Hiking Glacier National Park: The Grinnell Glacier Trail
For many of the 2.4 million visitors who embark on a trip to Glacier National Park last year, getting up close to a glacier was top on the bucket list. Given the rapid shrinking of the glaciers, there has never been a more critical time for it either. When the park was established in 1910 more than 150 glaciers were present in the area. By 2010 the number shrank to 25. Scientists estimate all the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone by 2030. The stunning effects of global climate change can certainly be seen on the Grinnell Glacier Trail in the Many Glacier area of park.
Planning Your Hike on the Grinnell Glacier Trail
National Park enthusiasts consider the hiking trails in Glacier National Park some of the best in the world. And the Grinnell Glacier Trail always ranks high among the best trails in the park. The trail is a moderate to challenging out and back hike with breathtaking views the entire way. The route was one of the many reasons naturalist George Bird Grinnell was so attracted to the area. It’s one of the many reasons this area was named “The Crown of the Continent.”
The route to the Grinnell Glacier begins from the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead just past the Many Glacier Hotel on the Many Glacier entrance road. Most hikers begin the route in the early morning, offering cooler morning temperatures and the chance to see wildlife along the route.
The trail enters a dense mixed hardwood and pine forest and shortly crosses over Swiftcurrent Creek. As you approach Swiftcurrent Lake, the shady route will offer postcard-worthy views of the historic Many Glacier Hotel. Another option to shave roughly 3.5 miles off the hiking trip is to depart from the shuttle at the hotel and ride to the end of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. It takes about 8 and 12 minutes to cross each lake, but it’s a life-saver for tired legs.
At the southern boat landing of Swiftcurrent Lake, the trail forks. Turn right to continue on the Grinnell Glacier Trail. Visitors who turn left for the relatively flat trail to lower Grinnell Lake and Lake Josephine. While the route won’t approach the glacier, it can still be considered a well-spent day in the park.
After a 0.2 mile short hike, the trail will descend to the Lake Josephine boat dock. Snap a quick photo of the glassy reflection on the lake before continuing to the right on the Grinnell Glacier Trail. From here, the trail begins the ascent to the glacier with roughly 3 miles of steady elevation gain. The total elevation gain on the trail is 1840 feet, much of which on the grueling first leg.
At roughly 0.4 miles from the boat landing, you’ll reach a trail junction leading to the south dock of Lake Josephine. We recommend taking this junction on the descent for different views on the way back. At just short of 1 mile hikers see the first views of Grinnell Lake in the valley below. The eerie aqua blue water forms from sun reflecting off “glacial milk” or fine rock particles suspended in the lake water.
Hikers will also be treated to several waterfalls along the trail, including views of Grinnell Falls. One of the tallest waterfalls in Glacier National Park, it descends roughly 960 feet from the glacier run-off to Grinnell Lake.
Between miles 2 and 3, the route begins to narrow and hug the exposed rock face of Mount Grinnell. Watch for slippery trail in this area. At mile 3.4 you will reach a small picnic area and vault toilet. It’s also common to experience icy and snowy conditions even in the summer months.
The last part of the Grinnell Glacier Trail ascends 0.2 miles to Upper Grinnell Lake. From here visitors can see the Grinnell Glacier and the Salamander Ice Field. The hike also offers views of The Garden Wall Divide, part of the Continental Divide and Highline Trails.
From here, hikers descend on the same route. The junction with Lake Josephine offers the chance to see the eastern edge of the lakes and is the less trafficked route in the busy hiking season.
Grinnell Glacier Trail Notes
- Wildlife, including bears are common on this part of the trail. Hikers choose the easiest route and so do many of these animals to travel distance. Hiking in groups and making noise is not highly recommended it’s a necessity. So is carrying bear spray.
- Rangers used to take visitors out on Grinnell Glacier, however in recent years it has become more dangerous. The ice is less stable. Crevasses are dangerous, particularly following new snow. While not prohibited, climbing on the glacier is not recommended without self-rescue training.
- Up to date conditions for the Grinnell Glacier Trail are available at all ranger stations. Checking with a ranger is MUST on this trail as bears and snowfall can close portions of the route. In addition the snow and ice clears from the trail in mid to late summer. The route can be impassable well into July in snowy years.