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Glacier Park Hiking in Late Spring and Early Summer
Glacier National Park receives an incredible amount of snow each year, and it takes several months for much of it to melt. In fact, several popular Glacier Park Hikes such as the Highline Trail and Grinnell Glacier Trail are usually not open until mid July, and often times late July and even into August. With this in mind, the following information will prove to be useful to those of you interested in attempting Glacier Park Hikes in the months of May and June…
Mountain Axe (a.k.a. Ice Axe) Self Arrest Skills Required!
For anyone who is embarking on Glacier Park hiking trails that involve medium to significant vertical elevation gain, each hiker should be adequately skilled in self-arrest techniques using a mountain axe, also known as an “ice axe”. The snow fields in Glacier National Park that are covering much of the Glacier Park trails during the early season can be extremely dangerous, and one slip could result in serious injury or death.
Simply carrying a mountain axe and using it for stabilization does not make you safe. Each hiker must know exactly how to “self-arrest” if he/she begins to slide down the snow field. This requires not only proper training, but also a lot of practice. If a hiker is not skilled in self-arrest, then he/she can pick up so much speed so quickly that nothing will stop them as the hiker literally flies down the snow field. Here’s the bottom line: If you’re not skilled with a mountain axe, especially with self-arrest techniques, you should definitely not attempt any Glacier Park trails that involve snow fields that have medium to steep grades… whether you’re hiking in May, June, July or August.
May Is Too Early For Most Glacier Park Hikes
For most of the Glacier Park Hikes, the month of May is really too early for any enjoyable hiking excursions, especially if the Glacier Park hiking trail involves a mountain pass, such as the Pitamakan Dawson Loop Trail in the Two Medicine Area. And to be quite honest with you, even those trails not involving mountain passes are more than likely snow-covered, and finding the actual trail at times will be a challenge.
There are a few trails that may be open and safe in May, such as the Swiftcurrent Lake Loop Trail and Red Rock Falls in the Many Glacier Area, Trail of the Cedars near Lake McDonald Lodge, and the South and North Shore Trails in the Two Medicine Area. These particular trails are fairly low in elevation and do not involve much elevation gain.
Glacier Park Hiking In June… Still Quite Early
The month of June is still a little early for enjoyable hiking in Glacier Park. Even though a few more of the lower elevation trails will open up by mid June (in a typical year), such as Iceberg Lake Trail in the Many Glacier Area, any of the Glacier Park Hikes that involve mountain passes are more than likely still snow covered and will require adequate self-arrest skills with a mountain axe. And keep in mind, the Going To The Sun Road doesn’t open until mid to late June on a typical year, which gives you an indication as to the status of any trail involving mountain passes, such as Siyeh Pass, Piegan Pass, etc. Also keep in mind that many of the backcountry campsites are not open until mid July, if not later, such as Fifty Mountain, Boulder Pass and Hole-In-The-Wall.
Mid July and Beyond Is Best
A fair amount of Glacier Park hiking trails are open by mid July on a typical snow year, but certainly not all of them. We have waited until mid August for some trails to open during heavy snow years, especially the backcountry trails in the Northern Wilderness, such as Boulder Pass Trail, Northern Highline Trail, etc. And again, remember that several of the backcountry campsites do not open up until late July or early August. And some of the most popular trails, such as Grinnell Glacier Trail, Highline Trail and Swiftcurrent Pass Trail seem to not open until later in July, and during a heavy snow year, as late as mid August.
Ask A Ranger
Before you begin any of the Glacier Park hiking trails during the months of May, June and early July, make sure you ask a ranger (at any visitor center or ranger station) the status of the trail you wish to hike. These rangers will be aware of current trail conditions, and let you know if that particular trail is safe to hike on.
For early season Glacier Park Hikes, we recommend that you not only learn proper self-arrest techniques with a mountain axe, but you may also consider these recommendations:
1) Traction Devices
Traction devices for your hiking boots, such as YakTrax or equivalent while hiking across snow fields can really help make the hike safer and more enjoyable.
Consider wearing water-proof / breathable gators that cover your boots and lower legs (to just below the knee). These will help keep your boots and pants dry.
3) Hiking Poles
Hiking poles really help keep you stabilized and balanced as you are walking through snow. HOWEVER, before navigating a snow field that has a medium to steep grade, put your poles away and use your mountain axe… and be constantly ready to use it for self arrest purposes.
4) Water-Proof / Breathable Boots
We are firm believers in wearing water-proof / breathable boots while hiking in Glacier National Park no matter what month it is. Though no boot is completely waterproof if it gets wet enough, GoreTex or equivalent really makes your Glacier Park hikes much more comfortable.
5) Watch Out For Early Morning Ice!
The most dangerous time of day during the months of May, June, July and even August is early morning. If the air temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit the night before, Glacier Park’s snow fields will be completely iced over and will be EXTREMELY SLIPPERY AND DANGEROUS. In fact, these snow fields will turn into deadly ice-skating rinks. Either really know what you’re doing and you are professionally skilled with ice, or do not attempt to cross these snow fields until they begin to soften up as the temperature begins to rise.
With all of this being said, if you are really wanting to enjoy some wonderful Glacier Park hiking experiences, and hiking in Glacier Park is the main focus of your trip, it really is best to plan your Glacier Park vacation no earlier than July… mid July to be more specific. Glacier National Park receives a TON of snow each year, and it takes a long time for it to melt, especially along the mountain passes. If you take our advice, you’re Glacier Park hiking experience will be far more enjoyable and memorable.
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