Yes we can!! That was our attitude when we considered hiking trails in Glacier National Park. In our previous Big Adventures, we always completed any trail we attempted, no matter how strenuous! Grinnell Glacier Trail certainly won’t be a problem!!
But did we consider that our previous Big Adventures had been a few years ago, and with the pandemic, we sort of retreated into a sedentary lifestyle? And then there’s the recent recovery from Long Covid, and…and…that we are a tad bit older now??
Nonsense! We can do this!
Grinnell Glacier Trail is one of 10 most popular hikes in Glacier National Park. During summer months, it averages hundreds of hikers each day!! Grinnell Glacier Trail is rated as “strenuous”, “challenging” and “difficult” at 11.8 miles round trip, with an elevation rise of 2596 feet!
We didn’t have the luxury of staying at the pricey lodgings nearby, but instead drove the 1.5 hour trek from Columbia Falls, putting us on the trailhead at 9:30 am, a later than planned start time. By then, even in September, the parking lot was full and we were happy to find a spot along the road.
You can cut three miles off the hike by taking a boat across St. Josephine and Swift Current lakes,
and then joining the trail but when attempting to book two weeks ahead, there were no openings.
So, for us, it meant hiking the entire 11.8 mile loop!!
The trailhead is located near Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and across the lake from Many Glacier Hotel. The hike began deceptively gently, on soft, well-trodden dirt.
Our forested path led us past fragrant pine trees as we viewed Swiftcurrent Lake and Many Glacier Hotel with its glistening mountainous backdrop.
Only impeded by occasional tree roots that jutted across our path, with St. Josephine Lake on our left, we reached a fork in the trail at about two miles in.
Here, many hikers turned left to take the St. Josephine Lake Trail. We continued right, veering away from the shady lake valley as our path began to increase in elevation.
Our dirt trail eventually turned into gravel and rocks and we no longer enjoyed the covered protection of trees as we traversed the remaining distance in open sunlight and wind.
Without the trees, however, our views opened up to the snow-covered mountains above and the turquoise lakes below.
Air quality at Glacier National Park is usually excellent because of the low population density and scarcity of nearby factories. However, during most of our time spent in this pristine area, we were under air quality and pollution alerts with warnings to stay indoors if possible. As drought conditions increase in late summer, lightning storms and neglected campfires can easily ignite the parched lands. Several wildfires blazed nearby, creating haze so heavy at times that we couldn’t even see the outlines of the famed mountains.
On this day, once again the haze often softly veiled our majestic mountain views, but the effect might have shielded us some from the drying harshness of the direct sun.
The turquoise hues of the nearby lakes are caused by rock and sediment known as “glacier flour”.
Water turns blue-green as particles of pulverized rock absorb and scatter sunlight at the same time. This “glacier flour” also turns waterfalls a milky white.
Soon after we hiked above and beyond the lake valley, we heard the rustling and crashing of branches below.
We watched the movement of displaced shrubbery approach our trail until suddenly, only ten yards away, there emerged a black bear crossing our hiking path. He gave us a quick sideways glance, then continued ambling up the mountainside, breaking branches and smashing bushes along the way.
We are in black and grizzly bear territory and signs throughout the park remind us of that. Our bear encounter happened so quickly that there was hardly time to grab our bear spray canister that hung on our backpacks like little fire extinguishers.
There have been 10 bear fatalities in over 100 years at Glacier National Park, a problem that began with visitors feeding bears and leaving their garbage out. After strict enforcement of regulations, incidents have greatly subsided. Walking dogs on Glacier’s trails is strictly forbidden, also as a measure to help prevent bear attacks because they prey on small animals. (Click here for more info)
Our path grew rockier and rougher as the elevation continued to climb. I began to breathe harder. Unable to keep up, we stopped frequently to both allow hikers to pass and for us to rest.
These stops, however, provided great opportunity for examining the colorful rocks, fungi and changing flora around us.
The color variations of the rocks is determined by their amount of contact with air. Red colored rocks indicate that they were deposited in a shallow ocean environment where as the waves recede, they get exposed to air, allowing iron oxidation to take place. Rocks with this coloration often display old ripple marks or ancient mud crack lines.
The green rocks were formed in deeper water. Although they contain the same quantities of iron-bearing minerals, there was less opportunity for them to oxidize.
FINALLY we saw in the horizon the soft outline of our goal; the tiny light blue gray streaks of Grinnell Glacier. That couldn’t be right. It’s SO far away and we had already been hiking for, like FOREVER.
Our hiking poles clattered even louder against the irregular, rocky trail. As our weariness increased, we depended on them more to steady us.
This fatigue didn’t affect everyone, however. I observed each person pass us. There were young hikers, some wearing running shoes, not hiking boots and not using poles. They each carried a lone water bottle that they sipped on only occasionally. A lanky white-haired lady walked by as I heard her younger companion ask “doing ok, Grandma?”
Then there were the parents, certainly seasoned hikers, with children in aluminum framed carriers on their backs, looking fresh and enjoying this adventure.
In contrast, that morning, we carefully packed 6 liters of water, life straws, bug and bear spray, egg sandwiches for lunch and energy snacks. On top of that, our camera equipment added considerable weight. We deemed everything in our packs necessary, but it undoubtedly added to our arduous challenge.
We were now in an alpine tundra region where few trees grow, and the full exposure to the elements felt even more bracing. Wildflowers still remaining on the hillsides offered occasional pops of color.
Here, alpine wildflowers must survive and reproduce under the most severe conditions. Extreme winds, cold nights, snow cover nine months of the year and intense ultraviolet light exposure require this vegetation to be extremely hardy.
But each year, during summer months, they still manage to display a blanket of color across the mountainside. These plants hug the ground closely and some grow in mounds to brace against the harsh, unrelenting winds, while conserving moisture and warmth.
Their flowers often are shaped like a parabola to concentrate the sun’s warmth on their reproductive areas inside. Some are shaped like drooping bells to capture heat radiating from the ground. Almost all alpine plants are perennials because there is not enough time in the short growing season nor warmth for annuals to complete their entire growth cycle.
The iconic Beargrass is usually widespread during July and August in many mountainous regions of Glacier National Park.
They usually grow near moisture sources. I was thrilled to see many still in bloom in September.
Despite all these strategies to encourage propagation, it still takes an exceptional year for seeds to mature and spread to other areas.
Some seeds remain for decades waiting for a fire to provide the soil its needed nutrients. After the burn they flower profusely for one or two growing seasons and then disappear until the next fire.
These splatters of color cover 30% of Glacier National Park’s rocks. There are hundreds of species of lichens here.
Lichens need unpolluted air in order to thrive. Abrupt changes in lichen numbers and species types serve as reliable early warning signs of shifts in air quality. The park’s vast array of lichens indicates relatively pristine air quality.
As we push forward on our trek, views of Grinnell Glacier grow larger, to my relief. More hikers pass us going back down now, after hiking to the top, enjoying the views, and now returning to the trailhead. I envied them, knowing that likely by the time we arrived at the top, they would already be home taking a hot shower. But onward and upward we go.
The sign at the much-welcomed pit toilet stop tells us that we have only four tenths of a mile to go, but these next steps are some of the most demanding, with jagged pathways and steep elevation changes.
But propelled by knowing that we really were almost there, we pressed on, with renewed determination, though stopping to rest every few feet and now panting all the way.
And finally, around the last bend, there it was – Grinnell Glacier!!
With a mixed feeling of exultation, exhaustion and delirium, we viewed our prize.
The sharp and majestic mountains of Glacier National Park were carved into their present shapes by huge glaciers of the last ice age. Most of these glaciers have disappeared over the last 12,000 years.
During the middle of the 1900’s, the 150 glaciers known to have existed in the park a hundred years earlier had greatly shrunk or even disappeared altogether. Repeated photography of the glaciers through the years shows the extent of their retreat.
Between 1966 and 2005, Grinnell Glacier lost almost 40 percent of its acreage. Glaciologists predict that if carbon dioxide levels increase to worst case scenario levels, all the glaciers in the park, including Grinnell, will disappear by the year 2030.
We felt awe while soaking in the amazing views of the glacier, retreating now, but once so powerful. We gazed at the lake below us that Grinnell Glacier formed as it melted, and the floating chunks that broke off from its ice mass. The rough, white pieces formed placid reflections against the unmoving turquoise waters.
Despite the beauty, I also noted the sooty black stains against the white masses, surprising to many who assume these massive ice flows are pristine blue-white in color. The glaciers pushed their way through the land today known as Glacier National Park and reshaped the landscape into the terrain we see today. In doing so, they picked up, pushed and pulverized rock and debris along the way. This entrapped portions of that material within their cracks and crevasses, only to be revealed as their ice mass melts. Besides that, smoke residue from the nearby wildfires leaves black streaks on the surface, which also accelerates the ice melt.
But as the sun sank behind the mountains, reality kicked in. We needed to leave. With 5.9 miles before us, we were at risk of losing all daylight before returning to the trailhead, and traveling at night in this wild area is dangerous. The glacier viewing area, where crowds of revelers stood earlier that day, now was almost deserted. We had to get back as fast as we could.
Our hiking poles clattered even louder as we descended from the mountain. There were no longer groups of hikers that passed us on their return trip, but instead only a few lone trekkers whom we tried to keep up with, but could not. Our exhausted bodies rebelled at being pushed to walk faster by cramping up intermittently.
The fear of a bear attack in the approaching darkness as well as being the only ones left on the trail resonated loudly in my mind as I clutched my bear spray canister tightly. In attempts to scare any approaching animal, I turned my iPhone on to the loudest setting, broadcasting my audio book to anything along our path that would care to listen.
Sure enough, soon we spotted a lone grizzly bear below us. Grizzly Bears are fiercer than black bears and are not scared away by sounds like my audio book. But we watched in relief as he sauntered away in the opposite direction, uninterested.
We viewed other animals as well along our descent, and they too seemed unphazed by our presence.
As the darkening sky displayed its final hues of pink and orange and our bodies screamed from exhaustion and fatigue, we found our trailhead. Walking across the empty, black parking lot to our car, we felt gratitude to have completed and experienced this great Grinnell Glacier Trail.
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