry campsite size.....small. We squeezed in 1 Contrail, 1 Lunar solo, and 1 BA Flycreek UL 1. It took some careful configuration and thankfully the Flycreek was small. We shared peg, 3 tent tie-outs.

Edited by leadfoot on 01/04/2014 15:40:44 MST.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Glacier frontcountry camping on 01/04/2014 18:44:00 MST Print View

Frontcountry camping on the east side in July and August is a nightmare. The fill by 8am stat is a nominal figure only; people were doing the rounds (asking awake people if they were leaving that day) in Many Glacier starting at 6am this summer, and the campground usually filled before 8. Many might go to half reservable in the future.

Makes the Swiftcurrent cabins a bargain in my book.