North Circle Loop – Glacier National Park (52 mile loop)

Trip Overview: The North Circle backpacking loop traverses ~52 miles within the impressive Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. Along the route you pass through the Ptarmigan Tunnel, hike over Stoney Indian Pass and Swiftcurrent Pass, and hike along 11 miles of the famous Highline Trail, which follows the Continental Divide and provides some of the best views in Glacier National Park. The North Circle Loop has a peak elevation of 7,400 feet and you climb roughly 12,000 vertical feet over the course of the 52 mile trek. Highlights of this itinerary include massive mountains, active glaciers, wildflower blooms, alpine lakes, waterfalls, and abundant wildlife. The majority of the images in this report are from a trip in August of 2012 (captured by John Strother).

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Overall map of the North Circle backpacking loop in Glacier National Park starting and ending at Many Glacier. Day 1 (purple), day 2 (yellow), day 3 (blue), day 4 (green), day 5 (maroon), day 6 (red).
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Approximate elevation profile of the North Circle backpacking loop in Glacier National Park starting and ending at Many Glacier.
  • Overall map of the Glacier North Circle Loop (PDF)
  • Link to purchase topographic map of North Circle Loop area (here)

Jump to Day 1: Many Glacier to Elizabeth Lake Foot Campground
Jump to Day 2: Elizabeth Lake to Mokowanis Lake Campground
Jump to Day 3: Mokowanis Lake to Stoney Indian Lake Campground
Jump to Day 4: Stoney Indian Lake to Fifty Mountain Campground
Jump to Day 5: Fifty Mountain to Granite Park Campground
Jump to Day 6: Granite Park to Many Glacier

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Preparations:

Click here to read more about Permits

Permits: Glacier National Park is one of the most popular backpacking and hiking destinations in the United States, so permits are required for overnight camping and the number of permits issued for each day is limited. You will want to secure a permit as early as possible to do this hike if going in July, August, or early September. The peak hiking season is generally mid July through early September and many trailhead quotas fill up very early for these dates.

Approximately half of the wilderness permits for each backcountry campground are available for advanced reservation and the remaining half are saved for first-come, first-serve walk ups (you may line up at the permit station starting at 4:00am the day before your hike). If you are lucky enough to get a walk up wilderness permit, you will pay $7 per person per night in camping fees. To see available walk-up availability for today check here. Note that dispersed backcountry camping is not allowed in most areas of Glacier National Park, so your permit will specify your camping location for each night of your trip.

The best way to secure a wilderness permit is to submit a wilderness permit application for the permit lottery. Advanced reservations are available for itineraries with start dates between June 15 – September 30. To be considered in the permit lottery, you must submit your permit application between 12:00am MST and 11:59pm MST on March 15 (this was the date for 2019, but it may change slightly for future years). All applications submitted within that time frame are processed in a random order. Any applications submitted after the lottery window are processed in the order they are received. Permit applications must be submitted online (info here) and there is a non-refundable $10 administrative fee and $30 fulfilled trip request fee (refunded if you do not receive a permit). Standard group sizes are limited to 1-8 campers and for advanced reservations you are limited to hiking less than 16 miles on any given day of your proposed itinerary (this distance limit does not apply to people seeking walk-up permits).

On your application you will list your proposed trip date, entry/exit trailheads, and campsites for each night. You are encouraged to submit an alternative itinerary in case your first choice is not available. For the specific itinerary described in this report, you will enter the wilderness via Iceberg/Ptarmigan (IPE) or Many Glacier Hotel (MGE), you will exit via the Swiftcurrent Parking Lot (SCE), and you will camp at Elizabeth Lake Foot (ELF), Mokowanis Lake (MOL), Stoney Indian Lake (STO), Fifty Mountain (FIF), and Granite Park (GRN). A map showing the names and locations of the backcountry campsites is found here.

If you are able to reserve a permit and pay your fee, the next step is to pick up the physical permit the day before or the morning of your hike. You can get the permit at the Apgar Backcountry Permit Center or at one of the various Glacier National Park ranger stations. These are typically open daily from late May to late September. If you are delayed and cannot pick up your permit the morning of your hike, call the ranger station and see if they can hold your permit for you. Otherwise, your permit will be released to the general public and will likely be taken by a walk-up permit seeker. It is typically wise to plan to arrive the day before your trek is schedule to start so that you have ample time to pick up your permit at the ranger station.

Click here to read more about Logistics

Logistics: To get to Glacier National Park, it is most common to drive. Visitors either road trip all the way to the park or fly into a nearby airport, rent a car, and drive to the park. Flights into Kalispell Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) or Great Falls International Airport (GTF) are typically available with one stop from most major airports. Many Glacier Campground is a ~3 hour drive from both airports. Once you are inside the park, there is a shuttle system that can be utilized.

If you would like to camp at one of the developed campsites within Glacier National Park the night before your trek, you will need to either get an advanced reservation or arrive early in the morning to try to secure a walk-up spot. There are several campgrounds in Glacier and more info on each can be found here. Many Glacier Campground is very close to the trailhead and has 41 sites available for reservation and 62 sites for first-come, first-serve campers. Info on reservations at Many Glacier Campground can be found here. Other campgrounds near the trailhead include St. Mary and Rising Sun. Note that all the campgrounds are popular in the summer, so you may need to reserve sites well (>6 months) in advance. Unfortunately this means you may need to reserve a campsite before you know whether or not you have received a wilderness permit.

Click here to read more about Weather and Trail Conditions

Weather and Trail Conditions: It is important to check the trail conditions before taking off on this trek.  You can find reports on trail and wilderness conditions here.  The main concerns for this itinerary are the status of the Ptarmigan Tunnel and the Ahern Drift on the Highline Trail. The Ptarmigan Tunnel doors are typically open from mid July to Late September. If you are hiking at a time when the Ptarmigan Tunnel closed, you will need to take the longer Redgap Pass Trail to Elizabeth Lake. It is not advised to attempt to climb over the Ptarmigan Wall to bypass the closed tunnel. The Ahern Drift is located south of Ahern Pass and is a steep snow drift that frequently covers a section of the Highline Trail. When this drift is large, and ice axe and snow hiking experience may be required to pass the trail. It is wise to inquire about the size of the drift before taking off on your trek.

The weather in Glacier National Park during the peak hiking season (July, August, and September) is characterized by warm days, cool nights, and occasional thunderstorms. When a storm rolls in, it is not uncommon for the temperature to drop quickly. Thus, you must be prepared for a wide range of temperatures (32-85 degrees F). Late in the season (late September-October), it is not uncommon for it to snow at high elevation. If you plan to complete the trek in late September or October, you must be prepared for rapidly changing weather and be comfortable hiking in snow. In the prime hiking season (late July through early September), the weather is typically good, but be mindful to avoid exposed, high elevation areas in the afternoon when brief storms frequently occur. Given that weather can change rapidly in the mountains, you should be prepared with different layers of clothing for different conditions.

Click here to read more about Difficulty

Difficulty: The North Circle Loop Glacier National Park is a tough overall loop with a significant amount of elevation gain. We recommend hiking the loop over 6 days as described in this itinerary. Doing so helps avoid having very long hikes over 10 miles with >4,000 feet of elevation gain. If you plan to hike this loop is 4 or 5 days, be prepared for some big climbs. The simplest way to complete the trek in 5 days is to combine days 3 and 4 of this itinerary and skip camping at Stoney Indian Lake. Since you must camp in designated sites, you will need to be flexible with your itinerary.

 

Supplies: In Glacier National Park, you must be prepared for a variety of conditions depending on the time of year. Up until late July, snow often remains in the high country and on mountain passes. If you are hiking this loop in June or July (before the snow fully melts) or in late September (when snow can begin to fall again), you will want to consider bringing microspikes/crampons and an ice ax. However, if the trail is clear of snow, then these are not needed.

Because of rapidly changing weather in the mountains, you will want to bring several layers so that you can easily adapt to the changing temperature and also so that you can stay dry. I also recommend having a set of wool clothes to change into at camp. Wool is great because it doesn’t pick up funky stenches as fast at cotton or synthetic clothes. It also dries out quickly so that you are able to stay warm even if all your gear gets soaked in a thunderstorm.

Other specific gear you will want for backpacking in Glacier National Park is related to bear safety. The park is inhabited by both grizzly and black bears. Thus, it is essential to store all food and scented items in a bear canister or to hang food properly at the campsites. For hanging, it is recommended to bring a weatherproof food bag and 25 feet of rope. It is also highly recommended for every member of your party to carry bear spray.

You may also want to pre-treat your clothes and tent with permethrin spray repellent. Doing so helps keep mosquitoes and other bugs away and reduces the amount of DEET or picaridin spray you need to carry. The permethrin treatment stays on your clothes for up to 7 washes.

Below is a list of the gear I brought on North Circle loop in Glacier National Park:

Hiking clothes

Clothes for camp

Hiking gear

Camp gear

Random

Food and drink

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Day 1: 10 miles; +2,880 feet / -2,950 feet; Many Glacier (Iceberg-Ptarmigan Trailhead) to Elizabeth Lake Foot Campground

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Map of the Day 1 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Many Glacier to Elizabeth Lake (purple).
  • Map of the Day 1 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
Glacier-national-park-backpacking-north-circle-day1-elevation
Approximate elevation profile of the Day 1 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Many Glacier to Elizabeth Lake

On the first day you will begin the 52 mile trek around the North Circle route. The hike starts near Many Glacier Ranger Station. If you did not pick up your wilderness permit the day before, you will need to pick one up the morning of your hike. Nearby the ranger station is the Iceberg-Ptarmigan Trailhead. The North Circle loop starts there and you begin heading north up the Ptarmigan Trail towards the Ptarmigan Tunnel. It is a roughly 5.5 mile uphill hike to the tunnel and then is another ~5 miles downhill to Elizabeth Lake. Overall this hike is quite tough, but it has some great views along the way!

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The Ptarmigan Trail starts off with a short walk through some trees. By the 1 mile mark, the trail emerges from the trees and you are treated to great views of the valley and mountains to the west. This view shows the Ptarmigan Trail heading north with Iceberg Peak visible (Credit: Matt Chenot)
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View looking west from the same spot. Here you look across the valley at a large ridge and Mount Wilbur (credit: Matt Chenot)
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The Ptarmigan Trail continues climbing north along the ridge. At around the 3 mile mark you reach Ptarmigan Falls and cross a footbridge. Shortly after Ptarmigan Falls, there is a Y-junction in the trail. Continue north along the Ptarmigan Trail unless you wish to take a sidetrip to see Iceberg Lake (credit: Moheet Bhute)
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The side trip to Iceberg Lake adds roughly 4 miles and 1,000 feet of climb to the hike, so only do this side trip if you are a very fit hiker. Here is the view of Iceberg Lake and Iceberg Peak from the shore (credit: Aryeh Nirenberg)
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This is the view heading north past the junction towards Ptarmigan Lake and Tunnel, i.e. skipping the Iceberg Lake Trail (credit: Matt Chenot)
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The trail continues north and the valley narrows as you approach Ptarmigan Lake (credit: Matt Chenot)
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View along Ptarmigan Trail as you approach Ptarmigan Lake (credit: Matt Chenot)
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Around the 4.5 mile mark the Ptarmigan Trail approached Ptarmigan Lake and skirts along the west shore. Ptarmigan Wall is seen in the background (credit: Greg Berndt)
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Looking east across Ptarmigan Lake (credit: Matt Chenot)
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The trail then continues climbing towards Ptarmigan Wall and Tunnel (credit: Matt Chenot)
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The last 0.5 miles before Ptarmigan Tunnel is up some steep switchbacks. This is the view looking back at Ptarmigan Lake and towards the valley you just hiked through (credit: Matt Chenot)
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Right before the tunnel entrance, the trail skirts along a ridge with the Ptarmigan Wall to the left (credit: Matt Chenot)
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You then pass through the Ptarmigan Tunnel, which leads to the north side of the rock wall (credit: Matt Chenot)
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After you emerge from the tunnel, you get a great view of the Belly River Valley and Elizabeth Lake (credit: Chris O)
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The Ptarmigan Trail then skirts along a the north face of the Ptarmigan Wall as it begins to descend towards Elizabeth Lake (credit: Chris O)
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View looking out at Elizabeth Lake (credit: Matt Chenot)
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View looking back at the Ptarmigan Trail where it followed along the rock wall (credit: Matt Chenot)
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From mile 6 onward you are descending to Elizabeth Lake and get great views of the valley and lake (credit: Matt Chenot)
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View from near the 8.5 mile mark as you begin to hike northwest towards Elizabeth Lake (credit: Matt Chenot)
Elizabeth Lake seen on the Red Gap Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
View looking southwest across Elizabeth Lake and towards Helen Lake from the Ptarmigan Trail (credit: John Strother)
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Around the 9.5 mile mark you enter a forested region. There are some switch backs here as you continue to the shore of the lake (credit: Matt Chenot)
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View of Elizabeth Lake as you descend the final 0.5 miles through the forest (credit: Matt Chenot)
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When you reach the footbridge at the north end of Elizabeth Lake, you are only a quarter mile or so from the Elizabeth Lake Foot Campground (credit: Matt Chenot)
Elizabeth Lake seen on the Red Gap Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
View of Elizabeth Lake from the north shore near the campground (credit: John Strother)

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Day 2: 9.5 miles; +1,220 feet / -1,110 feet; Elizabeth Lake to Mokowanis Lake Campground

Glacier-national-park-backpacking-north-circle-day2-map
Map of the Day 2 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Elizabeth Lake to Mokowanis Lake Campground (yellow)
  • Map of the Day 2 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
Glacier-national-park-backpacking-north-circle-day2-elevation
Approximate elevation profile of the Day 2 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Elizabeth Lake to Mokowanis Lake Campground

The day 2 hike is similar in length to yesterday’s hike, but is easier due to only a ~1,200 feet of climbing. This hike is very beautiful and takes you through the Belly River Valley to Cosley and Glenns Lakes. At the ~3.7 mark, you reach Cosley Lake and must ford the Mokowanis River at the lake outlet. There is a cable strung across the river that you hold to assist with the river ford. You can check the status of the trail and cable by looking at the Cosley Lake Cut-off Trail notes in the trail report here. From there you hike several miles along Cosley and Glenns lake. You then ascend up to Mokowanis Lake where you make camp for the night. Mokowanis Lake has an awesome view and makes for a great camp. If you have time after making camp, you can head off trail up to Pyramid Falls and Margaret Lake, which lie to the south of Mokowanis Lake.

Dawn Mist Falls seen from the Ptarmigan Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
The Day 2 hike begins with a flat hike along the Ptarmigan Trail from Elizabeth Lake. About 1.5 miles into the hike you reach Dawn Mist Falls, shown here (credit: John Strother)
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The trail follows the Belly River and it makes its way through the valley. Along the way you may see a variety of animals. This black bear was exploring near the Belly River (credit: John Strother)
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View of Gable Mountain and the Belly River from the Ptarmigan Trail (credit: John Strother)
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After the 3.5 mile mark you reach the Mokowanis River at the outlet of Cosley Lake. Here you must ford the river to reach the trail on the other side. During the hiking season there is a metal cable strung across the river that you hold while crossing (barley visible in this photo). The water is often 1-3 feet deep at the deepest point depending on the season and the level of snow in the winter. You want to cross where the cable is because that is typically the shallowest area and you should hold the cable for safety (credit: Grady Vigneau)
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After crossing the Cosley outlet, you reach a junction with the Stoney Indian Pass Trail at the east end of Cosley Lake. From here, you head west on the Stoney Indian Pass Trail. This is the view of Cosley Lake from shore (credit: John Strother)
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The trail travels along the north shore of Cosley Lake for ~1.5 miles (credit: John Strother)
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Around the 6 mile mark the Stoney Indian Pass Trail reaches Glenns Lake. This lake is also very scenic and trail follows along its shore for nearly 3 miles (credit: John Strother)
Bull Moose browsing in Glenns Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
Bull Moose in Glenns Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View of Glenns Lake from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
Mokowanis River in Glacier National Park, Montana
Near the 8.5 mile mark you reach the west end of Glenns Lake and cross the Mokowanis River. At this point you reach a junction and head south on the trail to Mokowanis Lake (credit: John Strother)
Mokowanis River in Glacier National Park, Montana
View of a cascade along the Mokowanis River (credit: John Strother)
Mokowanis Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
At the end of the hike you reach the scenic Mokowanis Lake and its campground (credit: John Strother)
Mokowanis Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
Panoramic view from the shore of Mokowanis Lake looking south with Pyramid Peak to the right and Mount Merritt to the left (credit: John Strother)
Mokowanis Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
Another view from the shore of Mokowanis Lake looking north towards Stoney Indian Peak (credit: John Strother)
Seen from Mokowanis Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
Mountain as seen from Mokowanis Lake area (credit: John Strother)
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If you have time after setting up camp, you can take the short side trip south towards Pyramid Falls and Margaret Lake. There is not a super well defined trail, but it is easy enough to find (credit: Matt Chenot)
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Pyramid Creek Falls located above Mokowanis Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View of Pyramid Creek Falls with Pyramid Peak in the background (credit: John Strother)
Mokowanis Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
Sunset view of Mokowanis Lake with Pyramid Creek Falls in the background (credit: John Strother)

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Day 3: 6.2 miles; +2,280 feet / -940 feet; Mokowanis Lake to Stoney Indian Lake Campground

Glacier-national-park-backpacking-north-circle-day3-map
Map of the Day 3 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Mokowanis Lake to the Stoney Indian Lake Campground (blue)
  • Map of the Day 3 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
Glacier-national-park-backpacking-north-circle-day3-elevation
Approximate elevation profile of the Day 3 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Mokowanis Lake to the Stoney Indian Lake Campground

The hike on day 3 of the Glacier North Circle Loop is modest in length but involves ~2,200 feet of climbing. If you must complete the North Circle in 5 days instead of 6, then you would likely want to combine Day 3 and Day 4 into one hike (totaling ~13.8 miles and 4,600 feet of climbing). As written in this itinerary, you camp at Stoney Indian Lake Campground, which makes the hike very manageable. Since you only must hike 6.2 miles this day, you can relax in the morning and enjoy the views near Mokowanis Lake!

Mokowanis Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
Morning view of Mokowanis Lake and Pyramid Peak before leaving to start the Day 3 hike (credit: John Strother)
Mokowanis Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
Morning view of Mokowanis Lake and Pyramid Creek Falls before leaving to start the Day 3 hike (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
After the ~1 mile hike back to the Stoney Ridge Trail from Mokowanis Lake, you continue the hike westward towards Stoney Indian Pass (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail as you head west towards the pass (credit: Matt Chenot)
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Looking back at Glenns Lake from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail (Credit: John Strother)
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View from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail as you continue the westward climb up to the pass (credit: Matt Chenot)
Seen from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Around the 2.5 mile mark, you get a view of the Mokowanis Cascade from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail. Pyramid Peak towers behind the cascade (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Looking back towards Glenns Lake from near the Mokowanis Cascade along the Stoney Indian Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
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At the ~3 mile mark, the Stoney Indian Pass Trail passes by the scenic Atsina Lake (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
You then hike up a series of switchbacks that provide a great view of Paiota Falls which sit above Atsina Lake (credit: John Strother)
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View looking back down the trail towards Atsina Lake from the top of Paiota Falls (credit: Matt Chenot)
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Crossing a stream along the Stoney Indian Pass Trail with Raven Quiver Falls in the background. Sue Lake sits above the falls and you have the opportunity to view Sue Lake from the Highline Trail on Day 5 of the trek (credit: John Strother)
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The Stoney Indian Pass Trail then passes through a meadow after Atinsa Falls (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
View looking back towards Raven Quiver Falls and Mount Kipp (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Expansive view from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail with Pyramid Peak on the left (credit: John Strother)
Tarn seen from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
At the ~4.5 mile mark, you pass a tarn with excellent views of the mountains. At this point you are ~0.6 miles from Stoney Indian Pass (credit: John Strother)
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You reach the top of Stoney Indian Pass at the ~5 mile mark. Here is the view from near the pass looking down at Stoney Indian Lake (credit: John Strother)
Stoney Indian Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
Over the next mile, the Stoney Indian Pass Trail descends a series of switchbacks before skirting along the northeast shore of the lake. The Stoney Lake campsite is located on the far side of the lake (credit: John Strother)
Stoney Indian Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
View looking across Stoney Indian Lake towards Stoney Indian Pass (credit: John Strother)
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Setting up camp at the Stoney Indian Campsite in Glacier National Park (credit: John Strother)

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Day 4: 7.6 miles; +2,650 feet / -2,320 feet; Stoney Indian Lake to Fifty Mountain Campground

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Map of the Day 4 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Stoney Indian Lake to Fifty Mountain Campground (green)
  • Map of the Day 4 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
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Approximate elevation of the Day 4 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Stoney Indian Lake to Fifty Mountain Campground

The hike on the fourth day is of moderate difficulty at nearly 8 miles with ~2,600 feet of climbing. The Stoney Indian Pass Trail continues down into the Waterton Valley. From there you begin hiking on the Waterton Valley Trail as you ascend up towards the Continental Divide and the Highline Trail. The Fifty Mountain Campground sits near the junction between the Waterton Valley Trail and Highline Trail. From Fifty Mountain, you can go on a short ~2.7 mile (+1,000 feet) sidetrip to a vista point that overlooks Sue Lake. This is a worthwhile trip that can be done after setting up camp at Fifty Mountain (just be sure to properly store your food at camp before setting off).

Stoney Indian Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana
The hike begins with a ~2.5 mile descent along the Stoney Indian Pass Trail that leads from Stoney Indian Lake down to the Waterton River (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
View from the trail during the descent to the Waterton Valley (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Once you reach the junction at the Waterton River, you head south on the Wateron Valley Trail. There are some nice views of the Waterton Valley (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
The Waterton Valley Trail steadily climbs 2,500 feet over the next 4 miles. There are some great mountain views here (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
View of the Waterton Valley from the trail (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Wildflower meadow seen along the Waterton Valley Trail (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
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Near the 6.5 mile mark, the trail plateaus and the views become very expansive. From here it is a little over a mile to reach Fifty Mountain Campground (credit: John Strother)
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Expansive view from the Waterton Valley Trail approaching the Fifty Mountain Campground in Glacier National Park, Montana (credit: John Strother)
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In this section, the Waterton Valley Trail goes through a grassy area with several boulders left behind by past glaciers (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
View from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana (Credit: John Strother)
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Bear paw prints seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana (credit: John Strother)
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
A large boulder in the grass along the Waterton Valley Trail (Credit: John Strother)
The Meadow Above Fifty Mountain Campground
Around the 7.3 mile mark, you head south into a forested area where Fifty Mountain Campground sits (Credit: Brian Drum)
Seen from the Waterton Valley Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Before reaching the forest, you pass through the meadow and several small streams (credit: John Strother)
The View from Fifty Mountain Campground
Forested area where Fifty Mountain Campground sites (credit: Brian Drum)
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If you still have energy after setting up camp at Fifty Mountain, head to the Sue Lake overlook to get great views of the lake and Pyramid Peak (credit: John Strother)
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Panoramic view of Sue Lake from the overlook, which is about 2.7 miles and +1,000 feet roundtrip from Fifty Mountain Campgronud (credit: John Strother)

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……….

Day 5: 11.3 miles; +2,980 feet / -3,090 feet; Fifty Mountain to Granite Park Campground

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Map of the Day 5 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Fifty Mountain Campground to Granite Park Campground (maroon)
  • Map of the Day 5 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
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Approximate elevation profile of the Day 5 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from Fifty Mountain Campground to Granite Park Campground

On Day 5, you hike along the famous Highline Trail. This is a tough hike at over 11 miles and with nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain. The Highline Trail follows along the Continental Divide and provides great, expansive views to the west. You may encounter day hikers as you approach Granite Park at the end of the day.

Along this route, you also must negotiate the Ahern Drift, which is a steep slow drift that sits on the trail south of Ahern Pass. The drift shrinks in size throughout the summer, but can cover a large section of trail early in the hiking season. It is wise to inquire with the rangers about the status of the drift before starting your trek. If the drift is very large, an ice axe and crampons may be required to safely complete this hike. If hiking in August, the drift will likely be small enough that you can hike around it or hike directly across it.

Seen on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
The Day 5 starts with a ~1 mile climb up from Fifty Mountain to the start of the Highline Trail. Along this climb you will see many wildflowers (credit: John Strother)
Seen on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
View near the junction where you begin hiking along the Highline Trail, at this point you are at the high point of the North Circle Loop (~7,400 feet) (credit: John Strother)
Jean on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Hiking along the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana from Fifty Mountain to Granite Park (credit: John Strother)
Jean on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Passing through a section of wildflowers along on the Highline Trail north of Ahern Peak (Credit: John Strother)
Jean on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
One of many great views on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana (credit: John Strother)
"The Waterslide" seen on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
A waterslide like area where the Highline Trail crosses the Cattle Queen Creek (credit: John Strother)
Seen on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
View looking across at Iceberg Peak from the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana (credit: John Strother)
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Looking back towards Fifty Mountain (credit: Edwin Corbin-gutierrez)
Seen on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
View looking south from near Ahern Peak (Credit: John Strother)
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The Ahern Drift on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana (credit: John Strother)
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Hiker going around the Ahern Dift with Ahern Peak in the background (credit: John Strother)
Seen on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Mountain view from the Highline Trail (credit: John Strother)
Jean on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Near the 10.5 mile mark, the trail begins to descend as you approach Granite Park Campground (credit: John Strother)
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Once you set up camp at Granite Park, you can relax and take in the views. At this point you are only ~8 miles from finishing the North Circle Loop! (credit: Caleb Cole)

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……….

Day 6: 8 miles; +960 feet / -2,530 feet; Granite Park to Many Glacier

Glacier-national-park-backpacking-north-circle-day6-map
Map of the Day 6 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from the Granite Park Campground to Many Glacier (red)
  • Map of the Day 6 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
Glacier-national-park-backpacking-north-circle-day6-elevation
Approximate elevation profile of the Day 6 hike along the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park from the Granite Park Campground to Many Glacier (red)

The last hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park takes you up and over Swiftcurrent Pass and then descend back to the Many Glacier area where you started the loop. This hike is very beautiful with expansive views and several lakes. Along the route you also have the option to summit Swiftcurrent Mountain, which tops out at 8,436 feet. Doing this side trip adds 2.75 miles and 1,300 feet of elevation to the hike.

Jean on the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
From the Granite Park Campground, you begin hiking to the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail. It is roughly 1.1 miles and 700 feet of climbing to reach the top of Swiftcurrent Pass. This is the view looking southeast from the start of the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
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View from the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail as you begin the climb up to the pass (credit: Chuck Hood)
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View of Swiftcurrent Mountain as the trail heads towards Swiftcurrent Pass (credit: John Strother)
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View looking back at the Granite Park Chalet from the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
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At this point you have the option to take the side trail up to the peak of Swiftcurrent Mountain. This is the view from the side trail looking back down at the pass (credit: Stephane Champoussin)
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Looking up towards the peak of Swiftcurrent Mountain while hiking up the side trail (credit: Stephane Champoussin)
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View from the peak of Swiftcurrent Mountain looking east down towards Bullhead Lake (credit: Orion Weiner)
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View looking south along the continental divide (credit: Stephane Champoussin)
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After the side trip to the Swiftcurrent Peak (or if you skip it), the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail continues east and descends gradually. The peak of Mount Wilbur begins to come into view (credit: Stephane Champoussin)
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About a half mile after the pass, the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail reaches a ridge. From here Mount Grinnell is clearly in view and the trail begins to descend a series of switchbacks. Along the route you will get some great views of Swiftcurrent Headwall, Swiftcurrent Glacier, and several waterfalls (credit: Stephane Champoussin)
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Approaching the Swiftcurrent Headwall and glacier above it and views of the countless waterfalls. Seen from the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana (credit: John Strother)
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Bullhead Lake, Red Rock Lake, Fisher Cap Lake as seen from the switchbacks along the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
Jean on the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana
Hiking along the trail with Mount Grinnell in view (credit: John Strother)
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Another great view of Bullhead Lake and Red Rock Lake from the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
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Some of the countless waterfalls that flow off of the Swiftcurrent Headwall (credit: John Strother)
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Zoomed in view of the waterfalls that are fed by the Swiftcurrent Glacier (credit: John Strother)
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Bullhead Lake and Mount Grinnell from the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail (credit: John Strother)
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Looking back at the Swiftcurrent Headwall and waterfalls the trail continues to descend towards Bullhead Lake (credit: John Strother)
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Bullhead Lake seen from the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail in Glacier National Park, Montana (credit: John Strother)
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At the ~4.5 mile mark, the trail reached the shore of Bullhead Lake. From this point it is a relatively flat hike back to the trailhead (credit: Nate Johnson)
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View looking back at the Swiftcurrent Headwall from the shore of Bullhead Lake (credit: Nate Johnson)
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The trail traverses the north shore of Bullhead Lake for 1.5 miles before reaching Redrock Falls (credit: Markus Foote)
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View of Redrock Falls and the mountain backdrop (credit: Alex P)
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You then hike along the north shore of Redrock Lake (credit: Joe Watcher)
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Finally, the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail passes Fishercap Lake at the ~7.5 mile mark. From here it is just a ~0.5 mile hike to the trailhead and parking lot (credit: Brian Ross)

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Here are some similar trip reports!

10 Replies to “North Circle Loop – Glacier National Park (52 mile loop)”

  1. Truly a classic rocky mountain itinerary! I hiked a similar loop in 1999 and looking through these pictures brought back some great memories. Thanks for the reminder

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    1. Hi Matt – 6 days / 5 nights to do it at a pace with most days at 10 miles or fewer!
      You can do it in 5 days with one really tough day. For anything faster than 5 days, you would need to be in really good shape!

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    1. Hi Amy – I think if you are at the permit station very early the day before you want to start the hike, the chances are decent! There are fewer crowds in mid September so the permit competition will be less fierce. Note that the weather can start to get a little more iffy as you get further into September though.

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  2. Hey, Excellent report and excellent photos! I am doing this trip at the end of August. Only difference is Glenns Lake Head (GLH) for Mokowanis Lake (MOL) campsite on the second night. Looks like we’ll want to do a sidetrip to MOL. I saw a photo of someone walking in a stream and a separate photo of covered toe sandals. Is it necessary to pack footwear for stream crossings?

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    1. Hi Brian – If you have the energy, a side trip to Mokowanis Lake after setting up your camp at Glenns Lake Head sounds like a good idea!

      Along the trail, there are a couple stream crossings. The biggest one is where you must ford the Mokowanis River at the east outlet of Cosley Lake. This crossing is fairly wide (~100 feet) and can be a couple feet deep at the deepest point. There is a metal cable strung across the river that you use to stabilize as you cross. For this crossing you will definitely need to remove your hiking boots or they will get soaked. There is also a modest stream crossing near Stoney Indian Pass. For most of the other crossings, there were bridges.

      Whether or not you bring specific shoes for the crossings or go barefoot is really a personal preference. I prefer to wear sandals while crossing because I am a bit of a baby when it comes to stepping on rocks while barefoot and like the comfort of not needing to worry about getting cut on a sharp rock. You could probably get away with going barefoot if you are pretty stable and strong though. I like teva type sandals (but not tevas because those are quite heavy) for crossing because they double as great camp shoes.

      Hopefully that helps ya – have a great trip!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi!
    I just completed the Glacier north circle loop like your trip report. I was wondering if I could get a copy of the GPS trails you used for making your maps. We did the trip in the opposite direction and would like to get the correct elevation maps based on the trails.
    Thanks!

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    1. Hi Greg – Hope you had a great trip. You can export the clockwise route gpx track data from the map found here: https://caltopo.com/m/DGPE

      To get the gpx data, you hover the cursor over the “Export” button at the top of the page and then click “Download GPX File”. You can download individual day hikes or can download them all. Note that the GPX data will not have timestamps on it though.

      To just look up the elevation profile for one of the tracks, click on the data series and then click on “Terrain Statistics”.

      To print out maps, hover over “Print” on the top of the page, click “Print to PDF or JPG”, resize and position the big red box to where you want the map to be, and then generate either a PDF or JPG map.

      I hope that helps you out!

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