Grinnell Glacier — East Glacier Hikes, Part II

I consider the hike to Grinnell Glacier to be the pinnacle of my Glacier National Park vacation, and the only part on which I have actually done research.   I have been looking forward to this day for months.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there were 150 glaciers when the park opened in 1910, and now there are only 25 remaining.  Scientists expect by 2030, there will be none, at the current rate.   So I really want the chance to hike up to the foot of the glacier, stand and contemplate the evolution of our species.   😉   The hike to Grinnell Glacier will give me a look at two glaciers up close – Grinnell and Salamander.

Aboard "Chief Two Guns" headed across Swiftcurrent Lake.

Aboard “Chief Two Guns” headed across Swiftcurrent Lake.


Grinnell Glacier is named for George Bird Grinnell, a conservationist, explorer, and founder of the National Audubon Society.   He spent many years exploring the park and was a major contributor toward the establishing of the park.  He was befriended by the Blackfeet tribe, and led an initiative to save the buffalo, among many other species.

Ride across Lake Josephine on "Morning Eagle."

Ride across Lake Josephine on “Morning Eagle.”

And Salamander Glacier was named for…..well….it looks more like a Dachshund to me.

View of Salamander Glacier, looks more like a Dachshund to me.

View of Salamander Glacier, looks more like a Dachshund to me.

The Grinnell Glacier hike can either be done all on foot (eleven miles round trip) or it is possible to shave off four miles with the two-boat tour.   One must pass both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine along the way, so by taking the boat ride, it cuts four miles off the hike, making it 7.5 miles with a 1,600 ft elevation gain.

The boat tour crosses Swiftcurrent Lake on “Chief Two Guns”  with a ¼ mile trail over a mound of land that separates the two lakes.  Then board a second boat, “Morning Eagle” to continue on across Lake Josephine where the dock is located at the Grinnell Glacier trail head.   Not that I have any objection to hiking the entire eleven miles, of course!!   😉  But I enjoy a boat ride as much as I do a hike.   So I have booked this in advance, to insure my seat on the two-boat tour.

View of Lake Josephine boat dock, and bridge which is part of the boardwalk trail.  Note early morning fog on the lake.

View of Lake Josephine boat dock, and bridge which is part of the boardwalk trail. Note early morning fog on the lake.


The tour schedule includes an early morning “express run” to the Grinnell Glacier trail head, which also features a guided hike with a ranger to the glacier.  Not typically being the “guided hike” sort, I sign up for this anyway.  One, because of the “Bear Fear Factor” where every sign seems to jump out at me warning,  “Don’t hike alone!”  Not that I would be alone on this hike, mind you.  Quite the contrary!   But I could not have known this back when I booked the boat tour.  The second reason was I really wanted the interpretive narration from the ranger in hopes of learning more about the glaciers.IMG_0701IMG_0796

View of three lakes;  Lower Grinnell, Lake Josephine, and Lake Sherberne Reservoir.

View of three lakes; Lower Grinnell, Lake Josephine, and Lake Sherberne Reservoir.

The hike starts out along an extensive length of boardwalk over a marshy area, before it begins the steep climb.  Our National Park Service guide, Rick, is a geology buff, so he tells us up front this hike will have a heavy geology theme.   We review the three different kinds of rock; sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous, which brings back mind-numbing lectures from my school days.  This would no doubt lull us all to sleep if only we could catch our breath long enough after the lung-busting climb up the switchbacks.  Geology is not really my “thing” but I feign a whole lot of interest because I enjoy the rest stops.  😉IMG_0812

First glimpse of Lower Grinnell Lake.

First glimpse of Lower Grinnell Lake.

IMG_0686There are a ridiculous number of hikers on this guided hike, and I often think of breaking from the pack.  It’s a bit like a game of “whiplash” where the fast hikers race ahead, then wait for the slower ones to catch up, while those of us in the mid section collapse and expand like an accordion to hurry up and wait to hear the ranger talks.   Just about the time I decide I am going to break ranks and continue on my own, Rick tells us all that he has a foot ailment, and will not be able to make the entire hike.  So he will finish the narration midway up, and we will be free to complete the hike on our own, at our own pace.  YEAH!   My cake, and eat it too!IMG_0816

After the first third of the trail which is mostly climbing, the trail levels out a bit, but becomes quite narrow, most of it carved into the side of the mountain, or positioned on outcroppings.  There are a few small waterfalls to cross, and views of the stunning turquoise Grinnell Lake come into view.  At the furthest stretch of the narrow trail, it is possible to see three lakes in the distance, Grinnell Lake, Lake Josephine, and Lake SherberneReservoir (Swiftcurrent is around the corner out of view.)

Three Lake View

Three Lake View

Finally when Rick reaches his limit, he gives the talk we have all been waiting for…the melting of the glaciers.  Back when Grinnell first explored the glacier in the late 1800’s, the glacier, then a combination of both Grinnell and Salamander,  was reported to be a thousand feet high and several miles across.  Now, an estimated 90% of the ice that Grinnell first saw is gone.  It has created its own melt water lake from the massive thawing.   Once it is gone, there is concern for a sustainable water source at this elevation.  Whether or not you believe Global Climate Change is induced by man, or merely by the natural warming and cooling cycles of our planet, there is no doubt it is having an impact on the park’s ecosystem.

Closing in on Grinnell Glacier

Closing in on Grinnell Glacier


Before Rick turns us all loose, he tells us of a nice picnic area up ahead with benches and pit toilets.  “It’s a good stop to have a rest and regroup for the hardest part of the hike yet.  The final quarter mile to Upper Grinnell Lake is steep and rocky, but persevere.  Trust me, the views are worth it!”

Although I have done research on access to the hike via the boat tours and the trail itself, I have no idea what lies ahead at the end of the trail.  After making the final quarter of a mile climb up through the scree, I crest a large berm to get my first glimpse of Upper Grinnell Lake.   I let out what sounds like a combination of a gasp and a sob, as I had no idea I would be encountering an iceberg filled lake!   I am mesmerized!

Upper Grinnell Lake in its frozen glory.

Upper Grinnell Lake in its frozen glory.

I ask another hiker wearing the Canadian flag as a hat to take my phoot.  I am busy directing, "The light may be better from that directio..."  Too late.

I ask another hiker wearing the Canadian flag as a hat to take my photo. I am busy directing, “The light may be better from that directio…” Too late.

I sit on a rock for a good hour, just staring into the shimmering ice-blue lake with the frozen chunks of ice floating, so still and beautifully sculpted by the elements.    I was so fortunate to visit Antarctica back in 2006.   Of all the indescribable things that I witnessed there, it was the ice formations that struck me as the most impressive, so this sight of the ice-filled Upper Grinnell Lake is a little flashback.

I have been hearing and reading a lot of debate lately as to whether our National Parks are really “worth it.”  The massive crowds, the entrance fees, the restrictive rules, the smoke-filled campgrounds, the stamp collectors, the bucket-listers, of which I am one.   As I sit here on this rock pondering the majesty of this place, I for one am extremely grateful for the NPS.  In fact, it is the only way I can justify the ridiculous amount of income tax that comes from my paycheck every two weeks.   I like to fool myself into imagining that my portion is going toward preservation of our National Parks.   Yes, there are a lot of people around.   Yes, I have to sidestep and yield to the occasional group of hikers along the trail.  But the payoff is so worth it!!  Call it a theme park if you like, but I will peacefully coexist among the “unwashed masses” to enjoy the beauty and splendor of such a “Magic Kingdom” place as this.   Can you imagine what Upper Grinnell Lake would look like if there were no NPS protecting it?   I would be staring down at the ice-blue lake from a 20 story hotel with a glass elevator overlooking fake icebergs floating in the poolside cocktails below.  I am taking the stand (on an iceburg, no less!) “Support our National Parks!!”IMG_0766

Note wildlife sighting on large rock..(smaller than a bread box, so it does not count.)

Note wildlife sighting on large rock..(smaller than a bread box, so it does not count.)

I make my way back down the mountain solo, stopping often for photos.  Rick has told us lower Grinnell Lake looks best in late afternoon sunlight, and he is right.  The western sun really makes the turquoise color pop.IMG_0807

As I near the switchbacks, I come upon a group of people with telephoto lenses pointed up the mountain.   Sheep on shelves!   Three big horn sheep, all lying on their own rock shelf above.  I try zooming in with my point and shoot camera, but it can’t really figure out where to focus, as they are well camouflaged.  I just don’t have the right equipment to do them justice.   But still, I am counting them!  All three, bigger than a breadbox for sure!

Blurry Bighorn Sheep on Vertical Shelves

Blurry Bighorn Sheep on Vertical Shelves

I fly back down the switchbacks to the shore of Lake Josephine, where a crowd waits for the next boat departure.  My ranger-led hike gives me a guaranteed spot on the boat, so I sit on the dock and relax, watching the golden setting sun cast shimmering glints across the lake.   “Morning Eagle” approaches to take me back on the final leg of my hike, home to the Many Glacier campground on such a perfect September day!IMG_0839

Wildlife bigger than a breadbox – 3.  One Goat, 3 Sheep, Glacier NP Total 4

20 thoughts on “Grinnell Glacier — East Glacier Hikes, Part II

  1. I hope not to mar your beautiful work here with words of disparity but this is certainly a thought that should cross the mind of any thinking man or woman as they traverse the wonderland you continue to expose here for we members of the armchair trekker community. While they say to leave politics out of it, politics is all it is. If anyone hasn’t caught the great PBS series “The Roosevelts” then I would highly recommend it. It was Theodore who gave us most of these park lands back in the early 1900’s and it was the greedy back then who tried to stop it.

    They have not stopped but have simply regrouped today, those who would have us sell off our park lands for profit or drilling or mining. The politics of the potential loss of these beautiful lands are in my book, something that is certainly worth pursuing and becoming an activist to prevent from happening.

  2. I have been reading your blog for some weeks now and truly enjoying it but today is different. Your photography, your words, the magic of this special place prompted me to write so I could thank you. Thank you for making the journey for those of us who haven’t done it as yet. and most of all thank you for sharing it. I felt like gasping as you did as I saw the glacial ice in the lake. Your blog is a welcome respite . Bless you! Stay safe and keep blogging!!!

  3. What an incredible day! Lucky you for getting to see it in the calm, crisp, warm sunshine rather than a cold, wet, fog! But, sad too to see how small the glacier now looks compared to what it must have looked like only a few years ago. Glad you got to experience this….and hope I get to do the same one year very soon!

  4. Great pictures again Suzanne, and the colours are so good. I’ve always used Canon cameras but I remember reading that you use Nikon, so I’m impressed with the results.

    I have only ever seen one glacier and that was in Austria, so with the Earth heating up you did well to catch them before they disappear completely. Well worth the hike, with a beautiful reward.

  5. Grinnell Glacier is the only ranger-lead hike I’ve taken in a national park and it was well worth the crowded hiking experience. The part-time ranger was a high school science teacher from Kalispell and her expertise/interest was the mechanics of glaciation and glacial flow. She took us onto the snowfield and pointed out both the delights and dangers of glacier travel. A day well spent, including the boat rides.
    Tom, the awning fixer

  6. Have so enjoyed the Glacier National Park tour with you and your pictures are stunning. We had only one day there last June but it was eye candy in every direction we looked. Have loved seeing more of the park through your eyes and camera – thank you so much for sharing.

  7. What a wonderful trail that is going on my list if we make to East Glacier next summer.! I have only seen icebergs once in my life and they left an impression, I would so love to see this before it is gone. So glad you made it there!

  8. Absolutely gorgeous, Suzanne. So much I missed by not hiking. I saw all this from … afar ! … so glad to see all this up close and personal.

    I absolutely got a tear in my eye when I read about only 25 remaining glaciers when I was there. Barely visible any longer … just what seemed like white blobs of snow. scary. 2030 is not far away…

    I wish those who don’t believe in Global Climate Change would visit here as well as the rain forests and so forth… my god! the lake has icebergs??? I had noooo idea! wow!

    I can not fathom people who don’t want to protect this planet. Greed will do us all in ~ pure and simple… greed ~ no souls OHHH don’t get me started… !

    I have had many gasp and sob moments visiting our National Parks ~ each one awesome … I have said many times to anyone who will listen that a field trip to one of our National Parks should be available for high school seniors… to see this beautiful country ~ to understand the need to preserve it … an appreciation of nature ~ that some kiddos are never exposed to… sigh

    “As I sit here on this rock pondering the majesty of this place, I for one am extremely grateful for the NPS.  In fact, it is the only way I can justify the ridiculous amount of income tax that comes from my paycheck every two weeks.   I like to fool myself into imagining that my portion is going toward preservation of our National Parks. ”

    me too … love it, Suzanne… as always … just love your attitude and joy 

  9. I have to add my voice to the acclaim for your stunning photographs. The reflections are outstanding. LOL at your feigning interest. Sounds just like me as do your politics regarding the National Parks. Oh that we could tell the government what to do with our tax dollars. Mine would go to the NPS and for defense of this country on its own shores. Not for defense of corporate interests in other parts of the world. But don’t get me started. What a GREAT hike. So glad I could see it since I could never have done that in 2011 with a broken ankle. I do wonder why they sent a guide who wasn’t going to do the entire hike. Sounds like a lucky break though. Super post! Many thanks!!

  10. Wow! Thank you for taking me along on that hike. Stunning. I guess we need to get back up there and see that glacier before it’s gone. It totally agree with your sentiments on national parks. Yes, they are crowded, expensive, restrictive, and often full of annoying people standing way to close to the wildlife while taking pictures with their ipads…but they are also gorgeous, inspiring ,and some of my favorite places to visit. I truly appreciate every national park, monument, preserve, etc. and feel lucky that we have so many of these special protected places to enjoy around our country.

  11. Suzanne, thanks a bunch for this tour of GNP! I had no idea that this park was that beautiful. It will definitely go on the list for Sandy and me.

  12. Last weekend I hooked my lap top up to the flat screen in the living room and Deede and I watched as I went through all your postings from Portland to this one. Wow, they were fantastic to see in that large format. We both thank you for sharing both the pictures and your impressions.

  13. Wow, I think my dear blog followers may have broken the TTTH record for comments on this post, which shows me that you all dearly loved it as much as I did. Grinnell Glacier will remain one of my all time favorite hikes, made more so by the fact that it is fleeting, like so many treasures in life. It just goes to show that equally important to being good stewards of the planet for the future is also appreciating the “here and now.” Thank you all so much for your kind comments and compliments! Glacier NP was definitely a favorite.

    And Dave, yes, the “big camera” (DSLR) is a Nikon 3100, but I don’t like carrying it around with me, as it is too bulky for hiking. I have been through a couple of point & shoots in the past year, but the most recent one (just purchased in August) is the Canon S110. I am very happy with it, except when in stark light contrast, i.e. dark mountains and white clouds, it seems to really wash out, but otherwise, it has been a good choice, I think…even more so if I would read the owner’s manual. 😉

  14. Gee, Suzanne, the Grinnell Glacier hike sure looks different in the sunshine! I had thoughts of staying just one more day on our second stop to rehike to the glacier in the sunshine since it was drizzly on our first hike. But it was time to move on:( Oh, well, next time!! I love the east side of Glacier so much more than the west.

    I totally agree with your take on the NPs. Thank goodness someone is taking care of all this beauty.

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