GRINNELL GLACIER TRAIL
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Grinnell Glacier Trail, located in the Many Glacier area, is one of the most popular hikes in Glacier National Park, and for good reason. Its vistas are incredible (and well documented online) and the trail is well maintained and can be hiked if you are in reasonable shape.
- Get Started early to avoid trail traffic. It appeared to us that traffic on the trail picked up between 10:00 – 11:00 AM.
- Bring plenty of water!
- Pay attention to trail closures. It is not uncommon for Glacier National Park trails to be closed due to bear activity.
- Watch the weather. Reports are available at the trailhead and are updated by rangers daily.
- Bring bear spray.
When planning our trip to Glacier National Park, Grinnell Glacier Trail was consistently near the top of most “must do” lists we found. We spent some time researching the hike and looking at photos and videos that others had posted online, which pretty much sealed the deal – it was on our list now too – and it did NOT disappoint!
Many Glacier Home Base
Many Glacier is an excellent home base if you want to hike in Glacier National Park. It will put you within walking distance of several of the most popular trails in the park from either the hotel or the campground. This includes popular hikes like Grinnell Glacier, Iceberg Lake, Cracker Lake, and Swiftcurrent Pass (and others). We were lucky enough to get a spot at the campground – be warned, both the campground and the hotel are tough to get reservations at. There some first-come, first-serve sites at the campground but they fill up VERY early – there was a line of cars at the entrance every morning we were there.
You can read more about our experiences and feelings about the campground in our post about Many Glacier Campground.
Take a Boat Ride
A day before our hike, we decided it would be fun to take a ride on one of the boats run by Glacier Park Boat Company. It shaves a couple of miles off the hike and gives you great views of the valley as it takes you across both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Unfortunately for us, these boat rides require tickets and are usually sold out days in advance. After speaking to the ticket agent at the Many Glacier Hotel, we ended up getting in line at 7:00 AM for tickets and managed to get on a waitlist for that same day at 9:00 AM or so.
Keep in mind that if you don’t get on the trail to Grinnell Glacier by 10:00 or so, you may not have enough time to get back to the last boat ride back (you can still walk back).
Grinnell Glacier Trail
After getting off the boat, we eagerly started up Grinnell Glacier Trail and a series of switchbacks that greet you at the beginning of the trail after Lake Josephine. Once past the switchbacks, the trail begins to meander along the slopes of Mt. Grinnell as you make your way up.
When we started the hike, we encountered quite a few other hikers but I wouldn’t call the trail crowded. We had heard that the trail can get quite congested, especially at the beginning due to its popularity but our experience wasn’t too bad.
As we continued to hike, we were amazed as we rounded each bend, another epic view was there to greet us. We were fortunate as the wildfire smoke/haze on the day we hiked wasn’t as bad as it had been other days we were there. It created an almost dreamy quality to some of the landscapes and vistas we saw.
Setting Expectations & Preparing = More Fun
One of the things that make our longer hikes enjoyable is setting reasonable expectations. We communicate to the kids that it may be tough or strenuous at times but we will stop as often as we need to and bring water and snacks (we like Clif Bars – they don’t take up much space and they are calorie and energy-dense). We cannot stress enough how important it is to bring plenty of water on hikes like this! We each had water reservoirs in our packs and we always pack a small trail water filter for emergencies. We saw a number of people turning around, exhausted, and holding a single empty plastic water bottle (the 16 oz kind) – not smart. Dehydration can be a real risk, especially at altitude.
We always try to keep a constant and consistent pace as we hike that follows the “goldilocks rule”; not too fast and not too slow – just right. That being said “just right” is different for different families and is even different for us on different hikes. One day we may have more energy and our pace may be faster, others not so much. Worst case scenario, we just turn around and go back down.
Trekking Poles for the Win
Here’s a tip that has paid off for us in a big way – trekking poles really help, especially on longer hikes. On inclines, if you are using your straps correctly, you gain power from your upper body and it helps stabilize you. The biggest advantage we see is on downhill sections of hikes. I had part of my meniscus removed a few years ago and trekking poles have made an incredible difference for me and the stress I put on my knee. The stability they provide on downhill sections is significant – they have saved us from many a tumble on rocky, muddy, or slick conditions and they truly do provide peace of mind.
Higher = Quieter
Perhaps not surprisingly, the further up the trail we hiked, the fewer people we saw. We noticed that some people were turning back about halfway up; many of them seemed woefully unprepared for the hike. I cannot stress this enough – do not wear simple sandals or shoes that won’t be comfortable for this type of hiking (there were many). Others we saw were overheating or exhausted – carrying a small empty water bottle or a large leather purse as if they were out for a stroll on Michigan Ave (not kidding).
I don’t know if we were simply lucky with the relatively few people we encountered on the trail or if that is normal for this trail. Based on our research prior to the trip, I thought it would be more crowded than it was due to its notoriety. The solitude at the higher elevations made the hike feel that much more special and made us feel that much more insignificant based on the incredibly big environment surrounding us.
The trail doesn’t have much exposure. There are a few short sections with small drop-offs or steep declines but the trail is relatively wide and not overly technical. One thing the trail does have is plenty of incredible views. Keeping our pace, we plodded along the trail, hoping that the weather would hold out for us. Rain was forecast for the late afternoon and we figured we would be OK with that as long as we were on our way down.
Read about our epic encounter with a black bear sow and three cubs in our campsite at Many Glacier Campground!
As we moved above the tree line, we encountered our first large wildlife of the hike; mountain goats and bighorn sheep. They appeared to be very habituated to human presence as they went about their business. We didn’t see any bears but Rangers had communicated that they are often seen along the trail – always bring your bear spray when hiking in Glacier NP. Traveling in groups and making noise or talking while hiking can also alert a bear to your presence, thus scaring it off.
We Made It!
Upon reaching the top of the trail, you come onto an opening that has many smaller trails that branch out to different areas surrounding the aqua-blue waters of Upper Grinnell Lake. The view of the lake and Grinnell and Salamander Glaciers is amazing! We found a spot next to the lake, had a snack, drank some water, and rested for about 20 minutes – just soaking in the view.
As noted earlier, we knew that rain was forecast for the afternoon and it did appear to be getting noticeably cloudier so we explored around Upper Grinnell Lake for about 15 more minutes then started our journey back down.
What a Hike!
If you can’t already tell, we absolutely loved this hike. We had excellent weather (until the very end), not as much traffic as we thought, and no bears! The views are stunning and reaching the top gave us all an awesome feeling of accomplishment. We would do it again in a heartbeat and highly recommend that you do it too if you are in Glacier National Park! Now we were ready to take on our next challenge – the Highline Trail and Garden Wall Trail spur that will take us to the saddle that looks back down on Upper Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier!