Monday, September 16, 2013

Going for it: our hike to Grinnell Glacier

September 12, 2013
St. Mary, Montana
St. Mary/East Glacier KOA


We knew we wanted to take our hiking to a new level while here in Glacier National Park. One of the hikes that immediately appealed to us in the Many Glacier area was going to the overlook of Grinnell Glacier, one of the fastest disappearing glaciers in the park.  (It is estimated that Grinnell will be gone by 2020. Once home to 150 glaciers, the park now has 25.) 

Grinnell Glacier from Overlook: 1940 to 2006

The good news is that by taking a boat from the Many Glacier Hotel, the Grinnell Glacier trail becomes a 7.6 round-trip hike vs. 11 miles. A typical hike for us is 3 miles, sometimes 5, and usually relatively flat so doing 7+ miles with a 1600 ft. elevation gain was going to be a challenge for us.


The only other potential challenge regarding this hike is the number of grizzly bear encounters that have taken place on this trail. I did not like reading that the famous Jack Hanna was “charged by a 150-pound grizzly bear on a stretch of the trail. Hanna, along with three other hikers, rounded a blind corner near Thunderbird Falls and encountered a grizzly with two yearling cubs. The bear was only 10 feet away before Hanna was able to repel the bear on a third burst of pepper spray.”  Okay, then. I grabbed some bells we had in the motorhome for the dogs to alert us they wanted to go potty and made sure I never lagged too far behind Vic who was carrying the bear spray.

We decided to take the earliest boat departure from the Many Glacier Hotel at 8:30 a.m., a half hour drive away. We thought we should leave the motorhome by 7:30 which meant getting up around 6:30 a.m.—early for us. The morning temperature read 41 degrees, although the high was expected to be 75.  This meant dressing in lots of layers; we even grabbed gloves and hats which we did wear on the early part of the trail. Other necessities were plenty of water, dried fruits and nuts, good hiking boots and socks, a hat, sunscreen, and a camera with an extra battery.  I also made some turkey and spinach wraps in case we felt like having lunch along the way. We also noticed that at least half of the other hikers on the trail had trekking poles to help with stability.  Not a bad idea—maybe we will spring for some in our future.

Chief Two Gun was the boat that took us on a fifteen minute ride across Swiftcurrent Lake, followed by a short (.2 mile) to Lake Josephine where you catch a second boat that takes you closer to the trailhead.  At least half of the folks on the boat were going to hike Grinnell Glacier and the rest most likely planning a much easier two-mile hike to Grinnell Lake.

A fellow hiker about to board the boat, peers through his binoculars looking for the often sighted bighorn sheep or bears on the mountainside near the dock.


Even from the much warmer setting inside of the boat, we were treated to gorgeous morning views.


Once you get off the first boat, there is a bit of an uphill climb on a .2 mile trail that connects the passage between the two lakes.


The captain of boat number two, The Morning Eagle, waits for the all the hikers from the first boat to board after crossing the trail between the two lakes.


Once you arrive to Lake Josephine, you have a good view of Salamander Glacier which was once a part of one big glacier connected to Grinnell. 


By 9:15 we were on the trail to Grinnell. The first quarter mile of the hike followed a few switchbacks that were pretty steep but our excitement carried us up this stretch without much effort. Then the trail opened up to a gradual climb along a rocky path for the next two hours. The views were so beautiful that stopping to catch your breath and take in the scene was mandatory. The view of Grinnell Lake itself with its turquoise waters was one of the most stunning aspects. I probably took twenty photos of the lake as every time we rounded another corner new vistas opened up.




About halfway up, the trail narrows to a stony path that crosses a few wet areas from trickling waterfalls with large alpine meadows on either side. I am not sure but this area might be called Thunderbird Falls (where Hanna encountered the grizzly). It was near this part of the trail that we saw eight bighorn sheep munching on plants down below us in the meadow.  They eventually walked right across the trail in front of us giving us quite a thrilling view of their magnificence.


The hike after this point started to get pretty warm. By now we had shed most of our layers and felt like the day was going to surpass the 75 degree forecast.  It was hard to tell how much further we had to go as we had been hiking around three hours and it seemed like we should be close. (I admit we stopped several times to enjoy the views—and catch our breath—but I thought we would hike about 2 mph uphill. At this rate, I think we only did one mph!) The good part is that we could finally see Grinnell and the sound of the waterfall below it was growing louder and louder.


Grinnell is the thin glacier that is the longest one in this photo below. To the right of Grinnell, is the left side of Salamander Glacier.


Once we got this close to the glacier, we met some fellow hikers on their return trip and made the mistake of asking how much further the trail went. The fellow grimaced and said, “About another mile with the last half mile being quite a climb.” I would like to report that I greeted this news with enthusiasm, but by now the heat of the day was getting to me. If you look up at the photo above, you can see where the trail winds around and then disappears into an uphill climb that takes you to the glacier and another small lake below it. 
We hiked on for about another twenty minutes and then I suggested we take a break before the final push to the overlook.  As we were resting, these guys came hurtling by us with their ski gear, intent to ski the glacier—something that sounded both dangerous and environmentally irresponsible to us.  I was hoping that maybe they just wanted to pose for a photo as though they were skiing the glacier.


The photo below shows the best view we had of the glacier because we did not do the last uphill climb that would take us right to it. We were both very warm and had some concerns about the strength needed in our ankles and knees to make the descent. This hike was an excellent teacher in terms of motivating us to do more conditioning so we don’t ever have to “almost make it” again. My Leo pride took a hit, but Vic was great about celebrating our accomplishment in getting on the court rather than sitting in the stands. (Excuse the mixed metaphors with the basketball analogy, but what do you expect from a former basketball coach?)


We never did stop on the way up to eat or take the quintessential dangling boots shot, so we found a lovely spot on the way down to rest and reflect on our little adventure. The best part of our conversation was how enthused we both are to become avid hikers. 


“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



  1. As avid hikers we share your enthusiasm. This looks like a fantastic hike and one that you will return to and finish no doubt. Best to be wise about what is possible when. I like Vic's analogy. Thanks for taking me somewhere I've never been and making me really want to go there. Gorgeous pictures!!

    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sherry!

  2. Love that header photo.

    That is so sad about the glacier and 2020. That photo of before and now is amazing.

    That turquoise water is stunning! those big horn sheep.

    What a magnificent hike, and the beauty all around.

    The butterfly just adds to the beauty.

  3. I am so glad you had an up close and personal encounter with the big horn sheep. We never saw any up close. I wanted so bad to see a moose too...that didn't happen either. Anyway, I am sooooooo proud of you both! That was a big hike and a great accomplishment! Your pictures are wonderful and the whole time I was reading and enjoying your photos, I was wishing I was there. We didn't make it to the Glacier either...ran out of time. We didn't take the boat...the waiting list was way to long. Joe has trekking poles. In fact he is on his second set he found at REI. He says he will never hike without them. They really help take the weight off his knees and with balancing. He says you should give them a try!

    Reading John and Pam's blog motivated us to try the hiking. It has changed our lives! We look forward to getting out in nature. And everywhere we go now, we are looking for places to hike. The smells, the views, the little things like butterflies and wildflowers, and the big things like boulders and waterfalls are all so totally beautiful...we just can't get enough! You miss all that if you breeze by in a car or on a Harley!


    1. I didn't realize Pam and John inspired your motivation to hike as well. We are starting to feel the same way--can't wait to get on the trail.

      Thanks for the tip on the REI trekking poles. We will look into them.

  4. crazzzzy beautiful country

  5. Love the dangling boots shot!! I think you were smart to do what you could and not push it. Russ and I are in terrible shape but we have been doing our best to get out on some short coastal walks. Baby steps!! Your pictures are wonderful and I would have loved to see the bighorn sheep.

    1. Yes, we have to figure out what we are capable of doing without suffering as a result. Vic had a hip replacement five years ago but it doesn't stop him. Baby steps are all good.

  6. Love the photo of the hiking feet. Sometimes we just have to know our limits and not hoist ourselves on our pride. I think I've learned that lesson a time or two. Happy to see you're having the good weather.

    1. "Hoist ourselves on our pride"--great image, something I am more apt to do than Vic. We are just learning what feels like a reasonable challenge vs. too much.

  7. Great job! Way to push forward. You will be amazed what you can accomplish as you continue to hike on different terrain. What I like about hiking is the fact that it isn't about the race but the journey getting there. You can take your time, stop when you need to and sit for as long as you want, and set your own pace. Many difficult climbs take us about a mile an hour.

    I really need to get back and see this glacier very soon. Looks like next summer! I am glad you posted the earlier picture of Grinnell. We saw that photo in the lodge. So sad to see all the melt.

    Wow! You hit the jackpot with getting so close to those Big Horns. Boy are they beautiful!

    Love your "lunch with a view" shot.

    Keep up the hiking practice! Vic's analogy is perfect. You both should feel so great with your new accomplishment:)

    1. Thanks for cheering us on. I look forward to seeing a ten mile day with an uphill climb as a typical day hike. We have a way to go!

  8. I'm just getting caught up on your last couple of posts...good for you for going for the gusto on the hiking trails! It takes time to build up to the longer hikes and it sounds to me you two did an excellent job and picked some mighty fine places to hike. We may get to the East side of Glacier next summer and the Grinnell hike is definitely on our list. The animal sightings and the spectacular scenery are mother nature at her shining best.

    Metamorphosis Lisa

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Lisa. I showed Vic the photos of you and Hans doing the Highline hike at Glacier and he surprised me by saying it is on his list for next year-- mine too.

  9. Yeah, get the hiking poles…they make it so much easier on any up or down hills and are actually helpful (albeit not as much) on the flats. We got 2 pairs from REI for 40-50 a pair…they're telescopic and adjustable so you can get them exactly the way you like them.

    1. Thanks for confirming the usefulness of the trekking poles. We will definitely check out REI for these but I don't imagine we will have much need for them in Florida!

  10. I'm with the others on the treking poles. They really do help going back down and with balance.

    What a beautiful day you had and you shouldn't feel bad about not getting all the way. You saw some amazing sights. You made me want to go on a hike today.....and we only have to worry about small black bears.

    I was flipping channels on the Tv once and came upon a show where these guys in a boat were getting glacial ice. They would chop off big chunks of ice to sell to bottling water companies. I thought that was crazy with all the concerns about melting glaciers. I guess there is good money in it.

    1. Small black bears do seem cute compared to grizzlies. I did feel more confident though with the bear spray.

      I think selling glacial ice is crazy too!


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