Take a hike in northwestern Montana’s Glacier National Park – even in the height of summer tourism season, even in broad daylight – and you might just find yourself sharing the trail with a grizzly bear. 

Recent video taken by Steve Franklin along the Hidden Lake Trail proves the point, showing a good-sized grizz ambling along between clusters of hikers on the dusty tread of an open, rocky slope:

Understandably a bit of a nerve-wracking situation, but the bear – no surprise – doesn’t appear to want much to do with the two-legged types hogging the trail, and ends up swinging off it and cutting downslope.

There have been some other close grizzly encounters on the well-trod Hidden Lake Trail, accessed from Logan Pass along Glacier’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. In the summer of 2020, grizzly bears were filmed chasing mountain goats along that trail not once but twice, the predatory pursuits going down in rather freaky proximity to hikers. (Though mountain goats come well-armed with spiky horns and can retreat to inaccessible cliff faces, they are occasionally taken by grizzlies, especially when the bears are able to ambush them in timber.)

Like a number of large mammals, grizzlies are known to adopt hiking trails as thoroughfares, though in heavily visited areas they often seem to do so more frequently after-hours. This is to be expected: Even if you’re a wild thing, why bash through jungly thickets, or clamber cross-country along a steep mountainside, when there’s a nice, clear, flat path conveniently blazed through?

In areas that see a lot of hiking use – the Hidden Lake Trail, for example – grizzlies may be somewhat habituated to the presence of on-trail people, and perhaps less likely to immediately flee upon seeing them: the usual reaction of a grizzly bear to a human being. One 1985 study in Glacier found grizzlies were likelier to charge hikers on low-use compared to high-use trails, suggesting perhaps bears were more accustomed to encountering people – and thus maybe less inclined to react defensively – on the latter.

This most recent Glacier National Park video mainly serves as a reminder that hikers and other trail-users in grizzly country most definitely need to know the nuts-and-bolts of bear safety, including what to do in a sudden encounter: the most dangerous sort of situation you can find yourself in with a grizz.

For one thing, hikers ought to have bear spray at the ready – not stuffed away in a backpack, but quickly accessible from a holster or simply carried in hand. Properly deployed, bear spray has a high rate of effectiveness in deterring charging bears. (Yellowstone National Park, also known for its grizzly population, has a good video on using bear spray posted on its website, plus another wherein several park employees recount successfully spraying a sow grizzly that charged them in defense of her cubs.)

Making plenty of noise along the trail is also advisable, particularly when you’re hiking through landscapes with limited visibility – tunnels through thick brush, for example (which describe more than a few Glacier National Park trails) – or where there’s a lot of ambient noise, as along rushing creeks or in breezy conditions. The efficacy of bear bells continues to be debated; many experts simply recommend that people clap hands and yell or shout (or maybe sing!) when traversing such environments, where surprise run-ins with bears are more likely.

Hiking in groups – three or more people – also seems to significantly reduce the risk of a grizzly attack. Everyone in the hiking party should have bear spray.

Glacier National Park recommends moving out of the way of a grizzly – or any other critter, for that matter – which is coming in your direction along a trail. We suggest reviewing its “Bear Safety” page for detailed instructions on what to do if you find yourself sharing the scene with a grizzly. One critical piece of advice: Even if charged – and most such high-speed approaches of grizzlies are bluff charges – don’t run (as these people did – unwisely, but fortunately without consequence – in Glacier a few years ago):

Hiking is generally considered a safer activity in grizzly country than trail running or mountain biking, both of which heighten the odds of sudden, up-close encounters with bears. In 2020, a trail runner actually collided with a young grizzly bear on Glacier’s Huckleberry Lookout Trail, receiving minor injuries as the two took a tumble; the startled bear ended up hightailing it. In 2016, a mountain biker was killed by a grizzly that he and another cyclist encountered along a trail system in the Flathead National Forest just outside of Glacier National Park.

(To be clear, grizzly bears generally want nothing to do with people, and attacks are rare. The main thing is, grizzlies don’t love getting surprised at close quarters – which I think we can all relate to, right?)

Glacier, among the most iconic national parks in the American West, straddles North America’s Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains and lies within what’s often called the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem. It’s tucked up against the Canadian border, contiguous with Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park and forming with it the UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve complex of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) categorizes the grizzlies of Glacier National Park as part of its 23,135-kilometre Northern Continental Divide Recovery Zone, which besides Glacier National Park itself encompasses large swaths of national forestland – including several large federal wilderness areas, among them the aptly named Great Bear Wilderness – as well as parts of the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian reservations. This is one of six designated grizzly recovery zones in the Lower 48 states of the U.S.

A 2021 estimate by the USFWS puts the grizzly population of the Northern Continental Divide Recovery Zone – connected to bears across the Canadian line – at more than 1,100. 

Top header image: Knight725/Flickr