Sunrise Hike to Hidden Lake Overlook, Glacier NP, MT

If you have one morning to spend in Glacier National Park, you MUST check out sunrise while hiking to the Hidden Lake Overlook. It’s one of the most popular hikes in Glacier National Park, and sunrise provides a chance to experience it with minimal crowds. Not to mention, the views are spectacular and wildlife sightings are common. I would never consider myself a morning person but this was totally worth the early alarm. If you can’t make sunrise, I would aim for as early in the morning as possible. Keep in mind that there is very limited parking; after we returned from our stroll that began pre-sunrise, the parking lot was completely full and it was only 8am or so.

17 best Glacier NP images on Pinterest Lovely of glacier national park trail map
Trail map near Logan Pass, courtesy of National Park Service, from

The Hidden Lake Valley Nature Trail can be reached at the Hanging Gardens Trailhead adjacent to the Logan Pass Visitor Center. It’s a relatively easy 2.7 miles out-and-back trail that is a completely open and exposed path through blooming alpine meadows known as Hanging Gardens [1]. If you go there before the snow melts, it becomes a great snow-shoe destination. We were able to visit in mid-August and it seemed more like springtime as flowers were just starting to greet the sunlight at about 7,000 feet elevation.

We took our pick of a parking spot as we arrived in the dark at the Logan Pass Visitor Center Parking Lot. The morning was brisk at that elevation, and my brother had second thoughts about donning shorts that morning. The sky was getting brighter, so we hurried past the signs for the trailhead just past the Visitor’s Center – you can’t miss it. The Hidden Lake Nature Trail begins paved and transitions into a wooden boardwalk before becoming a typical dirt trail. The only people that were there that morning were other fellow photographers and early morning risers.

The sun lit up the sky like fire, a reminder of what was happening inside and out of the park during that August in 2017. The air was smoky in the distance from the forest fires that raged in Montana, including the Sprague Fire that had just started a week previous within the park boundaries and went on to blaze for months, causing millions of dollars in damage. The Sprague Fire began with lightning strikes on August 10th and continued until it was considered contained in October/November, when the temperatures were more mild and snow was getting ready to return. The fire went on to devastate nearly 17,000 acres and almost completely destroyed the historic Sperry Chalet, leaving only the stone exterior walls intact.

On the day of our hike, the smoke stayed away and the air smelled fresh despite other parts of the park being encapsulated by smoke. It made for some interesting lighting.

Although the trail is easy, I definitely felt the affects of exertion at high elevation. The sun feels a bit brighter and more intense too. We watched the sun climb down the mountains, exposing layers of rocks with a golden hue.

Clements Mountain, elevation 8,760 feet.

The trail wraps around the southside of Clements Mountain, which becomes the prominent peak when headed west toward Hidden Lake. Wildflowers litter the landscape, and waterfalls connect to streams, capturing the last of the snow-melt running down the mountains.

Panorama, looking east toward the Garden Wall, Hanging Gardens, Heavy Runner Mountain, Reynolds Mountain…

The sun rose over the Garden Wall, illuminating the gardens of wildflowers. I felt like we were being transported onto the set of the Sound of Music, as the hills became alive with the sounds of birds chirping. My head was on an ecstatic swivel, as each and every direction provided an impeccable view.

alpine glacier
Diagram of Glacier Processes and Landforms,

In the Logan Pass Area and within the Glacier National Park boundaries, you may notice that there are many names that have “glacier” or “hanging” in the term. Okay, glacier makes sense… but hanging? What does that have to do with anything? Many features such as hanging valleys are indicative of glaciers. Glaciers cut distinctive U-shaped valleys that resembles a trough, whereas rivers form V-shaped valleys. Glacial valleys are formed by large blobs of ice expanding and receding, each time plucking and carrying rocks that cut deep into the sides of the valley. And once the glacier recedes or thaws completely, wide valleys with very steep sides and a fairly flat floor are what remain. The larger the glacier, the wider the valley. Hanging Valleys are formed when a smaller glacier makes a shallower U-shaped valley that terminates into a main, larger glacial trough, and therefore appears to “hang” above the main valley. The v-shaped river valleys form due to the kinetic energy of rivers falling from higher ground, and it tends to cut deeper into the valley floor. In mountainous regions, one often sees a combination of both valleys; the U-shaped valleys formed during the last Ice Age are being cut by a current river.

Jackson Glacier
Photographic evidence of melting Jackson Glacier, USGS Publication “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park”

Many of the glaciers within the park have already melted and the warming climate threatens to melt the remaining few. It has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, near the end of the Little Ice Age. Most of these glaciers were still present when the park was established in 1910, hence the name. In 2015, measurements of the glacier area reveal that there are 26 remaining glaciers larger than 25 acres, the size criteria defined by USGS researchers. According to the USGS, the glaciers that carved the majestic peaks and U-shaped valleys were part of the glaciation that ended about 12,000 years ago. But the relatively small alpine glaciers that cling to mountainsides today have formed only about 7,000 years ago, which is considered young in geology standards. Early park visitors and scientists noted that glaciers were retreating slowly in 1914, as the glaciers responded to the warming climate. Varied model projections estimate that certain studied Glacier National Park glaciers will disappear in the next few decades, between 2030 and 2080 [1].

Red dots show glaciers re-photographed by USGS since 1997.

Due to the melting of these glaciers, the USGS has a Repeat Photography Project whereby scientists and other volunteers re-photograph glaciers throughout the park. This helps scientists study how rapidly the glaciers are retreating. Documenting the loss of ice and changing landscapes is a valuable component of the USGS Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems program. The involvement of volunteer photographers allows the USGS to expand their collection of contemporary photographs, which is important considering the short window of time to photograph glacial margins and the limited staff to traverse the park looking for the photo points. If interested in volunteering for this project, check out the USGS Volunteer Repeat Photography page.

Not only does the Repeat Photography Project track melting ice, but also changes in vegetation as trees and plants move into formerly glaciated areas. This is displayed at the Hidden Lake Overlook, which was the destination of our beautiful sunrise stroll.

Hidden Lake Veg 1930, 2009 sm

Rock ptarmigan, Wikipedia

As the temperatures rise, the treeline rise with it. This new growth might seem good as it may seem prettier than the barren mountain landscape from the 1930’s, but it can have a devastating effect on the fragile alpine environment. As the treeline climbs up the mountain, alpine meadows are lost. Animals that rely on the meadows as a source for food or protection from predators are increasingly threatened. Some animals, such as the ptarmigan, as shown on the right, are forced to migrate further up the mountain. But as the temperatures continue to warm and the treeline rises, areas where animals such as these disappear into inhospitable steep mountains.

Hidden Lake Overlook is a fantastic viewspot for panoramic views of Hidden Lake and Bearhat Mountain standing 8,684 feet in elevation. Mount Brown, seen as a small triangle peaked mountain to the right of Bearhat is at 8,565 feet; and Gunsight Mountain, the snow-capped peak to the left of Bearhat, is 9,258 feet in elevation. Waiting for the sun to kiss the mountaintops was so peaceful. Once the rays finally hit us, it felt rather warming in the chilly morning air. You can continue onward and walk toward the lake, but we opted to continue exploring other parts of the park.

The mammals like this little guy were enjoying the warm weather and stocking up while the meadow was plentiful.

Clements Mountain, totally illuminated by the sun
Reynold’s Mountain, elevation 9,124 feet

What you don’t see here is the 20 or so people climbing up to my brother’s left. I snapped the shot quickly before they entered the frame.

The trail often provides wildlife sightings of animals such as bighorn sheep and mountain goats. We were fortunate to see many bighorns grazing and relaxing. I wonder if they know that they live in such an amazing place.

Can you spot the bighorn sheep grazing and lounging?

Although we struck out with the mountain goat sightings, we were able to buy one for my niece who was a great compadre to my bud Quinault, the lynx:

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