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Cracker Lake - Glacier National Park

Cracker Lake in Glacier National Park is breathtaking. Photos portray an electric blue lake surrounded by majestic mountains, wildlife, and very few people. But, is this reality? And, more importantly, should you backcountry camp at Cracker Lake?

Should you backcountry camp at Cracker Lake?

We moved to Montana near Glacier County about 5 years ago, so we knew full well that, if anything, pictures don’t do the park justice. A family backcountry camping trip was on our bucket list, but first, our girls needed to be able to carry a pack with their sleeping bags, food, and sleep mats...and, we needed to acquire this equipment. 

Cracker Lake Hike, Glacier National Park - Cracker Lake Trailhead

Preparation

The year our daughters were turning 13 and 11 we decided to reserve a backcountry spot at Cracker Lake for the month of August. Backcountry camping itineraries can be created at a ranger station upon arrival to Glacier National Park, but choices are limited, and I really wanted to be guaranteed a spot at Cracker Lake. Advance applications can be submitted beginning in March and cost $40. You can find additional information about the process here.

Advance applications can be submitted beginning in March and cost $40.

I also reserved us a campsite at St. Mary Campground for the night before our hike. This was not our favorite campground, but by the time our Cracker Lake reservation was confirmed it was the only one left. I recommend booking before your backcountry location is confirmed and canceling if needed. Many Glacier Campground would have been our first choice and closer to the trailhead.

I chose to schedule our trip in the month of August because I didn’t want to freeze at night, knowing full well that we would be at risk of smoke from the fires. Unfortunately, this was the case. Our views were not clear and the haze can be seen in all of our photos. July and August are the warmest months for camping, but also have the highest risk of difficulty from wildfires in and around Glacier National Park. You must choose what’s most important to you.

Cracker Lake Hike, Glacier National Park - don't forget to take off your base layers before beginning your return hike or you may end up in a similar photo, beautiful but hazy views due to wildfires, campers hike up the hill to eat and store their food in bear bags attached to the pole, Cracker Lake backcountry camping site

July and August are the warmest months for camping, but also have the highest risk of difficulty from wildfires in and around Glacier National Park.

Upon arrival to Glacier National Park, backcountry campers check in and watch a required video about backcountry camping, water disposal, bear and wildlife safety, trash disposal, etc. Upon completion of the video, campers are rewarded with a backcountry camping permit (which must be kept on them at all times) and are set free to explore the great unknown.

Hiking

The hike to Cracker Lake was beautiful. It began along fairly level terrain with wild thimble berries available for hungry hiker’s snacking pleasure. Horses travel the first mile or so of this trail, and hikers yield to them as they come by. And, with horses come other presents. Watch your step! After crossing a cool and refreshing creek (stop here to refill water bottles using your water filter) the trail began to climb via switchbacks for a short bit. 

Cracker Lake Hike, Glacier National Park - Cracker Lake hiking trail, creek crossing, filtering water

Keep an eye out for wildlife. Moose and bears frequent the area.

After the climb we were rewarded with some majestic views before descending slightly to another creek. Here we stopped for lunch and refilled water bottles yet again. The trail continued for a few more miles and we were all exhausted about a mile before arriving to Cracker Lake. When you can see the Glaciers in the distance, rejoice, you are getting close. The glaciers are at the far end of Cracker Lake.

Cracker Lake Hike, Glacier National Park - epic views, switchbacks, and exhaustion

If you would like to view a video of our hike and the Cracker Lake backcountry campground you can do so here.

Camping

Cracker Lake is a breathtaking place to camp. The lake itself was ice cold in August so it’s not recommended for swimming, although, our girls did take a dip. Food must be kept up the hill a bit in bear bags, and to get water, campers need to hike down to the lake. 

Cracker Lake Hike, Glacier National Park - the Cracker Lake backcountry camp site is just around this corner, putting all food items in the bear bag and tying it up on the pole (very important)

Keep an eye out for wildlife. Moose and bears frequent the area. A grizzly bear came around the lake and headed right toward our campsite before being scared off by fellow campers yelling at it from a distance. Don’t forget your bear spray, and make sure you know how to use it. You can view a quick bear spray tutorial here if you don’t know.

You can view a quick bear spray tutorial here if you don’t know.

We were so exhausted from the hike to Cracker Lake that we went to bed just after 7pm and woke up with the sun the next morning. We enjoyed some hot cocoa and a Mountain House meal of toasty warm eggs wrapped in a tortilla before packing up camp and hiking back. 

Cracker Lake Hike, Glacier National Park - Cracker Lake backcountry camp site food prep area with amazing views

The hike took our family of 4 about 4-5 hours including our water stops and lunch stop. As a family we hike and ski, but we are far slower than some of our Montana friends and their kids. This hike would have been pretty easy for them. For us it was a bit long with the pack weight on our backs. We would have loved it if the hike was about 1 mile shorter. I would place us at a moderate level of fitness. If your family is lower than that you may want to consider a shorter hike or one where you don’t need to carry packs for backcountry camping.

Cracker Lake Hike, Glacier National Park

Packing List

Here is our backcountry camping packing list. Most of the items have a clickable link to Amazon for easy shopping. Some of our equipment is no longer available so I linked to similar items. Be sure to dress in layers so you stay warm and dry. We live in Montana so some of these items were investment pieces for us. If you don't plan to go often, you can borrow these items or purchase less expensive but heavier equipment. The main thing to remember is that it gets cold at night in Glacier National Park. Research the night temperatures before your visit and be sure to be sufficiently prepared. Then, have an amazing, one-of-a-kind adventure!

Sleeping Mats

Camp Mat Inflator

Girls Sleeping Bags

Adult Sleeping Bags

Camp Pillow

MSR 2-person tent

StarGazer 2-person tent

(we carry 2 smaller tents so the weight can be dispersed between my pack and Chad's)

Girls Backpacks

My Backpack

Chad’s Backpack

Chad’s Down Jacket

My Down Jacket

Girls Down Jackets

Girls Hiking Shoes

My Hiking Shoes

Chad’s Hiking Shoes

Jet Boil

Fuel Canister

Pocket Stove

Mountain House Meals (some of our favorites are Chicken & Rice, Beef Stroganof, & Chili Mac)

Spam

Cliff Bars

Tortillas

Mess Kit

Bear Bag

Rope (to hang the bear bag)

Water Filter

Platypus Collapsible Water Bottles

Bear Spray

Hiking Poles

Girls Base Layers

My Base Layer

Chad’s Base Layer

First Aid Kit

Dry Sacks

Camp Soap

Camp Towels

Hats (beanies)

Gloves

Rain Poncho or Lightweight Rain Coat

Feel free to leave a comment with any questions you may have. Whether backcountry camping, driving Going to the Sun road, hiking, or biking, a visit to Glacier National Park is an unforgettable experience!

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