Hike to Grinnell Glacier: Second Time's the Charm

Date Visited: 7/6/16 and 7/7/16

Distance: 10.6 miles round trip

Elevation Gain: 2,024'

Trailhead: Many Glacier Hotel if taking the boat across Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes, Grinnell Glacier Trailhead if hiking the entire length

It took Alex and me two tries to successfully make it to Grinnell Glacier. We first attempted the hike after we arrived to Glacier on Wednesday. The initial plan was to hike the Iceberg Trail but the weather in the morning was abysmal so we hung around the Many Glacier Hotel as we waited for it to pass. Around noon it started to clear up and it looked like we might have a small window of time to get a hike in. We opted to try to make it to Grinnell Glacier. The hike is 10.6 miles but if you take the boat tour from Many Glacier Hotel over Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes you can cut 3 miles off that distance. We were going to do it this way since we were pressed for time. The tickets were a steep $26 per person. We boarded the boat and set off on the tour. The tour was scenic and informative but I wish we had just walked. It took us 45 minutes to make it from Many Glacier to the end of Josephine Lake and we could have easily walked that same distance in an equal amount of time. 

Once the boat arrived to the shores of Josephine Lake Alex and I de-boarded and eagerly began the hike. As we proceeded on our hike the sky began to turn. We made it about a mile from the boat dock when it started to rain. We attempted to wait out the rain but it only got worse as time progressed. We saw a few hikers descending who encouraged us to keep moving but it seemed that the rain wasn't going to pass and hiking in the rain is pretty miserable. We began the hike back down to Josephine Lake. By the time we were back on the shores of the lake the rain was starting to ease up but we had already made our decision. We went back to Many Glacier Hotel and had a drink at the restaurant as the sun peaked out from the clouds. We vowed to try again the next day. 

Thursday was a full 12 hour day of hiking. We completed the hike to Iceberg Lake in the morning and then refueled and geared up for Grinnell Glacier. For our second attempt we decided to skip the boat ride and instead hike the full 9.9 miles. We headed out from the Grinnell Glacier trailhead at 2:30pm. The hike began nice and easy through a thick forest. We met plenty of hikers coming back from Grinnell but it appears we were one of the few who were starting out this late. The trail took us along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and then Josephine Lake. The views of Josephine are stunning from the trail. 

As we were passing Josephine Lake we started getting word from every hiker coming down that there was a sow and two cubs further up the trail. They assured us that they were at least 100 yards from the trail but wanted to warn us that we would be in their vicinity. A mama bear and her cubs sounded worrisome and a couple that was hiking behind us agreed. We teamed up with them for the remainder of this hike. They turned out to be an awesome couple from Fresno and Marc turned out to be an amazing photographer. We spent the whole hike talking about places we had been and wanted to go, and photography. 

Quickly we reached the portion of the trail that we had completed the day before and began ascending some steep switchbacks, quickly gaining elevation. Once we completed the switchbacks Grinnell Lake began to peak into view. After the switchbacks the trail winds its way back towards Grinnell and offers stunning views the entire way. Grinnell, Josephine, and Swiftcurrent Lakes can all be seen from the trail. 

By late afternoon clouds began to settle into the valley and rain threatened but we stayed dry as we made our way up the trail. We passed the point where the bears were, they were tiny brown specks making their way across an open grassy area well below the trail. We were able to confidently pass them. Further on we ran into a mountain goat on the trail, he saw us and he quickly ran up some rocks so nimbly that I wasn't sure he didn't float there. From his perch he watched us pass and cocked his head back and forth, probably trying to figure out why such clumsy creatures were doing so far up the mountain. 

At around 6pm we finally made it to Upper Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier. It was cloudy but the scene was still spectacular. The lake was covered in ice with a few melted sections that revealed impossibly blue water. We saw Grinnell and Salamander Glaciers from the shore of the lake and sat in awe. Glacier National Park used to be home to over 150 glaciers, which in the park is defined as any sheet of ice that is moving downhill, is at least 100' thick, and it must be 25 acres in area, one the ice ceases to move it is simply a snowfield. Today the park has 25 glaciers. Grinnell and Salamander are still considered glaciers, but a century ago they were actually connected as one glacier, since then their masses have declined and they are now two glaciers. They will continue to steadily decline and scientists predict that within a few decades Glacier National Park will cease to house any glaciers. 

The longer we stayed at Upper Grinnell Lake the more the weather began to turn. We all agreed to turn around by 7pm which would give us just enough time to hike down before the 9:30pm sunset. As we packed up and set out it began to drizzle. We continued on hoping the rain would pass but it began to rain harder so we stopped to put away our camera gear and put on our rain gear. Not more than 10 minutes later the rain stopped and down the valley a rainbow appeared over Swiftcurrent, Josephine, and Grinnell Lakes. I quickly took out my camera and tried to capture it before it disappeared. 

We tried to hurry down to the trailhead as quickly as possibly but we kept getting enticed by the beautiful landscape to take more photos. So while we descended the trail towards Grinnell Lake the hike went something like this: run-walk down the trail, "ooh!", take out photo gear, quickly snap a photo, put photo gear away, run-walk down the trail and repeat. Finally, we descended the steep switchbacks and entered back into the forest along Josephine Lake, the final stretch of trail. Sometime along this trail Alex and I were following behind Marc and Jamie when we passed a spot of tall, dense vegetation and we both swore we heard something growl at us. Marc and Jamie didn't hear anything but we were all a little spooked so we picked up the pace. Finally, we made it to the trailhead. Marc and Jamie offered us some dinner and strong wine they picked up on their travels and we capped off an amazing day hiking with a delicious dinner with two new friends! 


Special notes: Grizzlies and black bears call Glacier home so it is imperative that you carry bear spray and know how to use it, make noise, and hike in large groups. The trail was so busy the day we hiked it that bears we likely steering clear but we still took precautions anyways. 

Required permits: None for the day hike!

Trailhead: Grinnell Glacier Trailhead


Gear to pack:

  • The 10 Essentials
  • Bear spray
  • Bear bell (optional if you are consistent about making noise)
  • Camera gear