Along with the Highline Trail and Hidden Lake, the ten-mile route to Grinnell Glacier is one Glacier National Park’s most popular. The trail is located in Many Glacier, in the northeastern part of the national park, and offers nice views of Grinnell Lake, Angel Wing, Grinnell Falls, and Salamander Glacier as it climbs to glacial-fed Upper Grinnell Lake.
When we visited GNP last summer, we got a bird’s-eye view of Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake from the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. The lookout sits atop the Garden Wall – a sharp ridge that’s part of the Continental Divide – and can be reached via a short spur off the Highline Trail about 0.7 miles from Granite Park Chalet. The view was pretty incredible, and enticed us to hit up the Grinnell Glacier Trail. With 2020’s COVID-related closure of East Glacier, however, we had to wait a full year before finally being able to check the hike off our list.
The trail begins near Swiftcurrent Lake, about midway between the Many Glacier Hotel and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. When we arrived at the trailhead – at around 8:30 a.m. on a Monday – the lot was slammed. We were shocked, even though we probably shouldn’t have been. We knew it was going to be busy. That said, sometimes we are stunned at just how busy some of these places can get. A lot of the time, we avoid highly-trafficked trails. Every so often, though, we feel compelled to hike something that so many others have described as “amazing” or “iconic.” Occasionally it’s worth it; although most of the time we take the bait only to be disappointed.
While Upper Grinnell Lake itself was striking, I can’t say this was our favorite hike. In fact, I’d say we spent much of the time fairly annoyed. This trail is exceedingly popular with people who have never hiked before. And while I applaud their efforts to get outside and explore, the trail etiquette you’ll find here is atrocious. Even if you’ve never set foot on a trail, many courtesies should be common sense – share the trail; pay attention; step to the side so faster hikers can pass; don’t swing your hiking pole around like it’s a friggin’ drum major’s baton; pack out your crap; and be quiet for photographers and others who just want to enjoy the sounds of nature (headphones = good; blaring Bluetooth speaker = bad). If you want the most basic overview on decency, we implore you to simply practice these two principles when recreating outdoors (and in life in general): (1) respect your fellow humans, (2) respect the environment and its wildlife.
After departing the trailhead, the well-worn path briefly skirts the edge of Swiftcurrent Lake before following the western shore of Lake Josephine. At around two miles, the trail begins a moderate uphill climb as it pulls away from the lake. After about a mile and only five hundred feet of vertical gain, the trail opens up to a sweeping view of Grinnell Lake and Angel Wing. Looking slightly west, Grinnell Falls tumbles toward the aquamarine pool. The striated ridge of the Garden Wall is visible just beyond the falls, crowned with aptly-named Salamander Glacier (it looks just like the adorable amphibian).
From this point, the trail continues to follow an open ridgeline for another 2.3 miles, gaining another 1,000 vertical feet in elevation. The grade is fairly moderate as it ascends alongside Grinnell Creek and Grinnell Falls. As the trail twisted briefly through some scrubby vegetation, we were lucky to spot a lone bighorn sheep grazing just off the trail.
After traversing the ridge, the trail culminates at Upper Grinnell Lake. Sitting in a large cirque at an elevation of 6,463 feet, the glacial-fed tarn gets its vibrant hue from ‘glacial milk’ – a suspension of powdery sediments deposited from the neighboring glaciers. The lake is bounded by the jagged crest of the Garden Wall, with Salamander Glacier and Salamander Falls creating a dramatic backdrop. At the lake’s southern tip, Grinnell Glacier rests beneath Mt. Gould’s massive summit.
The spot is certainly beautiful, with plenty of space to rock hop around the shore and examine the floating ice sculptures that pepper the lake. Additionally, it does offer a nice glimpse of Grinnell Glacier. The park’s most visited glacier, Grinnell faces the same peril as countless others within the national park and around the globe. The ice pack is receding steadily, having lost 45 percent of its footprint over a fifty-year span (1966–2015).
If this is the number one trail you’ve always wanted to explore in Glacier, definitely do it. You might enjoy it… just know you won’t be alone. If you’re looking to get a closer look at a glacier and glacial tarn, it’s at least a trail worth considering. If you hike regularly for the solitude and want to avoid crowds, however, cross this baby off your to-do list immediately. Sure, it’s fairly scenic; but in our opinion, it’s just way too highly trafficked. Unfortunately, Stephan and I would both agree that this trail is the perfect example of the gross overcrowding that’s plaguing our precious parks.
Total distance: 10.6 miles
Elevation gain: 2,132 feet