I stumbled upon the Granite Park Chalet hike in Glacier National Park by accident. I knew there were backcountry chalets in Glacier, but they were nothing more than points on a map. However, during one of my early season bike rides in Glacier this year, Going-to-the-Sun road was closed to motorists at Avalanche but open to cyclists up as far as The Loop. When we hit the road closure at The Loop, we decided to poke around the area and maybe do a quick hike. The Loop happens to be where the trail to Granite Park Chalet Trail starts, so of course we quickly picked our destination. Unfortunately, the trail hadn’t been cleared yet and was impassible. Which was probably a good thing – we had limited food and water and were not equipped for an 8-mile hike. We turned back after about a mile of scrambling over downed trees.
But I was intrigued. I hadn’t realized that one of the backcountry chalets was so easily accessible by day hike. Although we’d failed to get there, hiking to Granite Park Chalet was now officially on my list of things to do. So when a friend from back East came to visit, I knew I wanted to show her Glacier and I knew what hike I wanted to do.
Visitors usually get – and are thrilled by – the Avalanche Lake hike. But I’d done Avalanche twice already this year, and Going-to-the-Sun had just opened to cars for the season three days earlier. I couldn’t resist the urge to get a little higher up in the park.
I was happy to find that the trail had been completely cleared (thank you, Park Service!), and we made great progress…for about a half-mile. Alas, we went on a day that was hotter than Vegas in August. The trail heads uphill from The Loop through a large swath burned by the Trapper Creek Fire in 2003, which means it’s in full sun pretty much all day. Even stopping to cool off in trailside streams couldn’t keep us from overheating. We were just over halfway up the trail when the heat got the best of us and we decided to turn back. I vowed to come back another, cooler, day.
I thought my third attempt to get to the chalet would again be thwarted by heat, but the fear of melting was larger than my fear of sleep deprivation. We were on the road early so that we could be well on the trail before the heat of the day. But the trail has some decent elevation gain, roughly 2000 feet in the first (sun exposed) 3 miles. The heat hit us hard and I wasn’t sure we’d make it. Fortunately, shortly after the 3-mile mark, the trail levels out and enters a healthy, dense forest.
We gladly took breaks in the shade and resisted the temptation to roll in the snowfields still lingering at the higher elevations.
And soon enough, the trail passed through a clearing and we spotted the chalet perched above us.
We arrived at the top and were warmly greeted by two marmots loitering in front of the toilets. Really, marmots, can’t you think of a better place to hang out?
The Chalet, constructed in 1914-1915, is one nine structures built by the Great Northern Railway to provide backcountry accommodations for park visitors. Alas, there are only two chalets left, Granite Park and Sperry. Granite Park offers basic housing for guests – bunk rooms that can be rented for the night. While there is no running water and the accommodations are primitive, it’s a nice upgrade from tent sleeping, and they also have food available for purchase (guests may use the chalet kitchen to cook). The other chalet still in service, Sperry Chalet, apparently offers more upscale housing, including an actual restaurant complete with table clothes, or so I’ve been told. But without question, you come to the chalets not for the accommodations.
You come for the views.
After enjoying the view and getting creeped out by the marmots, we headed back down. The descent was relatively easy, but the heat was brutal by the time we got to the lower elevations. We passed several groups of hikers on the way up who were struggling. We stopped to chat with some of them, mainly to tell them how far they were from the shady section and to offer them extra water.
Given the number of people on the trail and the lack of surrounding vegetation, we weren’t particularly worried about animals. But then we heard this weird sound behind us. Was that…a bear huffing? No, it was a horse neighing. The pack train needed to pass us! We had seen ample evidence on the trail that horses had been ahead of us on the way up. The pack train had made its morning delivery to the chalet (wonder if that’s covered under Amazon Prime?) and they were now heading back down. We got off the trail to give the horses plenty of room and made all the usual stale remarks to the poor guy leading them. (Q: How many people jokingly ask him for a ride when he goes by? A: All of them.)
As we were almost back to the road, we met a family heading up. They had the glazed, excited look of city-dwelling tourists. “How many bears did you see?” the man asked me. “None,” I replied, “we forgot to call ahead and order some.” Alas, not everyone gets my sense of humor, and I’m pretty sure his wife scolded him for not reserving a bear sighting in advance.
Back at the car, we tore into our stashed supply of water and gladly swapped our boots for flip-flops. We then took a quick spin up to Logan Pass, because why not? We saw many bad drivers, several tourists trying to drink stream water (hello, Giardia!) and one cute mountain goat. We turned around at Logan Pass. With the windows down and the radio up, it was time to head back down the hill towards home.
Granite Park Chalet hike: mission accomplished.