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Grinnell Glacier

[Mount Grinnell, MT]

Glaciers are moving ice. A glacier’s upper end – the accumulation zone – piles with snow and presses the glacier down the slope. This movement is what separates glaciers from static snowfields – a glacier has enough mass to move. A glacier needs to be at least 100 feet deep and 25 acres in surface area in order to have enough mass to move.

Glacier national park’s remaining 25 glaciers are leftover from a mini ice age that peaked around 1850, when there were 150 glaciers in the park. They have been melting at an increasing pace since the 1920’s, with the rate of melt skyrocketing in the 1970s by more than 50%. In fact, Glacier park is a laboratory for the study of climate change because the park’s high elevations have warmed at three times the overall rate of the planet. Average temperatures in Glacier nowadays run 2F warmer than in the 1900s. The park now sees 30 fewer days with below freezing temperatures and 8 more days above 90F. The remaining 25 glaciers are expected to disappear in the next 5-10 years.

Goerge Birg Grinnell, an explorer who loved this area and lobbied for its preservation, discovered the glacier that bears his name in the now-distant 1887. Grinnell glacier is the only glacier accessible on foot, and the hike to reach it is one of the most popular ones in the park.

The trailhead starts on the East side of the park, at Many Glacier Hotel – a historic lodge that just celebrated its centennial.

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There are two options at the start of the hike – go on foot, or take a boat to cross two lakes and cut about 2.5 miles each way from what otherwise be an 11-mile hike. We knew the boat rides sell out early, so we headed out before 6 am; Many Glacier is 2 hours from where we were staying on the West side of the park.

Our Montana grandma had left us homemade cinnamon rolls, granola and fruit to snack on since we were heading out way before breakfast; we couldn’t have been more happy her fixings.

Our ride to Many Glacier was awesome. Although we’d done almost all of this drive on our way to Waterton on Monday, this time we got to see it at the start of a gorgeous sunny day. Everything looked a bit different in the soft glow of the rising sun, and we didn’t mind that it was so early. One thing that hadn’t changed since Monday, however, were the cows. Both on Monday and today, we would stumble upon herds of them munching on the side of the road. Every once in a while, we’d see a pack in the middle of the road; one with invariably turn to us and give us a bored look.

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On the way to Grinnell Glacier trailhead.

Once we turned left from the highway onto Many Glacier, the majestic peaks that this park is known for came into view, and we could even see several glaciers up high on the rocks. One of them was Grinnell, although we didn’t know that yet.

We parked at Many Glacier hotel and hurried down to the dock but alas, the 8:30 am boat was already full.

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pre-hike photo

We set off on foot along the West bank of Swiftcurrent lake, then along St. Josephine lake and before you know it, we found ourselves at the junction to the trail where the people from the boat came up. Oddly enough, we’d made it there at the same time as most of them! That made us feel very good about not getting on the boat – we saved money, burnt extra calories and didn’t even lose any time in the process.

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Swiftcurrent lake

Just as we were starting our ascent from the turnoff, we heard what sounded like a rock slide tumbling down the mountain. I was getting ready to duck, when I realized it was a pair of deer coming down the slope. They didn’t expect us on the trail, so one of them didn’t see us in time and jumped on the trail right in-between us and the people behind us. He (or she) stared at the people as if daring them to get off the trail, then veered off to the side. That was, unfortunately, as close as we’ve gotten to wildlife on this trip. Just a couple of deer here and at Apgar lookout; no goats or bears so far!

Most of the 2100-ft elevation gain was in the next 3.6 miles. The hike was so gorgeous though, we barely noticed. The entire valley sprawled in front of us as we climbed the trail, which was carved into the rim on the East side of it. We climbed along layers of multicolored rock, waterfalls, wildflowers and the most gorgeous views we’d seen in the park, or maybe ever. While most hikes reward you with a great view at the top, this hike was a treat for our senses the entire way. Between the amazing rock formations, the rustle of the wind and the sound of waterfalls all around, we were in awe. Add in the giant peaks all around us, with many glaciers in plain view and the green valley below, and we were speechless. Every few minutes or so we’d make enough progress to get an entirely new perspective on the same landscape; some peaks would be behind us while others would come into view, the sun would be a little higher and we’d feel like the views were now totally different from just moments before, hence all the pictures we took today.

Eventually, we got to Lower Grinnell lake – a lake the most beautiful color of turquoise, fed from the melting glacier above.

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Lower Grinnell lake

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Lower Grinnell lake from higher up the trail

The glacier was right above the lake and to the left, feeding it with its melt.

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View of Grinnell with the waterfalls that feed the lakes below

Another fairly steep ascent, and there we were, at Upper Grinnell lake, where icebergs were floating in the water in late July in 80F temps.

We ate lunch there, just looking up at the glacier and imagining what it looked like years ago, when it was 60% bigger, and what it would look like in a few years.

Our descent gave us a really good perspective on the distance we’d covered. Lower Grinnell lake, St. Josephine Lake and Swiftcurrent lake all lay in front of us, and our trailhead was at the far side of the third lake, way in the distance. As we descended, I kept telling Olivia I didn’t want this hike to end. I wanted to turn back and start climbing again – that’s how beautiful this hike was.

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Our trailhead is way at the end of the third lake 🙂

Once we were back in Many Glacier, we sat down in the hotel lobby for a glass of beer – we had a limited edition Pilsner that’s available only in the park. The hotel bar was off to the side and we walked through a hallway to get there. A series of photographs documenting the disappearance of the glaciers was on display. It was sad and heart-breaking to see the difference between photos taken in the early 1900s with the ones taken today. Most glaciers used to be 3 to 5 times the size they are now. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone could look at those photos and dispute climate change – it was right there before our eyes. Ironically, Montana does not recycle! Let that sink in a little bit.

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Post-hike selfie

After a long 2-hour drive back, we stopped at a restaurant in West Glacier for dinner, where I got even closer to my goal of having as many huckleberry food items as I can on this trip. The items at dinner: huckleberry lemonade and huckleberry pie with a scoop of huckleberry ice cream on top. YUM! And the bison burger was pretty good, too. I am starting to really, really like Montana.

11 miles, 33,00 steps, 2100 ft of elevation gain and 90+ photos later, I can honestly say that today’s experience will be one to remember, probably top 10 overall, even with future travel still to come. This was just such a unique experience that, sadly, won’t be able to be repeated soon. We realized this about half way up the trail today, which rarely happens – you often need the perspective of time and other experiences to know something was truly special like that. But today, we were lucky enough to realize this while it was happening, which made this hike all the more special.

I cannot imagine that even the famed Going-to-the-Sun road, which we are going on tomorrow, will top Grinnell glacier, but who knows – I guess we will find out.

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