|Glacier lilies below the Garden Wall at Granite Park|
(11 miles round trip, 3500 feet elevation gain to Grinnell Glacier Overlook)
Difficulty: Moderate- fairly hefty elevation gain but do you notice when everything is so beautiful?
Access: Glacier National Park entrance fee ($30 in 2016), paved road to trailhead, vehicles over 21 feet prohibited on Going-to-the-Sun Road
Granite Park is paradise: it is every dream of alpine bliss, a landscape composed of moments that one can only wish would last forever. You could successfully argue to me that there are many equally or more beautiful places in the world; but in two and a half thousand miles of hiking, I may have never experienced a more extraordinary and moving landscape than that of the alpine meadows along the Continental Divide near Glacier National Park's Granite Park Chalet. This is an exceptional place deserving of every phrase of seeming hyperbole that it has inspired.
I can't promise you the magic I felt: I've read that this hike is often substantially more crowded than when I visited. I came on a day with overcast weather with the cloud layer sufficiently high enough for me to see all of the surrounding summits; I hear that Granite Park sees much more visitors in better weather. Additionally, the Highline Trail, which is the more popular access route to the area, had not yet opened from Logan Pass; this perhaps mattered substantially because many of the beautiful meadows I saw were just southeast of the Chalet off the Highline Trail and I had these meadows all to myself.
I hiked to Granite Park from the Loop Trailhead on the very first day of my trip to Glacier National Park. I arrived in Kalispell after setting out from Seattle the previous night; the morning of my hike, I drove out from Kalispell in the early morning, following US 2 east to West Glacier, and then turning onto Going-to-the-Sun Road and entering the park. There was little hint along the approach drive of the spectacular scenery in the park; most of the mountains west of the park were forested and looked fairly modest. Yet as soon as I entered the park and drove Going-to-the-Sun Road along Lake McDonald, everything began to change. The forest became ever greener, denser, and more damp; the mountains went from glorified foothills to soaring fins of sedimentary rock. Going-to-the-Sun Road itself also became spectacular after crossing Logan Creek and beginning the ascent up the Garden Wall. The road was blasted into a cliffside, hugging the mountainside as it ascended to the Loop, a sharp switchback in the road with reasonably ample parking and a pretty view of Heavens Peak and the hanging valley bordered by Oberlin and Clements Mountains.
The trail left from the sharp turn in the switchback, across the road from the parking spots. A sign at trailhead reminded hikers to be vigilant for bears. This isn't a warning to take lightly: grizzly bears are plentiful at Glacier National Park, and while most bear encounters are nonconfrontational, you don't want to be on the receiving end of a bear attack! A few days before I drove out to Glacier, a mountain biker was mauled by a grizzly bear near West Glacier; the bear had still not been caught at the time of writing this post. The trailhead sign discouraged solo travel and travel near dawn and dusk hours and also encouraged all hikers to carry bear spray. While I chose to hike alone, I also traveled at midday and kept bear spray within convenient reach.
The trail delved into a burnt forest and quickly crossed a tumbling stream on a well-built bridge. The first third of a mile of the trail was either flat or downhill, heading north until the trail merged with the Granite Park Trail coming up from Packers' Roost. This is a critical junction to note on the way back: if you miss this intersection while coming down and head towards Packers' Roost instead of the Loop, you'll end up far from where you parked.
|Cascading creek near Loop Trailhead|
|Granite Park Trail with Mount Oberlin, Clements Mountain, and Mount Cannon|
The trail occasionally emerged into small grassy clearings with views of Heavens Peak or other nearby mountains. The climb was constant but not terribly steep. At three and a half miles, the trail passed a junction to the left for the Granite Park Campground; I took the right fork to continue towards Granite Park Chalet. By this point, I often had views to the right of the trail of Logan Pass to the south, the rocky Garden Wall, Reynolds Mountain, Clements Mountain, and the many other glacial-carved fins and aretes.
|Views of the Garden Wall from Granite Park Trail|
|Granite Park Chalet and Heavens Peak|
The front porch of the chalet had sweeping views of Heavens Peak and the valley of Logan Creek. As it was a cloudy and cold day, I decided to duck inside to eat my lunch and check out the inside of the chalet. A large common area with long tables was open to the public; snacks and drinks were for sale, but there was no hot water and thus no hot drinks. Visitors lucky enough to snag reservations at the chalet can hike in and stay overnight and spend more time exploring the network of alpine trails emanating from the chalet.
After leaving the chalet, I hiked back to the junction with the Highline Trail and followed it in the direction of Logan Pass. This stretch of trail is one of the most famous in all of Glacier National Park, but I experienced the beauty in nearly complete solitude: few hikers were on the Highline as an area near Logan Pass was still closed due to snow. Just past the trail junction, I entered a perfect meadow: tiny brooks flowed through a field of blooming glacier lilies, with evergreens dotting the edge of the meadow and snowy sandstone peaks rising behind that. I sat on a rock next to the trail and gazed contentedly out at the scene for nearly an hour.
|Glacier lilies at Granite Park|
|Highline Trail leading south from Granite Park Chalet|
The trail was very steep, heading straight up the talus along the base of the Garden Wall and climbing nearly 1000 feet in just under a mile. The small rocks on the trail were very loose in places, making for sometimes unstable footing; at one point, the trail had more or less disintegrated into loose scree. Towards the top, the trail followed a series of rock ledges where hikers might want to use their hands. However, the path was generally not hard to follow and was made easier by the expanding views of the Continental Divide behind me and Granite Park below me.
|The Highline Trail and the Continental Divide|
|Grinnell Glacier Overlook, Mount Gould|
|Lake McDonald seen from the Grinnell Glacier Overlook|
|Continental Divide peaks at Glacier National Park|