Glacier Trip: The Hike to Grinnell Glacier, Many Glacier Hotel

Note: This is the 5th in a series of entries in my Glacier National Park travel photo journal. If this is new to you, please start with the first one for the full story of our adventures.

September 10th. Struck camp early and quickly loaded the van. We were in a hurry. The plan was to hike Grinnell Glacier. This was the centerpiece of the trip, as far as I was concerned. To do that, we needed to drive to Many Glacier Hotel and catch a boat from the lake it’s on to the trailhead. Our information was that the boat left the dock at 9am only. Miss that, we’d read, and you have to wait till the next day… assuming the service was still running. Not a safe assumption with the park shutting down for the season.

The most direct route we found from St. Mary to Many Glacier Hotel takes you out of the park.

So we rushed to Many Glacier, driving fast in an otherwise placid place and time. We exited the park at St. Mary, blasted northbound on the 89, turned at the tiny town of Babb onto a road not far from the infamous Babb Bar. (In its day it ranked as one of the most dangerous bars in the country with ethnic brawls, shootings, and stabbings a regular event.)

This road lead to the Many Glacier entrance to the eastern side of the park, just north of Lake Sherburne. There we returned into the park. As I drove in, a ranger flashed her lights at me. I slowed down. Turned out a herd of cows was crossing the road not far ahead. Speeding into that would have been nasty.

We plowed on and soon arrived at the hotel. It is a truly beautiful old lodge, and I’ll describe it a bit more later. We got to the dock, but unfortunately, despite my efforts, we were late, and had missed the boat we wanted to catch. Fortunately, our information had been wrong! There was another boat coming in 45 minutes. We were able to get tickets for that one. That saved the day. No boat, no Grinnell Glacier Trail.

The boat ride took us across Swiftcurrent Lake, to which Many Glacier Hotel is adjacent, to a land bridge with a short trail. This led to Lake Josephine. Our tickets gave us another boat ride across this lake too. On the far side was the trailhead.

Grinnell Glacier Trail. From Lake Josephine (bottom right), past Grinnell Lake (bottom center) and to the glacier itself (left). As always, click on the image to enlarge it.

The trail isn’t that long, perhaps 6 miles round trip. It can be rugged if you aren’t an experienced hiker. It ascends a foot or two with each stride. When you start the trail at the lake, the glacier itself can’t be seen, but as you climb higher and higher, you’ll eventually see it.

Lake Josephine, near the Grinnell Glacier trailhead.

The hike to Grinnell Glacier was absolutely gorgeous. Honestly, it was the best hike I’ve taken in North America, and I’ve been around a bit. The photography will describe it far better than any words of mine.

Salamander Glacier. This is above Grinnell Glacier, and the two used to be one before 1929. This is visible from the trail before you see Grinnell.

The air was a bit hazy but cool and incredibly crisp–beyond crisp. I felt as if every breath I drew cleansed my lungs. It was a strong hike but the kind that makes you feel healthy and just glad to be alive. I was happy to share this experience with Heather.

Bears were reputedly present in this area, searching for huckleberries. As I mentioned earlier, we saw none. I called out anyway along switchbacks and other parts of the trail without good forward visibility.

This waterfall, far above the lakes, gave us a feel for how far up we'd ascended. Take a look at the trees for a sense of scale.

There is a rest area close to the top, complete with benches and clean outhouses, and we took a breather with a few other hikers. There we had a light, high-energy lunch of a couple Clif bars and water from the hydration packs. There were bighorn sheep on a snowpack near the rest area.

The bighorn sheep. No zoo, no fence. Immediacy makes it real.

And at last, we were at the glacier.

Grinnell Glacier. Click to enlarge and you can see the girl meditating near the center. (I only noticed she was there after I took the photo.)

As you can see, it’s partially melted. This was in September, not the summer. But there it was. It’s a very special place, and not just because it’s vanishing soon. It is quiet. You feel absolutely surrounded by wilderness. There’s no civilization to be seen in any direction; just a few intrepid hikers sitting on the rocks, enjoying the view with friends or meditating.

I walked out onto the glacier, avoiding the wettest areas. I’d seen a few animals do it, so it seemed likely to be safe. I broke off a piece and ate it.

Eventually we headed back. We saw a lot of hikers we’d passed on the way up and others we hadn’t. A few were struggling and ready to turn back. I tried to encourage them with news of the rest area not far ahead (this really should be mentioned on the boats) and by showing photos of the glacier on my camera, which they still couldn’t see. I think it helped some of them keep going. Few seem to make it all the way to the glacier, despite the shortness of the trail and its relative proximity to Many Glacier.

Looking back at Grinnell Lake on the return. Lake Josephine peeks out on the upper right, and just beyond it, farther back, is Swiftcurrent Lake.

There were many icy-cold streams cutting through the rocky terrain.

The downhill was very quick, and near the end I was beginning to feel it. The hike took us about five hours total, the bulk of the day. It was mid-afternoon when we returned to the dock at Lake Josephine.

There we encountered a few people waiting for the next boat. We chatted with them, and several were curious about the glacier but didn’t make the hike, so I showed them the photos I took on my camera. The oohed and aahed, and I told them how they were vanishing.

Then we took the boats across the lakes and back to Many Glacier Hotel. The day had grown long, and I was exhausted but exhilarated. We checked into the hotel, and there we had dinner and spent the night.

It was the only night there we didn’t camp in the van, and it was absolutely worth it. The architecture is Swiss alpine, and in the middle is a vast atrium with thick couches, a giant fireplace and rough-hewn support beams. It was built in 1915 and had survived a major fire. Our room had very old-fashioned fixtures and plumbing sticking right out of the ceiling. There is no WiFi, no cable and no TV. The furniture is very high quality, and old, perhaps antique. I loved it.

We had only managed to get the room by the skin of our teeth. Heather had called in the day before, while we were on the road, but they said they were completely booked. Major disappointment. Then they called her back later, but then we weren’t in cell phone range. Later she was able to retrieve the voicemail, then she called them back and luckily, it was still available. We took it. As it turned out, it was the very last night of the season for the hotel. Booking the hotel is not easy; they book over a year in advance. All of 2012 had already been booked. So we’d been extremely lucky. If you ever go to Glacier National Park, I highly recommend staying there if you can.

The true eye-popping spectacle of this landscape really can’t be captured adequately in little photographs. It is just so vast. I took a couple photos and later created this panorama shot to attempt to convey a sense of the vast beauty that is the setting of this lodge.

Panorama of Many Glacier Hotel from multiple photographs. To see this in its full glory, click on it.

This is from the perspective of the parking lot up on the hill. A trail leads down to the hotel itself. Behind the hotel, to the west, is Swiftcurrent Lake. Further past that, rising at the center right in the photo, is Grinnell Point. To its right, farther on, is Mount Wilbur.

What a day.

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