The spectacular Highline Trail begins at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, Montana.
It is a cold and windy September morning. At Swiftcurrent Inn, clear, eastern sky contrasts dramatically with dark clouds over mountains in the west. Today will feature the hike of part of the Highline Trail originating at 6,646 ft. (2,025 M) Logan Pass. The front end of the hike, from the Logan Pass trailhead, is also called Garden Wall and is one of the most spectacular and easiest walks (with a proviso) in the park.
The trail tracks the steep wall just below the summits of the Continental Divide and above Going-to-the-Sun Road. Attempting this hike today is a bit of a crap shoot. The unpredictable weather conditions make a strong argument in favor of hiking at lower elevation. Nothing ventured. Nothing gained.
Following an early breakfast, departure from Many Glaciers is followed by taking a few photos of Lake Sherburne in the morning sun and powerful gusting wind, on the way to Babb where a right turn and drive south for 6 miles (9⅝ miles), past Lower St. Mary Lake, on Highway 89, to the tourist village of St. Mary. Another right continues west on Going-to-the-Sun Road and back into Glacier National Park.
Along the way there is an opportunity to take pictures of the Jackson Glacier, one of the few large glaciers remaining in the park, and dramatic Singleshot Mountain, as the drive continues along the length of the north shore of St. Mary Lake. At Logan Pass the clouds clip surrounding mountain summits but rest above the spectacular Highline Trail.
Near mid-morning, after consulting with Parks staff at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, crossing the highway begins the hike. There is a mother, daughter pair beginning their trek at the same time. They are speaking to each other in French. The daughter also speaks fluent English. She requests photos of them and I oblige. Her camera is identical to mine.
The mother, visiting from Quebec, speaks little English but she has an uncommon resemblance and persona to a friend of mine in New Brunswick. I use one of the words from my limited French vocabulary, ‘Bienvenue’, before continuing on our separate ways.
The first short stretch drops through a pristine, alpine meadow to a narrow rock ridge directly over Going-to-the-Sun Road. Many people stop here and turn back. The narrow ledge, chiseled from the rock face, can be unnerving to the inexperienced. National Parks has anchored a metal cable, covered with a green garden hose, to the interior wall so hikers have a hand hold to counter the fear of falling. This aid is half a kilometer long. Perhaps it encourages a few people to venture further on this amazing trail to reach sections which are far less intimidating.
The beginning of the hike is a cold start requiring four upper layers, a toque, and gloves. As the mother/daughter and I exchange lead position periodically, due to pauses for photos and/or layering, the daughter says she knows me from somewhere.
We exchange the standard information and it turns out she is one of my customers. What are the odds? Small world. Her first name is the exact reverse of my youngest daughter’s name, Linda Marie. It is getting a bit spooky. More pictures for them are taken. Our destinations are different and we continue on our separate ways.
The Garden Wall is lush. The western side of the Continental Divide receives far more precipitation and plants are abundant on the steep walls above and below the trail. Some alpine wildflowers remain with fall colors complementing the extraordinary display. Waterfalls occur often and traverse the trail.
To maintain sure footing, there is no alternative but to get wet in a few of them. The sound is overwhelming. Occasionally streams flow over the trail. The scenery is incredible with mountains and valleys, overshadowed by angry and unpredictable sky, as far as the eye can see.
Going-to-the-Sun Road winds its way precariously along mountain sides and through valleys channeling magnificent rivers fed by hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the sides of steep mountains. The WOW factor is high. There are no adequate words. Still pictures cannot do justice. You need to be there, to turn your head, to smell the sweet aroma and to hear the sounds of the water, the wind and the birds.
The Garden Wall opens up into alpine meadows. The hike proceeds beneath the lofty summits of Piegan Mountain, Pollock Mountain and past the shallow dip which is Piegan Pass and Bishops Cap. These mountain ridges of the Continental Divide are directly above me to my right and the pulse of wandering cloud is shifting up and down as the day begins to warm.
Wildlife is abundant. Mountain Goats are feeding on the flanks of the mountains above. Big Horn Sheep seem more comfortable feeding closer to the trail. Squirrels, picas and marmots are all over surrounding rock fall.
The destination for this day, 4 miles (6⅜ KM) from Logan Pass, is the 7,000 ft (2,134 m) rocky saddle between Haystack Butte and Mount Gould. The final approach to the col is achieved on one long, broad switchback which gains elevation of 375 ft (114 M). The Highline Trail continues on, another equal distance, to the Granite Park Chalet below Swiftcurrent Pass which can also be hiked from the east side of the Continental Divide.
A relaxing lunch is enjoyable below the summit of Mount Gould before returning via the same route used for access. Many of the delicate plants along the alpine route have adapted to extremely harsh conditions and growing seasons of 3 months or less. Some of the perennials are more than 100 years old.
The Highline Trail has been an excellent day hike with a return to Logan Pass by 3:30 PM. The weather remains substantially better than expected. Additional photos of the day follow. Click on any individual photo for a closer look.