The Highline Trail is a scenic hiking trail stretching 7.6 miles (12.2 km) from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet. The trail follows the Garden Wall ridge and the continental divide for most of its length and offers majestic scenic views of glaciated valleys. A 1.2-mile (1.9 km) side trail takes hikers up the side of the Garden Wall to an overlook to Grinnell Glacier.
Our plan was to arrive before 8.00, hike the Highline and assess the Grinnel Glacier Overlook when we arrived there, after that we would continue to the Chalet and then walk down to the bus. This allowed plenty of time to rest, and not be pressured by the bus timetable.
On our way
Getting up early is the key for this, we passed through the gates just on dawn, The sky was patchy but with no real sunrise colour, despite this we stopped a few times to admire the scenery and take a few photo's.
Stopping at Wild Goose Island lookout is a must if going this way, its an iconic Glacier National Park scene. I timed the stop with the dawn light bur the scene didn't quite pop, still came away with a decent image so it wasn't a total bust. After this we stopped a few more times, Its impossible to just drive by, it's just an amazing part of the world.
We arrived at the carpark near 7.30am, even at this time the carpark was well over half full, getting a park after 8.00 would be a gamble. We took some time to double check our gear and ensured our water bottles were full. A simple sandwich lunch, some generous quantities of trail mix and a small first aid kit are a normal part of our planning, so with bear spray as a wildlife deterrent we headed off. The altitude ensures the early morning was always going to be cold (Logan Pass is at 6600ft), but the forecast was for clear skies, low wind and about 20 degrees Celsius.
Despite this being a well trafficked path, the dangers here are real, narrow ledges, steep cliffs, storms and bears are always present. There is no road access to any part of this trail, any injuries would require walking out or an expensive helicopter ride. Being confident and cautious is a decent way to act in theses area's.
The trail starts adjacent to the carpark, from here the path immediately heads downhill and the first few hundred meters are well maintained gravel. After this the trail has a test, the path is cut into the side of a cliff with a narrow path to follow. There is a chain bolted to the side for support, if you cross this section with confidence the rest of the path will be easy.
After crossing the cliff, the path continues heading downhill, tall plants and bushes block the view here, but soon enough the path levels out and the foliage clears. When this happens the scenery and views range from awe inspiring to spectacular, there's no need to rush, this postcard effect continues for the next few hours.
We soon settled into a rhythm, the first major stop was planned at the halfway point. The Haystack is an elevated saddle that is a popular rest point and offers plenty of space to sit and relax. Along the way we met some very wildlife, the marmots are very friendly, and one spent a little time following us after licking salt from my daughter shoes. We soon lost count of the small streams and waterfalls we crossed, bear grass was everywhere and most of the time the view is simply spectacular. Despite the elevation and length of the hike the trail maintains a reasonably stable elevation. The first time this really changes is during the last climb up to the Haystack pass. Here the switchbacks make the path a little more strenuous, its also when the scale of the hike becomes more apparent. The view back to Logan Pass and across the valley floor thousands of feet below is a perfect postcard. The morning light upon the mountains adds to the spectacle.
On the way up, we noticed a number of hikers stopped and getting off the path, after a short while we did the same, a mountain goat was casually walking the trail in the opposite direction. Completely unperturbed by the people around, obviously this was its usual routine.
We reached the saddle at the haystack pass around 10.00am, The trail was at 7000ft here, and a patch of ice covered the path, a well trodden path made by hikers made it easy enough to traverse. After crossing around 100 meters of ice we found a well positioned rock, removed our backpacks and took a well earned break.
We felt pretty good after the rest at haystack pass and were feeling pretty positive. It's tough leaving here though as there is a continuous uphill climb to the highest point on the path, The peak is at 7280ft about half a mile past the haystack. Not long after this point lake McDonald comes into view way off to the left side, the far end of the lake is 18 miles from the trail and its where the main park entrance lies.
Along the way the scenery continues to impress, the wide vista to the left and the steep mountains on the right always force you too look around. The steep cliffs are ever present though, so it's important to keep your wits about you. Glimpses of the Going to the Sun road are available and are a reminder of the other way of seeing this part of the world. The road is a special journey for all that take it, but the view from the Highline Trail is better in every way and makes every step worth the effort.
Grinnel Glacier overlook trail
After another hour or so of walking past postcard scenery we arrived at the junction of the Grinnel Glacier Overlook path. The last mile was reasonably flat but we had walked just over 7 miles at this point. It was decision time.
All indications and comments from those coming down from the overlook were that it was tough but worth it. Its a short hike but very steep, narrow and slippery. It was also starting to become warmer, after a few moments our trio decided on a plan. My Wife decided to stay at the base of the climb, Leaving her alone was not ideal but there were hikers coming at regular intervals, Additionally there seemed to be at least a small group here at any one time, recovering or deciding at the same point.
This made the decision easier for my daughter and I, we could leave our backpacks, strip down our weight and make the ascent easier. We carried a water bottle, and I took the camera, No tripod or multiple lenses for this trip!
The climb is truly hard, at timed it exceeds 30 degrees elevation. Slow and steady seemed to be the way, there were plenty of people encouraging each other, people coming down gave the most encouragement. This is not a path for the faint hearted though, at times the path is covered in water and is only a couple of feet wide. The path is only loosely improved, there are no railings to hold onto and loose rocks were everywhere, slipping would be a very very bad idea. The cliff at the start of the trail now seemed perfectly safe.
They were right though, the view from the top was amazing, the day was perfect and i'll remember the scene forever. Upon getting to the end of the climb you find yourself at a mountain saddle, there were about 30 people exploring the top. Way down below was small glaciers and bright blue water. The altitude here is 7500ft and the glacier lake below us was 1000ft down. People were resting and climbing up even higher, selfies near the edge was a favorite pastime, we rested for a few minutes, took a small drink and evaluated the scene.
I needed to find a way to capture the scene, conscious that my wife was waiting below I quickly decided to climb further up and around the northern side of the saddle. From here I could see the garden wall in front, Salamander Glacier and Grinnel Lake way below and McDonald Lake off to the right hand side. The scene was spectacular, but even with a wide angle lens it was too large for any single image. I braced against the rock wall and carefully took a set of images to stitch together later.
We made our way back down the trail, and met up with my wife, a small group had gathered where she was and people were recovering from the climb. A grizzly had been spotted down at the base of the valley and people were trying spot it. Although I didn't see it my wife had a great vantage point and used binoculars to keep an eye on it as it walked around near a stream way down below us. After a short recovery we all packed our gear back on and headed off along the trail. From here it seemed an easy stroll to the end of the Highline trail and to the Granite Park Chalet.
The chalet is an opportunity to sit and eat, visit the restroom and restock supplies. It has a basic shop, although this shouldn't be relied on for anything you could easily carry yourself and we were surprised by a lack of even a small momento. The chalet also has no power so don't expect hot or cold food. For the more adventurous, its possible to stay overnight here and extend your hiking trip, Its a ballot though and getting a spot is difficult. There are many hiking tracks that diverge from here and the idea of an overnight stay seemed very appealing.
From the Chalet, the Grinnel Glacier Overlook trail was visible, at a distance it looks easier, don't be deceived!
We were well ahead of our schedule and the bus wasn't due to stop running for a couple of hours, so we sat and recovered and talked about the options we had.
The plan in place meant 4 miles of moderately steep downhill, with a potential long wait for the Bus to take us to back to Logan pass.
After much deliberation we decided to attempt something we had not planned, to walk back along the Highline to Logan Pass. This plan involved an additional 3 miles of hiking, a decent amount climbing and a lot more time carrying a backpack.
The unplanned return
We were a little apprehensive, the return meant we would be hiking over 15 miles, the longest any of us had attempted. The return would also be warmer and the shade would be limited. On the bright side the garden wall would be exposed to sunlight and the views along the way would be even better. All three of us were were all feeling refreshed, the weather was good, and there was plenty of daylight remaining so we committed and headed back to Logan Pass.
The first few miles were pretty easy and our spirits were high, it was early afternoon and the weather was great. After this the trail headed uphill, its not significantly steep but the top of the trail occurs before the halfway point. We came across Bighorn sheep, Mountain Goats and a little Ptarmigan early in the climb.
Soon afterwards the long day hiking, caught up with us, the cliffs offered no shade and the 800ft climb seemed to take forever. Fortunately the top of the trail coincides with a meltwater stream running down the mountain. We took a break and used the cold water to cool ourselves down. When hiking we always carry a life-straw water bottle, so we used the opportunity to fill up and drink cold water for the first time all day. The cold pure mountain water
From here we knew the path was a steady downhill gradient to the haystack and then onto Logan pass. There are still a few inclines and the last mile towards the finish would be tough but the big climb was behind us. With renewed enthusiasm we set a steady pace for the car. The view was familiar but different, the sunlight was now on our side of the trail and the stark contrast of the mountains against a clear blue sky was always a treat.
After about 27 kilometers (17miles) and just over 11 hours we arrived back at Logan pass. We were tired, exhilarated and proud of ourselves, we had stretched our limits and seen some of America's most special scenery. Whilst the view over the Grinnel Glacier will always remain a highlight there is no bad scenery anywhere on the Highline Trail.