Glacier National Park Horse Trails

Glacier National Park is awesome: rugged and incredibly wild. It’s full of legendary critters: grizzlies, black bears, wolves, moose, elk, mountain lion and mountain goats (not to mention extroverted marmots). The weather is constantly changing: in one day you can experience rain, sun, heat, sleet and snow, not to mention howling winds and lightning strikes. And it’s huge!

Because of its world-wide reputation, accessible areas in Glacier are extremely popular with tourists. And the tourist season is short–the only paved road through the park is sometimes not even open by June 15 and sometimes closes earlier than Sept. 30. Given 3 million people usually visit the park in a three-month window (and it may seem like more if you try to find a parking spot the third week of July), it’s no wonder that the majority of Montana locals opt for other get-aways in the state during the summer.

In order to preserve the popular park’s wilderness, park management have had to be very strict with rules. No hay or grazing is allowed so your horses will have to pack approved weed-free feed. Campgrounds have capacity limits. All campgrounds require a reservation–half can be reserved as early as March 15 leaving the other half open to unpredictable “walk-ins” 24 hours before. If there’s too much demand for a certain trail or campground, you may have to take your chances with a lottery, so we suggest planning your trip and making the reservations ahead of time.

Although you can ride your horse for many miles in Glacier, you can’t go everywhere: you can not go off trails. The most popular (or rugged) spots for hiking and camping don’t allow stock use. There can also be a lot of last-minute trail closures. Rangers close trails for a whole host of reasons including but not limited to: mud, wash-outs, rock slides, downed timber, animal activity, fire, road construction, and traffic jams. 

Does this sound like I’m trying to talk you out of a riding adventure in Glacier? Actually, I’m not. But allow me to put this bluntly without hurting your feelings: unless you and your horse are seasoned packers with miles of experience riding other Montana wilderness areas using Leave-No-Trace principles, and unless you’ve visited Glacier recently, do not attempt to plan a horseback trip there until you’ve first talked to the Apgar Ranger Station and Swan Mountain Outfitters. In fact, take a ride with Swan Mountain Outfitters, first, before you make any plans at all.

If you have only a day or two, Swan Mountain Outfitters offer 2-hour and half-day trail rides to the most popular areas of the park: the Apgar Meadows, Lake McDonald, Apgar Lookout, the Cedar Forest, the Sperry Chalet, and up to Trout Lake. They also offer an overnight trip and drop camp services for hikers to get themselves and their supplies even further into the backcountry. 

For information and reservations contact:

Swan Mountain Outfitters
1-877-888-5557
www.swanmountainoutfitters.com/glacier

For the official trail map for the park, upload the pdf at this link: Glacier National Park 2020 Map for Web

For road status regarding closures and traffic conditions, go to: Going-to-the-Sun Road Status

Trail Riding in Glacier

Geographically speaking, the first thing to understand about Glacier is that the west side is wetter and warmer than the east side. The west side is lower: about 3,000 feet while the west side is 5,000 feet or higher. The west side opens up earlier and stays open longer. That means there is also more mud, more mosquitos, more horseflies, more downfall, heavier brush, more berries, more bears and more wildlife on the west side. The east side is more open and more rocky. Even though it’s colder, the east tends to be drier early in the season, so the trails are better there in June than they are in the west. The west is best in late August after the tourist travel has dropped a bit.

No matter where you go, (unless you do a ride with Swan Mountain Outfitters) you will need a Backcountry Permit for your trip. Prices in 2020 to make the reservation are $40 per group with $30 refundable if you don’t get permission. Campgrounds start at $7 per person. You can find the current fees for the year listed in Glacier’s Backcountry Guide available at park visitor centers, ranger stations, or the Apgar Backcountry Permit Center. You will want to thoroughly research the route you plan to ride. It’s also a good idea to check on river levels if your trip includes a river crossing, especially the Middle Fork of the Flathead which can have extremely strong currents during certain times of the season.

Keep in mind that any time after the middle of July is fire season. If–or rather, when–a fire starts in the park, the campgrounds, trails, and road affected will be closed. Smoke from fires outside Glacier can force a change of plans, too. 

Trail riding is permitted on park roads when closed to motor vehicles except for the Going-to-the-Sun Road (west of the Continental Divide) and the Camas Road. On the west side, the Old Flathead Ranger Station Road from the Apgar concession barn and the spur road to the Apgar Lookout Trailhead are usually open to stock use. 

Day-Use-Only Trails with 20-Head Limit (All Other Trails 10-Head Limit)

Apgar Lookout Trail

Apgar Mountain Loops

Apgar Flats Trail

Cracker Lake Trail

Gunsight Pass Trail (Lake

McDonald Lodge Trailhead to Sperry Chalet)

Josephine Lake/Grinnell Lake (Horse Trails)

McDonald Valley Trails

Red Gap Pass Trail (Many Glacier Road to Poia Lake)

Swiftcurrent Pass Trail (Many Glacier to Granite Park)

Old Flathead Ranger Station Site Road

Bowman Lake Road and Inside North Fork Road are open to stock use only when closed to vehicles.

 

Glacier Trails Closed to Stock Use

In the Lake McDonald Valley:
• Avalanche Creek Trail (Avalanche Campground to Avalanche Lake)
• Loop Parking Area to junction with the Granite Park Trail
• Sperry Glacier Trail (Sperry Glacier to Sperry Chalet)
• Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail
At Logan Pass:
• Hidden Lake Nature Trail
• Highline Trail (Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet)
In the Two Medicine Valley:
• Spur Trail to Cobalt Lake (from the Two Medicine Pass Trail)
• Dawson Pass Trail (Dawson Pass to Cutbank Pass Trail Junction)
• Running Eagle Falls Nature Trail

In the Many Glacier Valley:
• Apikuni Falls Trail
• Grinnell Glacier Trail
• Hidden Falls Trail
• Iceberg Lake hitch rail to Iceberg Lake
• Josephine Walkway
• Swiftcurrent Lake Nature Trail
In the St. Mary Valley:
• Baring Falls Trail from Sunrift Gorge
In Other Parts of the Park:
• Hole-in-the-Wall Spur Trail (from Boulder Pass Trail)
• Huckleberry Mountain Nature Trail
• Spur Trail to Lake Francis (from the Boulder Pass Trail)

Backcountry Campgrounds

Backcountry campgrounds have strict designated capacities for numbers of people and stock. Competition is strongest from July to mid-August. Fire danger also drops by the end of August, so when possible, try to plan overnight trips after the middle of August when trails and campgrounds are less crowded, in better condition for horse travel, and there are fewer bugs. Overnight use in designated campgrounds is limited to one group per night.

Overnight Stock Boarding at Trailheads

For information about overnight stock boarding in Many Glacier (limited to one night), stock users must contact Swan Mountain Outfitters (877-888-5557).

Backcountry stock parties at Two Medicine travelling the Continental Divide Trail may camp in the Two Medicine area for one night only, subject to the approval and specific terms and conditions established by the Walton-TwoMedicine District Ranger. Check with them regarding location, food storage, impact considerations, and other concerns. Call 406-226-4484 for details.

You can ride from the US to Canada, but special provisions and restrictions apply when crossing the International Boundary with stock. You must have proof of a Coggins test endorsed by a veterinarian. (Call the Montana State Veterinarian at 406-444-2043 for more information.) And US riders must obtain a Horse Use Permit from Carway Customs; each animal must have had a Coggins test endorsed by a veterinarian, and must enter and exit at Carway. 

Trailheads for Trailriders

Apgar Horse Concession

Bowman Lake

Camas Creek Trailhead

Chief Mountain Trailhead

Coal Creek Trailhead

Cut Bank Trailhead

Fielding Access Road Trailhead

Kintla Lake

Kishenehn Trailhead

Lake McDonald Ranger Station

Lincoln Lake Trailhead

Logging Creek Ranger Station

Many Glacier Horse Concession

Scenic Point Trailhead at Two Medicine (Mt. Henry)

Nyack Trailhead

Packer’s Roost Trailhead

Sperry Chalet Trailhead 

Walton Ranger Station

Best Horse Trails in Glacier National Park

June 16-July 15

Most of the high elevation trails and campgrounds in Glacier aren’t open until July 15, so if you are planning your trip between June 15 and July 15, you’re going to be confined to the east front trails leaving from Many Glacier Horse Horse Stable (MGE), The Cut Bank Trailhead (CBE), or the Walton Ranger Station (WSE). Several trailheads on the west side of the park are open as early as June 15, but they’re sometimes too wet for stock use in June.

Hey…at least water access is no problem this time of year.

Many Glacier going south to Cracker Lake

The trip from Many Glacier Stables south to Cracker Lake is about 6.1 miles one way– a long day trip with no place to camp with stock. Start on the south side of the stables which are located on the west end of Lake Sherburne. Go south east on the Allen Trail which will take you along the shore of Lake Sherburne, then south along the Canyon Creek on the Cracker Lake Trail. Cracker Lake is a gorgeous turquoise and the ride is full of views and many chances to see wildlife, particularly bears.

Many Glacier south towards Piegan Pass

Another out-and-back day trip to take this time of year is to head up towards Piegan Pass. Start at the south end of Many Glacier Stables and follow the CDT/Piegan Pass Trail up to Morning Eagle Falls on Cataract Creek. On the way back, the trail splits off to go to Grinnell Lake and parallels your route until it joins back with the CDT. Round trip from Many Glacier Stables is roughly 12 miles depending on how far you get and which paths you take back.

Many Glacier going north to Lake Elizabeth

For a three- or four-night horse camping trip, plan to go north from Many Glacier up to Lake Elizabeth through Redgap Pass. Leave from the entrance of Many Glacier Stables and cross the road where you see a small parking area for the Apikuni Trailhead. Do not take the trail to Apikuni…you’ll want to take Redgap Pass Trail to the east. The first part of this trail slowly climbs up away from the road. About 3.3 miles from the Apikuni Trailhead you’ll come to the junction of the Swiftcurrent Cut-Off Trail which goes south back down to the road. Within the next half mile you’ll pass the small Swiftcurrent Ridge Lake on your right.. You’ll keep climbin upwards for about another half mile, and then the trail drops down through timber and then again up and down for roughly 2 miles to Poia Lake. (6 miles total from Apikuni Trailhead to Poia Lake.)

Poia Lake is especially peaceful and off-the-beaten track because most hikers in Many Glacier hike more spectacular trails such as Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier which are closed to horses. Lake Poia’s campground is open for stock use and you’ll be more than happy with the scenery. On the east side of the lake there is a bridge over Kennedy Creek and a waterfall on the right. Apikuni Mountain is to the south, Yellow Mountain to the northeast, and in the distance up the valley you’ll see Crowfeet Mountain.

The next day, follow Redgap Pass Trail for 10 miles up to the pass and over down to Foot Elizabeth Campground on Lake Elizabeth. The first 3 miles are easy, and then the rest is up and down. You will run into snow if the Redgap Pass hasn’t thawed (this is something you’ll want to check on before you go.) Even with switchbacks, it’s steep: you’ll be climbing 1534 vertical feet in 2.5 miles to 7,520 ft. Once over the top, you’ll drop 2500 feet in 4.5 miles on your way to Elizabeth Lake. If you kept going south, there is another lake with a campground–Helen Lake–but that one doesn’t allow stock use.

Opening sometime in mid-July, the Ptarmigan Tunnel allows you to return to Many Glacier on the Ptarmigan Trail. (10.5 miles from Elizabeth to Many Glacier.) This would give you a loop which would turn this route into a 2-night trip.

The entire trail from Many Glacier to Lake Elizabeth is part of the alternate Continental Divide Trail. If you have more days and the weather is good, you can plan to ride to Gable Creek for a third night and keep going to Waterton Lake from there or turn and go out of the park on Slide Lake Trail. 

Cut Bank northwest to Atlantic Creek and the Medicine Grizzly Trail to Medicine Grizzly Lake

The Cut Bank Historic Ranger Station is on the Cut Bank Creek Road 4.8 miles off Hwy 89 between Two Medicine and St. Mary, and the Cut Bank Trailhead is just west of the station. The Atlantic Creek Campground is about 4 miles from the trailhead so it’s a good location to arrive in the morning, pack in, and be at your campsite on the first day.

The Atlantic Creek Campground is on the Continental Divide trail, and you could go either north towards St. Mary or south towards Two Medicine from it. But if it’s too early to travel the trail across mountain passes, you would enjoy a short day trip along Medicine Grizzly Lake Trail along the Atlantic Creek straight west of the Atlantic Creek campground. Just be sure to take a left to the lake instead of taking a right going up the ridge where the trail splits in a “Y” a little ways west of the campground.

Cut Bank going south along North Fork Cut Bank Creek

The Continental Divide Trail going south from Atlantic Creek campground follows the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek gradually climbing up to Pitamakan Lake. About 2/3 of the way you’ll pass Morning Star Lake (no camping with stock.) Once at Pitamakan Lake, continue to Lake of the Winds and if there’s no snow, you can tackle the steep climb up to  Oldman Lake Campground. If there is snow…come back later in the season! Total round-trip from the Cut Bank Trailhead to Oldman Lake Campground and back is about 11 miles.

Walton Ranger Station to Ole Creek and Park Creek Campgrounds

Late July and early August is the time when crowds are the heaviest along the Going-to-the-Sun road, as well as in the towns of Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex, East Glacier and St. Mary’s. Road construction is also at its peak, particularly around Two Medicine in 2021. Hikers are everywhere in the center of the park, but you may still be able to find empty places on the northern fringes. Depending on rainfall, it may be dry enough to comfortably access Kintla or Bowman Lakes. The Bowman Lake trail leads to Brown Pass with some wickedly wild scenery. About half the campgrounds at Brown Pass are closed to stock use and it’s also known as the Mosquito Capital of Glacier in July, so plan accordingly. On the other side, you may need to drive on the reservation halfway in to the Chief Mountain International Hwy to reach the Slide Lake Trail and connect with the Continental Divide Trail. 

July 15 - August 15

Late July and early August is the time when crowds are the heaviest along the Going-to-the-Sun road, as well as in the towns of Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex, East Glacier and St. Mary’s. Road construction is also at its peak, particularly around Two Medicine in 2021. Hikers are everywhere in the center of the park, but you may still be able to find empty places on the northern fringes. Depending on rainfall, it may be dry enough to comfortably access Kintla or Bowman Lakes. The Bowman Lake trail leads to Brown Pass with some wickedly wild scenery. About half the campgrounds at Brown Pass are closed to stock use and it’s also known as the Mosquito Capital of Glacier in July, so plan accordingly. On the other side, you may need to drive on the reservation halfway in to the Chief Mountain International Hwy to reach the Slide Lake Trail and connect with the Continental Divide Trail. 

Bowman Lake to Brown Pass

Both the Bowman Lake Trail and the Kintla Lake Trailhead are beautiful and remote, but they tend to be wet and/or muddy early in the season. There is no camping for stock past the Upper Kintla Lake Campground until you get to Janet Lake and it’s 16 miles further north from Polebridge, so you may want to enter at the Bowman Lake Trailhead if you wish to do more than one overnight. The Bowman Lake Corral allows users to keep up to 10 head of stock there while they camp at Bowman Lake Campground nearby. Prior permission must be obtained from the Polebridge Ranger Station (406-888-7842) because the corrals may be being used for park service stock.

Most hiking traffic will be between the trailhead and the end of the lake. The lake is about 5 miles from Polebridge, the trail is 7.1 miles along the lake, and from there it’s 6.7 miles to Brown Pass, the Mosquito Capital of the park. Be advised that there is no horse camping at Brown Pass. From there, the trail to Boulder Pass/Hole-in-the-Wall goes left and the Olson Creek Valley is to the right. Olson Creek Trail will take you to the Continental Divide Trail. There is a small campground which allows stock at Lake Janet a little over 5 miles from Brown Pass.

Coal Creek/Nyack Creek Trail

This is a great loop trail, but be prepared to deal with bugs, downed timber and water crossings. This is the only area in the park which allows camping in undesignated areas, but you’ll still want to stay 100 feet from lakes and streams. The loop in 43.1 miles and it begins at Nyack Creek Trailhead 10.9 miles southeast of West Glacier on Hwy 2 or at Coal Creek Campground on Hwy 2 east of there.

There are four campgrounds which allow up to 10 head of horses and mules a night: Lower Nyack, Upper Nyack, Beaver Lake, and Coal Creek campgrounds.

Continental Divide Trail

 Roughly 110 miles of the Continental Divide Trail runs within the boundaries of Glacier National Park. From the southeast, the CDT enters Glacier on US Hwy 2 near the Summit Campground. The trail passes Three Bears Lake a half mile from the trailhead, then joins Autumn Creek Trail and follows it to East Glacier Park.

If you want to start in  you can base from the Scenic Point Trailhead at Two Medicine. From there, the Continental Divide Trail follows the Pitamakan Pass Trail to Atlantic Creek, passing points such as Old Man Lake, Pitamakan Pass, Lake of the Winds, Pitamakan Lake and Morning Star Lake.

West of Atlantic Creek Campground, the trail goes up to Triple Divide Peak which is a three-way watershed of the Hudson Bay, the Atlantic or the Pacific. From the top the CDT follows Hudson Bay Creek down past Red Eagle Lake and to the St. Mary Lake Trail junction. At this point the trail heads west along the southern shore of St. Mary Lake, then joins the Piegan Pass Trail into Many Glacier. This is the most scenic part of the trail with views of Jackson Glacier, Blackfoot Glacier and the Garden Wall.

After Many Glacier, the CDT crosses Swiftcurrent Pass and follows the Highline Trail to Fifty Mountain. This section is the wildest part of the trail (read: remote and low-use) which is worth riding all on its own. At Fifty Mountain, the Continental Divide Trail joins the Waterton Valley Trail which will take you to Canada.

Alternate Continental Divide Trail

There’s an alternate Continental Divide Trail which is preferable to take if you’re not going in to Canada through Waterton Lake, and that is to take the Pacific NW National Scenic Trail from Elizabeth Lake north along the Belly River to the northern-most Glacier Park entrance, Chief Mountain Trailhead, on the east side of the park just before you enter Canada.

Starting from the Slide Lake Trailhead and camping at the Slide Lake campground the first day, then proceeding west to the Gable Pass campground, and from there either west or north is also a good short ride in the middle of the summer.

Trail from Cut Bank to Cut Bank Pass
Location of Nyack Creek Trail

Cut Bank Pass

The Pitamakan Lake Trail leads west and then south from Cut Bank Trailhead (see earlier description) up to the Pitamakan Lake and Pitamakan Pass. Once above the lake but when you’re about half-way up to the pass, turn west to join the Cut Bank Pass Trail. The first mile of trail on the west side of McClintock is steep and slippery rock so you’ll want sure-footed stock because you’ll be looking at the amazing view.  

The junction with the Nyack Creek Trail is about 6 miles from the top of the Cut Bank Pass. You’re definitely going to want to take this trail going from east to west, rather than from Nyack up to Cut Bank Pass.

August 15-September 15 (or later)

By the time late summer rolls around, feel free to revisit any of the above trails. In addition to those, catch the Continental Divide Trail from Many Glacier, scout around Two Medicine Area, or cross the park from Cut Bank to Apgar Park Headquarters. This is the time to access the busier areas of the park.

Logging Creek Trail

This ride is a pleasant gradual uphill to Grace Lake through a variety of vegetation: shady forest, open burn areas, and lush, moss-covered old-growth. The reason you waited until late in the summer to take the trail was you were waiting for the mud, bugs and tourists to vanish. 

To get to the trail, you’ll cross the North Fork of the Flathead at the bridge near the Polebridge Ranger Station and turn right. Take the Inside North Fork Road for about 8 miles down to Logging Creek Historic Ranger Station. You’ll find the trailhead just north of the bridge over Logging Creek.

It’s 10.2 miles up to the Adair Campground which allows stock. Another 3 miles will take you to little Grace Lake on a second day, spend another night at Adair Campground, and ride out to the trailhead on the third day.

Lake McDonald Trailhead to Gunsight Pass

All summer park service pack strings regularly leave the trailhead across the Going-to-the-Sun highway from Lake McDonald Lodge to bring supplies to the Sperry Lake Chalet. It’s almost 7 miles to the Chalet where they turn around, but private trail riders can go the 3 more miles up to Ellen Wilson Lake. You can camp with stock at Ellen Wilson Campground for one night. 

From Ellen Wilson you can take the Gunsight Pass Trail east, but you should do your research before you tackle part of it because of weather and/or footing issues. Yes, it’s true this was a horse trail in the good old days, but it’s not recommended now.

Lincoln Lake Trail

The best time of year to take this trail is late in the summer because the first part can be wet and boggy. It generally has light use, but if there’s mud, it will be closed to horses. It’s 15.6 miles out-and-back and leaves from the Lincoln Lake Trailhead accessed from Hwy. 2. A longer trip can be made if you take a left 5.8 miles from the trailhead onto the “other” Lincoln Lake trail hooking west towards Lake McDonald, and follow the loop around to Sperry Chalet.

Campgrounds Near Glacier That Allow Stock

Glacier Meadow RV Park, 16 miles west of East Glacier Park on US Highway 2 . . . . . . 406-226-4479
Johnson’s Camground, St. Mary . . . . . . . . 406-732-4207
For information on camping in the National Forest near Glacier National Park, contact the Hungry Horse Ranger Station . . . . . . 406-387-3800

Special Rules for Glacier National Park Trail Riding

There are three principles to keep in mind when planning a trail riding trip to Glacier National Park:

1) Do not damage any natural resources. Leave No Trace must be practiced here at its highest level.

2) Do not do anything to diminish the wilderness aesthetic of the area.

3) Avoid conflicts with all other users. Glacier National Park is heavily used during its short season and all visitors must behave respectfully of each other.

Rules specific to horses, mules and llamas:
• Grazing of stock is not permitted. This means you must plan to pack ALL your feed which must be weed seed-free pellets. No hay is allowed. 

 • Transporting hay into or through Glacier National Park is prohibited, except on the portion of US Highway 2 that passes through the park.

• Due to problems with noxious weeds, feeding hay at trailheads or backcountry campgrounds is prohibited.

Feed must be secured out of reach of bears using the approved food hanging devices or an NPS approved bear-resistant feed container can be left on the ground in the hitchrail area.
• When not being used, pack and saddle stock must be tethered. Horses, llamas, or mules that are nervous “diggers” or “pawers” should be hobbled when
tied to prevent unnecessary damage to the terrain. You must tie at least 200 ft (61 m) from streams or lakes.
• Always use hitchracks where provided. Where there are no hitchracks, tie a rope between two trees, “a highline” away from the trail and hitch the stock to
the rope. This avoids damage to the tree and trampling around the root system.
• Stock are not permitted in the camping areas of campgrounds. Load and unload only at the hitchrails provided.
• Loose herding or trailing is prohibited.
• Hikers are required to stand quietly on the lower side of the trail and yield the right-of-way to stock. Many hikers do not know and understand the need for this procedure, so stock users are encouraged to courteously coach them on proper meeting procedures.
• Stay on established trails. Cross-country riding is not permitted.
• Scatter manure after camping or stopping for long periods and smooth out any ruts or holes.
• Horses, mules and llamas are not permitted in auto campgrounds