Backpack to Cracker Lake
Montana › Many Glacier
Added by Greg Owens
Take in stunning, glacial-blue lake in a towering cirque and plenty of mountain goats on this Glacier National Park backpacking trip.
It’s sometimes called “The Crown of the Continent,” and if you’ve been to Glacier National Park, you know it deserves that superlative. If you haven’t been yet, get on it. The glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and most if not all of them are projected to be gone by 2030. This adventure takes us to Cracker Lake, a stunning, glacial-blue lake sitting at the bottom of a steep-walled cirque that is also the home of Siyeh Glacier. At 6.1 miles one-way, Cracker Lake is a terrific day-hike destination, but its beauty and opportunity for exploration warrant more of our time; a night or two at one of the campsites overlooking the lake is a better idea.
The trailhead is in the Many Glacier area on the east side of Glacier National Park. From U.S. 89, turn west onto the Many Glacier Road, and head to the Many Glacier Hotel. The trailhead is at the far end of the upper parking lot of the hotel by the horse stables.
Things to know:
Backcountry camping in most areas of Glacier National Park, including this one, is strictly regulated to designated sites for which a permit is required. Stop at the Many Glacier Ranger Station to get your permit. Backpacking in Glacier is extremely popular, and permits can be difficult to get. Be sure to check out Glacier’s backcountry site, for information about permit reservations and last-minute availability.
Glacier National Park is home to the largest grizzly population in the lower 48 states, and from my own experience, grizzlies are frequently spotted in the Many Glacier area. When you pick up your permit from a ranger station, you will learn if you don’t know already about minimizing the chances of a run-in with a grizzly bear. Be sure not only to pack bear spray but also to keep it immediately accessible while you are hiking. Spotting a grizzly bear can make your trip even more enjoyable, and simply knowing they’re out there makes Glacier NP an even more special place to me, but traveling in grizzly country demands more careful attention and good practices for both our sake and theirs.
The Many Glacier Campground is a good place to camp before heading into the backcountry. It gets busy in August, so get there early to get a spot before they’re all taken. The Many Glacier Hotel has a snack bar with coffee and hot chocolate among other things; head over for a treat and to watch the first rays of the sun on Grinnell Point, the triangular peak towering above Swiftcurrent Lake.
Our adventure begins at an elevation of about 4900’, and for the first mile or so, we will be on a trail that is heavily used by horses. It can be muddy with plenty of horse “apples,” but we shouldn’t worry; all that stuff will just flake off our boots as we go. The trail drops at first but then begins to climb near Allen Creek, where the horse path heads left while we head to the right. The elevation gain to Cracker Lake is only 1400’, so the climb is gradual through the forest, and we frequently get good views through the trees. As we emerge from the forest, we see the huge cirque right in front of us, and the foot of Cracker Lake soon comes into view. We admire the intense blue of the lake for a few moments before continuing along its eastern shore, where the trail climbs and crests a hill well above the lake. The area’s pit toilet is on our left just before we crest the hill, the designated camping area and food storage pole are at the top of the hill, and the three designated campsites are just below toward the lake.
The cirque in front of us is deceptively large and is a great place to explore. The old Cracker Mine is just down from the campsites toward the southeast end of the lake. Siyeh Glacier, or what is left of it, sits high above us on a shelf of the cirque’s wall. When I first visited in 1997, the glacier moved and cracked and groaned, the sounds bouncing off the wall and back to me like distant thunder. In four overnight visits, I have yet to see a grizzly at the lake (or on the trail), and the cirque is so huge and open that even if you do see one, you should have plenty of time to develop a plan for avoiding it. The last time I was there, a mountain goat (we were told by outbound hikers its name was “Earl”) came right up to the campsite at sunset and stayed around for several hours, making for an unforgettable trip.
The hike out is just 6.1 miles right back the way we came, and we are certain to pause at Cracker’s foot for one last look at this spectacular lake and its towering cirque.
backcountry permit; bear spray; tent (no spot for a hammock); sleeping bag and pad; water filter; stove and cookware
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Bring Bear Spray
This backpack trip is a must for anyone who loves backpacking! There are only 3 backcountry sites and compared to other hikes in the area there are relatively few day-hikers so there will be few crowds to deal with, making it feel like an even more special spot. Do bring bear spray though, this is prime bear country and as my hiking partner and I were coming up on a blind turn we hooted and hollered and then heard a large something rustling just around the corner. We tentatively peaked around the corner and a bear about 25' away was staring back at us! We had our bear spray at the ready, spoke calmly to it and slowly backed away, and avoided all eye contact. Then it sprinted away until it was out of sight. The park makes you watch a movie about the dangers of the backcountry before they give you the permit so just make sure you pay attention to the movie and you should be good!
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