Hiking: 13.8 mi / 5204 ft. climbing
Home: Apgar Campground C-loop hike/biker site
We moved yesterday’s early wakeup time 30 minutes earlier, to 4:30am. That allowed us to get to the shuttle bus stop at 6:30am. There was already enough of a line that we didn’t get on the first shuttle at 7am, but we just fit on the second around 7:15am. That means we hit our goal of making it onto one of the small 14-passenger express vans that goes all the way to Logan Pass without requiring a transfer at Avalanche (after 8am they run bigger 28-passenger buses to move more people, but those longer vehicles aren’t allowed on Going-To-the-Sun Road above Avalanche, hence the annoying and time-sucking transfer to the shorter buses at that point).
All this time-anxiety is because today we are attempting the most-epic hike we’ve ever done. The Highline Loop is a world-famous day hike that leaves from Logan Pass (the same spot as yesterday’s Hidden Lake/Dragon’s Tail hike) and heads north along the west face of the skyward-facing knife of mountains that sharply divides the waters of the continent in this park. It’s 11.8 miles one-way with 2400 ft. of climbing (and then you take advantage of the shuttle to get you back to your starting point), and I was amazed when my parents attempted (and succeeded at!) such a hike when they weren’t too many years younger than they are now.
But we were going to make it even harder. We were going to do it backwards.
Nearly everyone starts from Logan Pass and hikes down from there to finish at “The Loop” on Going-to-the-Sun Road, which, at 4320 ft., is 2300 ft. lower than the start. Inspired by all the benefits we got from doing Siyeh Pass similarly uphill in reverse (and admittedly, as a bit of a test of our hiking strength), we decided we would climb up from The Loop.
Oh, and midway we would add a steep 1.8 mile out-and-back offshoot to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook to kiss the Continental Divide at two separate places on one hike. The total would be nearly 14 miles with more than 5000 feet of climbing. We’ve exceeded that distance (once in our lives, with Swiftcurrent Pass just a couple weeks ago), but we’ve never done anything close to a mile vertically.
So that’s why we really wanted to get to the trailhead as early as possible! Our best-laid-plans worked up until this point in the morning, but suddenly the express shuttle bus was stopped dead by road construction. It was in the 9-mile section of gravel along Lake McDonald, but the construction company is only supposed to be working overnight. Worse, it was a complete communication failure. Our driver radioed back to dispatch to inform them of the stop, and it was just as big of a surprise to them; apparently no one from the construction company had bothered to even mention that they would be violating their agreement with the park today. It was up to our driver to ask the flagger when we went by if they’d be working all day (“yep”) and radio that news back to dispatch. For a road whose traffic already needs to be limited by vehicle reservations, this was going to be a nightmare.
Luckily as some of the first vehicles through for the day, we were only delayed by around 10 minutes. Even more luckily, our driver let us hop out at The Loop, something they probably aren’t explicitly supposed to do when running express (but my feeling was that if you ask nicely and show that you can get off in a hurry, most drivers will do what they can to accommodate). Our alternative would have been to ride up to Logan Pass and then wait for another shuttle to bring us back down to The Loop, which would have taken us a lot longer than the construction delay.
So just as we’d hoped, we got to start the big climb up “The Loop” section of the trail in the cool early morning, with the trail to ourselves. It actually had more trees than I expected given how many people report that it’s a long hot slog and the worst section of the hike, but now I’m convinced that those impressions are shaped by the fact that they’re all doing it worn out at the end of their hike, later in the afternoon, and descending into the hotter lower valley from the cool heights. Exactly why we’re doing it in reverse!
I did the short offshoot up to the Granite Park Chalet while Rett sunscreened, partly to acquire some insanely priced water (it does all need to be hiked in), but (luckily?) they weren’t yet selling. We knew we’d be able to refill our two bottles each at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, so draining them before the end wouldn’t be a disaster.
Shortly after that, the darkening skies brought rain! Briefly heavy enough for Rett to get out her rain jacket, but the sun lighting the waves of drops arrayed in front of the mountain wall ahead of us hinted that it wouldn’t last long.
Near this point we finally started encountering “normal” hikers heading our way, most of whom had likely used their cars to get them to Logan Pass earlier than the shuttle. Then when we began the offshoot to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, there actually seemed to be more people doing the steep climb than continuing on the main trail below. This was initially quite a surprise, given what a strenuous add-on it is to an already-strenuous hike (and it’s just a violation of the general principle “harder hike”==”fewer hikers”). But then it made sense that if you were going to add it on, you’re probably going to (like us) start your hike as early as possible. So nearly everyone to the junction at this hour was here to see the glacier, and the people not doing the add-on hadn’t even gotten here yet.
The offshoot was a definite gut-buster, with multiple stop-to-breathe sections along the 900 ft. in 0.9 miles (aka 19%) slope, similar to the final approach to Siyeh Pass. And totally worth it, as we knew it would be ever since a cyclist in the Rising Sun campground had shown us her photos of it a couple weeks ago. We had of course seen Upper Grinnell Lake and its glacier already from a hike we did up to the lake out of the Many Glacier valley. But experiencing it from this new eagle-eyed perspective not only improved this hike, it (and our anticipation at the time) retroactively improved that already-amazing day. It’s the second connection we’ve made between the Many Glacier valley on the east side of the Divide and the valleys of the west side (we had been able to look down on the roof of the Granite Park Chalet when we crossed over Swiftcurrent Pass), so being able to personally connect these physically divided sections of the park with each other unlocks the tall and twisted convolutions of rock in a way no map ever could.
Plus, seeing the bright blue ice-dotted lake, the tiny people down on its shore who could have been us, and the higher glacial fields that were invisible from below, was just fucking cool.
Just as the trail took us up to the saddle at the lowest point between two mountains, the wind, also seeking its way eastward through this wall, took the same path of least resistance and would have blown us right over into the lake if we weren’t careful. We were able to clamber up into some sheltering rocks, but still needed to don our cold-weather gear to eat lunch. The hike back down was thankfully just under the limit of steep-and-loose that would have put us on all-fours, so we were back to the main trail more quickly.
From there it was the Garden Wall rising vertically to our left with distant mountains to the right, with occasional views of Going-to-the-Sun Road paralleling us far below. Haystack Mountain causes the road and trail to diverge, with the road going around the west side and the trail rising over a minor pass to the east. From that point onward the Highline truly lived up to its fame, with the mountains and meadows all battling for your eyes’ attention. While I still highly endorse doing the entire thing (including the Overlook!) if you have a bucket with a list in it, I can also get behind the advice I’ve seen of just making it a much-easier out-and-back from Logan Pass to Haystack Pass, where you’ll get 70% of the views with 40% of the effort.
Near the end (or the start for normal people) the trail really rides a cliff-edge, and the park service has installed a cable in the wall to hang on to. I didn’t feel any need to use it, but I wonder how many people start the trail, get hit with vertigo, and turn around thinking “if the start is this bad…” (when really there are few sections like that over the next 11 miles).
So we made it to the end (and again to the Continental Divide) alive. And really feeling pretty good. And glad we closed out time in Glacier National Park with a banger. At the time it might have felt like a slight letdown after the shorter but high-density Dragon’s Tail the day before (especially relative to expectations), but writing this and editing the photos a month after the fact, I dunno, I might have just become a bit inured to unbelievable mountain scenes, because looking back, the Highline was equally amazing. Statistically, it was easily the most difficult hike we’ve ever done, but it was immensely satisfying to know that we’ve built an inner strength during our three weeks in Glacier National Park that meant it didn’t feel even close to our most-difficult. We were certainly worn out, but the idea of hiking again tomorrow didn’t sound crazy, not like it did after our first 13 mi./1400 ft. hike here to Cobalt Lake.
Good thing too, because the ride back down to camp might have been more-challenging than the hike. The first bus down to Avalanche wasn’t too bad, but then the wait in the sun at the transfer was far longer than yesterday’s already long wait. Everyone definitely made sure that positions in line were well-established. Rett got “Lady”ed by a bus driver just as frustrated as her: “this construction has ruined the day of everyone trying to get up and down this road, it’s not just you.” While she had definitely been getting ranty about this situation that rants would do absolutely nothing to improve, in this specific case she was actually proposing an improvement that would get everyone down the mountain faster (allowing standing passengers on the buses, something they seemed to be doing yesterday). Luckily we were the last two passengers allowed onto the second bus that we saw during our wait, and by the time ours finally pulled out we could see the remaining line wound even farther than the two busloads it had been when we arrived. Then we still had to wait in the long line of traffic at the one-way closure. I sure hope whatever they were constructing was a critical emergency, because it likely only got worse for people later than us.
From the shuttle stop we walked directly to Apgar Village and the restaurant, where effortless dinner made everything better, especially with margaritas, even if they were objectively terrible. The final half-mile of the day back to our campsite revealed that no one had taken John and Els’s spot in C146 with us, so while we miss them, empty is nicer than some weirdos or car campers.
It’s our 6th day at Apgar, and our 24th in Glacier National Park. That’s far longer than almost anyone is able to stay in the park, and even longer than I realistically thought we would be able to stay. We hiked 105 miles of trail, biked the most incredible road we’ve been on, and stayed in five different campgrounds (and a sixth non-campground). But it’s still sad that we’ll leave tomorrow morning.
As usual though we gave ourselves a rest-and-recovery day. We woke up after 7am, luxuriously late and ate an easy relaxed breakfast. Rett went to shower in the campground’s quiet time, while I internetted at the Visitor’s Center WiFi. Later I rode out of the park to the West Glacier grocery and got us some beer, ice, and a new loaf of Franz’s limited edition huckleberry bread. The last time we went to West Glacier, the road out of the park had been pretty busy, but this time it was nearly empty. It was only on the way back, when I saw a large gravel truck heading my way leading a line of cars nearly two miles long, that I realized the daytime construction must still be blocking Going-to-the-Sun Road and still totally screwing anyone with plans involving it. I guess maybe it’s good after all that we’d already decided that our time in the park was done?
We couldn’t leave though without one last encounter with Glacier hiker/biker campsite thieves. Around dinnertime two guys roll up in a car and ask where C146-B is (they don’t understand that the sub-letter is just a reservation slot indicator, not a specific physical location). We’re through with this shit, so we simply tell them they aren’t allowed to camp here. Rett, like a meme come to life, literally gets up and taps the sign, which says precisely that. The leader gives the usual bullshit lies, and then in a hilarious attempt at compromise we have no interest in, says “oh, don’t worry, we won’t make you move.” Haha, no shit, you definitely will not. Luckily his friend, who either had been unaware until now how their site had been illegitimately booked, or at least was never fully on-board with the scheme, was understanding and apologetic, and helped to convince the leader to back down and change their plans. “Maybe we can get our reservation money back”, mused the leader as he tucked his tail. It was $10, jackass, a small price for your attempted thievery. And that was the last we saw of them!
That makes us 2-for-2 in our attempts to eject car campers from hiker/biker sites that don’t belong to them. Which is a far better batting average than the rangers or camp hosts, despite the fact that we’re the only ones with no actual power. Part of our success though probably relies on the thieves assuming (reasonably but incorrectly) that a ranger would eject them once we reported them. So hey, rangers and camp hosts of Glacier, rather than just throwing up your hands and gesturing impotently toward recreation.gov, maybe just try doing what we’ve done: tell them to leave! It seems that works!