Grinnell Glacier Trail is a 12-mile roundtrip hike in Glacier National Park starting at Swiftcurrent Lake and leading to Upper Grinnell Lake, with some beautiful scenery along the way. In this post, I’ll share photos from the hike and my experience doing it, along with other info so you can prepare for this hike.
For starters, I thought the hike itself was moderately difficult, with a well-maintained trail. Although it does not involve any scrambling or truly dangerous sections, it is strenuous by virtue of its length and 1,800+ feet elevation gain. By virtue of those two details alone, it’s at least a moderate hike for most people. For many people, this hike is more like an intense or strenuous hike.
However, if you think you might be able to do Grinnell Glacier Trail, absolutely do it. The hike is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever done, traversing around lakes, up mountainsides, and high above lakes, all the while encountering wildlife. We encountered everything from deer to bighorn sheep to bears–the last of which I probably could’ve done without seeing just before dusk…
Most importantly, Grinnell Glacier Trail ends with a beautiful view of Upper Grinnell Lake. The gorgeous aqua-blue water of this along with the receding glaciers along the mountains surrounding the lake was quite the sight to behold, and well worth the half-day spent doing the hike.
I did the Grinnell Glacier Trail hike with a few other photographers (Bill McIntosh, Todd Hurley, and Jeff Krause), and we started out the hike right around noon from Many Glacier Hotel (click here to read my review of the hotel), and didn’t make it back until pretty late at night. You might be inclined to start out earlier in the day, but I favor our approach.
An alternative to doing the full 12-mile hike is booking a cruise via Glacier Park Boat Company that shaves a few miles off the hike. You might see this hike listed at around 7-9 miles rather than 12 miles, and that’s due to this cruise. Doing research before the hike, we found a company that had a boat dock on upper boat dock on Lake Josephine, which would make the hike roughly 7.5 miles round trip.
That boat cruise no doubt would’ve been beautiful and convenient, as it’s two cruises of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, taking about 20 minutes total. However, the cost and fact that it was mostly cutting off the easier, lower-elevation portion of the hike ultimately made us balk at the idea.
Since we were staying at Many Glacier Hotel, we began the hike from there, on a flat path that meandered around the edge of Swiftcurrent Lake, before arriving at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead. This is located between Many Glacier Hotel and the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn Store. There’s a large sign and parking lot at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead–you can’t miss it.
Almost the entirety of the Grinnell Glacier Trail is spent overlooking lakes and with beautiful mountains towering overhead. Even though it’s a long hike, I found that time passed quickly, because there are always stunning visuals. After passing Swiftcurrent Lake, you’re passing Lake Josephine for a while, and both are beautiful.
The stretch going around these two lakes is fairly straightforward and simple to follow. A lot of it is along an elevated boardwalk path, with a wood platform keeping hikers out of the marshland.
Right around the point where the boat cruise would end, is where there’s a junction in the trail, with Grinnell Glacier Trail going basically straight uphill for the next mill. That’s where the leisurely portion of this hike ends, and the significant elevation gain begins.
While the trail is well-marked and easy to follow for its duration, it should be noted that it is not accessible. It’s also probably a bad idea to go on this hike without bear spray or proper hiking supplies.
In the resources we consulted prior to doing the Grinnell Glacier hike, we found several warnings concerning bear activity, particularly in the late morning and early evening hours, when they’re frequently foraging for food along the trail.
After this intense stretch, hikers are rewarded with the first views of Lower Grinnell Lake in the valley below. Continuing further, you can see Grinnell Falls cascading hundreds of feet down. Already, the hike should feel “worth it.”
Although Upper Grinnell Lake is the main draw, there are actually three glaciers visible while hiking up the valley (Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem Glacier). Just below the Garden Wall is the Salamander Glacier. This is the dominating glacier visible from Lake Josephine, and during early portions of the hike.
The hike continues to gain elevation, but nothing nearly as brutal as that mile immediately above Lake Josephine. For a while, you’re skipping through beautiful alpine meadows with vibrant wildflowers, while enjoying the picturesque scenery above and below.
We were doing this hike in October, which meant that in addition to colorful wildflowers, we also had the fall colors of changing trees. The entire hike was a veritable feast of colors, and I’d highly recommend Grinnell Glacier Trail to anyone visiting in the fall.
In our case, this is where we encountered a trio of bighorn sheep. Almost comically, the first one was perched on a rock directly above one of the switchbacks we were approaching. It looked like a statue, or perhaps the sheep was telling us, “WIZARD, YOU SHALL NOT PASS.”
Either way, after taking a few photos of these bighorn sheep, we answered the bighorn’s riddles correctly, and they allowed us to pass.
As we continued on, we encountered another uphill stretch, which started with rock steps (pictured above). In some areas, these were slick due to run-off. In other spots, the trail began hugging the side of a sheer cliff face.
These pitfalls (literally) caused us to take a slower, more cautious approach.
Following this, we were in the home stretch. We arrived at a small rest area with picnic tables and outhouses that is located one half-mile below the Grinnell Glacier Overlook.
The next portion was the most intimidating portion of the hike. I’m not sure if this was actually the most intense, or if it just felt that way because our legs were basically jello by this point. It also didn’t help that we could see the series of steep switchbacks from this vantage. Either way, we were dreading this stretch even if we knew the payoff would be exceptional.
And was the payoff ever worth it. I had never seen anything quite like it. I probably should’ve taken video rather than still photos, as there was immense beauty in all directions. Let’s start with the obvious: that 152-acre glacier, Upper Grinnell Lake, the Garden Wall, and the towering Mount Gould, with Gem Glacier just below its summit.
The hike to Grinnell Glacier is reportedly one of the most popular hikes in all of Glacier National Parks. Presumably, the 7.5 to 12 mile hike is a barrier to entry for many, so the fact that it’s quite popular despite this really says something.
Every resource we consulted before doing the hike contained an abundance of superlatives describing the beauty of Grinnell Glacier Trail, and I cannot disagree with any of this. It ranks as one of the top 5 overall hikes I’ve ever done, and is probably near the top of even that list.
Some resources also spoke to the crowds of the trail, and how it can get busy during the late summer months (when the trail first opens around July–snow keeps it closed much of the year). These same resources recommended going early in the morning to get back with plenty of time before evening.
This advice definitely worked to our advantage, as we waited until around noon to begin our hike. As we were going up, we passed several people along the way, almost all of whom were heading back down. When we arrived at Grinnell Glacier, there was one other couple there at first, and they left shortly after we arrived.
Following that, we had the place entirely to ourselves. There’s no Photoshop trickery or anything to make these photos look serene and desolate. It was just us up there.
While I absolutely encourage as many people to experience America’s National Parks as possible, I love these alone-with-nature experiences the most. There’s really something special about having such a beautiful and iconic location all to yourself.
Whenever I have such an experience, my mind wanders to how many hours per year no one at all is looking at sights like this. There’s something sad about the idea of no one enjoying something so wondrous, but it’s also reassuring to know there are places away from the crowds where it is possible to get away and be at one with nature.
But I digress. After maybe 45 minutes up at Grinnell Glacier Overlook, we started back towards the rest area below.
For the entire hike, we had been ‘battling’ the cloud cover. As you can probably tell from some of these photos, it would break up every so often only to cloud back over in a matter of minutes. On the plus side, this made for some dramatic photos as the clouds clung to some of the peaks, and also provided for some dramatic light.
On the downside, some of the scenery we passed just looked overcast and blah–not even remotely photogenic. This was especially true on the way up during the middle of the trail.
As we were descending Grinnell Glacier Trail, we had this ‘will it or won’t it’ vibe regarding the sunset. There were some nice clouds in the sky and there was a bit of a break in them, which forced us to make a tough decision between lingering around Grinnell Lake in the hopes of a good sunset, or rushing back down in the hopes of not encountering a bear in the dark.
Being totally wise, forward-thinking hikers, we opted for the safe, conservative option and rushed down. I’m just kidding; we’re all obsessive photographers, so of course we lingered near the top in the hope the sunset would be epic.
Once we realized that was very unlikely to be the case, we did start to rush down. Unfortunately, we had one obstacle between us and our hotel…
A bear. This was definitely a downside to starting the hike late and lingering so long up near the top. Autumn is already an active time for bears who were active foraging for berries as they prepared to hibernate, and it probably didn’t help that no one else had been on this stretch of trail for a good hour or two.
We had read plenty of stories about how hikers found themselves face-to-face with bears rounding blind corners on the trail, so we had taken precautions and were fairly chatty throughout the hike in the hopes of keeping bears away. Everyone also had bear spray on them in a belt holster ready for quick-draw.
In our case, the bear was a good hundred yards away or more, but was on the trail in front of us, which meant we had to wait for it to move along. This bear was not in any particular hurry, but after about 15 minutes or so, it was far enough out of the way that we felt comfortable passing.
Encountering the bear when we did probably wasn’t such a bad thing. We were starting to feel beat from the hike, but we still had a few miles to go before we’d be back at Many Glacier Hotel. Suffice to say, seeing that bear gave us all a needed jolt of adrenaline, and we were good to go for the rest of the hike.
The last couple of miles were ultimately in the dark as we rounded Lake Josephine and Swiftcurrent Lake, and I’m not too proud to admit that I jumped a bit every time I heard a noise in the distance, thinking it might be another bear.
Overall, the Grinnell Glacier Trail hike was absolutely worth doing, and I have absolutely no regrets about the experience. While this did require a pretty significant time commitment (and as you can see from our Top 10 Things to Do in Glacier National Park post, there’s a ton to see there), it was completely worth the time and effort. The opportunity to see a glacier–let alone three–is one that is quickly disappearing, and I feel like this is a bucket list worthy experience. Even without the glaciers, this would’ve been an exceptional hike. The scenery and wildlife along the way made it one of the most picturesque hikes from start to finish that I’ve ever done. Highly, highly recommended.
For more of my tips and thoughts about Glacier, please check out my other Glacier National Park posts. To see more of my Glacier National Park photos or to purchase prints, check out my Glacier National Park Photo Gallery. For licensing inquiries, please contact me. If you’re planning a trip and want a comprehensive resource, check out The Best of Glacier National Park or Moon’s Glacier National Park.
Where are your favorite hikes in Glacier National Park? Have you hiked Grinnell Glacier Trail? If so, what did you think of experience? Any additional tips to add that we didn’t cover? Would you do it again, or do you think it was a ‘one and done’? Was it worth your time and effort? Any questions about this hike? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!