Spectacular scenery and solitude reward those who don backpacks to walk into the wilds of Glacier National Park. Rimmed by high passes, the Belly River Valley contains idyllic lakes, waterfalls and glaciers. This ice-sculpted, forested valley in the park’s northeast corner has outstanding backpacking like no where else.
Before launching onto the trail, pick up a permit at the St. Mary Visitor Center or Apgar Backcountry Office. The park service issues first come, first served permits 24 hours before departure upon payment of per person per night fees. To guarantee a permit, make advanced reservations starting mid-March for an additional fee.
To prepare for your backpacking trip in Glacier, read up on backcountry travel, trip planning, safety and regulations on the park’s website. Backpackers should expect to encounter bears, hang food and self-rescue with nonexistent cell phone coverage. In the Belly River Valley, anglers will enjoy fishing lakes and the river.
Start by setting up your car shuttle. Park one vehicle at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Many Glacier and drive the other up Chief Mountain Highway. (If you only have one vehicle, an alternative is hitchhiking.) The road tours around Chief Mountain to Chief Mountain Customs, where the trailhead sits just south of the border crossing. Beginning with a descent to the Belly River, the 6.1-mile trail wanders south through wildflower meadows and aspen groves to Gable Campground for the first night. From the neighboring Belly River Ranger Station, snap a photo of Mt. Cleveland, the tallest peak in the park.
Pace the 7.7-mile backpacking day to Helen Lake with multiple rest stops. Following the Belly River upstream, walk through the forest below Gable Mountain to Dawn Mist Falls. Then, continue on to the foot of Elizabeth Lake. Since only one night is permitted in July and August here, you’ll need to press on for the much less peopled setting of Helen Lake. (You’ll be back on day three.) Around Elizabeth Lake’s western shoreline, the trail traverses meadows to the head of the lake. Then, it crosses broken forests to Helen Lake. Enjoy the solitude with only two campsites at the lake. Sit on the beach to absorb the jagged Ptarmigan Wall and waterfalls tumbling from Ahern Peak.
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In the early morning, retrace your steps 4.3 miles back to the foot of Elizabeth Lake and set up camp. Without the heavy packs, go for an afternoon ascent to Red Gap Pass. The 9.2-mile round trip climb reaches the pass of red rock. This will get you frontal views of Old Sun Glacier on Mt. Merritt to the west. Back at camp on Elizabeth Lake, enjoy the evening alpenglow on Ptarmigan Wall.
After packing up camp, climb south toward Many Glacier. The 10.1-mile trail breaks out of the trees to ascend a dramatic rocky basin overlooking Elizabeth Lake. On the last half-mile, the trail cuts through red layered rock before turning through the historic Ptarmigan Tunnel. Dropping past blue Ptarmigan Lake, the trail finishes at Swiftcurrent, where hikers celebrate with burgers and cold beer at ‘Nell’s Restaurant in Swiftcurrent.