Backpacking in Glacier National Park


How we got there: AUS > DEN > FCA
Dates: August 23rd - 26th
Hike Stats: 31.4 Miles over 4 days, 2,870 ft elevation change
Itinerary: Bowman Lake Trailhead > Bowman Lake Head Campground > Hole in the Wall Campground > Bowman Lake Head Campground > Exit via Bowman Lake Trail
Day 1: 7.1 miles, 0 elevation gain, 3.5 hours
Day 2: 8.6 miles, Elevation: Up 2,610 | Down 260, 6.5 hours
Day 3: 8.6 miles, Elevation: Up 260 | Down 2,610, 5 hours
Day 4: 7.1 miles, 0 elevation gain, 3 hours
Favorite part: Brown Pass

Choosing your Route

Glacier National Park is gigantic. With over 700 miles of trails, you could plan several different backpacking trips and cover only a fraction of what the park has to offer. We spent an entire week in the park and I'm already planning our next visit. 

The park is divided in two by the Continental Divide. The West side of the park is generally lower in elevation and more heavily forested. It's also less visited than the East side of the park which is higher in elevation. We chose to hike in the North Fork section of the park because it's the least visited and most remote part of the park. We also saw Brown Pass listed on National Geographic's top 10 backpacking trips in US parks and just couldn't resist.

You can read about the other parts of the park and what they have to offer on the Park's website. Click here for a detailed map of each trail and backcountry campsite in the park. 

Things to keep in mind when choosing your route: 

  • Transportation: How will you get to and from your trailhead? Most of the park has free shuttles; however, the North Fork is only reached by private vehicle and has mostly unpaved roads. Many people hitch hike back to their car once they finish their hike. We chose a route that began and ended at the same place. 
  • Mileage limit for advanced reservations: The park places a 16 mile a day limit on advanced reservations. This may impact the number of days it takes to do a specific route. 
  • Availability: The route you actually take will largely be based on permit availability. Most of the campsites have very few spots and half of those are reserved for walk-in reservations. The most we saw in one campsite was six, the least was three. See below for more information about attaining a backcountry permit. 
  • Timing: July and August are the best times to plan a backpacking trip in Glacier. Many backcountry sites don't even open until August because of the tremendous amounts of snow the area gets in the winter. Hiking is still possible in September and October but you'll need to be prepared for potential snow storms and very cold weather. 

We picked up our permits at the Apgar Backcountry office next to Lake McDonald.


Permits are required for any backcountry camping in Glacier. You have two options when obtaining a permit: 1) Advanced Reservations or 2) Walk-In Applications. 

Advanced Reservations

Advanced Reservations open on March 15th at 8am MDT (March 1st if your group is larger than 8 people) and are processed in the order received. If you have your heart set on a specific route or if you are traveling to Glacier from far away like we did, I suggest trying for the advanced reservation. With a $40 application fee, it's more expensive than a walk-in reservation, but you don't have to worry about trying to attain a permit once you get there. The worst part is the wait; it can take up to 4 weeks to hear back (it took us 31 days to get our application approved). There is also a limit of 16 miles a day for advanced reservations, and this may impact the campsites you can stay at. 

Keep in mind that you have to pick up your permit in person at one of the Backcountry offices in the park 24 hours in advance of the start of your trip. 

Learn how to submit your application here

Walk-In Applications

About half the sites in each campground are reserved for walk-in applicants. These permits can be obtained by visiting any of the backcountry offices in the park up to 24 hours in advance. Unlike the advanced reservations, there is no $40 application fee and you only pay $7 per person per night.

If you are flexible on the route you take, are hoping to plan a last minute backpacking trip, or want to hike more than 16 miles in one day, a walk-in application might be the right option for you. 

Our Hike

We chose to do an out and back trip so we didn't have to worry about hitch hiking when we were done. In hindsight, I wish we had taken the chance and done a thru-hike instead. While we enjoyed the hike immensely, it would have been nice to see more of the North Fork rather than seeing the same section twice. 

Day 1: Bowman Lake Trailhead to Bowman Lake Head Campground

Bowman Lake Trailhead 

Our day started out by driving down miles of dirt roads through Polebridge and into the North Fork area of the park. We stopped at the Polebridge Mercantile, a bakery/general store which is over 100 years old, and grabbed a coffee and some baked goods before starting the hike. After passing the ranger station, the trailhead is another six miles down an unpaved road that is barely big enough for two-way traffic.

Polebridge Mercantile 

Bear Claw that's actually shaped like a bear claw

Starting at the southern most tip of Bowman Lake, the first day of our hike was 7.1 miles of mostly flat trail along the side of the lake. Armed with our bear spray, we clapped our hands and yelled "HEY BEAR" probably more than was necessary. We never did see a bear. 

Beginning of our hike. The trailhead begins off camera to the left and follows along the lefthand shoreline. 

Day 1, Mile 1. Bowman Lake Trailhead to Bowman Lake Head Campground. 

You quickly lose site of the water due to the denseness of the trees and other foliage. About halfway through the day's hike, you begin to get closer to the lake and follow it's edge until you hit Bowman Lake Head Campground.

The campground is right along the lake and is a popular place for kayakers to stay. We were the only party staying the night that hiked to the campsite. Everyone else had kayaked or canoed from the start of the lake. The campground includes a pit toilet, cooking/food area, horse hitching area, and six campsites. 

View of the lake from Bowman Lake Head Campground 

Taylor relaxing at the edge of our campsite while enjoying a view of Lake Bowman

Day 2: Bowman Lake Head Campground to Hole in the Wall Campground

We awoke on the second around 7:30 am to the beginning of a rain shower. After frantically packing up and magically keeping our tent (mostly) dry in the process, we grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out. 

The first half of the day was much like the day before, flat and very forested. At about mile 4 we had a brief break in the trees and the rain finally stopped. We then started the climb up towards Brown Pass, gaining a total of 2,610 feet of elevation. Our entire mileage this day was 8.6 miles and it took us about 6.5 hours. 

Most of the climb is over once you hit Brown Pass Campground and then it's only another 2 or so miles until you get to Hole in the Wall. Brown Pass was by far the most beautiful part of the hike and we definitely dawdled to take in the views and eat all the huckleberries along the trail. 

Hole in the Wall Campground is possibly the most beautiful place I have ever stayed the night. It was well worth the climb and I wish we had been able to stay for more than one night. The campground includes a pit toilet, cooking/food area, and five campsites.

Day 3: Hole in the Wall Campground to Bowman Lake Head Campground

On day 3 we re-traced our steps and enjoyed the sunshine we didn't have the day before. It took us about two hours to go two miles from Hole in the Wall to Brown Pass Campground because we kept stopping to take in the view, snap photos, and eat huckleberries. We begrudgingly made our way out of the pass and back into the heavily forested area on our way to Bowman Lake Head Campground. 

View of Bowman Lake from Brown Pass

Brown Pass

Day 4: Bowman Lake Head Campground to Bowman Lake Trailhead

We purposefully got a late start so we could enjoy the campground as much as possible before heading out. The water of the lake was so calm and the water of the lake was even more clear than before. The hike out was quick and easy but we enjoyed the beautiful weather and views of the lake. We stopped at the Polebridge Mercantile again for some iced coffee before heading over to the East side of the park for the rest of our stay and some amazing day hikes. 

Very calm Bowman Lake in the morning


Miscellaneous Tips & Tricks 

  • [COMING SOON] Click here for my full gear-list for this trip as well as a list of items I wish we had brought or left at home. 
  • Rent your bear spray! Bear spray is pretty much a must if you're hiking in the backcountry of Glacier, but it's not cheap. One bottle will run you $45-50 and you can't carry on or check it in your luggage. Glacier Outfitters in Apgar Village will rent you a can of bear spray and help you save a few bucks. They charge $9.25 for a day, $18.50 for 48 hours, $28 for 3-7 days, and $32 for 8-14 days. We saved about $30 bucks this way. 
  • You must filter your own water while camping in the backcountry, but there is plenty of it. We could have carried much less water than we did since we were almost always near a source from which we could filter (always check with the rangers to double check there are water sources on your hikes). 
  • The early-bird gets the worm, or whatever. We had a few days after our backpacking trip to do some day hikes and found that the trails on the East side of the park got pretty busy in the late morning. Next time we'll be more on our game and get up early so we can experience a bit more solitude.