The Highline Trail in Glacier National Park is the best hike that we have ever done. Yes that is a period. You’re up there at the top of the world, 10,000 feet, surrounded by stunning peaks, sharing the trail with mountain goats, often on the edge of a precipice. It’s the real real, for real.
Our day started out sunny and mellow. The HighlIne trail is known for it’s relatively level plane, with mellow rises up and down few hundred feet over the course of the 12 mile trail. The trail varies from dirt paths, to splintered rocky outcroppings, to snow fields, to woodsy patches that make you hoot, holler, and sing to warn bears your entering. Somehow you’re not scared like you’d think you’d feel on the edge of a cliff though the reality of a few locations is that if you had stumbled the wrong way you’d tumble down hundreds of feet, and that would be that.
Around each corner the trail is packed with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, as well as beautiful and curious rock formations and colors to view up close as you hike. Columbian ground squirrels were everywhere on the trail, and would pop out of the brush and sprint down the path in front of you for 20ft before darting back in, using the path as a highway. The Hoary Marmots were less abundant and less skittish making them more amusing as the sniffed each other. Which seemed weird since you’d assume that on this cliff they all know each other. The mountain goats were even less shy and lingered on the path as they backed up crowds from both directions before making it known they were ready to walk down the path, causing everyone to climb up on the high side of the path to make way. Further on we saw a Big Horn Sheep high up the mountainside and a few deer, which are hard to get too excited about when you’re annoyed by them eating your flowers on the east coast.
The further we went on the 12 mile trail the less and less civilians we saw traveling with us and the crowd thinned down to hearty hippie mountain main types, many of them carrying 60-90lb packs filled with the provisions for their overnight stay in the high alpines. Real dudes.
At about 7 miles in we began to ask ourselves, “where the hell is the end of this trail”. We found ourselves out on a snow field, with a harsh wind blowing across us in our t-shirts and frankly underprepared states. We talked to one of the mountain man types who’d traveled the trail before. He basically said we were about mid-way. We could either go back, but if we’d made it this far, we might as well go all the way. It was about 5PM, and the sky was growing a bit darker but the real issue was that we were pressing up against our ability to make the last shuttle bus back to our campsite that leaves the top of the continental divide at 7PM and would probably be at the loop where we’d exit about 7:15. As far as I could tell, there was no difference in distance going forward or back. Worst case scenario we’d have to hitch hike from the exit point, the 10 miles to our camp, within the park. Not ideal, but the park is filled with happy campers generally willing to lend a hand.
We discussed it. We decided to go forward.
Picking up our pace as the day felt longer and colder we crossing more frequent snowfields, and rocky waterfalls threw water across us. Not more violent, but definitely more wild. The farther we went on this trail, the more wild it became. It was as if the simple fact that less people made it this far just made it more pristine.
It was awesome.
But our pace meant that we took less pictures. Each shot was like a drive by shooting. A blind shot at another picturesque moment, with barely a moment to compose or focus. Shoot em now, sort them out later.
Finally we reached the mountain chalet that marked the end of the trail. We only lingered for a moment, took a few photos and said, “let’s get outta here.” We had a 4 mile hike downhill on the Loop Trail to get the exit point and by this time we’d made some friends on the trail that we wanted to stick with as they promised us a ride if we missed the last shuttle. Unfortunately, our new trail buddies were quite speedy.
This last section leading to the loop access point was described by the mountain man as “all down hill, no problem”. But the reality of all down hill, after the previous 12 miles, was that, tired as we were, we were drawn by gravities pull downhill and found ourselves shuffling and trotting, trying to keep up with our trail buddies who’d only hiked 8 miles. In a word, we were desperate. We were at the end of a 15+ mile hike, and were tired, and sore, with blisters forming as we stumbling down a mountain, hungry for a ride back to our campground. The gorgeous scenery never stopped, but sadly, we lost our ability to absorb it after the first 12 miles. I gave in, and began to whine to myself – Whaaaaaaaaaa!
Finally we I saw the parking lot. But there was one more switch back before we could reach it. Damn those trail cutters. Our feet were throbbing. Becca’s face was bright red and she asked me if I was in pain… yes. We hoofed it the last few hundred yards, over gorgeous glacial waterfall, whatever, it was like the 20th one. But since it was the last one, it was amazing, so we stopped to take a photo, to mark the end of this epic hike, amazing, and fulfilling.
We we walked out on the road. It was 6:30PM. A shuttle rolled up. We ran toward the bus and climbed on board like a couple of vagabonds. Some of the other passengers asked us what hike had put us so out of sorts and we told them we’d done the Highline and Loop trail in about 4.5. hours. We got some deserved props because apparently that’s fast. I told them, “we were hustling.”