Packhorses and Tent Camps Marked Early Hiking Excursions

Hiking The North Circle Trail

By Becky Lomax

Nattily-clad tourists rode horses to see the park in the early days—led by dude wranglers garbed in cowboy hats, spurs, and chaps. From Many Glacier, the North Circle Trail provided a five-day trip with lodging at established tent camps operated by the Park Saddle Company that ran the horse concessionaire from 1915 until its folding in 1943.

Contrary to today's backpackers, tourists on horseback had the advantage of a string of packhorses carrying gear while tent camps provided sleeping accommodations, dining tents, and meals. The Park Saddle Company built tent camps such as the one at Fifty Mountain in 1925 and bought the Goat Haunt Chalet the same year to establish an adjacent tent camp. Combined with Granite Park Chalet and a tent camp at Cosley Lake, the tour offered scenic places to overnight in relative backcountry luxury.


Departing from the front of Many Glacier Hotel, the 70-mile North Circle Tour climbed over high passes on the first day. With lodging at Granite, Fifty Mountain, Goat Haunt, and Cosley Lake, the tours crossed three passes, rode along the Continental Divide, and lounged on the beach of Waterton Lake. Swiftcurrent and Stoney Indian Passes held locomotive bells for riders to ring, signaling their arrival at the summits.

Today, the North Circle is one of the most popular multi-day backpacking trips in the park. But many chop off mileage by hiking through Ptarmigan Tunnel, as did the horse tours once the tunnel was built in 1930. The original the route, constructed by Great Northern Railway, included climbs over Swiftcurrent Ridge to Poia Lake and ascending the 7,545-foot-high blustery Red Gap Pass.

Minus the Goat Haunt spur, the 59-mile loop contains eight backcountry campgrounds with other camps available within one to three miles off the loop. Backpackers can follow the historic route with a five- or six-day itinerary. Permits are required for backcountry camping.

Those looking to day hike a portion of the trail can opt for a 6.7-mile climb to Swiftcurrent Pass, a 5-mile climb to Ptarmigan Tunnel, or a 6.4-mile hike to Poia Lake. Swan Mountain Outfitters, the current horse concessionaire, leads an all day trail ride to Poia Lake.

Backpackers will no longer find the bells to ring on the passes. They were removed during World War II for scrap metal drives.

Becky Lomax is a hiking expert. To purchase one of her wonderful books on local hiking, click on the image below, visit her website at