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).
- 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
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:
- a lightweight hiking rain jacket (North Face Venture 2 Jacket)
- fast drying synthetic hiking pants (prAna Zion Pants)
- a quick drying long sleeve hiking shirt (Columbia Silver Ridge L/S Shirt)
- wool outer socks (People Socks Moreno 4-pack)
- thin blister preventing base socks (WrightSock double layer Coolmesh)
- quick drying synthetic boxer briefs (ExOfficio Give-N-Go)
- light bandana for sun protection (Levi’s printed bandana)
- mesh back trucker hat (Patagonia LoPro Trucker Hat)
- adjustable fabric belt (Bison designs belt)
- Gore-tex hiking shoes (Arc’teryx Aerios Gortex Hiking Shoes)
Clothes for camp
- wool leggings (Minus33 Merino Wool Kancamagus Midweight Bottom)
- wool base layer shirt (Minus33 Merino Wool Chocorua Midweight Crew)
- warm wool overshirt (Pendleton Long Sleeve Classic-Fit Board Shirt)
- lightweight down jacket (Patagonia 800-fill Down Jacket)
- lightweight camp shoes (Xero Z-Trail lightweight sandal)
- topographic map (National Geographic Many Glacier Map)
- trekking poles (Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles)
- 2 or 3 liter hydration bladder (Camelbak Antidote Reservoir)
- 65 liter backpack (Osprey Atmos 65 Liter pack)
- water filtration system (Sawyer Squeeze water filtration system)
- strong tent with rain-fly (Alps Mountaineering Chaos 2 Tent)
- inflatable sleeping pad (REI Co-op AirRail 1.5 Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad)
- sleeping bag (The North Face Furnace 20 degree Sleeping Bag)
- lightweight backpacking chair (Therm-a-Rest trekker chair)
- headlamp (Black Diamond Storm Headlamp)
- multi-tool with knife (Gerber MP400 compact multi-plier)
- lightweight stove (MSR PocketRocket 2)
- lighter (BIC plastic lighters)
- 2 liter pot (GSI Outdoors Halulite Boiler Pot)
- coffee cup (GSI Outdoors Glacier Stainless Cup)
- lightweight spork (Snow Peak Titanium Spork)
- small, quick drying towel (REI mutli towel lite)
- bear spray (Frontiersman max range bear spray)
- wet wipes (Stall Mates individually wrapped wipes)
- mole skin for blisters (Spenco 2nd Skin Adhesive)
- small amount of duct tape for gear repairs
- chapstick and sun screen
Food and drink
- a variety of my favorite dehydrated meals
- electrolyte replacement (NUUN Hydration Tablets)
- quick snacks (Clif Shot Bloks and Clif energy bars)
- instant coffee (Starbucks VIA)
- small plastic water bottles filled with whisky 🙂
Day 1: 10 miles; +2,880 feet / -2,950 feet; Many Glacier (Iceberg-Ptarmigan Trailhead) to Elizabeth Lake Foot Campground
- Map of the Day 1 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
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!
Day 2: 9.5 miles; +1,220 feet / -1,110 feet; Elizabeth Lake to Mokowanis Lake Campground
- Map of the Day 2 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
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.
Day 3: 6.2 miles; +2,280 feet / -940 feet; Mokowanis Lake to Stoney Indian Lake Campground
- Map of the Day 3 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
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!
Day 4: 7.6 miles; +2,650 feet / -2,320 feet; Stoney Indian Lake to Fifty Mountain Campground
- Map of the Day 4 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
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).
Day 5: 11.3 miles; +2,980 feet / -3,090 feet; Fifty Mountain to Granite Park Campground
- Map of the Day 5 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
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.
Day 6: 8 miles; +960 feet / -2,530 feet; Granite Park to Many Glacier
- Map of the Day 6 hike of the North Circle Loop in Glacier National Park (PDF)
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.
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