The Epic Grinnell Glacier Trail
Grinnell Glacier is a spectacular hike in Glacier National Park, which will take you past stunning lakes, across vertical rock faces, and through gushing waterfalls (early in the season). You’ll have plenty of opportunities for wildlife spotting all along the trail, which culminates in a spectacular lake and waterfall. All of these experiences combine to make the Grinnell Glacier hike one of the best hikes in the USA.
Go to the Many Glacier Area, and park at the Grinnell Glacier Parking Lot, approximately 0.6mi after the turn-off for the Many Glacier Hotel. If the parking lot is full, there is some parking on the street and, in the worst case, park at The Swiftcurrent Motor Inn about 600m down the road.
|When to do|
June through September
Out and back
The Epic Grinnell Glacier Trail
Grinnell Glacier Trail Description
We love the Grinnell Glacier trail! What a view, what a hike, what a day. In good weather, this route is a wonderful day trip. However, there are some challenging bits, some narrow pathways and early in the season a dangerous walk on stones through a waterfall, where you will get wet. We don’t recommend taking young children or people who have strong aversions to exposure on this hike. To be clear, there is no need to use your hands and the trail is wide, however, we found ourselves walking close to the rock wall to be on the safe side.
Some people suggest taking the boats across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine to save time. Frankly, we’re not so convinced – mostly due to the hassle of coordinating a ticket, getting to the boat on time, the transfer between boats and the hike up the other side to rejoin the trail. With that said, we’ve met people who swear by the boats.
For walkers, start at the Grinnell Glacier parking lot in between Many Glacier Hotel and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. If you’re lucky, you stayed in one of these hotels the night before and got to soak up the atmosphere of this incredible area at dawn and dusk. The parking lot gets full, like almost all parking lots in Glacier, between 9am and 4pm each day. In Many Glacier there are options to park on the road near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn or in their parking lot.
You start off on a well-maintained path in the trees, arriving at a bridge across Swiftcurrent Creek after only 400m. There is a beautiful view here up the river to the Flanks and peak of Mt. Wilbur. Another 250m and you are down by the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, looking back at the beautiful Many Glacier Hotel. At 1.0km, you’ll pass the Boat Dock and come to a crumbling paved section. Here, some tourists who are on the boat tour may join you – they’ll have to walk 984ft over a hump to catch the next boat on Lake Josephine.
The trail hugs Lake Josephine for the next 1.5km, and you get wonderful views across this stunning lake up to Allen Mountain. At roughly 3.1km from the start, you connect with a trail down to the boat dock. Note that the boat dock is down and across on the other side of the lake – a lengthy commute. From here the trail starts to climb, and the higher you get, the better the views back across the valleys, with mixtures of blues, greens and greys. It is especially stunning in early or late-day light!
As you rise, the scenery continues to open up ahead, with parts of the glacier visible. . This is merely an amuse bouche, however, as the main course that will be served once you’re at the viewpoint is why you’ve taken this hike in the first place. The trail going forward will often have some late season snow. The last time we hiked this trail it was closed partway up due to lingering snow, but thankfully the tireless Glacier staff were out with ice axes cutting paths for us, and we were able to get to the top. You’ll notice the trail gets rougher as it rises, with some points feeling decidedly airy!
At this point, you may be wondering where the trail went, as it looks like a rock wall is blocking the trail. Your route is carved out of the ledges – and it is exhilarating – but can make those with vertigo nervous. Have a look at the photos to get a feel for the path. At approximately 5.8km from the start you may be confronted with a waterfall discharging right onto the path. You’re going to get wet if it is, so be safe and be prepared. Put away valuables and watch your step. Be very careful if you have kids, we don’t suggest taking any youngsters through this if it is flowing.
The path across the ledges is stunning, but please don’t lose focus of your feet. Stop to take it all in! On your left is Mt Grinnell; straight ahead is the Garden Wall; and above is the Salamander Glacier – which you can get to from a spur on the Highline Trail. Below you on your left, Grinnell Lake is fed by Grinnell Creek and Angel Wing rising above the Lake. But from here, you need to keep on going forward and rising.
Eventually, you’ll arrive at a final few switchbacks and come up to a viewpoint looking at the Cirque surrounding Upper Grinnell Lake. It is incredible, with the lake often full of ice in early summer, the peaks and glaciers looming above. We were in awe here, and had several bighorn sheep to keep us company as dinnertime approached.
The way down is the same way as you came up, but please, please take plenty of care on the waterfall. It is more slippery and challenging descending, and you will get wetter!
Congratulations, you have just completed one of our favorite hikes in America!
Hiking Trail Highlights
Grinnell Glacier is in the heart of Glacier National Park in the U.S. state of Montana. The glacier is in the Many Glacier region of the park and it lies in the Lewis Range and sits on the northern slope of Mt Gould. Its average altitude is 2100m.
Due to the popularity of the Grinnell Glacier hike, it is one of the most photographed glaciers in the world and the first documented photos date back to the 19th Century.
The Grinnell Glacier was named after George Bird Grinnell, an explorer who was a strong advocate of the creation of Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, the glacier is retreating, as are many in the Rockies, and the Salamander is now a separate glacier from the Grinnell. Grinnell Glacier has reduced in size by more than 40% in just over 50 years. So, get there soon!
Beautiful Lake Josephine is one of the prettiest lakes in Glacier National Park, with crystal clear waters that provide the perfect mirror for the surrounding rocky peaks. The lake is situated immediately southwest of Swiftcurrent Lake, connected by a small stream, and can only be accessed on foot, or by boat from the Many Glacier Hotel.
One of the best things to do at Lake Josephine is to arrive in the early hours and catch a sunrise over the beautiful still waters. When the first light hits Angel Wing Peak, the mountain glows a beautiful color, making it perfect for photos. If you’ve got the courage, it’s also possible to take an early morning dip, although the water is very cold!
Also named after George Bird Grinnell, Grinnell Lake is best known for its dazzling turquoise color. Like other glacial lakes, this is a result of the silt created by the slow movement of the glacier over the hard rocks. On a sunny day, the image of the stunning turquoise lake set against the rocky mountains is a wonderful sight – it’s no wonder that Grinnell was inspired to campaign to establish the area as a national park.
Many visitors wonder if you can swim in Grinnell Lake. It is possible to swim here, but be warned – the water will be extremely cold! Make sure you have a towel and some warm clothes waiting for you when you get out.
Upper Grinnell Lake
Upper Grinnell Lake is the final destination on this glorious hike, and sits right below the Grinnell Glacier. This lovely small lake was created when the glacier started retreating, and it is often filled with large icebergs that have broken off from the glacier itself. It’s an incredibly picturesque sight, with turquoise waters that perfectly offset the ice and bare rock of the surrounding cirque.
Wildlife spotting on the Grinnell Glacier Trail
The Grinnell Glacier trail is a perfect hike for nature enthusiasts. Glacier National Park is a habitat for many great animals that you would not be able to spot elsewhere. And hiking the Grinnell Glacier is a perfect opportunity to get right into the wild, as you walk through the dense forests, lakeshores and rough mountain slopes, following the trails that so many animals walked before you.
Hikers on Grinnell Glacier trail often see moose, deer, coyotes, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and different birds of prey. The lucky ones (just an expression) might have the chance to spot grizzly bears and wolverines. And although there isn’t a high chance of seeing them, the area is also home to lynx, wolves and mountain lions.
Seeing these animals in the wild is exhilarating, but be aware of safety as well. Never feed wildlife and be very careful not to leave any food or food packaging behind. If you pack it in, pack it out, including compostable trash such as apple cores. Hikers in Glacier National Park are encouraged to learn about bear safety before hitting the trail. Hike in groups, if possible, and carry bear spray. Cans of bear spray can easily be purchased in the park, or even in grocery or convenience stores in nearby towns such as White Fish or Kalispell. If you only plan to hike for a day or two, renting bear spray may be a more convenient and cost-effective option. Bear spray can be rented at several locations within the park and also from local outfitters. For more on bear safety, please read about bear safety before hitting the trail.
If you can, stay at Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge and spend the weekend in this wonderful location!
Camping is also a great option! The Many Glacier campground is within walking distance of the trailhead, so if you camp here, you can start your hike from your campsite without needing to drive or find parking. It’s a great way to hit the trail early. Make reservations ahead of time if you can, but half of the sites are first-come, first-served.
The store at Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge sells a wide variety of treats, and after this hike you probably deserve some ice cream!
For more discerning hikers, stop by The Ptarmigan Dining Room in Many Glacier Hotel (after a shower of course) for a fine meal.
Be careful on your drive out of Many Glacier. Evening is prime-time for wildlife to be out and about, especially moose and bears!
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