Jake Bramante pictured in May 2011 at the beginning of his journey to hike all 734 miles of Glacier National Park's established trails. Beacon file photo
Glacier Journal

Glacier Mapmaker Launches New Biking Guide to Going-to-the-Sun Road

More than a dozen years after hiking all 734 miles of Glacier National Park’s trails in a single season, Jake Bramante has launched a new driving and biking guide to the scenic alpine highway

By Tristan Scott

Glacier National Park’s 1 million acres of wild, rugged beauty are laced with 734 miles of trail, ranging from dense forests to wind-scoured peaks. When Kalispell’s Jake Bramante set out to hike all of them in a single season — becoming the first known person to accomplish the feat — the former corporate network analyst knew he was embarking on a transformative journey.

He did not imagine that it was a journey he would still be on 13 years later, nor that it would reshape his personal and professional trajectory.

As the curator and creator of Hike734.com, the brand he assigned to the hiking project, what began as an ambitious summer on trail has evolved into a business that’s been at the center of Bramante’s life ever since. He’s published a half-dozen comprehensive map-guides to national parks from Glacier to Grand Teton and Yellowstone to Yosemite, placing them into the palms of visitors whose number have risen to record heights in recent years.

In that time, a wide assortment of digital mapping apps has come online, edging paper maps toward the margins of mainstream recreation by reducing thousands of square miles of public land down to a few dozen dots per inch. Still, even as many recreationists seem to prefer megapixels to printed maps, Bramante recognized early on that paper maps possess certain unique qualities with which an LED screen can’t compete, especially when Bramante’s hybrid “map-guides” feature two complementary sides — a high-quality topographic map on one side, and 15,000 words of text on the other, complete with a legend and color-coded, numeric key designating distances and regions of the park.

“The tactile feeling of a spread-out map has always been magical to me,” Bramante said. “It’s something you can’t get from a phone. But even with that said, I think of mapping apps as an adjunct to my map-guides. They can work together in parallel.”

It’s a concept whose success was proven over time, with Bramante crediting his entrepreneurial spirit and unwavering dedication, as well as his complete immersion in Glacier National Park.

In May, Bramante debuted his latest addition to the Hike734.com catalog when he published the “Going-to-the-Sun Road Driving and Biking Guide,” an update to his 2013 driving guide that includes cycling-specific beta and 32 sites and stops for travelers using both modes of transportation.

Born in Libby and raised in the Flathead Valley, Bramante was equipped with a curiosity of the natural world from an early age, and he developed a skillset as a novice videographer and digital storyteller along the way. Overcome by an intense interest in exploring every mile of Glacier’s trails, Bramante quit his job as a network analyst for Plum Creek in 2010 and sold his home, setting a goal to document his quest to hike across Glacier National Park.

On May 17, 2011, Bramante officially launched Hike734.com when he hiked the McDonald Creek Trail, one of the only snow-free sections of trail open to hikers so early in the season. The heavy winter snowpack helped keep the wildfires at bay that summer, and as the snow receded and the trails dried out, Bramante kept hiking. On Oct. 15, 2011, he emerged from the forest guarding the Lincoln Lake Trailhead and was greeted by a handful of friends and a scrum of media attention.

Basking in the immediate afterglow of the adventure, Bramante began to wonder — what now?

Even as Bramante edited and produced an exhaustive inventory of video-blogs from his long summer adventure, publishing them to the internet and growing his stature in the public eye while trekking to remote corners of the park, details of the future of Hike 734 — the brand he attached to the hiking mission — were vague.

“I had dabbled in video production, but I’d imagined doing the types of tourism DVDs that are sold at gift shops, the ones where pan flutes play over images of waterfalls and glacial lakes,” Bramante said. “When I had the idea to hike all the trails in the park, it was personally exciting, but I had no idea what was waiting at the end of it. I didn’t set out to become an influencer, but I thought that if I could create these videos, take people on virtual tours and become known as an expert, that a product might follow. Or perhaps I could do motivational speaking. Or maybe I’d become a park ranger. I really didn’t know.”

Following the harried summer of hiking, Bramante began thinking of how to turn the video blogs into a comprehensive virtual guide to assist all park visitors in their wilderness wanderings, while also providing more traditional back-of-the-pocket resources.

“I created a luxury for myself that first year that allowed me to immerse myself in Glacier,” Bramante said. “I was broke by the time I got done because I wasn’t making any money during the process. But when I got to the end of the project, I had a following. I had done something that captivated an audience.”

His girlfriend and key support figure, Kristen (today the couple is married), was employed as a technician at a local hospital, affording Bramante some grace as he refined his business idea. But he knew his time was limited.

“I was clear-eyed about what I needed to do,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be the 45-year-old guy waiting for his big break. But it was discouraging because I wasn’t giving that many talks, I was considering writing a book but I didn’t know how to set it apart from the other guidebooks. I was kind of stuck.”

“When I first got off the trail so many people said, ‘dude, if you wrote a guide I would totally buy it,’” Bramante continued. “I didn’t want to compete with other guidebooks, so I sat on the idea. And then on our honeymoon in Maui, we were driving the Hana Highway and I came up with the idea for the Going-to-the-Sun Road driving guide.”

Jake Bramante makes a video of McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park. Beacon file photo

It was an inflection point for Bramante and Hike734.com. The following year, in 2013, Bramante published the “Going-to-the-Sun Road Driving Guide,” featuring interpretive information on more than two-dozen stops along the historic highway. Even if just 1% of the park’s 2 million visitors bought a map-guide, Bramante reasoned he could begin laying plans for retirement. He braced himself for success. Instead, he sold just over 1,000 copies.

“Selling the driving guide was much harder than I imagined,” Bramante said. “It feels like a curse at the beginning because you see other entrepreneurs have instant success and you’re jealous of that, but in hindsight it was a blessing. When things grow too fast, it’s unsustainable, and I would have been in over my head. The slow rate of growth enabled me to become a better salesperson, and it allowed me to fulfill orders. It laid the groundwork for where I am today.”

The following year, Bramante published his “Day Hikes of Glacier National Park Map Guide” and sold 6,000 copies while more than doubling his sales of the driving guide. For Bramante, it was a natural progression following the driving guide.

“When I came out with my driving guide I really liked the format and thought there’s not really a great marriage of a guide and a map,” he said. “It was the next logical step to go do a hiking map-guide.”

Since then, he’s added map-guides for Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, and Olympic national parks. Bramante’s hybrid map-guide uses distance, slope difficulty and personal recommendations to identify dozens of hikes and sort them based on degree of difficulty and beauty. Its synthetic paper is weatherproof, and its color-coded trail segments indicate trail steepness, while the intimately informed trail descriptions provide a good synopsis of the hike.

“When I think back to those early years, I was trying to leverage my love for the park into a career, for sure,” Bramante said. “But behind it all was a genuine love for the place and a genuine fascination with it that I knew I could share with visitors in a responsible way. That sense of stewardship has really evolved over time, to the point where now a big part of my role is promoting etiquette and stewardship.”

Park visitors can purchase Bramante’s suite of map-guides at hike734.com as well as at most visitor centers, lodges and gift shops in and around Glacier. For a complete list of retail outlets that carry Hike734 products, in Glacier and beyond, visit the website.