On
Newsstands
Now
Current Issue
Advertisement
Photograph by Kaite LaSalle Lowery / Big Sky Country Photos

Backpacking (Sort Of) In Glacier National Park

Sleeping at the historic Granite Park Chalet means you still have to hike in—but you don't have to pack a tent.

By |

For a moment, this Montana adventure sure feels like backpacking. First, there’s the requisite dark chocolate. Plus, we’re passing around a shiny flask of whiskey in the post-dinner lull. White crystals of dried sweat dust the back of my neck. My shoulders are sore from hauling my 60-liter backpack all afternoon. And most of all, there’s the view: Glacier National Park’s most beautiful snowcapped pyramids and signature layers of geologic stripes rarely unveil themselves anywhere near a road.

But signs that I’m not that far from civilization are difficult to ignore. We’re leaning against gnarled log beams and perched on benches as the sun makes its lazy descent; the high-summer sunset takes its time in these northerly latitudes. Some kids playing in front of us are bouncing on a giant inflatable couch. And when the stars finally begin blinking on to headline the evening’s entertainment, I’ll retire not to a tent, but to a cozy bed in a stone-and-timber bunkhouse. It’s backpacking in a sense, I suppose—I did walk here with 30 pounds or so strapped to my back. But maybe it’s better to call our foray to Glacier’s historic Granite Park Chalet “backpacking plus.” After all, we’re still experiencing all the wonders of an excursion into remote wilderness…just with a few extra perks thrown in.

Advertisement

The seeds for this trip to Glacier were planted at Christmas. Hiking into a storied, Alps-style backcountry lodge in one of the country’s prettiest and wildest national parks would be the setting for a reunion of sorts: three longtime friends (plus a new one) enjoying some bonding time with one another while communing with nature. Granite Park Chalet wasn’t our only choice. There are other summer wilderness shelters scattered here and there throughout the Rockies—the 10th Mountain Division Huts in Colorado or the occasional U.S. Forest Service rental cabin in any number of Western states—but while you can drive close to many of those destinations, Granite Park Chalet sits on a rocky knob more than four stout miles and 2,200 vertical feet from anywhere a car can go.

Constructed between 1914 and 1915 by the Great Northern Railway as part of a nine-hut system built to draw American travelers to the West, the chalet’s rustic stone facade and polished log beams seemed like the perfect place for our rendezvous. I imagined us gathered around the wood stove with mugs of cocoa or playing cards on one of the wooden tables in the common room while an alpine wind whistled outside. Besides those homey visions, the chalet, which accommodates 35 overnight guests, offered something else just as compelling: sturdy walls that separated us from one of the Lower 48’s thickest populations of grizzlies.

Even so, armed with bear spray, we don’t dwell too much on thoughts of bruin encounters when we shoulder our packs at Logan Pass and set off on the Highline Trail. Instead, we breathe in the high-elevation air and congratulate ourselves for being organized enough to land reservations, which get snapped up quickly when first-come, first-served booking opens each January. Three different paths deliver guests to the chalet: the 4.2-mile Loop Trail, the 7.6-mile Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, and the 7.6-mile Highline. We selected the Highline for its easy trailhead access, mellow grade, and top-shelf views of Glacier’s soaring summits.

I’d left the tent at home, but as we switchback along the trail, I realize my pack doesn’t feel all that much lighter than usual. I wonder, for just a moment, if we’ve chosen the wrong destination. For those looking to hike completely unencumbered, the park’s other backcountry hut, Sperry Chalet, does its best to mimic the Ritz. There, guests enjoy private rooms, meals prepared by the inn’s staff, and real beds with linens that are included in the $222 per person rate. Granite Park, on the other hand, is a $106-per-night DIY outfit. Guests haul in their own sleeping bags, food, water, cooking utensils, and dishes. They access the chalet’s 12-burner propane stove and cookware during 15-minute appointed slots and often get to know their bunkmates at shared tables over bowls of just-add-water pasta. There’s also a lantern-lit outhouse stocked with hand sanitizer.

Although it would’ve been nice to leave my sleeping bag at home, the trail doesn’t demand too much effort. The Highline slices across a steep slope, minimizing elevation change but maximizing dramatic views of the McDonald Creek Valley far below. It takes just about three hours of mostly leisurely ambling before the chalet pops into view. Dwarfed by the sharp-edged peaks rising behind it, the chalet complex—which consists of the main lodge, a bunkhouse, and a park staff housing building—resembles the rustic summer estate of some long-ago Montana cattle baron. Dayhikers mill around, rubbing their sore feet and staring up at 8,987-foot Heavens Peak, but we pass them and drop our packs on the main building’s front porch. A bubbly college-age woman greets us as we duck into what serves as the lobby, a stone-floored room filled with thick wood tables and a crackling wood stove. “Welcome to Granite Park Chalet!” she announces before launching into the well-rehearsed orientation she gives to guests each day from late June through early September. “Here’s the communal cookstove. Here’s where you will stash your food and toothpaste. Remember: No ‘smellables’ are allowed in the bunkhouse to avoid attracting animals, mice as well as bears. Down that path right there is the water tank, if you didn’t bring your own; we saw wolf tracks there the other day! Here’s where you’ll eat your meals—of course, you can also dine outside—and here’s our hiking map so you can plan trips for tomorrow. Feel free to check out our little library area, too, for history and geology books. And here’s your home for the night, a four-bunk room in the annex building.”

Advertisement

As we hang our packs on hooks in the log-paneled bunkhouse, we notice the chatter floating in from three rooms down; it’s clear the partitions between units are more like privacy curtains than actual walls, but it’s charming anyway. Packing earplugs would’ve been smart, but it won’t matter tonight. Sunbaked, trail-weary, and full after a meal of polenta, burrowing into my sleeping bag and drifting off is no problem at all.

heavens Peak
Glacier’s 8,987-foot Heavens Peak. Image via shuttershock

When my alarm trills at 5:30 a.m., I rise reluctantly and step outside into the rosy predawn light. Orange and violet hues creep down the sides of Heavens Peak, McPartland Mountain, and Mt. Oberlin as the sun climbs over the Continental Divide at the chalet’s back. We snap a few photos we know won’t turn out, then lapse into a marveling silence as Mother Nature continues to paint the canvas before us. Then we promptly return to our bunks for a morning nap. We have a big day ahead.

Granite Park Chalet grants easy access to a handful of outstanding dayhikes in Glacier’s ruddy interior. By midmorning, we’re winding our way up the broad side of Swiftcurrent Mountain. A short climb from the chalet brings us to Swiftcurrent Pass, with its expansive views of the Many Glacier area on the park’s cliffy east side; from there, the trail shoots up a scree field to top out on the wind-scoured 8,436-foot summit. A resolute fire lookout (the highest one in the park) holds tightly to the Continental Divide, with steel cables lashing it to the mountaintop and Buddhist prayer flags decorating the inner windows. “Can you imagine landing this post in the ’30s?” I wonder aloud as we peek inside.

But the best views up here face the other way: uninterrupted aerials over a string of glacial lakes, steep-sided buttes, and tenacious glaciers still clinging to the summits despite the climate’s warming temperatures (just 25 of the park’s original 150 glaciers remain, and they’re shrinking). It’s a queenly perch and all ours for only 2.1 miles and some 1,500 feet of elevation gain.

Dropping back down, we decide to tack on the roughly .75-mile spur up to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. The trail provides a grandstand view on top of the Divide, where the vista expands to include vertical cirque walls, a chain of lakes, and Grinnell Glacier about a thousand feet below. We peer down at the terraced ice field and note that its leading edge is rapidly disappearing into Upper Grinnell Lake. For now, anyway, we can still see the ice sheets that carved this incredible landscape. Few places in this country can offer the same view.

Advertisement

The best part of the day doesn’t come until later, when I’m kicking back on a bench with a beer in hand. Dinner tonight will be truffle-and-smoked-salmon mac ‘n’ cheese, which we’ll inhale on an outside picnic table—mosquitoes be damned. Then we’ll drink in yet another spectacular sunset before collapsing in the bunkhouse.

As I sip from my stream-chilled can, I feel fortunate to be here. Granite Park and Sperry are the only lodging chalets left of the original nine (a third structure, 103-year-old Two Medicine Chalet, still serves as a store for campers). Over the years, Glacier National Park has lost the others to avalanches and disrepair; Sperry and Granite Park endured in part because they’re made of native stone strong enough to survive the worst winter storms. It would’ve been something indeed to experience the other huts in those early years, but their demises just make these two days at Granite Park all the more special. Like the national parks themselves, this chalet is a holdover from a wilder era—and it offers a chance to retreat from everyday life and travel back to a simpler time.

Tomorrow the weather will turn, and we’ll follow the Highline Trail through a moody mist back to Logan Pass, where we parked. Right now, though, I’m content to lounge with friends as we watch a deer graze a few feet away. Tonight, at least, we’re already home.


† If You Go

Season: The chalet is open late June through early September; target mid-July to September for the best chance at encountering snow-free trails.

Advertisement

Cost: $106 per night for the first person and $80 a night for each additional guest in the same room. Leave your sleeping bag in favor of the bedding service, which is $20 per person, per night. Park entry fee is $30 for seven days.

Reservations: They’re required, and they go fast. Reserve your spot online starting in January for the following summer.

Check-in: Hiking in grizzly country after dark is not advisable, but there’s no specific check-in time.

Transportation: Parking is free and available at all trailheads but limited; it’s better to take the park’s free shuttle from Apgar or the St. Mary Visitor Center.

Contact: 1-888-345-2649, graniteparkchalet.com

Advertisement

Recommended for You

Newsletter Signup

Keep me up to date on the latest trends and happenings around Denver. 5280 has a newsletter for everyone. Sign Up