Grinnell Lake

Glacier National Park Grinnell Lake Hike

No matter how often I hike in the Many Glacier region, I’m always filled with awe. The grandeur of the glacially carved mountains is both exhilarating and humbling. Once on the trail, the sights, sounds, and smells that command my attention result in restorative therapy second to none. Grinnell Lake and Hidden Falls offer such an opportunity. 


Once inside the park, the Many Glacier Road skirts the north side of Lake Sherburne, a man-made reservoir that began with the completion of Sherburne Dam in 1921. The Swiftcurrent Oil, Land and Power Company drilled for oil near the dam’s site in 1904. J.J. Sherburne was an officer of the company.1

During the first decade of the 1900s, oil drilling operations were commonplace on the land now hidden by the water. Another of those hoping for a handsome profit was Mike Cassidy. He drilled from 1905 to 1909, but his only reward was a little natural gas which he used to heat and light his home.¹ Cassidy Curve is about 1.3 miles from the Glacier National Park border.

The Many Glacier Entrance Station is about halfway along the lake. Start watching for the Many Glacier Hotel sign about four miles past the entrance station. Travel about half a mile farther beyond the turn for the hotel and look for the Many Glacier Picnic Area and Grinnell Glacier Trailhead signs. This is where the hike described below begins.  

Another option is to start at the trailhead near the Many Glacier Hotel. The trail from there will wind its way through the densely forested southeast sides of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. The route nearest the lake is preferable. Horses use the upper path, making for a mucky fetid route. I learned this from experience.

A third option is to buy passage on two different launches that transport folks across two lakes. The 45-foot, 49 passenger launch, Chief Two Guns, carries passengers across Swiftcurrent Lake. From the dock at the head of Swiftcurrent Lake, it is a short walk to the pier at Lake Josephine’s foot. The 45-foot, 49 passenger Morning Eagle, built during 1945, delivers passengers to the head of Lake Josephine. From the head of Lake Josephine, it’s 2.2 miles with only 60 feet of elevation gain to Grinnell Lake. 

The Hike

The Many Glacier region is grizzly bear habitat. Be sure to carry bear spray where it is quickly accessible and know how to use it. Never hike alone and be sure to make plenty of noise. Surprising a bear can make a great day into a terrible day quickly.

It’s 3.6 miles and a modest 491 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead at the Many Glacier Picnic area to Grinnell Lake. The trail and trail junctions are well marked with signs noting destinations and distances.

Beargrass Along Lake Josephine, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Beargrass Along Lake Josephine: (clockwise) Ridge of Allen Mountain, Mount Gould, Angel Wing, Ridge of Grinnell Point

The Grinnell Glacier Trail will guide you along the north shore of Lake Josephine. Views to the south across the lake toward 9,376-foot Allen Mountain provide many photo opportunities. If you visit this area from June to July, the Beargrass bloom can be spectacular.

In shaded, moist areas along the trail, watch for bead lilies. The single white blossom is on display from June to July. Later, a single glossy blue-colored berry sits proudly at the top of a stem. It might look tempting, especially to children, but the beautiful fruit is foul-tasting and mildly toxic.

Stay on the Grinnell Glacier Trail for 2.1 miles. There you will see a path to the left which leads to the Grinnell Lake Trail. If you miss the turn, you will end up at Grinnell Glacier. (Note there is another trail junction at about 1.6 miles from the Many Glacier Picnic area. I prefer the route using the intersection at 2.1 miles. However, both paths will end up at the same location.)

After leaving the Grinnell Glacier Trail, walk about 0.3 miles to the next junction. Keep an eye out for the Grinnell Lake sign. Veer right, and in 1.1 miles, the lake will come into view. There is a short spur trail to Hidden Falls just before the lake.

Grinnell Lake

This 130 acres of turquoise beauty is at the center of an exhilarating panorama. Angel Wing is to the south. To the west at the headwall, Grinnell Falls crashes 960 vertical feet carrying meltwater from Grinnell Glacier.³ Mount Grinnell rises 3,800 feet above the lake to the north.  

Grinnell Lake with Grinnell Falls, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Grinnell Lake with Grinnell Falls

Grinnell is a name attached to many features, and rightfully so. They are the namesake of George Bird Grinnell, who was a man of many accomplishments. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1880. Grinnell served as a naturalist on one of General Custer expeditions but declined a similar offer before the hapless foray in 1876.²

Grinnell on His Glacier
Grinnell on His Glacier – Courtesy of National Park Service

Grinnell was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and also prominent in the early conservation movement. He started the first Audubon Society and was a founding member of the Boone and Crockett Club. Importantly, he was influential in establishing Glacier National Park.²

The Return Trip

Use the same route or mix it up and take the Lake Josephine South Shore footpath. Or catch a boat for the return trip. Find more information at the Glacier Park Boat Company website.

Grinnell Lake Hike Summary

Total Distance7.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain491 feet
Total Elevation Loss468 feet
Total Walking Time 3 hours (at 2.5 miles-per-hour and allowance for elevation)
Difficulty8.2, moderate*
(Score calculated using the Petzoldt equation for energy-rated miles.)
*Difficulty: 0-4.9 easy, 5-9.9 moderate, 10+ strenuous
(For comparison: Red Rock Falls: 4.3, easy; Grinnell Glacier Viewpoint: 14.6, strenuous)

Thanks for Visiting

If you’ve found this post useful, I invite you to check out my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide. Within this MultiTouch iBook are descriptions of hikes originating along the road corridor from West Glacier to Saint Mary. Interactive maps and photo galleries are included. You’ll also find points of interest highlighted, history, and other recreational opportunities.

End Notes

  1. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier NaturalHistory Association, 1973.
  2. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. “George Bird Grinnell.” Accessed June 28, 2018.
  3. World Waterfall Database. “Grinnell Falls.” Accessed June 28, 2018.

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