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Day 3: Hike Grinnell Glacier Trail - Glacier National Park, MT

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

Glacier National Park (GNP) is called the ‘crown of the continent’ for a reason. GNP is impossibly scenic, with every turn in the trail providing an amazing view of mountains, jagged peaks, waterfalls, glacier-carved valleys, lakes, wildlife, and, of course, glaciers. The 1.4 million acre park contains some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the west. These are the views you will never forget! Of the estimated 150 glaciers which existed in the park during the mid-19th century, only 25 active glaciers remained by 2010. Scientists estimate that all the active glaciers may disappear by 2030 if current climate patterns persist.

Hike Distance: 10.3 miles

Elevation Gain: 1600+ feet

First off, why is it called Grinnell Glacier? George Bird Grinnell was an influential leader in Glacier National Park history who 'discovered' the glacier in 1885. Grinnell is best remembered for advocating for the creation of a national park. As a result of Grinnell's tireless efforts over a period of time lasting almost 25 years, his writings, his lobbying and pleading with Congress, President William Howard Taft signed a law in 1910 creating Glacier National Park.

Grinnell Glacier Hike in the Many Glaciers area is heavily trafficked (relatively speaking) but worth every moment.

The trail started out along the shore of Lake Josephine which is also a popular spot for bears. Early morning fog hugged the valley floor. Definitely bear country!

lake josephine Grinnell Glacier Hike glacier national park

The trail followed the western shoreline, gradually increasing in elevation.

Early morning clouds hung over the valleys and lakes. Time to make some noise to let the bears know we're coming.

The clouds lifted and we saw Mt Gould, the spiky peak left of center. Our glacier destination was visible in the top right corner of the picture.

Grinnell Glacier Hike glacier national park

As we climbed higher the views kept getting better. Mt Gould is most notable for its huge, steep east face, which drops 4,000 feet in only one-half mile.

Here was a perfect spot for a water break and picture.

Grinnell Glacier Hike glacier national park, mountain views

The odd flat-shaped rock formation, rising from the shore of the lake, is Angel Wing ... so named for obvious reasons. Although considered a minor peak at 7,450 feet, it stands out because of its position and unusual shape compared to the other rocky ridges, pinnacles, and peaks in GNP.

Climbing higher, we reached a great spot to view Grinnell Lake and its opaque turquoise color that is caused by rock silt transported to the lake from the melting glaciers.

grinnell lake, grinnell Glacier Hike glacier national park

We also had a clear view of the rocky ridge that is part of the Continental Divide. Simply put, the Continental Divide is a mountain ridge in western North America. This ridge runs north to south and separates the flow of water on the continent. On the eastern side of the divide all streams flow toward the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. On the western side all water flows toward the Pacific Ocean.

Attribute - Right Photograph: Pfly, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The thin threads of water were the Grinnell Waterfalls. These waterfalls, fed by the melting glaciers, tumble hundreds of feet down the headwall from the west end of Upper Grinnell Lake.

Always remember to look back when you're hiking. Grinnell Lake, Lake Josephine and Lake Sherbourne in the distance.

Grinnell Glacier Hike glacier national park, Grinnell Lake, Lake Josephine

Sometime the trail would just cling to the side of the mountain.

hiking Grinnell Glacier Hike glacier national park

Although the next 4 pictures were taken on the way down, they show the change in the terrain as the trail began hugging the sidewall.

We passed through a beautiful alpine meadow. Although late in the year, there were still a few remaining wildflowers in bloom.

The thin outline of the trail is visible running across the center of the picture.

After climbing a series of steep switchbacks for 0.3 miles we reached the top. Both Grinnell Glacier in the bottom left and Salamander Glacier clinging to the rock face were visible. Salamander Glacier use to be connected to the Grinnell Glacier, but melting has caused the glaciers to separate.

Geologically speaking this picture shows the black belt that runs through the mountains in this region. It's call the 'Diorite Sill'. This imposing layer of rock, unlike the lava, never reached the surface in a molten state, but was intruded between beds of sedimentary rook. Wherever it occurs it is bordered at top and bottom by thinner gray layers. These gray bands are Siyeh limestone, which was changed to marble by the tremendous heat of the diorite during its intrusion. This effect is termed 'contact metamorphism' by geologists because this zone of change occurs at both the top and bottom of the sill. If this banded layer had been formed by lava flows, then the gray-marble layer would only have occurred on the lower underlying rocks.

Grinnell Glacier Hike glacier national park, salamander glacier

Done! Surprised by how incredibly large Upper Grinnell Lake looked. It was massive.

Upper Grinnell Lake is formed by the melting ice. If you look carefully, you can see 2 people standing on the shoreline. The color of the water was an amazing deep turquoise.

upper grinnell lake, glacier national park

The position of the sun made it difficult to take a good picture of Grinnell Glacier at the base of the rocky ridge, but here's my best attempt. Gem Glacier, located right of top center above Grinnell Glacier is the smallest named glacier (<5 acres) in Glacier National Park. It is a hanging glacier that drapes down from the north face of the steep arete to which it is attached. Between 1966 and 2005, Gem Glacier lost 30% of its acreage and Grinnell Glacier lost 40%.

How much of the glacier has been lost? Just compare these two pictures ... on the left Grinnell Glacier in 1938 and on the right the glacier in 2005.

Attributes - Left Picture: T.J. Hileman (Glacier National Park Archives), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Right Picture: Blase Reardon (USGS), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We chose a spot on the shore, sat down, ate lunch, and enjoyed the views.

Icebergs were beautiful up close.

We saw two people dive into the freezing waters. We weren't brave enough for that, but we did put our feet and hands in the water.

I feel like we could have stayed here for hours just taking it all in. We were lucky, the crowd was extremely light for a perfect hiking day.

upper grinnell lake with floating icebergs

After lunch and taking time to appreciate this place, it was time to start the hike back.

Still more incredible views on the return hike.

Returning to the shores of Lake Josephine and walking along the Swiftwater Lake.

What a perfect day and great 2nd hike in GNP. We planned a day of rest for tomorrow, so we'd be ready for the last two days of hiking. Potentially our best hike in the park, Siyeh Pass, was scheduled for Day 5, weather permitting.

Click to navigate to the blog for Day 5: Hike of Siyeh Pass

39 views2 comments


Feb 18, 2021

This is just spectacular. What a hike. Those views are mesmerising. So sad to see how much the glaciers have retreated though.


Feb 17, 2021

This glacial trail is incredible!! I have never made it up near Glacier NP. I know I would absolutely enjoy myself there! I love that you had a picnic lunch and even dipped your feet into the lake!

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