The Grinnell Glacier hike is arguably one of the best hikes in Glacier National Park. The entire length of the hike offers one wonderous view after another. The entire hike is long enough to take up the better part of your day, but there are ways to shorten the hike. And, it doesn’t matter how far you go, or where you turn around. The views are consistently great throughout.
Could a hike be any more beautiful than this? If you’re hiking the Grinnell Glacier Trail, this is what you’ll be seeing, mile after mile. It starts like this, and just gets better and better, the further you go.
First, some explaining. The first part of the Grinnell Glacier Trail is also part of the loops around Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Start the hike at the trailhead for all of these trails. You’ll skirt the western edge of Swiftcurrent Lake, then Lake Josephine, before the Grinnell Glacier trail splits off. Since some people will only be hiking these loop trails, I’ve described this part of the hike on a separate page.
The portions of the trail along the two lakes are mostly flat, and relatively easy. They’re also very scenic. But, if you want to shorten your hike, you can take a ferry across Swiftcurrent Lake, hike from dock to dock, and take another ferry across Lake Josephine. The one-way distance from the parking lot to the end of Grinnell Glacier Trail is 5.5 miles. If you take the boats, the one-way hiking distance will be about 3.8 miles. As of 2014, a round-trip ticket that covers both boat rides costs $24.25 for adults, $12 for children ages 4-12.
For me, it wasn’t worth spending nearly $25 to skip a beautiful portion of an easy hike. So I chose to follow the trails.
When you reach the split in the trail, it’s still 3.4 miles to the end of the Grinnell Glacier Trail. You should know, I didn’t hike the entire way to the end, because during my visit in late June, 2014, the upper portion of the trail was covered with snow and somewhat treacherous.
Just after the junction, the trail starts gaining more elevation. The entire trail gains 1,600 feet — enough to give you a good workout. Most of that elevation gain comes after you’ve left the lower two lakes behind.
(If you’ll notice, in the photo above, you can see a footbridge in the lower-left corner. This is the upper end of Lake Josephine, where the trail loops around to the other side. You can take a shortcut down to this footbridge, then hike on out to Lower Grinnell Lake, if you have the time and energy.)
In late June, the snow had just melted, and the wildflowers were just beginning to burst to life. I’m guessing the blooms would have been even better in just a few weeks, perhaps around mid-July.
The Grinnell Glacier Trail offered a special treat that I wasn’t expecting: waterfalls! There are dozens of tiny streams that flow down the side of Mount Grinnell (the mountain on your right). I wish I had brought my tripod, so I could have photographed them properly. But, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t, because it would have added hours to my hike!
Before long, lower Grinnell Lake comes into view. And I thought the scenery was perfect before! Now, there’s also a turquoise-green glacier-fed lake in the picture.
One after another, the trailside waterfalls add to the magical feel of this hike.
Just look at it!
Seriously! Could this hike get any better?
Eventually, you’re directly over Grinnell Lake, and you have a great view of the whole thing. I was very tempted to add a side-trip out to the lake on my return trip, but I was pretty exhausted by then.
A few chunks of un-melted snow were still hanging on, at the end of June.
And yes, if you were just thinking that the trail looks somewhat narrow here, you’re right. Those afraid of heights will feel nervous. There’s plenty of room…
… but most of the trail skirts the edge of a mountainside, with a steep drop on one side.
This is the view looking downhill, back towards Allen Mountain and the open end of the canyon.
Up ahead is Mount Grinnell. I reached a point where a couple of switchbacks allow you to quickly gain elevation.
This is where I ran into a big patch of ice. It had been snow at one point, but with all the melting and freezing of springtime, it had turned into a very big chunk of slipperiness. While I could have probably made it over this patch, I assumed there would be more ice up ahead. It was probably another mile, at least, to the end of the trail, but I decided I had hiked far enough.
It’s hard to imagine that this view could have gotten any better!
As for the glacier itself — you’re probably seeing just the very edge of it, in the upper-right side of the photo. The shrinking glacier lies in a cirque below the peak of Mount Gould (the high point in this photo, and also part of the Garden Wall, and the Continental Divide). From here, it’s partially blocked from view by a formation called Angel Wing, which is directly in front of Mount Gould from this perspective.
The return hike offered a different view, now that the glacier and the continental divide were behind me.
By early afternoon, this direction is beautifully lit by the afternoon sun.
When I reached the trail junction, I decided to hike down to the bridge across the upper end of Lake Josephine, then follow the trail on the south side of the lake. I’ll tell you all about that part of the hike on the Lake Josephine/Swiftcurrent Lake Loop Hikes page. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough steam left for the side-trip out to the edge of Grinnell Lake.
The Bottom Line
Grinnell Glacier Trail is one of the finest hikes in Glacier National Park, and possibly one of the best hikes in ANY national park. Make it a priority, arrange your travel schedule around it, and plan on spending an incredible day, at a slow pace, enjoying this area.
The Many Glacier section of Glacier National Park is accessed by one road, which connects to the outside world via US 89 at Babb, Montana.
From the west side of Glacier, take Going-to-the-Sun Road across Logan Pass. At St. Mary, turn north on US 89, then at Babb, turn left and drive 11 miles into the park.
If Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed, you will need to take US 2 around the southern side of Glacier National Park. At East Glacier Park Village, take Montana 49 north, then US 89 north to Babb.
The trailhead for the Grinnell Glacier hike will be on the left (south) side of the road, shortly before you arrive at the end of the road. If you’re taking the boat to shorten your hike, you’ll depart from the dock near the Many Glacier Hotel.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive into Many Glacier…
…and out of Many Glacier: