Hikes & Trails

Cracker Lake Trail: A Journey to a Turquoise Gem

POSTED ON September 29, 2022 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Welcome to the untamed beauty of Glacier National Park, where every step on the Cracker Lake Trail unveils a chapter of nature’s grandeur. Nestled within the rugged expanse of this national treasure, Cracker Lake beckons adventurous souls to embark on an unforgettable journey. In the heart of the park, this hidden gem, the Cracker Lake hike Glacier National Park, is a testament to the splendor that awaits those willing to traverse its trails.

As you lace up your boots and set out on the hike to Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park, you’ll find yourself immersed in a tapestry of scenic wonders. The trail, managed by the National Park Service, meanders through the backcountry campsites, allowing you to connect with the pristine wilderness that defines these national parks.

Imagine yourself trekking alongside Sherburne Lake (location), catching glimpses of Grinnell Glacier (location), and tracing the contours of Swiftcurrent Lake (location)—all part of the breathtaking scenery that unfolds along the Cracker Lake Trail. For day hikers seeking a taste of adventure, this route offers a few options, from shorter excursions to longer journeys covering the entire length of the trail.

For those with a penchant for exploration, the Cracker Lake hike Glacier National Park serves as a gateway to the continental divide, an experience that goes beyond the ordinary. This trail, known as one of the best hikes in Glacier National Park, reveals the untouched beauty that has made it a favorite among avid hikers.

Join us as we unravel the secrets of Cracker Lake, exploring its wonders and delving into the stories etched into the landscapes of Glacier National Park.

Whether you’re planning your next outdoor escapade or simply yearning for a virtual journey, this blog post will guide you through the marvels of Cracker Lake, a hidden gem waiting to be discovered in the heart of the Rockies.

History of the Cracker Lake Trail

Cracker Lake Trail, Montana

Nestled within the majestic expanse of Glacier National Park, the Cracker Lake Trail stands as a testament to the park’s commitment to preserving its natural wonders.

The genesis of this trail can be traced back to the early 20th century, when the National Park Service, in collaboration with local enthusiasts and conservationists, envisioned a network of trails that would showcase the park’s unparalleled beauty.

The development of the Cracker Lake Trail began in earnest during the 1920s, with a focus on blending the principles of environmental conservation and recreation. The trail was designed not only to lead hikers to the breathtaking shores of Cracker Lake but also to adhere to trace principles, minimizing the ecological impact and preserving the delicate flora and fauna of the park.

Over the decades, the Cracker Lake Trail evolved from a rudimentary path to a well-maintained route, thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Park Service and dedicated volunteers. The trail’s expansion and maintenance have been pivotal in promoting day hiking experiences, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty of Glacier National Park without compromising its ecological integrity.

Today, the Cracker Lake hike has witnessed notable events and changes throughout its existence. Preservation efforts have led to the establishment of backcountry campsites, offering a unique experience for those seeking an overnight adventure. Notably, the trail has adapted to increased visitation, with a focus on sustainable practices and educational initiatives to instill a sense of responsibility among hikers.

Key Facts About the Cracker Lake Trail

Glacier National Park, Grinnell Lake, Montana

Location: Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

Total Length: Approximately 12 miles (19.3 km) round trip

Time it Takes to Hike: On average, 6 to 8 hours for a round-trip hike, depending on individual pace and stops.

Trailhead(s): The primary trailhead is at the Many Glacier Lodge Parking Lot (location), providing access to the Cracker Lake Trail.

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Number of Visitors: Glacier National Park receives about 3 million visitors a year, and many of them make their way to the Cracker Lake Trail.

Total Elevation Gain: Approximately 1,400 feet (427 meters)

Best Time or Season to Hike: Summer (July to September)

Lowest Point: Trailhead at Many Glacier Hotel

Highest Point: Cracker Lake, nestled at the base of Mount Siyeh (location) and Allen Mountain (location)

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

Small icy lake in Glacier National Park

The Glacier National Park distance from the Cracker Lake Trail makes it a perfect day hike for those looking to experience the beauty of this stunning national park. The adventure at Cracker Lake starts at the Many Glacier entrance, where the Trailhead serves as the gateway to this captivating exploration.

Trailhead and Starting Point

The Cracker Lake Trail starts near the Many Glacier Hotel, providing a convenient launch point for those eager to delve into the wonders of Glacier National Park. As you set foot on the trail, you’ll traverse the initial section known as the Cracker Flats Horse Loop (location). Keep an eye out for the continental divide trail markers, which indicate the intersection with the larger network of trails weaving through the park.

Route Options

Hikers have a few options when it comes to the Cracker Lake Trail. The primary route follows the trailhead from the upper parking lot to the south end of Swiftcurrent Lake, leading you through the enchanting Many Glacier area and Allen Creek.

For those seeking an extended adventure, consider the Cracker Flats Horse Loop, which veers off towards the east side of the park, showcasing diverse landscapes and wildlife habitats.

Highlights Along the Way

The journey to Cracker Lake unfolds with breathtaking highlights.

  • The trail winds through the canyon carved by Canyon Creek, offering glimpses of the majestic Allen Mountain. As you make your way through the first few miles, the turquoise waters of Lake Sherburne and the iconic Swiftcurrent Lake create picturesque backdrops.
  • But for a more extended hike, consider connecting to the continental divide trail, which leads you towards the renowned Logan Pass (location) and the park’s east side.
  • Adventurous hikers can explore the Iceberg Lake Trail (location), showcasing stunning views of glacial terrain and perhaps a sighting of Iceberg Lake’s namesake floating gems.

Difficulty Levels

The Cracker Lake Trail maintains a moderate difficulty level, with a gradual elevation gain throughout the hike.

The final stretch involves a bit more strenuous ascent, rewarding hikers with the unveiling of Cracker Lake’s turquoise water, nestled at the base of Allen Mountain.

Don’t forget to look at Glacier’s Park Trail Status Report before visiting.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike The Cracker Lake Trail and Weather Conditions

Iceberg Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana

Embarking on the Cracker Lake Trail promises a journey through diverse landscapes, with each season painting a unique canvas of natural wonders. So, understanding the distinct climate and weather patterns is crucial for an enjoyable and safe hike.

Here’s what to expect in each season:

Spring (April to June)

As winter relinquishes its grip, spring breathes life into the Cracker Lake Trail. Expect temperatures ranging from 0°C to 15°C (32°F to 59°F).

The trailhead may still be dusted with remnants of snow, but the crisp air and blooming flora create a picturesque backdrop. Canyon Creek rushes with snowmelt, and the upper reaches of the trail may require waterproof boots.

Summer (July to August)

Summer unveils Glacier National Park in all its glory. The trailhead, where the Cracker Lake Trail starts, experiences daytime temperatures between 15°C and 25°C (59°F and 77°F).

Day hiking in the warmth of the summer sun, you’ll encounter vibrant berry patches and the glistening waters of Sherburne Lake. The trail offers a pleasant journey, perfect for day hiking enthusiasts seeking the best hikes in the park.

Fall (September to October)

Early September marks a transition to fall, bringing crispness to the air. Hikers can still experience the beauty of Cracker Lake Trail with temperatures ranging from 5°C to 15°C (41°F to 59°F).

The deciduous foliage along the trail takes on hues of red and gold, enhancing the scenic allure. It’s an ideal time for those seeking a quieter hike before winter sets in.

Winter (November to March)

Winter transforms the Cracker Lake Trail into a serene wonderland. Snow blankets the landscape, turning the trail into a haven for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing enthusiasts.

However, winter hiking demands careful preparation, with temperatures ranging from -10°C to 5°C (14°F to 41°F). The Cracker Lake Trailhead may be inaccessible during peak winter, making it essential to check trail conditions and closures. You can also check out our guide to mountain hiking and winter hiking to know what to expect when hiking Cracker Lake.

You can get the weather forecast report here.

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Cracker Lake Trail is during the summer months of July and August. This is when the weather is most pleasant, with warm temperatures and minimal chances of snow or inclement weather.

However, for those seeking a quieter and more serene experience, fall can also be a great time to hike the trail because the changing colors of the foliage add to the already stunning views, and the temperatures are still comfortable for hiking.

While winter hiking can be a unique experience, it requires careful preparation and may have limited accessibility due to trail closures. Spring can also be a beautiful time to visit, but hikers should be prepared for potential snowy conditions at higher elevations of the trail.

Overall, the best time to visit Cracker Lake Trail depends on personal preference and level of hiking experience.  So, be sure to check the weather and trail conditions before planning your visit to ensure a safe and enjoyable hike.

Essential Gear and Equipment for a Successful Cracker Lake Hike

Cracker Lake Trail, Montana

Whether you’re embarking on a sun-drenched summer hike or a winter wonderland exploration, having the right gear is crucial for a safe and enjoyable journey on the Cracker Lake Trail in Glacier National Park.

Tailoring your equipment to the season will ensure you’re prepared for the diverse conditions this trail offers.

Here’s what to consider:

Spring Gear

  • Hiking Boots or Hiking Shoes: The trailhead near the Many Glacier entrance may have lingering snow, and Canyon Creek can be running high. Boots will keep your feet dry and comfortable. During the summer months hiking shoes or trail runners will be sufficient.
  • Layered Clothing: Temperatures can vary, so dress in layers to accommodate the fluctuating spring weather. A waterproof jacket is advisable for potential spring showers. You can get valuable information in our guide to the best hiking clothes.
  • Trekking Poles: The trail may be muddy, and some sections could have snow patches. Trekking poles provide stability on uneven terrain.
  • Bug Spray: Spring brings out the bugs, so don’t forget to bring bug spray or wear protective clothing.

Summer Gear

  • Lightweight Clothing: With temperatures ranging from 15°C to 25°C (59°F to 77°F), choose breathable and moisture-wicking fabrics and clothing, such as hiking shorts.
  • Sun Protection: The summer sun can be intense, so pack sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses.
  • Hydration System: Ensure you have an adequate supply of water, especially for the trail sections without direct access to water sources.
  • Bear Spray: Summer is also prime bear activity season, so carry and know how to use bear spray in case of an encounter. Also, it would be a great idea to know what to do in case you encounter wildlife while hiking.

Fall Gear

  • Insulating Layers: Fall brings cooler temperatures. Pack a fleece or insulated jacket to stay warm during early mornings and evenings.
  • Weather-Resistant Footwear: Be prepared for potential rain or snow showers. Waterproof boots will keep your feet dry.

Winter Gear

  • Insulated Waterproof Boots: Trudging through snow requires boots with insulation to keep your feet warm.
  • Winter Clothing Layers: Dress in layers with a focus on warmth. Thermal layers, a down jacket, and waterproof outer layers are essential.
  • Snowshoes or Crampons: Depending on snow conditions, consider snowshoes or crampons for added traction.
  • Bear spray: Be sure to carry bear spray in case of any encounters with wildlife.

Year-Round Essentials

  • Navigation Tools: Carry a map and compass or a GPS device to navigate the trail, especially in areas where signage may be limited.
  • Snacks: Pack high-energy snacks and plenty of water to keep you fueled during the hike. You can get some ideas here.
  • Backpack: Choose a comfortable, well-fitted backpack to carry essentials and extra layers.
  • First Aid Kit: Be prepared for any minor injuries or emergencies with a well-stocked first aid kit.

Permits and Regulations

Anyone planning to hike the Cracker Lake Trail must obtain a backcountry permit. These permits are required for all overnight trips and day hikes beyond 1/4 mile off the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Backcountry camping reservations can be made up to six months in advance, with a non-refundable fee of $7 per person per night. Day-use permits are free and available at the trailhead.

Permits can be obtained at any of the following locations:

  • Backcountry Permit Office: Located at park headquarters in West Glacier, Montana. Open Monday-Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. MT
  • Recreation.gov: Permits can also be reserved in advance online.
  • Apgar Visitor Center: Located inside the park at the west entrance. Open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. MT.
  • Logan Pass Visitor Center: Located at the top of Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. MT.

Note that Glacier National Park vehicle reservations will become effective in 2024, beginning May 24 for the west side of Going-to-the-Sun Road and North Fork and on July 1 for Many Glacier. These reservations will be made here.

Regulations

To ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for all visitors and to protect the natural environment, the following regulations must be followed on the Cracker Lake Trail:

  • Overnight camping is only allowed at designated sites and requires a permit.
  • You should watch the backcountry camping video (available in links I and links II) before securing a permit.
  • Fires are not permitted at any time. Use camp stoves for cooking.
  • All food and scented items must be stored in bear-resistant containers or hung from a tree at least 10 feet (3 meters) off the ground and 4 feet (about 1.2 meters) from a tree or branch.
  • Pets are not allowed on any trails in Glacier National Park.
  • Fishing is permitted with a valid fishing permit, but all fish must be caught and released.

For a complete list of regulations and guidelines, visitors can refer to the Glacier National Park Permits & Reservations Guide or pick up a copy at any of the permit offices.

Camping and Overnight Stays near the Cracker Lake Trail

Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

Glacier National Park has 13 drive-in campgrounds and several backcountry campgrounds. For those looking to camp near the trailhead, there are several options available.

Here are the four closest campground options to consider:

  • Many Glacier Campground: Located about 1.3 miles (2.1 km) from the trailhead, this is the closest camping option, offering 13 sites. Nonetheless, due to its popularity, reservations are highly recommended during peak season (summer). You can make an advance reservation here.
  • Cracker Lake Campground: Located at the end of the trailhead, this is the second-closest campground available for campers. It is also the final destination of the hike.
  • Chewing Black Bones Campground: Located in Babb Glacier Community, about 14 miles (22 km) from the trailhead and next to the Lower Saint Mary Lake, this campground offers a tent site and is only open on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Leaning Tree Cafe and Campground: Located 10 minutes to Stmarys and 25 minutes to Many Glaciers and the Two Medicine entrance, this is another option for campers looking to stay near the trailhead. It offers RV hookups and roughly 20 tent sites.

Other camping options (further away from the park) include Apgar Campground, Avalanche Campground, Fish Creek Campground, St. Mary Campground, and Sprague Creek Campground. All of which require an advance reservation and can be made here.

If all reservable campsites are booked, there are also first-come, first-served campgrounds available in the park. However, due to the high demand for camping in Glacier National Park, these campgrounds fill up quickly. So, it is recommended to arrive early in the morning and have a backup plan in case all campsites are full.

Permits for wilderness camping can also be obtained here or at any of the walk-up permit offices listed above. Remember that backcountry camping is only allowed at designated sites and requires a permit, which must be displayed at your campsite at all times. Remember to properly store all food and scented items to prevent any conflicts with wildlife. You can check out the wilderness campground map.

For those looking for a more luxurious camping experience, there are also several lodges and hotels near the park’s entrances. These accommodations offer amenities such as hot showers and comfortable beds but may require advanced reservations.

Here are the three available options:

  • Many Glacier Hotel: Located near the east entrance of the park, this historic 3-star hotel offers a variety of room options and is only a few minutes from the trailhead. It also offers views of Swiftcurrent Lake.
  • Swiftcurrent Motor Inn: Another option near the east entrance of the park, this motor inn offers comfortable rooms and is about 1.3 miles, or 2.1 km, an hour’s drive from the trailhead.
  • Montana’s Duck Lake Lodge: Located in Babb Glacier Community, Montana’s Duck Lake Lodge offers a variety of accommodations, including cabins and campsites. It is 25 minutes away from the Many Glacier entrance.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Navigating Glacier National Park

Embarking on the Cracker Lake Trail adventure requires a bit of logistical finesse, but the journey is part of the experience.

Here’s your guide to how to get to the trailhead, whether you’re arriving by air or road.

By Air: Nearest Airports

The nearest airports to Glacier National Park, the gateway to the Cracker Lake Trail, are Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell, Montana, about 63 miles (101 km) away, and Great Falls International Airport (GTF), a bit further away, in Great Falls, Montana, at 173 miles (278 km) away.

Both airports offer convenient access to the park, but Glacier Park International is closer.

From Glacier Park International Airport (FCA)

  • Car Rental: The most flexible option is to rent a car at the airport. Multiple car rental agencies operate at FCA, allowing you to explore the park at your own pace.
  • Shuttle Services: Several shuttle services operate between the airport and Glacier National Park. These services often provide scheduled pick-ups and drop-offs, ensuring a hassle-free journey to the park.

From Great Falls International Airport (GTF)

  • Car Rental: Renting a car from Great Falls International Airport is a popular choice for those looking to enjoy the scenic drive to Glacier National Park.
  • Shuttle Services: Similar to FCA, shuttle services are available for transportation to the park from Great Falls.

Getting to the Cracker Lake Trailhead

The Cracker Lake Trailhead is located near the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park. If you’re driving, follow the signs within the park to Many Glacier. If you’re relying on shuttle services, they often drop off at key locations within the park, including Many Glacier.

Getting Around Glacier National Park

  • Shuttle Service: The park operates a free shuttle service during the summer months, connecting key locations such as the Many Glacier Hotel, the park entrance, and Logan Pass. This is an excellent option for minimizing your environmental impact and avoiding parking hassles.
  • Car: Having a car provides flexibility, especially if you want to explore areas not covered by the shuttle service. Parking is available at the Many Glacier Hotel, the starting point for the Cracker Lake Trail.

One of the most stunning features of the Cracker Lake Trail is Baker Creek Falls. The falls are easily accessible from the trail, and they are a must-see. The falls cascade down 100 feet of rocky terrain, and the sound of the water crashing below is truly mesmerizing. You’ll be able to take plenty of photos and bask in the beauty of this natural wonder.

As you make your way back down the trail, you’ll be able to fully appreciate the beauty of your hike by taking in stunning vistas of the surrounding mountains. The return trip might be downhill, but it’s still a workout. You’ll likely have sore legs and feet after this hike, but the memory of the stunning views you experienced will be etched in your mind forever.

Conclusion

The Cracker Lake Trail truly is a hiker’s paradise. With stunning views of a glacial lake, a stunning waterfall, endless wildflowers, and hiking, it’s a trail not to be missed.

Whether you’re looking for a strenuous trek or a leisurely walk, you’ll find what you’re looking for on this trail. It’s a trail that you can come back to time and time again and experience new beauty with every visit.

So, pack your hiking boots, open your heart to a new adventure, and make sure to check out the Cracker Lake hike at Glacier National Park.

Don’t forget to have a look at other exciting destinations in our Hikes and Trails guide.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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