It sounds a lot like camping.
You go to sleep surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful peaks. You’re miles from the nearest road. Nearby trails can take you even deeper into the mountains in almost any direction. Bears, mountain goats and deer make their home nearby. The sunset sweeps across the horizon and the stars have never felt closer.
But you’re not camping. You’re staying in Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park. Granite Park, one of two chalets remaining from the network built by the Great Northern Railroad in an attempt to incent customers to ride its trains out to Glacier, is the rarest of breeds – an oh-so-basic lodge without running water, electricity or a parking lot that caters to backpackers. At Granite Park Chalet, you’re four miles from the nearest road and 6,700 feet above sea level, yet you have a roof over your head and a kitchen where you can make a hot meal.
Granite Park Chalet offers a truly unique backcountry experience. It’s an experience to be savored.
I’ve hiked into the chalet with my dad, but only after the end of the brief two-month operating season. The buildings were boarded up and, even though I was fascinated by the thought of spending the night in a building so far off the beaten path, I couldn’t go inside. I finally managed to spend some time at the chalet this summer as it was celebrating its 100-year anniversary, hiking in via the famous Highline Trail and hiking out to the remote Goat Haunt Ranger Station, where I caught a boat shuttle into Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta.
At the end of a trip that included 53 miles of hiking, two national parks, two nights at the chalet and another night in Waterton, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back.
But before you plan your trip, there are a few key caveats to consider: The accommodations at Granite Park Chalet make a hostel seem luxurious. You will stay on bunk beds that creak loudly with the slightest movement and on top of mattresses that have never heard the term “memory foam.” The walls are paper thin and if your neighbors snore, fight – or even roll over on the creaky bunks – you are guaranteed to know. Even when my neighbors spoke in a voice barely above a whisper, I knew that they were talking. There will likely be mosquitoes, especially early in the season. Without running water, there are no showers. The facilities are limited to two advanced pit toilets. You’ll work up a sweat on the hike in, and you’ll be stuck with the trail grime until you get back to civilization.
But what the chalet lacks in amenities, it makes up for in character. The 100-year-old stone walls of the main chalet are perfectly situated to offer sweeping views of the Livingston Range to the west, of Heavens Peak to the southwest, and of Logan Pass and Mount Oberlin to the south. The main chalet and an annex sit at the junction of two trails that lead to Glacier’s famous Going to the Sun Road, another trail that leads to the Swiftcurrent / Many Glacier area, and a trail that leads to the Fifty Mountain backcountry campground and Goat Haunt. The dining room is a great place to share backcountry tales with your fellow hikers or simply to enjoy the view.
And the staff of the chalet will take good care of you. This summer, Lars, Luke, Matt and Morgan spent every day of the early July to early September operating season at the chalet, overseeing the kitchen, cleaning the rooms, hiking out to a small dam to bring back water, selling packaged food to backpackers and overnight guests, and giving an evening program around the fireplace in the dining room. Lars and Luke are both seasoned veterans while Matt and Morgan were spending their first summer at the chalet. They all were fountains of knowledge and answered dozens of my questions about the chalet, the surrounding mountains, and the trails.
This summer, rooms cost $97 for one person (plus $78 for each additional person in the room, plus tax), with an optional linens package available for $20 that saves you from having to carry a sleeping bag; it was worth every penny. You get accommodations in a room that is as Spartan as they come – bunk beds, a small dresser, and a chair or two – along with access to a clean kitchen that includes a propane stove and range. If you want to keep it simple, the staff will help you boil water for dehydrated camp meals and warm drinks, although some more culinary-minded people also cooked a roast and muffins while I was there.
The best route into Granite Park Chalet is via the Highline Trail, an eight-mile trek that starts at 6,600 feet above sea level at Logan Pass – the top of the Going to the Sun Road – then follows a fairly level route to the chalet that starts out on a segment of trail that was blasted out of the cliffs (there is a railing to hold on to), winds through the famous Garden Wall, skirts around Haystack Butte, then offers a postcard view of the chalet for the final two miles of the approach. Although you follow the path of the Going to the Sun Road for most of the route, the higher elevation makes the views vastly superior. The mountains of Glacier feel even more formidable once you get out of your car, and you’ll enjoy the possible sightings of mountain goats and wildflowers.
Other hikers take the trail from “The Loop” into the chalet, a four-mile trip that gains 2,300 feet from a trailhead that is lower on the Going to the Sun Road. This trail doesn’t offer the superior views of the Highline Trail, but early in the chalet’s two-month operating season, it may be the only route in, as the chalet sometimes opens before crews finish plowing the Going to the Sun Road, and snow often lingers on the Highline Trail well into July. Day-hikers often start at Logan Pass, hike into the chalet for a snack, then take the Loop trail out – an itinerary that is simplified by Glacier’s public shuttle system, which allows you to park at the Apgar Visitor Center, take a shuttle to Logan Pass, then pick up another shuttle at The Loop.
People also come or leave via the Swiftcurrent Trail, an eight-mile trip that starts or ends a mile from the Many Glacier Hotel. From Granite Park Chalet, you would lose 2,300 feet of elevation; if you were starting at Swiftcurrent, you would have a challenging climb as you ascended Swiftcurrent Pass. If you arrange transportation in advance, a hike in via the Highline Trail and out via the Swiftcurrent Trail would offer a tremendous variety of scenery.
For the more adventurous, a 22-mile hike to the north leads to the Fifty Mountain backcountry campground and the forebodingly-named Goat Haunt, which sits at the south end of Waterton Lake, a glacially carved jewel that spans the United States-Canada border. Boat shuttles are available from Goat Haunt into the Waterton Townsite in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta. The trail to Fifty Mountain features sweeping views that rival the Highline Trail, with particularly dynamic views at a divide above the campground – a spot where you will likely be able to count at least 35 mountains. If you take this route, be sure to ask about the condition of the Ahern Drift, which often blocks the trail well into July.
Some people spend only one night at the chalet, but a trip would ideally include at least two nights so that you have a day to take advantage of the nearby day hikes. From the chalet, you can hike to the Swiftcurrent Fire Lookout, a 2.3-mile hike to a fire lookout at 8,400 feet above sea level and from which you have sweeping views in every direction. The Grinnell Glacier Overlook is less than two miles from the chalet and offers a chance to view one of the park’s receding glaciers and enjoy more sweeping views. I recommend both if you’re lucky enough to have a “layover” day at the chalet.
Unfortunately, the logistics of a trip to the chalet can be challenging. Reservations fill up quickly as soon as the next season’s bookings open late in the previous year, although hit-and-miss availability opens up throughout the winter, spring and summer as people change their plans. In addition, the trail from “The Loop” can be the only route into the chalet that is open for several weeks in July due to lingering snow. Combining routes like the Highline Trail and the trail into Many Glacier requires a ride on the East Side Shuttle by Glacier Park Inc. or a shuttle by Xanterra Parks and Resorts. The ability to take the boat shuttle from Goat Haunt across Waterton Lake is limited due to United States customs requirements (United States Customs and Border Patrol actually operates a customs station at Goat Haunt during the summer). You run the risk of bad weather.
But if you manage the details carefully, you’ll be treated to a stay in one of Glacier’s most gorgeous spots, a place where you can be treated to a panoramic sunset, a place where you’ll be surrounded by mountains, and a place where you’ll have a roof over your head even though you’re a two hour hike from the nearest road.
With any luck, those stone walls will stand for another hundred years.