48.7596° N, 113.7870° W
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK IN MONTANA HAS SOME TRULY AMAZING HIKING TRAILS. BUT WE BELIEVE THE BOULDER PASS TRAIL IN THE RUGGED NORTH IS ONE OF THE ABSOLUTE BEST BACKPACKING ADVENTURES IN THE PARK. EXPLORE OUR GUIDE TO LEARN WHY (AND HOW TO EXPERIENCE IT FOR YOURSELF).
Glacier National Park is often touted as one of the best places in the whole USA when it comes to hiking and backpacking, natural scenery and wildlife encounters. With tons of trails to choose from (over 700 miles at last count), it can obviously be tough to decide where exactly you want to explore.
While you will likely see guides and trail reports on such popular hikes as Avalanche Lake, Grinnell Glacier and the Highline Trail, we instead want you to consider adventuring on a bit more off the beaten path trail. In this case - the Boulder Pass Trail, which takes you from the banks of Kintla Lake to the top of a glacier serrated valley right on the doorsteps of the Canadian Rockies.
Below is our ultimate adventure guide to backpacking the beautiful Boulder Pass Trail.
➳ You can also check out the full Alltrails route guide.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT HIKING AND BACKPACKING IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
In our opinion, one of the best times to backpack in Glacier National Park is late summer and early fall. This is when there are fewer people, fewer bugs and a higher chance of seeing colorful fall foliage - including the golden larches. If you are planning to backpack in Glacier National Park then you will want to be aware of a few key things before hitting the trails - including important safety measures and how to secure your required backcountry permit.
Glacier National Park is home to a relatively large number of bears - including grizzly bears. While this shouldn't be a cause for concern - and definitely not something to deter you from heading out onto the trails - we do recommend being prepared just in case you do run into a larger carnivore. One of the best ways to stay safe while hiking and backpacking in Glacier National Park are to always carry bear spray with you. Luckily, you can easily purchase (or rent) a can of bear spray in most outdoor stores near the national park. It is best to have the bear spray on your person at all times and to put it somewhere that you can easily grab it in case of an emergency. Other important safety tips to remember are to try to not hike alone and to focus on making plenty of noise - especially around blind corners.
Likewise, you will want to also bring a stuff sack and paracord/rope when backpacking so you can easily hang all of your food and smelly items once you get to camp. Storing ALL smelly stuff is key to deterring bears from entering your camp (it also helps keep little rodents out of your stuff as well). Finally, you will want to bring all of the necessary safety items with you on a trail: a headlamp, extra batteries, some form of a map, a first-aid kit and plenty of food.
➳ Learn more about hiking and backpacking in bear country in our handy safety guide!
If you are planning to backpack in Glacier National Park then you will need to first secure a backcountry permit. You can get your permit at 5 spots within the national park: the Apgar Backcountry Permit Center, the St. Mary Visitor Center, the Many Glacier Ranger Station, the Two Medicine Ranger Station and the Polebridge Ranger Station.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: not all of these permitting offices are open year-round. Most do close near the end of September (Polebridge closes early September).
There is a $7 /night camping fee (per person) that will need need to be paid upon receiving your permit. Though if you are planning to camp outside of the summer or fall - November to late April - then the camping fee is waived.
➳ Learn more about reserving your backcountry permit here.
\\ How to Get to the Boulder Pass Trailhead
The Boulder Pass Trailhead - though located in Glacier National Park - is in a relatively rugged and remote location. The national park is quite large (over 1 million acres) and there are a lot of places to see and explore. The Boulder Pass Trailhead is situated in the North Fork section of the park, which is in the far northwest corner (there are 7 sections in total).
Below is a basic outline of how to reach the trailhead from the major towns near the park.
From Columbia Falls (Whitefish and Kalispell): from Columbia Falls it takes roughly 1.5 hours to reach the trailhead for Boulder Pass. To start, drive out on Road 486/North Fork Road until you reach the intersection of Camas Road (turning right here will take you to West Glacier). Keep driving up North Fork Road as it goes in and out of being paved and dirt. About 35 miles from Columbia Falls you will get to the small town of Polebridge (you will need to turn right off of North Fork Road and onto Glacier Drive - there will be a sign). Here there is an amazing bakery and store as well as a small hostel and a saloon (definitely stop in at the store for their huckleberry bearclaws).
Once you leave Polebridge, you will drive a bit further down the dirt road before you actually enter the national park at the Polebridge Ranger Station. If the ranger station and entrance station are open, you will need to show either your America the Beautiful National Park Pass or pay the $35 entrance fee. From the ranger station it is just over 14 miles to the Boulder Pass Trailhead, BUT this is on a rougher dirt road so expect this to take between 30-45 minutes. Also, this road is not plowed and does close in the winter.
>> Total Distance // Time | 51 miles // 1 hour and 35 minutes
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you are starting your drive from Kalispell then add on an extra half hour and 18 miles or so to the total time/distance. Likewise, if you are leaving from Whitefish, then add on extra 20 minutes of driving and 10 miles. Both routes will head through Columbia Falls and follow the same directions as above.
From West Glacier and Apgar Village: if you are starting your journey north from West Glacier or Apgar Village (where the Apgar Visitor Center is located) then you will need to drive out on Camas Road for roughly 14 miles until you reach the intersection with North Fork Road. Once you reach that dirt/paved road, you will turn right and keep driving all the way to Polebridge and then on to the Kintla Lake Campground and the Boulder Pass Trailhead.
>> Total Distance // Time | 43 miles // 1 hour and 26 minutes
While there is a park shuttle within Glacier National Park, the route only follows the Going to the Sun Road. Because of Boulder Pass’s more remote location (i.e. it's in the far northwest corner of the very large national park) you will have to drive there yourself.
\\ The Best Time to Hike to Boulder Pass
While this backcountry trail is likely beautiful in the late spring and summer, we instead suggest doing it during the fall - especially when the larch trees start to change colors. By doing this hike later in the season, you cut down on the likelihood of having to deal with a lot of people (and the challenge of getting a backcountry camping permit for Boulder Pass) and also you decrease the chance of struggling with a lot of bugs - especially mosquitos.
But furthermore, by hiking up to Boulder Pass in the fall, you increase your chance of a) having some absolutely stunning mountain views, b) walking through golden larch forests and bright red huckleberry meadows, and c) seeing large, fat bears right before they head into hibernate for the winter.
We did this trail in mid-October and while the nights and early mornings were chilly, by mid-morning the sun was up and the weather was perfect. As long as you are fine carrying a few extra layers of clothing and maybe packing a cold weather tent (we brought our 4-season tent) you shouldn't have a problem with the chillier weather.