The Highline Trail along Glacier National Park’s Garden Wall is one of the great hikes in the entire National Park system. It is simultaneously splendor-drenched and intimate. As gorgeous a view as you can find anywhere unfolds around you while up close, a delicate micro-habitat is home to bouquets of wildflowers. It is the extreme of expansiveness and quiet. It is also terrifying for someone, like me, who is afraid of heights.
Nevertheless, Sean’s and my first full day in Glacier, Thursday, August 2, was spent on the Highline with friends who return to it like a pilgrimage to a holy site.
I slept fitfully and woke with my alarm at 6am. I don’t know that I was actually nervous about the hike. I think it was just a a standard first night out restlessness.
We broke our fast with breakfast skillet and hot, but a little weak, percolator coffee. Then we grabbed our gear and climbed into the Super-Roo.
As we drove out of Saint Mary Campground and traced the northern shore of Saint Mary Lake, the morning was just about as clear and spectacular as you could want for an iconic hike.
We stopped at the overlook for Wild Goose Island in the upper portion of Saint Mary Lake. It’s an iconic spot for a photograph, and Dan, Angela, and Barbara wanted Sean and me to see it.
We arrived at the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking area a little before 8am. There was still plenty of parking to be had.
Our plan was to hike the first eight miles of the Highline to Granite Park Chalet. Then we’d descend to the Going-To-The-Sun Road and pick up the shuttle back to Logan Pass and the car.
We made final preparations on the bustling patio of the visitor center. Then, once we’d each used the restroom, we set out.
We started our hike at just about 8:15am.
The first section of the trail was an easy descent of the meadow at Logan Pass. The trail dropped gently onto the western side of the Continental Divide.
Below us were the upper reaches of the grand valley drained by Logan Creek with Mount Oberlin on one side and the Garden Wall, scarred by the ribbon of the Going-to-the-Sun Road on the other.
In order to run higher on the Garden Wall than the road, the trail needs to set a course across sheer rimrock right at the start as it leaves Logan Pass. To accomplish this, the trail, which is basically level, is hacked into the side of the wall with sheer cliff face above and below. For safety, chains wrapped in hose-like cording run along the the wall.
I am afraid of heights, so this was really hard. Two things helped a bit, though: concentrating on the line of the chain/cord was like following the line of the edge of the road when driving in bad visibility. It kept me moving forward and concentrated on something other than the drop-off to my left. The other was that we weren’t doing the hike as an out-and-back. Once I made it past the portion with the chains right at the beginning, I never had to do it again. It also helped that we were walking on the inside of the trail so that I could lean toward the wall as people passed.
Two older guys approached from behind me. They could see I was obviously scared. One of them said, “I’ve been in caves, and I’m claustrophobic, so I know what you’re going through. You’re doing great!”
Once we passed the sheer portion, the slope that the trail traversed became, well, an actual slope. While still steep, I could handle the angle of the scree slope.
I had to sit down and collect myself. I had made it past the chains section of the Highline!
Just as we began to continue, a Bighorn Sheep emerged and made his way down the slope toward the trail.
What a great reward and encouragement to continue.
Now we were on the garden portion of the Garden Wall. The wall is an arete, a high mountain ridge carved sharp by glaciers on either side. It also forms the Continental Divide. The Highline is on the Pacific side, which receives considerable moisture. The result is a lush habitat for wildflowers and shrubs high up on the wall.
Going-to-the-Sun Road was still visible below us, although it was descending while we were remaining largely level.
The trail was fairly busy that morning, but it didn’t feel crowded. Most hikers were traveling along in the same direction we were (also having started at Logan Pass). After one particularly frightening portion, we stopped to rest near a remnant snowmelt waterfall. The two old guys who’d passed us back at the chains portion passed us again going the other direction.
They recognized our group and asked after me.
“Did he turn around?”
“No, I’m still here.”
“Good for you!”
They were headed back to Logan Pass. Their sons were on a pack trip, while they were out exploring what they wanted to explore, including a portion of the Highline that morning.
We now passed through a portion of the hike that alternated long bands of vertigo-inducing drop-offs with bands or forest or tall shrubs. During each drop-off section, I just concentrated on getting to the next band of forest.
Genearlly, everyone on the trail was friendly and polite. But the shirtless trail runner was a bit much. He passed us one way and then the other on a stretch of steep drop-offs.
Although it made no logical sense, on some level it helped emotionally to know that the Going-to-the-Sun road was below us. At this point it was hundreds of feet down (and people have died falling from the Highline to the road), but I felt better knowing there was at least something below us.
And that’s just it. My acrophobia is a physiological response that my rational brain tries to counter. I know that hundreds of people hike the Highline everyday in summer with no incidents at all. And as soon as I can see something beneath the trail, the fear dissolves. But there is something about traversing a cliff face, the movement combined with a drop-off, that triggers a reaction: sweaty palms, tense muscles, and a rising feeling of panic in my gut.
Happily, as we approached Haystack Butte, the drop-offs became scarcer and the grade of the Garden Wall became much less steep. A large group of teenage boys, some in wrestling t-shirts, passed us going the other direction. That must have been the stinkiest campsite in the Park.
We were now headed toward the saddle between Haystack Butte and Mount Gould. A couple long switchbacks, the only such feature on this portion of the trail, led up to the saddle.
At this point, we emerged from the shadow of morning on the Garden Wall and into the sunshine. We stopped to have a snack and apply sunscreen. It was just about 10:15am, two hours since we’d set out.
We passed a tour group as we hiked up the switchbacks of the saddle.
Up on the saddle, the Hoary Marmots were active, feeding, whistling, and fighting actually.
We’d been anticipating that there would be fewer drop-offs after the saddle, but we were very much mistaken.
Can you spot the trail in the photo above? It turns the corner of the ridge about a third of the way up. The next portion of the trail boasted several such sections with the trail traversing the wall nearly two thousand feet above the valley floor. The blind right turns made it even more frightening.
This was the scariest portion of the eight miles of the Highline that we hiked. There were sections at this point that probably should have had chains.
I handed my camera to Sean, since its gentle swaying on its strap around my neck only made the sensations worse. Sean went first, and Angela took the spot directly behind me. Then Dan. Then Barbara in her preferred spot at the back. And off we went.
The worst moment was a blind right turn at the bottom of a downward slope of gravelly trail with nothing but air to the left. You could see that there was no slope or ledge beneath the trail. Angela told me later that she had turned around and indicated to some hikers behind us to give us a little space around the corner. They graciously did, and after we made it around, I asked if we needed to pull over to let people pass. And we did.
Angela was my hero on the Highline.
All of which begs the question whether I should have been there at all.
Looking back on it, I think so. Perhaps I should have asked more questions about the hike. I assumed that the drop-offs would basically end after the chains section right at the start. And perhaps if not for the prospect of re-doing the chains section, I’d have thought more seriously of turning back before Haystack Butte. I also don’t think I was ever a danger to myself or any other hiker on the trail. But I also think I’m right at the outside of fear-of-heights level for someone who should do the Highline. I think also that this tells me I have no business on Angels Landing.
From here we really were home free. There was only one more briefly frightening section. Now the views stretched all the way down to Lake McDonald on the western side of Glacier National Park.
At one point, a lanky, shirtless white boy with long brown hair and a beard hiked toward and past us on the trail. He was cut, and Angela quipped that he looked like Jesus with “crucifixion abs.”
We rounded a bend, and Granite Park stretched out before us. In the distance, on a ridge, stood Granite Park Chalet, our destination. The day’s drop-offs were over.
To celebrate, Sean led us above the trail to a good place to stop in the shade for lunch.
It was about ten minutes to noon.
Less than half an hour later we were back on the trail for the final stretch to Granite Park Chalet.
Granite Park provided a much more gentle slope than we’d traversed all day. Here we were crossing the upper reaches of a meadow with a few species of wildflower that we hadn’t seen yet.
Above us, a steep spur trail led to the top of the Garden Wall and a view over the Continental Divide down onto Grinnell Glacier.
We ignored the spur trail since we had plans to hike to Grinnell Glacier later in the trip. We just kept on along toward the chalet.
Just before we reached the chalet, a White-Tailed Deer doe emerged and crossed the trail in front of us.
At the chalet grounds, we took our turns at the outhouse.
The roughly eight miles from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet had taken us about four and a quarter hours, including our lunch stop.
We went and had a look at the Chalet, which had been built in 1914 by the Great Northern Railway as part of its tourism campaign to convince wealthy Easterners to visit the “American Alps.” In 1983, the chalet was added to the national register of historic places.
In The Hour of Land, Terry Tempest Williams depicts the chalet’s astonishing survival of a massive wildland fire in 2003. (Williams and her family also survived.) Evidence of the fire was still quite visible all around us.
We sat out front of the chalet and gazed at the Livingston Range opposite.
While we were there, a little chipmunk came right up to my boot before I realized that it was after some peanut M&M crumbs that someone had dropped there.
After a twenty minute break and a few more photos, we began our descent.
Our destination was the Going-to-the-Sun Road where the trail emerged at a parking area at the road’s one big switchback. Four miles and over 2,000 feet down.
The first section was cool and wooded. A long gray-bearded man overtook us and passed us. As he did, he remarked that a “three-point buck” had been keeping steadily parallel with us for a while.
After “Trail Santa” passed, Sean said that he had felt like there was wildlife close.
And then we spotted the buck because he had actually come out on the trail behind us. Since we’d stopped, he decided to go around us.
Not too much farther along, we saw a doe on the other side of the trail.
Then the forest ended. We reached a shrubby area dotted with bleached white remnants of long-dead trees, presumably killed in the 2003 fire.
We took our time, partly because the new habitat and elevation meant a whole new set of wildflowers to photograph.
We let a gaggle of well-scrubbed white teenagers hike past us. Likely a church group or perhaps participants in a Christian college outing, Barbara and I overheard one boy mansplaining to a girl that “the Gospels objectively say…”
“The Gospels don’t objectively say anything,” observed Barbara, herself a graduate of a Christian college, later.
There were several long switchbacks on the way down, but even here there were fewer than I might have expected. It seemed that even the Park’s trails adhered to the Going-to-the-Sun Road’s disdain for switchbacks.
It was very windy, and the gusts made eerie noises in the standing-dead trees.
It was also very hot with no shade whatsoever. Two young boys, also descending, stopped me to clarify where the trail led. Conversely, a teenager and his grandfather, working their way up, asked Angela how much farther they had to go.
Our little group, without anyone really articulating it, had had enough of the sun well before we were down.
We began spreading farther apart. Sean led with a cheerfulness that amazed Dan, who came second. Barbara took middle position. Angela went more slowly since she had had trouble on this hike with her knee before. Happily, she didn’t this time!
I brought up the rear because I kept snapping photos. And I think my body was worn out from holding so much tension on the harrowing parts of the hike.
Finally we reached the fork that indicated we were nearing the parking area.
One more creek crossing and we were done.
As we reached the trail’s end, some guys sitting in the shade were cheering on each hiker who passed. 10…9…8… they counted off the final steps for each person.
It was quarter after four when we finished. It had been a gorgeous, terrifying, and fun work day’s work of hiking.
We sat along the wall in line for the shuttle to Logan Pass.
After four shuttles passed us without room for more than a couple people, some of the other groups waiting with us suggested that we prioritize the drivers who were going to get cars up at Logan. It made sense to us. And when the next shuttle arrived, Dan went on alone.
One of the dads in line remarked that when he was growing up in nearby Kalispell, there were far few visitors to Glacier. No doubt.
But I also couldn’t help think that we five Chicagoans, as city people, were generally more chill about waiting for public transportation than some of the suburban families in line with us who had likely never lined up for a bus in their lives…or had done so rarely.
After Dan was carried off, the other four of us crossed the street to sit in the shade and wait for him to come back with the Super-Roo.
I guess it was about half an hour, forty minutes before he returned. He had ridden the shuttle next to a man from Miami and his lady friend who Dan couldn’t tell whether she was his daughter or mistress.
On the way back up the road and past the Highline, I was astounded that I had just hiked it. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I could easily see it. Had I been able to see it the day before, I’d probably have talked myself out of doing the hike. But I sure am glad I did.
We celebrated our day with margaritas and Mexican food at Bad Frog Cantina, a great little place in St. Mary with a huge outdoor patio and a big “Jon Tester for Senate” sign out front. Add live music and a good vibe from the other diners, and we were all quite happy.
As we ate, we discussed the following day. Hidden Lake and Avalanche Lake rose to the top of possible hikes. But timing was a concern because we also wanted to drive over to Many Glacier and get boat tickets for either Saturday or Sunday for our hike to Grinnell Glacier. Dan suggested that he would forego Avalanche Lake and go himself to Many Glacier.
Finally, I said, “Sell me on Avalanche Lake.”
While it sounded lovely, it didn’t sound unmissable. So we decided to all to Hidden Lake and then all go to Many Glacier.
Heading back into the Park, we dodged wandering beeves in downtown St. Mary and stopped briefly to grab some groceries.
Back in camp, the others showered. I didn’t feel like it, so I wiped down and fussed around in camp listening to Troye Sivan on my headphones and getting some early thoughts about the day down in my journal.
When the others returned, Sean was wearing a new “National Parks are for Lovers” baseball tee. Apparently, he had been “left alone to shop.”
We set out shots to celebrate the triumphant day.
Then we snacked, drank, carried on, and chatted by the campfire until long after the stars had come out.
It was a classic day in a National Park.