One of our favorite hikes in Glacier National Park, the Dawson Pitamakan Loop is a must do for those looking for a serious adventure with the chance for some solitude away from the heavy crowds on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The trail features two incredible alpine passes, Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass, and multiple stunnings lakes, including Two Medicine Lake, Oldman Lake and No Name Lake. Totaling nearly 19 miles, the Dawson Pitamakan Loop makes for a strenuous day hike or 2-day backpacking trip. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the hike, including how to backpack it, take a shuttle across Two Medicine Lake, and just how scary that infamous ridgeline between Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass really is!
Dawson Pitamakan Loop overview
- Distance | 18.8 miles
- Elevation gain | 3,900 feet
- Difficulty | Hard
- Total Time | 9 – 12 hours
Find this hike on AllTrails | Dawson – Pitamakan Loop
Located in the Two Medicine district, the Dawson and Pitamakan Loop is one of favorite hikes in Glacier National Park, second only to the classic Highline Trail.
When we set out on our second visit to Glacier, we had originally intended to backpack the Dawson Pitamakan Loop, camping one night at Oldman Lake. Upon arrival at the ranger’s station, we were told that the campsite was snow-covered (which ended up not to be true, but nonetheless…).
We had our hearts set on hiking the Dawson Pitamakin Loop, so we decided to go all in one this mega-day hike.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know to plan your Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass hike, including information on how to backpack the loop.
About Glacier National Park
Located in northern Montana, Glacier National Park is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful areas in the entire national park system due to its picturesque lakes, rocky mountain peaks, diverse species of wildlife, and stunning vistas.
Accordingly, in 2019, the park welcomed over 3 million visitors and annual visitation to the park continues to grow.
With several distinct sections, Glacier National Park spans over 1,500 square miles and contains approximately 700 lakes and more than 700 miles of hiking trails. The park is home to a huge variety of wildlife, including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48!
Fun Fact: Ironically, Glacier National Park does not have the highest concentration of glaciers in the contiguous United States. That award goes to North Cascades National Park in northern Washington, home to over 300 glaciers! Glacier has just 24 glaciers within its boundaries!
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- Two stunning alpine passes with some of the best views in Glacier National Park.
- The stunning Oldman Lake is one of the most scenic alpine lakes in the park.
- Due to the location, length and difficulty of the trail, you’re likely to find some solitude.
- Long stretch of sketchy, exposed trail between Dawson and Pitamakan Pass.
- Length of the hike means an early start is required.
How difficult are Dawson Pass & Pitamakan Pass?
Traversing nearly 19 miles and 3900 feet of elevation gain, the Dawson Pitamakan Loop is a very challenging full day affair. The climb up to Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass is steep and will certainly get your legs and lungs burning.
Perhaps the most challenging part of the hike is the extended amount of time spent on a narrow, exposed ridge between the Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass.
The narrow trail hugs the edge of the cliff with a sheer drop off that is sure to heighten the nerves of even the most sure-footed hiker. This section requires a level of mental acuteness that can be quite exhausting, placing each step with great caution to avoid a slip or fall.
For reference, I (Sarah) am known to have a crippling fear of heights, and the Dawson Pitamakan Loop certainly pushed my limits. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other and not looking down… I managed to get through the sketchy part and was very glad that I stuck with it!
You can shave off about 3 miles from the total hike distance by taking a shuttle across Two Medicine Lake. Note, however, that the boat does not reduce the amount of elevation gain, so you’re still in for a strenuous hike even if you opt to take the boat.
Two Medicine Lake Shuttle
To take the shuttle from the main dock (if you are hiking clockwise), you will have to pay for a full two-way ticket for $19.05 per person. Shuttle tickets may be purchased online in advance or at the boat dock. The first shuttle departure from the main dock is at 8:00am.
One way return shuttle tickets are also available, and may either be purchased online in advance or at the head of the lake before you set out on your hike. Beware that you won’t be able to purchase tickets on the other side of the lake if you hike counterclockwise. One way return tickets cost $10 per person.
When is the best time to hike the Dawson Pitamakan Loop?
Because the trail can be snow-covered well into June, the best time to hike the Dawson Pitamakan Loop is July through September.
Due to the long exposed section, this is not a hike we’d recommend doing if there is still snow on the trail. If you do decide to hike earlier in the season, you’ll want to pack microspikes and an ice ax for safety. You can check with the rangers before you set off to get updated trail conditions.
The ridge between Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass is infamous for being extremely windy. Don’t forget to pack some extra layers and a windbreaker or rain jacket to keep you warm on the passes. Additionally, you should be prepared to turn back should you feel the wind is so strong that it could be dangerous to continue along the ridge.
Thunderstorms are also not uncommon in Glacier National Park, and you would definitely not want to be caught in one at Dawson Pass, Pitamakan Pass or anywhere in between due to the rocky, exposed nature of the area.
Always check weather conditions before heading out, and do not continue up to the passes or along the ridge line if the skies start to look dark.
Where to stay nearby
The Dawson Pitamakan Loop hike is located in the Two Medicine section of Glacier National Park. The most convenient place to stay before the hike is at Two Medicine Campground.
From the campground, you can easily walk to the trailhead for the Dawson Pitamakan Loop. Campsites are available on a first-come-first-serve basis and you’ll need to arrive early during the peak season to secure a spot.
If you aren’t able to get a spot at Two Medicine Campground, or don’t want to camp, the next best alternative is to stay in East Glacier, located just outside of Two Medicine about 20 minutes from the trailhead.
Glacier Park Lodge is a historic log-cabin lodge in East Glacier with stone fireplaces and beautiful mountain views. Glacier Grizzly Resort is another popular campground in East Glacier, featuring an RV park and glamping TPs.
Lodging in East Glacier is fairly limited. For more options, try the St. Mary Village area, located about 50 minutes from the trailhead.
What to pack
Below are a few important items to make sure you pack for hiking Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass.
Good gear can make all the difference hiking in the Grand Tetons. Below we’ve compiled a list of our absolute must haves for day hiking – we use these items every time we hike and couldn’t live without them.
- GPS device | Since the Dawson Pitamakan Loop can be challenging to find and there is no cell service, we recommend having the trail map downloaded offline (for example using AllTrails Pro), or better yet, carrying a GPS device for safety. We always hike with our Garmin InReach Mini in areas without cell service in case of emergency.
- Bear spray | Glacier National Park is home to both black and grizzly bears, so always hike with bear spray carried within an arm’s reach (ie. attached to your hip – keeping it in your backpack is not helpful in an emergency)
- Hiking boots | The trail to Pitamakan Pass is steep and slippery in place. Having sturdy hiking boots with good traction is a must. The Danner Mountain 400s are my all-time favorite hiking boots.
- Hiking Poles | To help take some of the pressure off your knees on the steep sections and give you extra traction on the final steep climb up to Pitamakan Pass.
- Pullovers (Hers: Smartwool Merino Quarter Zip, His: Smartwool Merino Quarter Zip) | Mornings in Glacier National Park can get cold, even in the summer, so expect a chilly start to your hike. We love our Smartwool quarter zips for chilly mornings on the trial!
- Headlamp | Always good to have for a long day hike in case you finish hiking later than expected. We both use the Black Diamond Storm 400s.
- National Parks Pass | covers entrance to Glacier National Park and all other U.S. National Parks for one year.
For a more detailed day hike gear list, you may be interested in this article:
Backpacking the Dawson Pitamakan Loop
If you want to be able to take your time and soak in the scenery, the Dawson Pitamakan Loop can also be backpacked! There are two backcountry campsites along the loop: Oldman Lake and No Name Lake.
Permits are required to backpack the Dawson Pitamakan Loop. Advance reservations are released on recreation.gov starting on March 15th. You can find more information about backcountry camping in Glacier National Park on the NPS website.
Dawson Pitamakan Loop hike details
In the following section, we’ll break down each section of the Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass loop so that you know what to expect from the hike.
Parking & getting to the trailhead
The trailhead for the Dawson Pitamakan Loop is located in Two Medicine, on the eastern side of Glacier National Park.
From West Glacier (the most popular section of the park), it’s about a 1.5 hour drive to the trailhead. From Columbia Falls, it’s about 1 hour and 40 minutes, and from Whitefish it’s nearly 2 hours.
We’d highly recommend staying at the Two Medicine Campground or East Glacier if possible. Because of the length and difficulty of the hike, you’ll want to make sure you get a very early start in order to finish before dark, and get off the ridgeline before any afternoon thunderstorms roll in.
Which direction should I hike?
We would recommend hiking counterclockwise for a few reasons:
- The incline is more gradual going counterclockwise up Pitamakan. If you hike clockwise, you’re in for a very steep first few miles after Two Medicine Lake, leaving you exhausted for the rest of the hike.
- The first 5 or so miles are fairly boring through the forest, and by hiking counterclockwise you get them out of the way first.
- If you plan to take the boat shuttle, it’s cheaper to get a return ticket from the opposite side of the lake back to the main dock. If you hike clockwise, you will take the boat first thing from the main boat dock and will have to pay for a 2-way ticket.
However, note that if you hike counterclockwise and you are planning to take the boat shuttle, you’ll need to time your hike such that you make it to the boat dock by your scheduled departure time.
We completed the hike counterclockwise, so we’ll continue with the hike description accordingly.
Starting the hike
From the parking area at Two Medicine Campground, cross the footbridge over Two Medicine Creek and turn right to hike counterclockwise. The trail starts off with a gradual ascent through a forest. The first few miles aren’t terribly exciting without any views the keep you entertained, but the going is fairly easy.
After about 4 miles, the trail leaves the forest behind and meanders through a grassy alpine meadow where the views start to open up. This is also where the elevation gain picks up as you make your way towards Oldman Lake.
After about 7 miles from the trailhead, you’ll come upon an intersection. To get down to the shore of Oldman Lake, turn left here.
It’s about a quarter-mile detour to Oldman Lake, but it’s definitely worth the extra effort. With the sharp peak of Mount Morgan towering over Oldman Lake to the northwest, it’s an incredibly beautiful view.
By this point, you’ll have been hiking for a few hours, so Oldman Lake also makes the perfect spot to take a break from hiking and enjoy lunch. Enjoy a brief rest because you have a serious climb ahead!
Oldman Lake to Pitamakan Pass
After returning to the main trail from Oldman Lake, the elevation picks up even more and the trail switchbacks up the mountainside towards Pitamakan Pass.
After a little over a mile, the trail flattens out and you have arrived at Pitmakan Pass!
From Pitamakan Pass, you’ll be treated to stunning 360 degree views overlooking Oldman Lake to the south and Pitamakan Lake to the north. If you’re hiking earlier in the season, the lakes will still be speckled with melting patches of ice, making for a particularly stunning sight.
Ridge between Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass
From Pitamakan Pass, the elevation gain continues for another mile or so before leveling off as you reach the infamous ridge between Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass. There’s another lovely viewpoint once you reach the ridge, so take a moment to enjoy it.
Then continue along the trail as it clings to the edge of a sheer scree field. Although this part of the hike is exposed and slightly terrifying if you are afraid of heights, you’ll be treated to stunning views the entire way – plenty to keep your mind occupied as you traverse the ridgeline!
Along the way, there are a few places to stop where the trail widens and you can rest, collect your nerves, and enjoy the view.
Just how scary is the ridge line?
If you’ve read AllTrails reviews for this hike, you may be feeling wary about this section of the trail. We’ll be honest, we thought it was a bit scary.
However, because the trail is fairly flat, we never felt like we were at risk of slipping and sliding down the edge. As long as you take your time, you’ll be just fine (take it from someone with a serious fear of heights)!
Once you arrive at Dawson Pass, the sketchy part is behind you! Because the trail is relatively flat leading up to it, there is no grand reveal once you arrive at Dawson Pass. The views are quite similar to those you’ve been enjoying along the ridgeline. That’s not to say, however, that the views aren’t amazing!
When you finally arrive at Dawson Pass, you have some space to rest, explore and enjoy the views without feeling like you could slide off the edge at any moment.
Descending from Dawson Pass
From Dawson Pass, it’s a steep 3.5 miles downhill until you reach Two Medicine Lake and the trail begins to flatten out.
As you head down from Dawson Pass, the tip of Two Medicine Lake comes into view. Prepare for a series of steep switchbacks that will have your knees aching after a full day of hiking!
No Name Lake
By the time we got to the turnoff for No Name Lake, we’d been hiking for 8 hours and running quite low on energy. Even though it’s only about a quarter mile off the main trail, we decided to skip it knowing we still had several miles to go.
So we can’t personally vouch for whether No Name Lake is worth the detour, but we have heard good things should you decide to check it out.
Two Medicine Lake
After passing the turnoff for No Name Lake, you will soon come upon Two Medicine Lake. If you are taking the boat shuttle, follow signs to the dock off to the right of the main trail. Otherwise, continue straight along Two Medicine Lake.
Because you started the hike with Two Medicine Lake in view, it may seem like you’re almost back at this point, but unfortunately that’s not exactly the case. From the point that the trail splits off towards the Two Medicine boat dock, it’s still about 3 miles back to the trailhead.
With the distinctive triangular-shaped Rising Wolf Mountain towering overhead, the views over Two Medicine Lake are still quite lovely. Nonetheless, this section really seems to drag on forever.
By this point, you’ve hiked over 15 miles, climbed and descended two alpine passes and you’re just ready to sit down and kick off your boots!
Arriving back at the trailhead
After nearly 19 miles of hiking, when you finally see that footbridge crossing Two Medicine Lake, you’ll be jumping with joy (perhaps, more figuratively than literally…).
Other hikes nearby
Looking for other great hikes in Montana, Wyoming or Canada? We think you may also be interested in these resources:
- Scenic Point | Another awesome hike in the Two Medicine section of Glacier National Park, only a few minutes from the Dawson Pitamakan Loop trailhead.
- Cracker Lake | A 10-mile roundtrip hike to one of the most stunning alpine lakes in Glacier National Park
- Paintbrush Cascade Loop | An epic 22-mile day hike in Grand Teton National Park.
- Big Beehive | A 7-mile roundtrip hike in Banff with the best views overlooking Lake Louise.
- Iceline Trail | A 13.5 mile loop in Yoho National Park, featuring up-close glacier views and snow-capped peaks.
Questions about hiking the Dawson Pitamakan Loop in Glacier National Park? Drop us a comment in the section below!