After I parked the car we hoisted our packs onto our backs and marched into the woods. We began the hike at 11:30 a.m. a bit of a late start for a long hike. The forest was not especially dense, unlike the rainforests we had just left in Olympic National Park. There was waist-high grass, small plants, and rather evenly spaced trees throughout. The path beneath our feet was a combination of well-packed dirt and pine needles providing a soft cushion. Soon Swiftcurrent Lake became visible through the trees to our left.
Within about ten minutes the trail met up with the western shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. Encircled by pines and large gray mountains, the lake was a thing of beauty. It was a soft cerulean blue and crystal clear.
The trail ran beside the lakeshore for about a half mile. This was a section of trail that made me really want to take it slow and enjoy our picturesque surroundings. I didn’t know at that point that the hike would be an ever-growing crescendo of amazing scenery. It was hard for me to take my eyes off the lake and focus on the trail in front of me. That was not especially safe or smart, though.
This hike was in the absolute heart of grizzly territory. It wasn’t a question of watching out for bears to wander into our campground or picnic area. No, we were walking into their home this time. We had to be on high alert. It was of the utmost importance that we make noise, listen carefully, survey our surroundings, and ultimately be prepared for anything. We didn’t carry any bear spray, which meant we had to be extra cautious. It is not uncommon for the trail and several others in the Many Glacier area to be closed due to “excessive bear activity.”
Despite the possibility of danger or perhaps because of it we were very intrigued by the Grinnell Glacier Trail. It is one of the most scenic trails in the park, encompassing several of Glacier’s most iconic features. The trail traverses the gorgeous Grinnell Valley, passes beautiful glacier-fed lakes and waterfalls, crosses alpine meadows spilling over with wildflowers, and ends at a small mostly-frozen lake filled with icebergs. And the entire area is teeming with wildlife. Rams, mountain goats, moose, and bears live and travel throughout the pristine landscape. The Grinnell Glacier trail would become one of my favorite hikes and provide me with unforgettable memories.
We continued alongside Swiftcurrent Lake until we reached its southern shore. The forest lined the path on the right the entire distance. The trail then followed along the southern shore of Swiftcurrent Lake before breaking away and leading back into the woods. It was a quick walk through thick forest before we emerged next to another majestic lake. We had reached Lake Josephine, the second of three wondrous lakes in the bottom of Grinnell Valley. This lake was a beautiful blue-green body of water that reflected the craggy mountains far above.
So far we had been moving very quickly along the trail, passing most other hikers in front of us. There was virtually no elevation gain thus far, so we walked at a fast pace. Then we abruptly came to a halt behind a family that was stopped dead in their tracks. There were four of them huddled together. The mother told us that she had just rounded a blind turn in the trail when she immediately stopped because she saw a large grizzly bear. The bear was close by and she said that when it saw her it stood up. The mother apparently kept her cool and calmly backed up around the turn and out of sight. Luckily for them the bear did not follow.
We talked and waited with the family for a few minutes. Then the six of us combined our efforts to be as loud as possible in hopes of making it very clear to the bear that a large group of people was coming its way. We were clapping, yelling, and whistling. Cautiously, we proceeded around the turn as a group without letting up on the noise level. Once we rounded the bend we realized the bear had fled.
We continued along the northwest shore of Lake Josephine for a while. It was larger than Swiftcurrent Lake. The trail slowly traveled uphill next to the lake. We were still probably only about twenty feet to the right of the lake, and maybe fifteen or twenty feet above it. It was a nice part of the hike because we had wide open views of the long aquamarine lake the entire time. There were some small clusters of trees to our right, but it was mostly open with patches of wildflowers scattered all over.
Just before we came to the end of Lake Josephine we arrived at a trail junction. The left fork led to the shore of Grinnell Lake, about 1.2 miles away along mostly level terrain. The fork to the right started uphill toward Grinnell Glacier, just over two miles and a steep climb away. We watched the family who had seen the bear turn toward Grinnell Lake. We, however, wanted more of a challenge, so we took the right fork and immediately began an uphill climb.
Right after we made the turn towards the glacier the path changed considerably. It became much thinner and developed into a steep grade. We could see pretty far ahead and noticed that the trail climbed high up the mountainside. We were just scratching the surface of that ascent. I immediately wondered if we had made the correct choice. After all, the left fork would have been far easier.
We stuck with our choice and steadily ascended the mountain. It wasn’t too steep, but it was a far cry from the prior makeup of the trail. We managed to continue our fast pace for a while, passing several more hikers along the way. We started to take more breaks the higher we got, mostly to take photos. Sweeping views of Grinnell Valley, with its sparkling blue lakes and dark green forests opened up below us.
We were probably close to 300 feet above the valley floor when we stopped for another break. I surveyed the magnificent valley below us and took some more pictures. We still had a good view of Lake Josephine. A great forest of firs enclosed the body of water and stretched halfway up the mountain behind it. Beyond treeline the broad mountain was a combination of gray and pink rock that reached a wide bald summit high up in the sky.
The small but spirited Cataract Creek wound its way from Lake Josephine through the densely packed forest to the southwest. The creek eventually connects to Grinnell Lake on the opposite side of the forest. We had a clear view of a wooden bridge that crossed over Cataract Creek about a quarter-mile from Lake Josephine. The bridge was for hikers that took the left fork at the earlier trail junction, towards Grinnell Lake. The sturdy bridge was a few feet wide, had wood railings, and spanned about fifteen feet.
While paused on the trail, we looked down on the bridge. Our timing was impeccable; as we were about to witness an amazing and unforgettable scene unfold. Joe first spotted a bear emerge from the woods on our side of the creek and approach the bridge. We could tell it was a grizzly by the hump above its shoulders. The bear stopped next to the wooden bridge and then a small grizzly cub sauntered up behind it. We were a safe distance away, standing on the trail a couple hundred feet above the creek and also a few hundred feet north of the bears. I watched them through the telephoto lens on my camera, but they were so far away that the pictures came out a little fuzzy.
Once the grizzlies got to the edge of the creek they jumped into the water. The mother did a belly flop, immediately followed by its cub. We watched them land in the water, then swim a few feet before walking up the opposite side of the creek. Next, they hurried south beside Cataract Creek, with the cub trailing its mother by about twenty feet. In less than a minute they disappeared from view between the trees of the dark forest that shrouded the creek.
The sight of the grizzlies in their natural habitat, albeit brief, was incredible. We thought the show was over, but thankfully there was a short encore to follow. We were still in a slight state of shock when an enormous bull moose suddenly charged out of the forest from the same spot that the grizzly bears first appeared. We were far away, but it was easy to see that this huge moose was on a mission. He burst through the water with ease before galloping up the side of the creek after the cub.
We couldn’t believe the moose was actually chasing two grizzly bears, but that was certainly what it looked like. I’ve seen some moose in the wild before, but have never seen one move so fast and deliberate. This moose was out for blood. I thought that since the moose was a little farther behind maybe it had only seen the cub and didn’t realize it was traveling with its mother. I’m pretty sure I was right.
The moose followed the creek out of view, just as the grizzlies did a minute earlier. And then, about twenty seconds later, came the best part. The moose reemerged. As fast as it ran before, it was now in a full on sprint. The huge beast raced along the far edge of the creek until it vanished into the woods beside Lake Josephine. The bears did not follow. I wish I could have seen what happened once the moose met up with the mother grizzly, but we had to settle for the entertaining aftermath.
After a couple of minutes we continued up the trail. The path gradually ascended the side of Mount Grinnell. The trail wouldn’t take us to the summit of Grinnell (or even close, for that matter), but we would traverse the southern face of the mountain en route to Grinnell Glacier, which is located on Mount Gould adjacent to Mount Grinnell.
Grinnell Valley is a broad U-shaped valley. The Grinnell Glacier Trail steadily brought us up one side of the valley. Over time it was as if the path bisected the northern side of the “U.” The farther up we hiked, the steeper the mountainside grew.
Early on, the trail was rich with flora. While the vast dark forests thrived on the valley floor, they did not stretch far up the mountainsides. Higher up, we passed through magnificent alpine meadows blanketed with colorful wildflowers. Most of the small clusters of pine and fir trees, which were prevalent early on our ascent, dissipated there.
Amid a field of wildflowers we encountered a park ranger hustling down the trail. He stopped briefly to ask if we had seen any bears. We told him what we saw down by the wooden bridge and he said he heard of a lot of bear activity on the trail. He said he was going to close the trail. Thankfully we did not have to turn back, but the traffic on the trail was sure to decrease.
Then the amazing Grinnell Glacier Trail got even better. As we continued up the path through the flowery meadows we got our first glimpse of Grinnell Lake, the most beautiful lake in Glacier National Park. This was the third and final lake that sat in the valley and it was by far the most astonishing. In fact, I’d say each lake was more striking than the last. The milky turquoise lake is almost completely surrounded by a forest of pines. The exception is where the colossal Mount Gould rises nearly straight up from the lake’s southwest shore. A tall threadlike waterfall emptied into the lake from Upper Grinnell Lake high above. The lake was remarkably stunning below the snowy mountains. It looked even better in person than on the post cards I saw in a gift shop that inspired us to hike the trail. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, and took plenty of photos before moving on.
It was a very hot hike as it was primarily open and unprotected from the sun. That was especially the case when we were high up on the side of Mount Grinnell as we rarely encountered any shade. Thankfully we found other sources of relief. A small glacier-fed stream flowed across the trail at one point. It was a few inches deep just above the trail so we stopped to cool down. I dipped my hat in the cool water and put it back on. Joe submerged his whole head in the water. Looking ahead, I saw we would soon reach considerably more trailside water.
The path grew steeper and narrower. We were considerably high up the mountainside. The trail hugged a cliff with a near vertical drop-off to our left. Then we were led onto a thin ledge, just a couple of feet wide. On our right was a solid rock wall about fifteen feet tall, on our left a drop of about 1,000 feet. We arrived at the water I had seen from the creek a few minutes earlier. It was like a “weeping wall.” Water poured down the side of the wall next to us in a series of thin waterfalls from glaciers and snowmelt high up on the mountain. There was no escaping the cold water. I walked quickly and still got soaked. Joe walked under the water then stopped, took off his shirt, and walked back under the waterfall and just stood there for a minute.
We were closing in on our destination. The trail widened again and began to switchback its way up a steep portion of the cliff side. We encountered a group of hikers coming down the trail who said to make sure we go all the way up the trail to the glacier and not just stop at the first lookout like some do. We said thanks for the info and moved on.
We rounded a turn and came to a small wooded area. Inside the tiny forest we found a clearing. We reached a small picnic area just shy of the final climb to the glacier. This was a prime resting area for people before making the short, but stressful climb to Grinnell Glacier. There was an outhouse nearby and several low benches made from logs cut in half.
We sat down on a couple of log benches and started eating our sandwiches and potato chips. A few squirrels approached us and mercilessly begged for food. They had no fear of humans. Once they realized we weren’t going to share they got crafty. At one point, a squirrel sat in front of Joe while another one snuck under the log he was sitting on and tried to take a bag of potato chips from between Joe’s feet. After that we were on high alert. Once I finished eating, a squirrel popped up from underneath my bench and scurried between my feet. I grabbed my water bottle and poured some water on top of his head. The squirrel ran around in circles and kept shaking his head. It didn’t bother us anymore.
Before leaving, we talked to a hiker who had just descended to the picnic area. He said the last grunt up the trail was very steep, but also very short. He said it should only take about ten minutes. We decided it was time to make the final ascent to Grinnell Glacier.
The last climb was intense. It was certainly the steepest section of the hike, but it was only two tenths of a mile long. I checked my watch as we began the arduous climb. We slowly, but steadily trudged up a series of very rocky switchbacks over a boulder-strewn glacial moraine. Parts of the trail consisted of large rock stairs that took some serious strides to clear. We kept a slow pace so that we didn’t have to stop along the way. By the time we made it to the top we were exhausted and drenched in sweat. But after another check of my watch I saw that it indeed took just ten minutes.
Once we made it to the top I stopped and turned around to look down on the great distance we had traveled. We were 1,600 feet above the valley floor and had an incredible view of Grinnell Valley in its entirety. It was a magical panorama that showcased the stunning lakes we had passed on our hike. They each varied in size, shape, and color. Grinnell Lake was closest then there was a patch of dark green forest with an opening in the middle for the snaking Cataract Creek. Past the forest was Lake Josephine, then the southern tip of Swiftcurrent Lake, and Lake Sherburne far off in the distance. Amazing views were nearly non-stop on the Grinnell Glacier Trail, but this was undoubtedly one of the best.
Once I could pull myself away from the scenic vista overlooking the valley I started down the opposite side of the glacial moraine to yet another otherworldly landscape. We stood on a very gritty rock-strewn section of the moraine. Several snow fields of varying size spread across the area. A short distance below us at the base of the moraine was Upper Grinnell Lake. It was small and glassy. The pale-blue lake was filled with ice bergs. We were eye-level with Grinnell Glacier, the most accessible glacier in the park. The glacier rests against the mountainside of Mount Gould, spilling frigid water into the lake.
We were just shy of the continental divide, a mere 150 feet below Logan Pass. Not only did we have an up-close view of Grinnell Glacier, but we were in the presence of two other glaciers as well. Gem Glacier, the smallest named glacier in the park, sits in a petite nook just below the continental divide. Salamander Glacier is slightly lower on the mountain wall, probably about fifty feet above the center of Upper Grinnell Lake. Salamander Glacier can be seen from far away on the Grinnell Valley floor, whereas Grinnell Glacier is too low to be seen. Years ago, before rising temperatures began decimating the park’s glaciers, Salamander Glacier and Grinnell Glacier formed one large glacier that also encompassed all of Upper Grinnell Lake.
We were in an amazing alpine area unlike any I had seen before. The temperature was considerably colder up there. The place was also fairly busy with day hikers. There were probably around twenty people up there, but there was so much space that it was far from overcrowded. Joe followed a path far across the moraine to an isolated area near the water. I took a lot of pictures of the lake and glaciers before heading down to a different part of the icy lake.
As expected, the water was frigid. I was still hot from the hike, so I dipped my wide-brimmed hiking hat into the small arctic lake and then put it back on. The glacial water was intensely refreshing and rejuvenating. It also had a bit of a painful sting to it, due to the water being so cold, but that didn’t last long.
I spent a lot of time down at the shore of the frosty lake examining its makeup and surroundings. I was fascinated by the ice bergs and glaciers because I had never seen either up close before.
After staying beside Upper Grinnell Lake for a while I decided I was ready to start the trip down to the trailhead. I walked back up to the higher section of the moraine overlooking the lake and glaciers. I didn’t see Joe anywhere. We were up there for close to an hour by then, maybe longer. I wondered if he already started the descent, because he probably couldn’t have seen me where I was either. So, I decided to head back down the steep rocky steps of the moraine to the picnic area where we ate our lunch with the squirrels.
Once I got there I looked around and again couldn’t find Joe. Maybe he still was up near the glacial lake after all. I decided to sit back down on one of the log benches and wait a while just in case. I took my book out of my backpack and relaxed. Then after twenty minutes I decided Joe must have already started down the mountainside. It had also started thundering a few minutes ago, although it didn’t really look like rain. A little worried about the weather and figuring Joe must have already left I decided to head down the trail.
I tossed my book in my pack, checked my water, and sped off. I thought I was playing catch up, so I moved fast. I rarely stopped for pictures and passed many hikers on my way down the side of Mount Grinnell.
At one point I made a quick stop for photos and was stopped by a young couple about my age. The man asked me about the many National Park patches on my backpack. I walked and talked with them for a little while. They were from Duluth, Minnesota. We mostly talked about Glacier, the bears, and our trips. They asked if I was traveling alone, so I mentioned that I lost my friend somewhere along the trail and would (hopefully) meet him back at the trailhead. After several minutes of hiking with them, I said goodbye and quickened my pace down the trail.
The descent went much faster than the hike up. In what felt like a short time I was off the mountain and back at the trail junction for Grinnell Lake. I had already hiked over three quick miles downhill when I got to a new sign hanging across the trail on a metal chain. The sign said that the following section of the trail was closed due to bear activity and that if anyone is caught inside the quarantined area they could face up to six months in prison and pay a steep fine.
The detour led me across a wooden bridge and around the opposite shore of Lake Josephine. The trail would eventually reconnect between Lake Josephine and Swiftcurrent Lake. I found it amusing that this was the way I had to go, because the bridge I had to cross was the same one that the two grizzly bears jumped next to a couple hours earlier. So, basically I was redirected by park rangers to leave a section of trail where I saw no bears onto a section of trail where I saw two. Oh well.
I was extra careful near the bridge and cataract creek. Once past there I sped up once more and made quick work of the trail. The path was level and I had my hiking poles so I was able to move swiftly and easily over the well-worn trail.
I made a brief stop beside the southern shore of Lake Josephine for a snack break of potato chips and water. Then I hurried off once more en route to the trailhead. After crossing over to the other side of Swiftcurrent Lake, because that made for a more direct route to the picnic area we started at, it was a pretty straight shot on the homestretch.
Sooner than expected I emerged from the woods at the trailhead. I walked into the small picnic grove and searched for Joe once more. He was again nowhere to be found. I guess he didn’t leave before me after all. I threw my gear in my car and got comfortable for my wait. I changed into sandals, grabbed my book, and sat down at one of the picnic tables to read and wait. An hour later Joe arrived and we headed back to our campsite at St. Mary.