National Parks

Glacier National Park Part 3: The Highline Trail

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I read a lot about the Highline Trail when planning our trip to Glacier. Most guide books classify this trail as a “must see” for all park visitors. Every picture I saw of the Highline Trail looked amazing, but sadly I came to the conclusion that I would not get to see it for myself due to my fear of heights. Despite all my research on the trail, the night before our last day in the park, I decided the pros (it doesn’t have a lot of climbing, it’s easily accessible, and makes a nice point to point hike by using the park shuttle) outweighed the cons (sheer drop-offs), and I decided to face my fears and tackle the Highline trail.

GrizzlyHighlineAs Bethany, Jordan, Ryan and I were waiting at the Apgar shuttle stop to head up to the trailhead (Logan Pass), the park ranger thought it would be a good idea to tell us about a hiker that encountered a Grizzly Bear on the Highline Trail. The trail is very narrow, so there wasn’t enough space for the bear and the hiker on the trail. Somehow, the hiker scrambled off the edge of the trail and waited on some rocks while the bear passed. This is really not the best information to share with someone deathly afraid of bears (Bethany) and someone deathly afraid of heights (me) right before they set out to hike the same exact trail.  Freaked out, but still looking forward to an epic day we boarded the shuttle.

Once we arrived at Logan Pass, I decided to ask a different ranger about the trail, specifically, how long the trail was on the edge of a cliff.  This ranger wasn’t very helpful, but said she thought it was only scary for about a “mile, mile and half” (I should have known better).   Knowing i would likely be terrified for the first section of the hike, I set some ground rules for Bethany, Jordan and Ryan. NO getting close to the edge and NO group pictures until we got to an area where I felt safe, fortunately everyone obliged.  Unfortunately, the park ranger’s answer was completely wrong, or her definition of the edge of a cliff and my definition of the edge of a cliff are completely different. I was terrified of plummeting to my imminent death for the first seven miles of our 13 mile hike. I spent most of the time hugging the side of the mountain, like I was spider man.  I’m sure I freaked out a lot of other hikers that paused to let me pass, I was practically groping them so I could have contact with the mountainside.

When we got to the trail junction for the Grinnell Glacier Overlook (about six and half miles into the hike), we were sun burnt, covered in bug bites and worried we were going to run out of water.  Sheer determination drove us up to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook.  The climb to the overlook is extremely steep, technical and really not much of a trail at all.  I continued using my spider man tactics and we scrambled up to a notch in the Garden Wall.  Every hiker that passed on their way down encouraged us by telling us that the view was worth it, and they were right!  At the top we snapped a few pictures of the awe-inspiring view, and then unfortunately, had to hurry back down and continue on to the Granite Chalet.

After a quick stop for water and snacks at the Granite Chalet, we made our way on to The Loop trail to head back to the Going to the Sun Road.  Thankfully, the last four miles are downhill and not on a cliffside, so we were able to pick up the pace.  The Loop trail was very different from the trails we had hiked in the days leading up to this hike.  It is very exposed due to a wildfire that occurred in the park in 2003.  That summer over 13 percent of the park land was burned and the firefighters had to set back burns to protect the town West Glacier.  While the wildfires leave behind scared hillsides and the fragile skeletons of trees, they are required to keep a forest healthy.  Many wild flowers flourish after fires, because the sunlight is finally able to  reach the forest floor and Lodgepole pines and Ponderosa pines depend on fire for reproduction.  It makes you realize that without wildfires Glacier wouldn’t be considered an intact ecosystem.  Walking along a burnt hillside can be somewhat depressing.  However, we later learned that many of the thriving areas of the park were actually burnt in the 1910 wildfires.  This provided such a palpable hope that years from now future generations will enjoy hikes through a lush forest on The Loop trail.

While I don’t think I’ll ever hike the Highline Trail again, hiking this trail gave me confidence to face my fears.  Recently, I have been doubting my ability to go on some of the backpacking trips that Ryan and I have our eye on, due to my fear of heights.  Ryan was quick to remind me that it will be much different when I’m wearing a pack, but I still have a renewed hope.  For those planning a trip to the Highline Trail my advice is to take lots of water, wear sunscreen and bug spray…and if you are afraid of heights there will be a lot of moments that aren’t very fun, but that doesn’t make this hike any less rewarding!

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