Highline Trail

This is a hike that you will not soon forget. It has it all. Glacially carved peaks and valleys, meadows loaded with wildflowers, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, occasional grizzly bears, hoary marmots, coyotes, and the tiny chance early or late in the season of wolverines. And, some of the oldest fossils preserved in any national park can be seen along the way.6 The commonly used superlatives seem to fall short when experiencing this route.

  • Glacier National Park, Highline Tail, Mountain Goat
  • Glacier National Park, bighorn sheep
  • Glacier National Park, hoary marmot
  • Glacier National Park, stromatolites

And, of course, the word is out. The Highline Trail is one of the most popular in the park. University of Montana researchers tell us that 500 to 1,000 people use this trail each summer day.3

Transportation Planning

There are transportation logistics to consider for this walk from Logan Pass to the Loop. One possibility is to leave your vehicle at the Loop (where you will exit) and catch a ride to the pass on a Glacier National Park shuttle. In the past, shuttles left the Apgar Visitor Center at 7am for the day’s first run.

If you want to get on the trail earlier, drive to Logan Pass and grab a parking spot. In July, the sun rises between 5:30 and 6:00 am, and I’ve seen the lot about two-thirds full by then. The downside of relying on the shuttles at day’s end when you’re tired is the potential for a long wait time to get a seat.

Opportunities for driving or using the shuttle system along the Going-to-the-Sun Road has been in a state of flux. I suggest visiting Glacier National Park Vehicle Reservation System and Glacier’s Shuttle System webpages for up-to-date information on schedules and ticketing.

Trailhead

At the end of the post, I’ll offer some variations of the Logan Pass to the Loop walk.

You begin at an elevation of 6,646 feet from Logan Pass. The trail starts on the far side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the visitor center parking lot. Once on the footpath, stop and take a deep breath. The fresh mountain air with the sweet, resinous scent of the stunted subalpine fir trees and the pleasing woodsy smells are the signals that it’s time to slow down and leave the world behind.

The Hike

Imagine several canvas wall tents to your left as you walk across the relatively level area at the start. From 1925 to 1928, workers blasted a shelf into the cliffs, which became the upper part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Logan Creek to the pass. Those tents housed the hardy souls of Camp #6. It took a day for packers and their strings of horses following the long-forgotten trail up the Logan Creek to bring supplies to the camp.5

A quarter-mile from the trailhead, you’ll get to experience a little of what the powder monkeys and route surveyors encountered in the 1920s. The path narrows somewhat and becomes a ledge in the rock face 100+ feet above the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s safe, and there’s a cable bolted into the rock for hanging on to should you desire. This is not a great place to run into a grizzly bear, as one hiker experienced.

The path gradually climbs along the Garden Wall for three miles and then steepens as it rises to the saddle between Haystack Butte and Mount Gould. This is a popular spot for folks to stop for a rest and grab a bite to eat. Some decide this is their turnaround location, which would give them a seven-mile day.

Glacier National Park, McDonald Valley
Haystack Butte, Mount Cannon, McDonald Valley, Glacier Wall (L to R)

Remember Camp #6 back at the beginning? Well, construction crews built Camp #4 in the ravine on the north side of Haystack Butte. It’s incredible the amount of stamina and strength required of the workers. Their day included descending the steep mountainside to the construction site, putting in a full day of extreme physical and exhausting work, and then climbing back up to their tents.5

After leaving the saddle, the footpath continues to climb, reaching its highest point at four miles and 7,300 feet. There is a gradual decline to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail at 6.8 miles. The overlook path leads to the top of the Continental Divide (Garden Wall) with views of Salamander and Grinnell Glaciers, Upper Grinnell Lake, Mount Gould, and Angel Wing. This side trip is 0.8 miles long, with over 900 feet of elevation gain. To do that on top of an already long day requires better than average physical condition.

Glacier National Park, Salamander and Grinnell Glaciers
Salamander Glacier and Grinnell Glacier with Angel Wing and Mount Gould in the background.

From the overlook trail junction, it’s a fairly level 0.7 miles to Granite Park Chalet. Great Northern Railway contracted to have this Swiss-style structure built of locally quarried stone in 1914. It’s now a National Historic Landmark.4 During the early 1900s, the Glacier Park Saddle Company treated visitors to over 50 miles of pristine Glacier backcountry on the famous North Circle trip. Granite Park Chalet was their first stop.5

The chalet generally opens the end of June and closes for the season the first part of September. If you’re running short on water, it is available for purchase or there’s a water source not far from the chalet. Be sure to purify it.

Glacier National Park, Granite Park Chalet with Heavens Peak
Granite Park Chalet with Heavens Peak

The last 4.2 miles of this trip drops 2,200 feet in elevation. If you have knee problems, you may want to reconsider this section. I know this firsthand. The footpath travels through the forest for just over a mile. Then the trail enters the area burned by the 18,702-acre Trapper Creek Fire of 2003. During that summer, dubbed the Summer of Fire, 135,000 acres of Glacier National Park burned (approximately 13% of the park’s total area). The Northern Rockies lost nearly three-quarters of a million acres that season.7

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 11.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,209 feet; Loss: 4,596 feet
Difficulty: 16.1 (strenuous)
(Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Estimated Walking Time: 5 hours 47 minutes
(Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Alternatives

If the trip described above is not for you, the following may be of interest.

  1. After resting at the chalet, return to Logan Pass the way you came. The total distance for this is 15 miles.
  2. Continue on past Granite Park Chalet to Swiftcurrent Pass, then continue on the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Many Glacier. The total distance is 15.2 miles – about the same as the out and back from Logan Pass. At Many Glacier, catch the Glacier National Park Lodges fee-based hiker’s shuttle to Saint Mary. From Saint Mary, use a Glacier National Park shuttle to return to Logan Pass. For more details, see my post for the hike from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn to Swiftcurrent Pass .

Safety Considerations

No one expects to sprain an ankle, or worse. Snow in July? C’mon. Well, in Glacier National Park, it happens. So do unexpected drops in temperature with high winds and rain. Starting a hike late in the day while underestimating the time required to finish is not all that rare of an occurrence. And then there is always the chance of an unexpected encounter with wildlife that goes badly. Most don’t expect to spend the night out in the wilderness when on a day hike. However, it is something that one should plan for.

If you’re relatively new to backcountry travel, I think the following might be helpful.

Ten Essentials

These should always be in a hikers pack and adjusted for the current season and hike difficulty.

  1. Hydration: Consume at least 0.5 liters per hour, more on hot days or more strenuous hikes. Pack an effective water filter and locate potential water sources on your map before starting longer treks. 
  2. Nutrition: Bring more nutritious calories than you calculate needing. Dried fruit, fresh fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, nuts, jerky, granola, etc., are good choices. Check out this calculator to dial in the calories you’ll need based on weight, walking speed, and slope
  3. Navigation: primary – map and compass, secondary – GPS with extra batteries; knowledge of how to use these tools is critical; knowing your walking speed in different conditions is valuable for estimating time to a landmark identified on your map (e.g., It looks like the trail junction is about one mile away. It’s getting dark, but I usually average about 3 miles per hour on this sort of trail. So, I should see the junction in about 20 minutes.) The goal is to stay found.
  4. Emergency Shelter: jumbo plastic garbage bag, bivvy sack, ultralight tarp
  5. Clothing: Layers – base, mid, insulating, and shell. Add and remove layers to manage body heat. Never wear cotton. Choose fast-drying synthetics or wool. Wear sturdy footwear. Your feet will thank you. Include light-weight gloves and a beanie.
  6. Headlamp and extra batteries.
  7. Firestarter: lighter, waterproof matches, cotton balls saturated with vaseline.
  8. First Aid: Remember, the kit is next to worthless without knowing how to use the items contained within.
  9. Repair kit: minimum of knife or multi-tool, duct tape, paracord 
  10. Sun protection: for skin, eyes, and head

Top Safety Concerns in Glacier National Park

New To Glacier National Park?

I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of this engineering masterpiece and the surrounding wilderness. See it here on Apple Books.

Notes

  1. Born, Steve. “The Top 10 – The Biggest Mistakes Endurance Athletes Make.” Hamer Nutrition. https://www.hammernutrition.com/knowledge/essential-knowledge/10-biggest-mistakes-endurance-athletes-make.
  2. “Dehydration.” Cleveland Clinic. 2019. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/9013-dehydration.
  3. “Examining Visitor Use Trends In Glacier National Park.” Glacier National Park Conservancy. Last modified April 14, 2021. https://glacier.org/newsblog/examining-visitor-use-trends-in-glacier-national-park/.
  4. “Granite Park Chalet & Dormitory.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified November 18, 1982. https://tinyurl.com/yc8w7x36.
  5. Guthrie, C.W. Going-to-the-Sun Road: Glacier National Park’s highway to the sky. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2006.
  6. Hunt-Foster, Rebecca K. “The Stromatolites of Glacier National Park.” National Park Service. Last modified , 2018. https://www.nps.gov/articles/park-paleo-fall-2018-stromatolites.htm.
  7. “The Fires of 2003: an anthology.” The Inside Trail, Glacier Park Foundation. Last modified , 2004. http://www.glacierparkfoundation.org/InsideTrail/IT_2004Win.pdf.

Poia Lake

Poia Lake, named after a hero in Blackfeet mythology, is a beautiful 30-acre body of water lying at an elevation of 5,800 feet near the transition zone of subalpine to alpine in the Kennedy Creek drainage.

Choose the challenging out and back hike, a mellow overnighter, or travel on the back of a horse.

Trailhead

Drive 2.8 miles west from the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Look for a parking lot on the right side of the road. The trail for Apikuni Falls leaves this spot, headed northwest and the Red Gap Pass Trail to the northeast. Poia Lake is on the Red Gap Pass Trail.

If you’re driving from the west, look for the parking area on the left 1.1 miles east of the Many Glacier Hotel road junction.

There is another trailhead. However, I don’t recommend it. The Sherburne Cut Off leaves from the entrance station and doesn’t bother with switchbacks as it climbs Swiftcurrent Ridge. You’ll climb 1,000 feet in one mile. The tradeoff is saving 2.4 miles. But with the reduction in distance comes a slower hiking speed because of the trail’s steep grade. You might save 15 – 20 minutes. If you’re wondering about using this footpath on the trip out, know that it has sections of loose material and poor footing. Some folks unaffectionately refer to this route as the luge.

Grizzly and black bears frequent this area. Be wise and make enough noise to not surprise the bruins. Carry bear spray where you can unholster it in a couple of seconds. Know when and how to use it.

The Hike

The trail climbs steadily through a forest interspersed with small meadows where it’s possible to spot whitetail deer, elk, moose, and bear. 

Moose Swiftcurrent Ridge, Red Gap Pass Trail, Glacier National Park
Young Bull Moose

After four miles, you’ll reach Swiftcurrent Ridge Lake (Moran’s Bathtub) on the south side of the ridge crest. It’s not worth fishing unless the idea of catching white sucker and lake chub interests you. Attempts to introduce grayling in the 1920s and 1930s failed because the lake lacked suitable spawning habitats.2

There’s a pretty sweet view south over the lake toward Allen and Wynn Mountains. 

From the lake, the trail uses several switchbacks to reach the ridge top and then descends into the Kennedy Creek drainage. This stream is the namesake of John Kennedy, not our revered past president, though. This particular Kennedy was a whiskey trader. In 1874, he built a trading post where Kennedy Creek flows into the Saint Mary River (9.5 miles northeast of Poia Lake).1 The Blackfeet named him Otatso, which means walking stooped. A tributary of Kennedy Creek bears that name.3

Be aware that the park service has closed the entire length of Kennedy Creek to fishing. 

Upon reaching Poia Lake, a trail on the left leads to the backcountry campground. The park allows two of the four sites to be reserved online.

Poia Lake, Glacier National Park
Poia Lake Evening

If you continue along the shoreline, there’s a bridge over the outlet and a path veering to the right from the Red Gap Pass Trail. Follow that route for great vantage points of Poia Lake Falls. 

If you keep an eye on the exposed rock faces of the surrounding mountains, the chances of seeing mountain goats are pretty good. Or, look for pika in the nearby talus slopes. Locate these furry little members of the rabbit family by their characteristic “eeep” calls and look for their “hay piles” in the talus near a meadow’s edge.

Pika
American Pika (CC BY-SA 4.0_ Frederic Dulude-de Broin)

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 13.1 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,676 feet; Loss: 808 feet
Difficulty: 16.5, strenuous
(Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 6 hours 4 minutes
(Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Notes

  1. Buchholtz, C W. Man in Glacier. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1976.
  2. Downs, Christopher C., and Carter Fredenberg. “Glacier National Park Fisheries Monitoring and Management Report 2016.” National Park Service History Publications. Last modified , 2016. http://npshistory.com/publications/glac/fisheries-ann-rpt/2015.pdf.
  3. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  4. Smith, Andrew. “The Art of Making Hay.” The National Wildlife Federation. Last modified April , 1997. https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/1997/The-Art-of-Making-Hay.

Howe Lake

Howe Lake, ridge, and creek are the namesakes of Charlie Howe, the first homesteader (1892) at the foot of Lake McDonald and the first white man to locate Avalanche Lake and Sperry Glacier.3

Howe Lake is an easy and worthwhile destination spring through fall. And it’s likely you’ll not find the trail crowded. If you’re looking for more to fill your day, there are a couple of options at the end of this post.

As always, please apply Leave No Trace principles.

Trailhead

From the T-intersection near the Apgar Visitor Center, travel northwest on the Camas Road for 1.3 miles. The Fish Creek Campground Road will be on the right. Drive for 1.1 miles on that road until it Ys. Bear left. 

The left fork puts you on the 100+-year-old Inside North Fork Road, which the Butte Oil Company carved through the timber in 1901. Although, at the time, calling it a road was probably a stretch. The unbridged, ungraded, and in places mucky route allowed the drillers to haul their machinery to the foot of Kintla Lake. Once the water froze, workers slid the equipment across the smooth surface to the drilling site.3,4

Drive 5.4 miles north on this historic and still somewhat primitive thoroughfare.

The Howe Lake Trailhead is on the right, and two small parking areas on the left. An interpretive sign, also on the left, describes the historic Matejka Homestead.

The Hike

About 13 percent of Glacier National Park burned during 2003, a record for the park. Lightning caused most of the fires that dry summer. Not so with the Robert Fire that burned this area. Careless humans started it. Snow finally put it out, but not until the flames had consumed 52,747 acres of timber.5

Helicopter used during Robert Fire, Glacier National Park 2003
Fire fighting helicopter carrying bucket over Lake McDonald with Robert Fire in the background. (National Park Service photo, Public Domain)

The trail leads you through young lodgepole pine stands, with widely spaced magnificent old larch trees that survived the inferno. Bright yellow glacier lilies and snow-white trillium put on excellent displays alongside the footpath in the spring. It’s impressive to see the healing taking place.

While you’re strolling along, be sure to make noise and have your bear spray where it’s quickly accessible. Know when and how to discharge it. We walked on top of grizzly bear tracks and dodged some scat during a May hike. On a separate trip, I encountered one of these powerful animals on the road just north of the Howe Lake Trailhead. Since the bruins use this area, it makes sense to be versed in bear safety.

At the Lake

Before you know it, the first glimpse of water comes into view through the trees, and arrival at the outlet soon follows. Howe Ridge is visible to the east. The crest is about 1,000 feet above the lake’s surface and crowned with a glacial moraine. Imagine this spot under at least 1,000 feet of ice. If it was 20,000 years ago during the Pleistocene’s Great Ice Age, that would have been the case.1,2

Howe Lake Glacier National Park
Howe Lake in May

The beaver dam across the outlet seems in pretty good shape. This is also true for the beaver lodge we spotted on the far side of the narrow channel connecting the lower and upper parts of the lake.

Howe Lake is an excellent place to see loons and other waterfowl. Be mindful that park service personnel prohibit fishing in the upper part of the lake until August to encourage loon nesting and protect their young until they attain fledging age. You’ll see the sign.

Common Loon
Common Loon (by John Picken CC BY 2.0)

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 3.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 240 feet; Loss: 108 feet
Difficulty*: 3.9, easy (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 1 hour 27 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
*Difficulty: 0-4.9 easy, 5-9.9 moderate, 10+ strenuous

Options

If you choose to go farther, the trail continues east away from the lake and intersects the Howe Ridge trail in a little less than two miles. Or, once you return to your vehicle, drive another mile and a quarter north to the Camas Creek road closure. There, you’ll find the trailhead to Christensen Meadows and Rogers Meadow. I suggest this option. You can learn more about it here.


A comprehensive guidebook to extend your knowledge, promote adventure, and discovery while traveling one of the most scenic highways in the world.

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Notes

  1. Carrara, Paul E. ” Late Quaternary Glacial and Vegetative History of the Glacier National Park Region, Montana.” U.S. Geologic Survey. Last modified , 1989. https://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/1902/report.pdf.
  2. Raup, Omer B., Robert L. Earhart, James W. Whipple, and Paul E. Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
  3. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. Whitefish, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  4. Scott, Tristan. “The Road Less Traveled.” Flathead Beacon, May 11, 2017. https://flatheadbeacon.com/2017/05/11/road-less-traveled-2/.
  5. “The Fires of 2003: a synopsis.” The Trail Inside, Fall 2003. http://www.glacierparkfoundation.org/InsideTrail/IT_2004Win.pdf.

Apikuni Falls

The liquid snow of Apikuni Creek presents a spectacular show when the Earth drops out from beneath it. The water plummets 160 feet over 1.5 billion-year-old Altyn limestone, the oldest rock on the park’s east side.1,2

Trailhead

Apikuni Falls Trail leaves the parking area to the northwest and the Red Gap Pass Trail northeast. The parking lot is 2.8 miles west of the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Or, find the trailhead 1.1 miles east of the Many Glacier Hotel road junction if driving from the west.

Wildlife

For whatever reason, bears seem to like this area. The last time we hiked to the falls, a black bear sow and three cubs crossed in front of us within the first quarter mile. Although we were at least 150 yards away, she gave us an unflinching stare until the little ones entered the brush. The same day, both morning and afternoon, we saw a grizzly bear near the parking lot – luckily from our car. 

Glacier National Park grizzly bear
Grizzly Bear near Apikuni Falls parking lot

Several years ago, we exited the Red Gap Pass Trailhead after four glorious days in the backcountry. While walking back to the Swiftcurrent Inn and the truck, a grizzly bear sow and her cubs near the Apikuni and Red Gap parking lot caught us off-guard. Brush concealed her until she stood up with ears back and agitated. An alert Red Bus driver encouraged my hiking partner and me to pile into his empty bus. At the same time, he maneuvered his coach between the bear family and us.

I’ve seen several other bears on different occasions in the same general area. If you have spent little time in bear country, I recommend checking out the recommendations Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety webpage.

If you have binoculars with you, scan for bighorn sheep on the east slopes of Altyn Peak and near the falls.

The Hike

You’ll notice that I’ve rated the difficulty of the walk to the falls as easy. Compare this hike with 640 feet of elevation in a mile to the average increase of 490 feet per mile for Ptarmigan Tunnel or 430 feet per mile on the trek to Grinnell Glacier. Then why is it easy? 

I use distance and elevation gain to calculate the difficulty score using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Miles equation.3 If the trip were two miles uphill rather than one, it would rank as moderate difficulty. Climbing five miles with 640 feet of elevation gain per mile makes it strenuous. Apikuni Falls has an easy score, primarily because of low total distance (and energy expended).

During spring and early summer, the footpath starts out through a meadow loaded with color. Before you know it, you will enter the forest and start the climb. Along the way, a few side trails lead to spectacular views of the Swiftcurrent Valley and the peaks to the south.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier, Apikuni Falls Trail
Allen Mountain above Cracker Flats and site of Altyn-historic mining town.

The trail officially ends a short distance from the falls. Unofficial social trails proceed on to the base of the cascades. Beware of wet rocks and expect some light scrambling.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 2.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 640 feet
Difficulty: 3.3, easy (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 1 hour 7 minutes
(Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Notes

  1. “Apikuni Falls.” World Waterfall Database. Last modified December 11, 2018. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Apikuni-Falls-10170.
  2. Dyson, James L. “The Geologic Story of Glacier National Park.” Glacier Natural History Association. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glac/3/index.htm.
  3. Petzoldt, Paul K. Petzoldt’s Teton Trails. Salt Lake City, UT: Wasatch Publishers, 1976.

Fishercap Lake

Take only memories, leave only footprints. – Chief Si’ahl

This 11-acre gem is definitely worthy of your attention from early to late season. Enjoy the reflections of the surrounding peaks as they take on the golden glow of sunrise. And if you’re lucky, witness a moose emerging from the lake fog in the crisp mountain air. It’s an easy, family-friendly walk from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.

Trailhead

From the Many Glacier Entrance Station, drive straight ahead for five miles to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot. Look for the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, which begins near the northwest corner of the parking area. 

The Hike

The path leading to Fishercap lake is one-quarter mile from the trailhead. After you cross the bridge over Wilbur Creek, it’s only another three to four minutes to the junction on your left. The footpath to the shoreline is about a tenth of a mile long.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 15 feet; Loss: 15 feet
Difficulty: 0.6, easy
(Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes
(Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Swiftcurrent Lake Nature Trail

If you’re looking for a family-friendly hike that includes history, outstanding scenery, and wildlife, the loop around Swiftcurrent Lake in Many Glacier is hard to beat. This is one that can be enjoyed May through October.

Trailhead Location

The most popular places to access the trail are near the Many Glacier Hotel, or the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead found in the picnic area.

The road junction for the Many Glacier Hotel is four miles west of the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Make your way to the hotel parking lot. From there, it’s a short walk to the lakeshore.

A half-mile past the road intersection to the Many Glacier Hotel is a picnic area. Find the trail either at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, at the south end of the parking lot, or near the east junction of the picnic area road and the Many Glacier Road.

The Hike

This post describes the walk beginning at the Many Glacier Hotel boat dock and proceeds clockwise. Starting and finishing there allows twice the time to enjoy the historic structure set in a world-class view, stroll around inside and maybe find a snack, beverage, or meal. If a trail ride is something you want to fit into your day, the Many Glacier Corral is at the back of the parking lot.

The Many Glacier Hotel opened on July 4, 1915, and survived economic downturns and the floods of 1964, 1975, and 2006.1 When smoke cleared after Heavens Peak Fire in 1936, the hotel was still standing, but there was little else.2 For over a century, the Many Glacier Hotel has hosted presidents, celebrities, rambunctious wranglers, and visitors from around the world.3

Without a doubt, Grinnell Point steals the show when looking across Swiftcurrent Lake. Add Mount Gould and Angel Wing to the south and Mount Wilbur to the north, and it’s spellbinding.

A great treat of this route is the possibility of seeing moose. Glacier National Park has a Wildlife Safety webpage with tips on sharing the land with these impressive animals. Also, deer frequent the area, as do bears. If you’ve had little experience traveling through bear habitat, the park has an informative Bear Safety webpage that’s worth visiting.

From the boat dock, head south along the roadway for about 500 feet to the trailhead. The footpath never strays far from the shoreline. After about half a mile, the path brings you near the boathouse for the 1961 45-foot vessel Chief Two Guns and crew member cabins.

Glacier National Park, Grinnell Point from the Swiftcurrent Lake Nature Trail
Grinnell Point

The first bridge on the route crosses Cataract Creek flowing out of Lake Josephine and Stump Lake. A quarter-mile past the bridge, the loop trail intersects the Grinnell Glacier Trail. At that place, a left turn begins a worthy side-trip to Lake Josephine, 0.2 miles away. The historic 1945 45-foot Morning Eagle passenger boat docks there and has been carrying passengers on the lake since 1960. Mount Gould and Angel Wing across the water to the southwest, framed by Grinnell Point to the north and Allen Mountain to the south, are spectacular.

Glacier National Park, Lake Josephine and Morning Eagle tour boat
Morning Eagle on a stormy fall day

From the Swiftcurrent Lake Loop Trail and Grinnell Glacier Trail junction, a right turn continues into a little more densely wooded section of the walk with fewer lake views. You’ll see the Chief Two Guns south boat dock almost immediately. In 0.4 miles, there is a bridge over Swiftcurrent Creek and then a quarter mile to the picnic grounds’ parking lot. Continue right on the blacktop for 300 feet. The footpath is on your right.

The trail meanders for a half-mile between the Many Glacier Road to its north and Swiftcurrent Lake to the south. After that distance, you’re at the asphalt leading to the Many Glacier Hotel.

Glacier National Park Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake
Many Glacier Hotel across Swiftcurrent Lake with Wynn Mountain and Allen Mountain in the background.

Two of the original eight chalets erected during 1911 are standing across the roadway from the trail. At that time the Many Glacier Hotel only existed on paper and in the minds of the designers.5 An avalanche wiped out one chalet a few winters after construction. The 1936 Heavens Peak Fire took most everything else.2

The route continues along the hotel road to the bridge over Swiftcurrent Creek. Downstream is Swiftcurrent Falls. Several walking paths lead away from the south side of the bridge, allowing visitors to view the cascades from several perspectives.

It’s a quarter-mile back to the boat dock from the bridge.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 2.3 miles
Total Elevation Gain: level
Difficulty: 2.3, easy (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 55 minutes (Calculated using an average 2.5 mph speed.)

Places to see and things to do.

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Notes

  1. Bristol, George. Glacier National Park: a culmination of giants. Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2017.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. Hagen, John. “A History of Many Glacier.” Glacier Park  Foundation. Last modified, 2012. http://www.glacierparkfoundation.org/History/mgh.html.
  4. Kiser, Fred H. “Site of Chalet Camp On Lake McDermott.” Montana Memory Project. https://tinyurl.com/y885ebue.
  5. “Many Glacier Chalets aka Swiftcurrent Chalets.” The National Park Lodge Architecture Society. Last modified , 2010. https://www.nplas.org/swiftcurrent.html
  6. “Many Glacier Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified September 29, 1976. https://tinyurl.com/32rzzezn 
  7. Minetor, Randi. Historic Glacier National Park: the stories behind one of America’s great treasures. Guilford, CT: Rowan and Littlefield, 2016.
  8. “Pack Train Arriving At Many-Glacier Chalets. “See America First” Great Northern Railway.” Minnesota Historical Society. http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display.php?irn=10767548.
  9. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

I’d like your input.

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3 Lakes, Waterfalls & Swiftcurrent Pass

Hiking and history notes for your walk up the spectacular Swiftcurrent Valley.

Suppose you don’t feel like climbing to the pass. In that case, there are three wonderful subalpine lakes plus waterfalls to see along the route. They involve shorter distances and not much elevation gain. You’ll find more information in this post.

If you want more than the pass, Swiftcurrent Lookout Trail heads north near the pass and climbs 1,248 feet over 1.4 miles. The views from up there are outstanding.

Another option is to begin at Logan Pass and walk the Highline Trail past Granite Park Chalet until the path intersects the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail. Follow that back to Many Glacier. This route is a little over 15 miles with 2,844 feet total elevation gain and 4,553 feet loss. Transportation logistics are a must with this trip. Consider leaving your vehicle at the Logan Pass parking lot. At Many Glacier, catch a fee-based hiker’s shuttle to Saint Mary. From Saint Mary, use the free Glacier National Park Shuttles to return to Logan Pass.

The rest of this post is devoted to the out and back hike from Many Glacier to Swiftcurrent Pass.

The Trailhead

Once on the Many Glacier Road, drive to the parking lot in front of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (originally Swiftcurrent Auto Camp). This spot is five miles west of the Many Glacier entrance station. The well-marked Swiftcurrent Pass Trail begins just west of the inn.


The main building and cabins mark the “turning of a page” in Glacier National Park history. In the park’s early days, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) lured wealthy folks away from their vacations in the Swiss Alps and to the “alps” of America in Glacier National Park. These tourists expected top-shelf service, and they got it for a price.

Around the early 1930s, a different type of visitor emerged. The automobile made it possible for tourists to be mobile and independent of Great Northern. They demanded less extravagant lodging and service than that offered by the Many Glacier Hotel. Their voices were heard.

In 1933, Swiftcurrent Auto Camp began with the building of cabins described as “spartan and inexpensive.” Construction continued in 1935 with a general store at the east end of the current main building. In the 1940s, builders added the lobby space and restaurant at the west end.12 If you get a chance, it’s worth a look inside these historical buildings.

Long before the auto camp, horses and their riders rode down the Swiftcurrent Valley, making their way to the Many Glacier Hotel. This was the last leg of a multi-day backcountry camping trip known as the North Circle.3 As you walk along the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, know that you are enjoying the same magnificent scenery that many have for over a century.

Fishercap Lake (0.7 miles)

A quarter-mile after leaving the trailhead, a path veers left toward the shore of the lake with the peculiar name. The Blackfeet gave their friend George B. Grinnell the moniker Fishercap, which was then attached to the lake.9

The soft glow of early morning light on the water, Swiftcurrent Mountain, Mount Wilbur, and Bullhead Point creates an excellent scene for photographs. Not only that, but the valley from Fishercap Lake to Bullhead Lake has superb moose habitat. And, although there are no guarantees, the best time to see these impressive animals is early morning and evening.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Fishercap Lake
Fishercap Lake

Redrock Lake (1.3 miles) & Redrock Falls

The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail continues from the Fishercap Lake Trail junction through mixed lodgepole pine and fir forest. Intermixed stands of quaking aspen show off glowing yellow leaves in October. One and a half miles from the trailhead, there is a short side path to a gravel beach on the north side of Redrock Lake. It’s worth a look.

Continue toward the west end of the lake and find a spur trail at 1.8 miles leading to the lower part of Redrock Falls. The best show is early in the season. After you return to the primary route, climb a little, and then pass next to Swiftcurrent Creek and the upper section of the falls.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Redrock Lake
Redrock Lake

The conspicuous red to maroon rock from which the lake and falls take their name is part of the 2,500-feet-thick Grinnell Formation. Over a billion years ago, a Siberia size landmass began separating from what would become North America. A shallow inland sea formed in the resulting basin. Here, streams and rivers dumped the silt and sand they carried from the surrounding lifeless land. Over time, heat, pressure, and oxygen content produced multi-colored layers of rock. Then, tectonic forces pushed those layers, which were miles deep, eastward 50 miles, and upward.1

When the park’s rocks were forming, life in the ancient sea consisted of single-celled cyanobacteria. Since 3.5 billion years ago, these primitive organisms have produced oxygen and contributed substantially to an atmosphere that supports life as we know it.11 Stromatolites, fossils of the structures these organisms made, exist not only in the Grinnell Formation but within many others throughout the park.4

During the Pleistocene Epoch, glaciers thousands of feet deep filled the valleys of what is now Glacier National Park. Peaks of the mountains would have appeared like islands in the seas of ice. When the glaciers receded around 12,000 years ago, they left amazing hanging and u-shaped valleys, aretes, horns, and cirques that characterize the park.

Bullhead Lake (3.9 miles to the west end)

You’ll cross a suspension bridge over a stream flowing from Windmaker Lake about three and a half miles from the trailhead. Watch for a path headed toward Bullhead Lake about 500 feet after the bridge. I think the views are better there than those at the west end of the lake. 

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Bullhead Lake
Bullhead Lake

 A couple hundred feet farther west from the junction mentioned above, some not so apparent trails lead down to the shore. I used one of those when I needed to replenish my water supply coming back from the pass. Be sure to use some sort of water purification system.

Swiftcurrent Headwall

After leaving the west end of Bullhead Lake, cross Swiftcurrent Creek and head south into the drainage nestled at the base of Mount Grinnell, the Garden Wall, and a flank of Swiftcurrent Mountain. The trail crosses a pretty braided stream channel, but there is a plank bridge. It’s put in place in June and taken out in September. Check Glacier National Park’s Trail Status Reports.

In 1910, an official from the Department of the Interior visited the newly established Glacier National Park. He hired Josiah Rogers, an owner of stock and packer on the west side, to take him through the park, including a trip over Swiftcurrent Pass at the end of the journey. Rogers balked at this last request. He finally agreed when a contract guaranteed $100 for each horse lost while traveling over the dangerous route.9

The ride over a primitive trail scratched into cliffs must have made an impression on Roger’s guest. In those days, there wasn’t much money available for the park. But somehow, the government found funds to reconstruct the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail.9

One must climb over three miles using several switchbacks cut into the headwall to reach the pass. Otherwise known as “Galen’s Ladder,” workers constructed these hairpin-turns for the footpath during the 1913 trail reconstruction.9

Grand waterfalls plummeting down the eastern rock face of the Garden Wall add to the spectacular scenery as you gain elevation. Swiftcurrent Glacier clings to an east face of the Garden Wall not far below the ridge top. Several viewing points will present themselves as you make your way up the trail. This glacier has decreased about 71% since the mid-1800s.10 Modern glaciers, like Swiftcurrent, are not holdovers from the Pleistocene, which ended about 12,000 years ago. The 26 remaining glaciers in the park have only been around for 7,000 years.8

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Swiftcurrent Glacier
The USGS Repeat Photography Project documents the shrinking of glaciers in Glacier National Park.13

“A rolling wall of flame.”9 Park superintendent Scoyen said, “I have never seen as complete a burn-out as occurred in Swiftcurrent Valley. With the exception of a few swampy areas, every green living thing from rocks on one side of the valley to the other, has been destroyed.”5 Those words described the 8,364-acre, 1936 Heaven’s Peak Fire and its aftermath.

The new Swiftcurrent Ranger Station and other buildings rise from the ash of the 1936 Heaven’s Peak Fire, ca. 1938. (source unknown)

It all began on August 18, with a lightning strike above the Glacier Wall west of the continental divide. On August 31, violent winds carried firebrands east over Swiftcurrent Pass. They ignited the forest as much as 1.5 miles ahead of the main fire. The Many Glacier Hotel was spared, but the wildfire consumed many other buildings.5

Glacier National Park, Heaven's Peak Fire Map
Map of the Heaven’s Peak Fire of 1936.2

Looking down on the green Swiftcurrent Valley from several viewing points along the headwall, one would never suspect that such an inferno was part of Many Glacier’s history.

Devil’s Elbow is the last major switchback on the trail. Envision sitting on a horse or leading the critters around that hairpin turn with a vertical drop of hundreds of feet within a few steps of the path.

Swiftcurrent Pass

A small pile of rock rubble on the left side of the footpath marks the pass at 7,185 feet. It is all that remains of the base constructed in 1926 to support a locomotive bell. GNR installed bells at Swiftcurrent, Piegan, Siyeh Passes, and a fourth near Scenic Point. Great Northern borrowed the unique Swiss custom of placing bells on mountain tops and passes so that hikers could produce a loud clang upon arrival. It was in line with the railway’s advertising slogan “Alps of America” to promote Glacier National Park.9

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Swiftcurrent Pass
Remains of the 1926 bell foundation

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 13.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,611 feet; Loss: 370 feet
Difficulty: 18.9, strenuous
(Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 6 hours 47 minutes
(Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

New To Glacier National Park?

I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of this engineering masterpiece and the surrounding wilderness. See it here on Apple Books.


Notes

  1. Bentley, Callan. “The Belt Supergroup in Glacier National Park.” American Geophysical Union. Accessed February 18, 2019. https://blogs.agu.org/mountainbeltway/2013/08/27/guest-post-the-belt-supergroup-in-glacier-national-park/.
  1. “Glacier Fire Map 1910-2015.” Glacier National Park Fire History. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/fire-history.htm.
  1. “Glacier National Park Tourist Trails: Inside Trail; South Circle; North Circle.” National Archives Catalog. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/71974954
  1. Hunt-Foster, Rebecca K. “The Stromatolites of Glacier National Park.” National Park Service Park Paleontology News – Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall 2018. Last modified , 2018. https://www.nps.gov/articles/park-paleo-fall-2018-stromatolites.htm.
  1. Larson, Rolf L. “Firestorm!.” Glacier Park Foundation. Last modified , 2012. http://www.glacierparkfoundation.org/History/firestorm.html.
  1. “Moose.” Wikipedia. Last modified January 13, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moose.
  1. “Moose – Alces americanus.” Montana Field Guide. Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.. http://fieldguide.mt.gov/speciesDetail.aspx?elcode=AMALC03010.
  1. “Overview of Glacier National Park’s Glaciers.” National Park Service: Glacier National Park. Last modified August 17, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/glaciersoverview.htm.
  1. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  1. “Status of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” United States Geological Survey Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/retreat-glaciers-glacier-national-park?qt-science_center_objects=1#qt-science_center_objects.
  1. “Stromatolites.” Indiana University. https://geol105b.sitehost.iu.edu/images/gaia_chapter_10/stromatolites.htm
  1. “Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places Digital Archive on NPGallery. Last modified January 1, 1996. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=9e575759-c2a0-4079-8d43-99638b12c14a.
  1. “Swiftcurrent Glacier. Glacier National Park, Montana. Repeat photography 1910 – 2016.” United States Geological Survey Denver Library Photographic Collection. https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/5efcf7f882ce3fd7e8a5bb10.
  1. ​​”USGS Denver Library Photographic Collection: Glaciers of Glacier National Park Repeat Photography.” USGS: science for a changing world. https://usgs.libguides.com/usgsphotolib/glaciernp.

Autumn Creek Trail

If solitude is what you’re after, this hike near the southeast border of Glacier National Park will deliver. Explore as little, or as much, as your group can handle. However, you’ll need two vehicles for the entire point-to-point trek. Remember, the park service prohibits dogs on all trails. And that’s a good thing in this grizzly bear habitat.

Glacier National Park, grizzly bear track
A July grizzly bear track one-half mile from the trailhead to Firebrand Pass

Trailhead

The trip begins atop the Continental Divide at Marias Pass and ends 8.6 miles later at a vehicle pullout on the north side of U.S. Highway 2 close to mile marker 203—the usual start for the Firebrand Pass hike.

At Marias Pass, on the north side of U.S. Highway 2, there is a large gravel area near the railroad tracks. Park there, cross the rails and walk along the tree line to find a trail headed north. This is the Summit spur trail, which provides access to the Autumn Creek Trail.

Glacier National Park, Little Dog Mountain and Summit Mountain
Little Dog Mountain and Summit Mountain from near the Summit Spur Trailhead in September

Hike

After one-half mile, the trail crosses an earthen dam on the west end of Three Bears Lake. In 1902, Great Northern Railway (GNR) built this structure and another one on the east end to raise the water level of the naturally occurring Summit Lake. GNR needed the increased volume to supply a 50,000-gallon storage tank at Marias Pass.1 There, steam locomotives replenished their onboard water supply.

GNR Steam Locomotive at Summit Station, Marias Pass, MT
Steam locomotive at Summit Station, Marias Pass, MT (Great Northern Railway photograph)

When you intersect the Autumn Creek Trail, 1.1 miles from the trailhead, turn right. The easy-going path reaches its highest point of just under 6,000 feet in elevation 4.5 miles from the start and directly under the mountain formation known as The Mummy.

The footpath leads you through an open lodgepole pine forest with bear grass, huckleberries, and grouse whortleberries in much of the understory. When spring brings good rains, and there is ample soil moisture, bear grass blooms are spectacular. Small meadows along the path are home to a variety of other wildflowers. During June and July, they show off with multicolored displays.

Seven miles from the trailhead, look for the Lubec Trail junction (some refer to it as the Coonsa Trail). It’s another 1.5 miles to U.S. Highway 2. Panning east to west, Calf Robe Mountain, Summit Mountain, and Little Dog Mountain provide a spectacular scene.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 8.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,116 feet; Loss: 1,219 feet
Difficulty: 10.7, strenuous
(Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 4 hours
(Calculated using an average 2.5 mph speed and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Autumn Creek Trail – Blacktail Hills Option

In winter, the Blacktail Hills route is popular with skiers and snowshoers. You’ll also need to plan for two vehicles on this point-to-point outing. The trip begins at Marias Pass, as described above, and ends near mile-marker 194 (193.8) on U.S. Highway 2. There is a pullout on the south side of the highway just east of the exit point. I recommend ending here so the steepest part of the trip is experienced going downhill.

Turn left (west) when reaching the Autumn Creek Trail. Little Dog Mountain will be north of the trail and Elk Mountain will appear to the west. During winter, the open areas on the east side of Elk Mountain down to Autumn Creek can be hazardous.

Orange tags on the trees mark the route. These are especially helpful after a snowstorm. If you’re traveling this trail in winter, be sure to check the Avalanche Report.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 5.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 579 feet; Loss: 1,126 feet
Difficulty: 6.9 moderate
(Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 2 hours, 34 minutes
(Calculated using an average 2.5 mph speed and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Notes

  1. “Three Bears Lake and Dams.” Library of Congress. Historic American Engineering Record National Park Service (HAER No. MT-88). https://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/mt/mt0200/mt0273/data/mt0273data.pdf.

Grinnell Glacier & Upper Grinnell Lake

On November 2, 1887, after three days of bushwhacking, George Bird Grinnell, Jack Monroe, and James Willard Schultz scaled the headwall of a magnificent glacial valley. The team was probably all smiles when they climbed up onto the glacier Grinnell had spotted through his spyglass two years earlier.2 Grinnell estimated the depth of the ice, which would later bear his name, at 600 feet.2

Grinnell became one of the prominent personalities who worked tirelessly to gain national park status for the extraordinary land he had explored.

Today millions of people travel to Glacier National Park. The Many Glacier Region, in the northeastern part of the park, is a hiker’s paradise. And one of the most popular destinations in this area is Grinnell Glacier. The trip to what remains of the once-mighty glacier often shows up in visitor’s top ten “must-do” lists. During July and August, don’t expect any solitude. But do expect to be awed by the scenery.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Grinnell Lake, and Angel Wing
Grinnell Lake with Angel Wing rising from the far shore.

If you’d like to mix it up a bit, consider buying passage on the boats Chief Two Guns and Morning Eagle. Chief Two Guns is a 45-foot, 49 passenger launch that motors across Swiftcurrent Lake. Its dock at the foot of the lake is near the Many Glacier Hotel. Once at the head of the lake, there is a short walk to the pier on Lake Josephine. There the 49 passenger Morning Eagle is waiting to take folks to the head of her lake. Using the boats will knock off a little over three miles of the walk to the glacier. Check out Glacier Park Boat Company’s website for current fees and time schedules.

Planning

It’s not uncommon for the park service to post a warning or close the Grinnell Glacier Trail because of grizzly bears. If you’re unfamiliar with traveling through bear habitat, I recommend Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety web page. There’s a lot of valuable information, including a video presentation by a park bear biologist.

Also, check the Glacier National Park Trail Status page. The following is an example from July 10, 2021.


Grinnell Glacier Trail

CLOSED for bear frequenting from Thunderbird Falls to the end of the trail 7/10/21 per 822

Projected initial clearing date: 7/23/21 per 650 

High-angle snow hazards exist approximately 1.5 miles above the junction with Josephine Lake (3.5 miles from the trailhead at the picnic area). Crampons, ice axe, and extensive experience with ice travel would be recommended.


And while you’re at it, visit Glacier National Park’s Trail and Area Closings and Postings web page.

I also encourage you to check the National Weather Service Recreation Safety Forecast web page to reduce the chances of nasty weather surprises.

If you’ve not done many longer hikes in the backcountry, consider REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It’s a good one.

Trailhead

Hiking the entire Grinnell Glacier Trail is the focus of this post. The strenuous hike begins in the Many Glacier picnic area about 0.5-miles past the road to the Many Glacier Hotel. The trailhead is well marked at the south end of the parking lot, which fills early during July and August. Additional parking is sometimes available just before the picnic area beside the road.

The Many Glacier Hotel is an alternate starting point. You will meander along the eastern and southern shores of Swiftcurrent Lake before intersecting the Grinnell Glacier Trail. This route is about three-tenths of a mile longer than that starting at the picnic area.

Hike

The first two miles of the footpath are relatively level and forested. You’ll walk along the western shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Grinnell Point, the prominence seen from the Many Glacier Hotel, rises to the north.

After the Josephine Trail junction, the climb begins in earnest. The icy-cold Grinnell Falls, crashing 960 feet down the headwall, appears about one mile past the Josephine intersection.1 With elevation gain, trees become fewer and stunted. A great birds-eye perspective of the u-shaped glacial valley with its shimmering lakes then opens up. To appreciate the immensity of this landscape, one needs to experience it. Photographs fall short.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Grinnell Falls
Grinnell Falls

About 3.5 miles from the trailhead, Thunderbird Falls spills onto the cliff-hugging trail. Then, a short distance up the path, one may encounter a steep snowfield burying the footpath. This frozen mass can persist into July and might be dangerous to cross. Checking with park rangers about potential hazards before embarking would be a good call.

One is likely to walk over fossilized ripple marks exposed during trail construction. Water agitation in the shallow sea environment of the ancient Belt Sea formed these sediment ridges over one billion years ago. During hundreds of millions of years, thousands of feet of sediment stacked one layer upon another in the sea basin. Heat and pressure cemented the loose particles into solid rock. Finally, tectonic forces shoved the massive rock mass eastward 50 miles and uplifted it as it slid over the top of much younger rock. The foundation of Glacier National Park started as the mucky bed of the Belt Sea.

As the climb continues, the route becomes a narrow shelf blasted into the side of a cliff. Far below at the bottom of the steep drop-off is Grinnell Lake, a turquoise gem. Rising abruptly from its far shore is the sheer rock face of Angel Wing, backed by the massive Mount Gould. A near-vertical rock wall is the view on the opposite side of the trail.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Grinnell Glacier Trail - cliffs
Cliff bands above Grinnell Lake with Angel Wing and Mount Gould

When the path leaves its perch on the rock face, it crosses open areas where you might see bighorn sheep and mountain goats. A picnic area with a pit toilet offers a great place to rest before the final 400-foot and 0.4-mile climb over the glacial moraine to Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake.

Grinnell Glacier

The ice-scoured rock beside Upper Grinnell Lake is a popular place to hang out, surrounded by fantastic scenery. Directly across the water, Salamander Falls plummets 440 feet with meltwater from Salamander Glacier.4

Salamander, once part of the vast Grinnell Glacier, shrunk 23 percent between 1966 and 2015.3

The remnants of Grinnell Glacier lie at the south end of the cirque beneath the massive Mount Gould. During the same period mentioned above, Grinnell lost 45 percent of its area.3

The USGS Repeat Photography Project documents changes in glaciers by placing historical photographs alongside more recent photographs taken from the same location. The pictures of Grinnell Glacier say it all.

In the past, rangers took visitors out onto Grinnell Glacier. This no longer happens. The risks of crossing the outlet of Upper Grinnell Lake and walking on top of weakened ice with hidden crevasses are too great.

Since 1900, the mean annual temperature for Glacier National Park and the surrounding region has increased by 1.3 ℃, which is 1.8 times the global mean increase.3

Gem Glacier succumbed to rises in temperature and lost its classification as a glacier because it no longer met the 25-acre criteria.3 The last bit of the former glacier hugs the Garden Wall south of Salamander and west of Mount Gould.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 10.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,277 feet; Loss: 701 feet
Difficulty: 15.2, strenuous
(calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Miles)
Estimated Walking Time: 5 hours 22 minutes
(calculated using an average 2.5 mph walking speed and Naismuth’s Rule to compensate for elevation gain)

New To Glacier National Park?

I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of the park. See it here on Apple Books.

Notes

  1. “Grinnell Falls, Glacier County, Montana, United States.” World Waterfall Database. Last modified March 19, 2017. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Grinnell-Falls-482.
  2. Minetor, Randi. Historic Glacier National Park: the stories behind one of America’s Great Treasures. Guilford, CT: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
  3. “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” United States Geological Survey. Last modified, 2013. http://npshistory.com/publications/glac/glacier-retreat-2013.pdf.
  4. Salamander Falls, Glacier County, Montana, United States.” World Waterfall Database. Last modified March 19, 2017. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Salamander-Falls-759.
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