Glacier National Park: The Highline Trail and Glacier Overlook

(August 7, 2021)

At sunrise on my second day in Glacier National Park, I woke up in my tent at the Sprague Creek Campground and walked about a mile to the Lake McDonald Lodge. The dining room of the restaurant there had recently closed again due to concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19, but they had a take-out window open out back. I ordered coffee, granola, yogurt, and berries and ate breakfast by the lake.

Lake McDonald

After breakfast, I headed toward the Lake McDonald shuttle stop and caught an eastbound bus to Logan Pass, where I had hiked a portion of the Hidden Lake Trail the day before. Since I didn’t have much time for research before my trip, I’d been chatting up rangers, camp hosts, and random strangers in the park to get recommendations about what I should do and see; just about everyone pointed me toward the Highline Trail.

The day before, I’d been both captivated and frightened by the narrow path I saw from the window of the bus: a tiny ribbon of dirt that looked like it could have dropped from the sky and fallen upon the mountainside, barely held up by the sheer cliffs below it.

The beginning of the Highline Trail, not far from the Logan Pass shuttle stop

Setting out, I told myself I would merely check the trail out and turn back if I felt at any point like hiking it alone was a bad idea. I had a day pack with essentials like bear spray and water, and I was glad I’d brought a headband that covered my ears because the mountainside was cold for August and very windy.

The hike from the trailhead (across the street from the Logan Pass shuttle stop) to the Loop shuttle stop is 11.8 miles, but at the 6.8-mile mark, the Highline intersects with the Garden Wall Trail, which leads to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook–“Strenuous, but worth it,” my camp host had said. “The best part of the whole hike.”

Once I was out on the ledge, I felt giddy with the heightened awareness of my every step, conscious that if I lost my footing, I could fall a hundred feet to the road below. There were plenty of other hikers, though, and as we passed each other, one would pause to let the other pass. The steepest part of the trail lasted for less than half a mile, and by the time I got past it, I felt confident enough to keep going. The reward was miles upon miles of stunning vistas, and I felt a little like Julie Andrews in the opening scene of The Sound of Music.

Fireweed growing along the Highline Trail

The farther I traveled, the fewer hikers I passed, but the trail was still decently populated. I think the longest I went without passing others was about 30 minutes, if you don’t count the wildlife: deer, marmots, chipmunks, bighorn sheep… There was chatter among the hikers at one point that a grizzly had just been seen in the area, but I thankfully didn’t encounter it. I’d seen a mama and cubs the day before from a safe distance at the Hidden Lake overlook, and that was enough for me.

Marmot posing for Glamour Shots

When I stopped to photograph this chipmunk near the base of the Garden Wall Trail, another hiker stopped and said, “He is not scared of you at all!” On the contrary, I think he was flirting with me.

When I got to the base of the Garden Wall Trail, a sign indicated that the hike to Glacier Overlook was .6 miles, but the hikers coming down warned me the distance was closer to a mile. The elevation gain is nearly 1000 feet, and my quads burned mightily on the way up. “It’s worth it,” passerby kept assuring me. The nice part about hiking it solo was that there was no one to keep up with or slow down for, so when I felt like it, I simply paused a moment to rest. I happened to be keeping pace with another woman hiking solo, and I learned that she was staying at the nearby Granite Park Chalet with her sister, who had decided to spend the day painting. Having heard about the hike through word of mouth, I had no expectation of what I would see when I reached the top. Some hikers the day before had shown me photos of Grinnell Glacier from a lower vantage point, but I had no idea how breathtaking the view from the overlook would be.

Glacier Overlook

At the top, the other solo woman and I snapped a photos of each other and then sat in awe for awhile until my rumbling tummy called me toward the Chalet, where I’d heard I could buy snacks. The Chalet is about 3/4 of a mile from the junction of the Garden Wall and Highline Trails and was built by the Great Northern Railway in the early 1900s. With a couple of outhouses separate from the main building and no running water, conditions there are rustic, but the premises looked quite charming from the outside. Most importantly, they were selling snacks from a take-out window, and I bought some almond cookies and trail mix, which I sat down to enjoy at a nearby picnic table.

Granite Park Chalet, as seen from a distance on the Highline Trail

A few bites into my almond cookie, a boy I had noticed earlier on the Garden Wall Trail called out to me, “Hey, that chipmunk’s about to crawl up your leg and steal your cookie.” The kid exuded coolness. He had a big afro, buck teeth I could tell he would grow into, and what I believe people refer to as swagger.

“Is that right?” I asked, looking around for the chipmunk in question, who was indeed scurrying around my feet.

“Yeah,” he said. “My favorite part about being up here is when the chipmunks crawl up people’s legs.”

I laughed. “Hey, I saw you hiking up to the glacier a little bit ago. Was that incredible or what?”

He told me he had hiked with his dad the day before from the Loop to the Chalet (opposite from the direction I was traveling), and they were staying there a few nights. His dad used to work in the park and had brought him on this trip for his birthday. He was turning nine.

“Your dad sounds pretty cool,” I told him.

“He is,” the boy assured me. “He’s taking a nap.”

When I finished my snacks, we bid adieu, and the kid strutted off to work the crowd like the rock star I’m pretty sure he’s destined to become when he grows up.

View from the Granite Park Chalet of the junction where the Highline Trail intersects with the Garden Wall Trail, leading up to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook

The rest of the hike down to the Loop–just under 4 miles–was more desolate, the trail hemmed in by thousands of skeletal trees burned in the 2003 Trapper Creek Fire. In the absence of leaves, the wind wheezed through the trees, and heavy clouds weighed down the ashy, asthmatic landscape.

Hiking from the Chalet to the Loop, you see (and hear) evidence of the 2003 Trapper Creek Fire.

The day before, on my ride from Browning to the Saint Mary Visitor’s Center on the east side of the park, I had noticed a haze in the mountains that my driver had confirmed was coming from the Hay Creek Fire that had ignited from a lightning strike a little over two weeks prior. The signs of climate change were apparent all around me, and on the shuttle earlier, I had overheard a woman reading to her family that the park currently has only 25 glaciers–down from 150 in the mid-nineteenth century–all of which, glaciologists predict, will be gone by 2030.

Though my hike ended on a somber note, I felt fortunate for my health and for the circumstances that had motivated my journey to begin with–even though those circumstances included losing my job of 11 years and going through a series of online dating debacles so heinous I decided I should travel alone cross-country (again) and live out of a backpack for a month to remind myself I’m awesome and happy on my own.

(Here’s a fun sidebar:

*In June, there had been an environmental worker who strung me along for five dates and then messaged–while I was being broadcast live on YouTube, judging the Southern Fried Poetry Slam–to say I reminded him too much of his ex.

*In April, there was a surgical resident who declared his love after three weeks, asked me to move in with him, and then showed up on my doorstep a week later, explaining that he had “figured out in therapy” (as though he should get a gold star for that) he wasn’t actually in love with me; it had simply been nice to “have someone around again.”

*In March, there was a bank manager who, after a few dates, said he was thinking he might like to take me with him to Cuba, and then promptly ghosted me.

I could go on, but I think that conveys the gist.)

Because the universe is hilarious, though (at least it is if you’ve cultivated–as I have–a morbid enough sense of humor), the day ended with a surprise twist. I took the shuttle back to Lake McDonald Lodge, grabbed dinner from the take-out window, and was sitting by the lake, eating some delicious steelhead trout, when my phone dinged. (There was a weak wifi signal at the Lodge, so this was one of the only places in the park I could send or receive messages.) It was a message from the bank manager:

I think you should know I was in a coma for three months following a bad accident and just got back state side. Sorry if you felt I was ghosting you. I wish you the best and sorry if I caused you any discomfort.

When I asked about the accident, he told me he had fallen off a cliff. I replied with my sympathies and then immediately texted my two closest girlfriends to find out if they too couldn’t help but wonder whether the man might just be a compulsive liar.

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