Glacier National Park: Grinnell Glacier Trail

Lake Josephine, Mount Gould, and the Angel Wing

On Sunday, August 5, Angela’s birthday and our final full day at Glacier National Park, we woke early to be on the road by 7. Angela’s birthday hike for 2018 would be the 3.8-mile (one-way) hike up to Grinnell Glacier, a favorite of all of our Glacier-loving companions. Our day’s adventure would also involve four boat rides on two lakes, because that’s what all the fanciest people have done in Glacier for over one hundred years.

We got dressed, piled into the Expedition, and drove to Many Glacier, which was brilliant in the early light.

We grabbed a carry out breakfast (and lunch items for our packs) at Heidi’s in the lower level of the Many Glacier Hotel. Then we sat in the lower lobby and waited until it was time to board our boat.

The hotel was lively. In addition to the general bustle of people eating and preparing for their day’s adventures, there was a literature of nature class meeting at a table behind us, and a young man was playing some sort of moody new age music on the lobby piano.

When the young man left the piano, an old man went over and cleansed the room with a rendition of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

We five wandered outside to take in the views across Swiftcurrent Lake.

Soon it was time to board. We took the long bench at the back of the cabin as the rest of the sleepy passengers piled in. Some sort of terrible dude bros sat immediately in front of us. They ended up leaving their trash on the boat.

Off we went down the length of Swiftcurrent Lake with our guide, Marina, offering narration about the natural and human history of the area.

Mount Grinnell, named for famed conservationist, George Bird Grinnell (who dubbed this area the “Crown of the Continent”) loomed above us. We would soon be hiking up its flanks. While praising Grinnell, Marina also mentioned his problematic history of racism toward Native Americans. Grinnell was instrumental in both the saving of Glacier as a National Park and for the ensuring that the Blackfeet were removed from its borders. It was a refreshingly balanced account.

Soon we’d reached the end of Swiftcurrent Lake. We all disembarked and followed a trail through the woods up and over a ridge to our next boat ride.

Lake Josephine was still as we approached.

We climbed aboard the Morning Eagle for our second boat ride of the morning, which would take us across Lake Josephine to the trailhead for our hike to Grinnell Glacier.

This time it was a pair of old men who were being terrible by leering at Marina, who was a college student.

They didn’t detract, however, from the stupendous beauty of Lake Josephine and the mountains that rose above it.

Once we were on solid ground, we hung back and waited for everyone else to leave. A ranger-led group went on level paths to Grinnell Lake. Many of our fellow passengers were doing the same hike we were: 3.8 miles and 1,600 feet up to Grinnell Glacier. In the photo above, the distant snowfield between Sean and Dan is visible above the glacier, although the Glacier is not.

We could just barely see, as in the photo above, other hikers making their way up Mount Grinnell toward the glacier.

We started hiking at a quarter after ten. The first part of the trail passed through some shrubby, marshy sections on the banks of Lake Josephine before crossing Cataract Creek via footbridge.

At a junction, the trail to the glacier led steeply up the lowest reaches of Mount Grinnell.

This part of the trail was very steep and connected two diverging parts of a trail that skirted the shores of Lake Josephine and Swiftcurrent Lake all the way back to Many Glacier two and a half miles away. Had we not booked the boat passage, we’d have had to hike out to this point on the route to Grinnell Glacier.

Once we reached the second junction, the trail became much less steep, rising to the west along the flank of Mount Grinnell.

At the junction, we ran into other hikers, notably a trio of older women and a whole family of Middle Eastern Americans. We three groups tended to leapfrog each other on the trail as we variably stopped to rest or take photos or admire the views. Good cheer on the trail is always welcome.

As we rose higher, beautiful Grinnell Lake came into view. It was a classic turquoise because of the pulverized rock, glacier flour, suspended in it.

The lake filled a basin below the Angel Wing, a prominent feature beneath Mount Gould and the Garden Wall.

Grinnell Falls descended from Upper Grinnell Lake, invisible to us at this lower elevation, at the toe of the glacier. Grinnell Glacier sits in a depression between the Angel Wing and Mount Grinnell below the Garden Wall.

On the other side of this part of the Garden Wall, the Pacific side, is Grante Park Chalet where we’d finished our Highline hike several days before.

After a few long switchbacks, we traversed an shrubby slope drained by a few lovely, nameless, waterfalls.

At about a quarter to twelve, we stopped to have a snack on some rocks immediately adjacent to the trail.

After our snack, we continued on a much steeper section of the trail, including walking over very slick rock basically through a small waterfall with a dropoff to the left.

We got a bit higher and the trail began to cling to the side of an increasingly sheer cliff. 

Ahead, I could see a section of blind turns and vertigo-inducing dropoffs.

I asked if we could take a break at a wide section. And we did.

I was unsure if I could keep going. The same panic that I had fought on the Highline was coursing through my body. Although much lower than the Highline, a fall here would just as easily kill someone, and this trail was busier. But most of all, with each terrifying section of the Highline that I faced, I knew I’d never have to do it again because we were only going one way.

But Grinnell Glacier Trail was an out-and-back. Once up at the glacier, the only way back down was the way you came. I was deeply torn. I wanted badly to see the glacier, but I also didn’t want to get up there and be terrified of coming back down. I was also embarrassed and putting pressure on myself to make a decision quickly so as not to hold up the group. That pressure was all me. My husband and friends were wonderful and supportive.

Dan, who is amazing, offered to walk out and around the blind curve to see if it got better. I thought that if it was only this short section of terror, that I could probably do it.

Off he went.

Meanwhile, I watched a steady stream of hikers ascend the trail. Most were sure-footed and well prepared. But many were not, including a woman in flip-flops who I watched trip and almost lose her balance at a place with a sheer dropoff. That about turned my stomach.

We talked to a guy on his way back down who noticed I was nervous. He did a classic, “You got this!” which was very nice, but also completely ineffective.

Dan returned shortly with good news and bad news. The good news was that there was a moose in Lake Grinnell far below. Finally!

The bad news was that the vertigo-inducing section continued for a while. He had even taken some video to show me.

I desperately wanted to continue. But I said that I knew the first rule of safe hiking was not to push yourself beyond your limits. That day, continuing felt beyond my limits. Angela nodded in agreement.

I encouraged them all to keep going. He said he’d stay with me, but I said that was ridiculous. I said I’d just go back down to the little shelter by the boat dock. The others were dismayed by that plan, so I said that I would go back down a little way to the rocks we sat on to have our snacks and wait for them. I said not to rush. Take all the time they wanted and enjoy. I’d be fine. Sean refused to take my big camera.

So they continued up, and I descended back past the waterfall and onto the sloping meadow.

I sat down on a red rock with my back to the trail, looked out over the view so beautiful it hurt, and sobbed. One big heaving sob came after the other. I felt defeated and that I’d been betrayed by my body and reached the limit of my physical self.

I wasn’t alone. There was a woman near me who soon welcomed her sons and husband back from the glacier. She’d chosen not to continue also.

I watched birds and ground squirrels. After I was cried out, it felt good to just sit quietly and look at all the life around me.

Then it began to rain. Hard.

Video: Sean M. Santos and Angela Hayes

Meanwhile, up above, while it was raining on me, it was hailing on the others.

But they made it. Wet and cold, they reached what was left of Grinnell Glacier. Like all the Park’s glaciers, it may well be gone by 2030.

Meanwhile down below, I stashed my backpack under a rock along with my camera, only occasionally removing it to grab a shot.

Sean above and I below both happened to take a shot of Allen Mountain and Wynn Mountain through the rain within thirty-five seconds of each other according to the respective timestamps on the images.

As the rain passed, the changing light on the landscape made everything all the more vibrant.

Given everything, this spot on this trail has become a dear place to me. I would like to visit it again someday. Perhaps I’ll see the glacier, perhaps not.

And then, about an hour and a half after we’d parted ways, my friends returned.

The first thing they said was that I had made the right decision and that the rain and hail had made the trail slick and treacherous.

I welcomed everyone back to my rock, and we ate lunch while we recounted our stories. I had seen multiple people slip and trip. We had all seen a terrified girl unprepared for the hike. And they had gotten drenched. Poor Barbara’s passport got soaked in her pack. Ugh.

We shared the rocks with a couple of a certain age. We got talking when I mentioned that I liked his “This is what a socialist looks like” shirt. They were from Los Angeles. Liberal urbanites bonding with liberal urbanites in the National Parks.

Then it was time to head back down.

We made good time, and as we neared Lake Josephine, we quickened our pace a little to try and make the 3:45pm boat. The way it worked was that each return boat would accommodate passengers in this order: first those who had tickets for an out and back (no hiking) on that boat, second ticketed passengers who had taken an earlier boat, finally people who wanted to buy tickets. At 5pm, they’d start running boats back and forth to get everyone back. We were in the second group, which guaranteed us passage as long as there was room.

Despite some disorder and no real line, basically everyone who had a ticket and was at the dock made it onto the 3:45pm boat, including us.

Back across Lake Josephine, back up over the hill, and then  back across Swiftcurrent Lake.

As we passed through the hotel’s lower lobby, a group of young women were standing around the piano while one of them played “Oh Canada.”

We headed upstairs to the bar, where we sat drinking huckleberry-infused cocktails and listening to a tiny child play accomplished ragtime on a nearby piano. What was it with this hotel and the guests availing themselves of the pianos?

Meanwhile, we watched our sixth and final Grizzly Bear of the trip make its way along the slops of Altyn Peak.

And we watched a deer drink from the opposite shore of Swiftcurrent Lake.

As we left Many Glacier, we spotted some birds along the road. We thought they were Willow Ptarmigan, but they were likely Spruce Grouse.

On the way back to St. Mary, we stopped for Angela’s birthday dinner at the funky wonderful Two Sisters Cafe on the highway south of Babb.

We left with pieces of huckleberry peanut butter pie to go. They’d go great with birthday wine around the campfire.

At the St. Mary Lodge, they were out of gas and out of firewood. So…we went to the other gas station where they were not…out of gas. We all wanted to be able to hit the road in the morning with full tanks.

Back in camp, Sean and I showered. While I was waiting for my turn, I saw a Bald Eagle soaring over the campground. It certainly was a trip for wildlife viewing!

Angela opened a bottle of “birthday wine” that she’d saved from a recent trip to Italy. We sat around chatting about our trip and other topics concerning the state of the nation until after dark.

Then it was time for bed.

Next morning, we were all up by 7am for a planned 9-9:30am departure. Some of us cooked up eggs and toast and sausages while others deconstructed camp.

It was a blur of activity, and it was a bit stunning how quickly our little temporary home vanished.

There were hugs all around. Our friends climbed into the Super-Roo, and it wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. Luckily we were able to borrow some jumper cables from our campground neighbors. Then they were on their way back to Chicago. Their goal for that day was Fargo, North Dakota.

We finished rearranging and repacking. We were headed to the airport, after all, so our packs became luggage again.

Video: Sean M. Santos

Save for some free range cattle, our drive to Great Falls was uneventful.

I was sad to go. I felt changed somehow. I was excited and worried about upcoming adventures and possible life changes. Sean and I chatted about how even though we loved our adventures, we also loved our home and couldn’t just up and be nomadic.

Our gay flight attendant Bryan on the Alaska Air leg from Great Falls to Seattle, asked if we were from Alaska (because I was wearing my baseball cap with the Alaska flag logo). We said no but we had honeymooned there. He was from Alaska, but lived in California now.

We had some food at Sea-Tac and visited the SeaPop shop.

And then, after flying over a very smoky North America, we were home. Our companions were, of course, still on the road. Sean sent them a message from Lamarca.

And Elsa was very pleased to see us.

Leave a Reply