I consider the hike to Grinnell Glacier to be the pinnacle of my Glacier National Park vacation, and the only part on which I have actually done research. I have been looking forward to this day for months.
When Glacier National Park opened in 1910, there were 150 glaciers. Now there are only 25 remaining. Scientists expect at the current rate, by 2030 there will be none. So I really want the chance to hike up to the foot of the glacier; to stand and contemplate the evolution of our species. This hike will afford me the opportunity to get up close to two glaciers, Grinnell and Salamander.
Grinnell Glacier is named for George Bird Grinnell, a conservationist, explorer, and founder of the National Audubon Society. He spent many years exploring the park and was a major contributor toward establishing the area as a National Park. He was befriended by the Blackfeet tribe, and led an initiative to save the buffalo, among many other species. And Salamander Glacier was named for…..well….it looks more like a Dachshund to me.
The Grinnell Glacier hike can either be done all on foot for a total of eleven miles round trip, or it is possible to shave off four miles with a two-boat tour. One must pass both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine along the way, so by taking the boat ride, it cuts four miles off the hike, making it 7.5 miles with a 1,600 ft elevation gain.
The boat tour crosses Swiftcurrent Lake on “Chief Two Guns” with a ¼ mile trail over a mound of land that separates the two lakes. Then we will board a second boat, “Morning Eagle” to continue on across Lake Josephine where the dock is located at the Grinnell Glacier trail head. Not that I have any objection to hiking the entire eleven miles, mind you. But I do enjoy a boat ride as much as I do a hike. So I have booked in advance to insure my seat on the two-boat tour.
The tour schedule includes an early morning express run to the Grinnell Glacier trail head, which also features a guided hike with a ranger to the glacier. Not typically being the “guided hike” sort, I sign up for this anyway. One, because of the “Bear Fear Factor” where every sign seems to jump out at me warning, “Don’t hike alone!” Not that I would be alone on this heavily traveled hike, mind you. Quite the contrary! But I didn’t know this back when I booked the boat tour. The second reason was I really wanted the interpretive narration from the ranger in hopes of learning more about the glaciers
The hike starts out along an extensive length of boardwalk over a marshy area, before it begins the steep climb. Our National Park Service guide, Ranger Rick, is a geology buff so he tells us up front this hike will have a heavy geology theme. We review the three different kinds of rock; sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous, which brings back mind-numbing lectures from my school days. This would no doubt lull us all to sleep if only we could catch our breath long enough after the lung-busting climb up the switchbacks. Geology is not really my thing but I feign interest because I need the rest stops.
There are a ridiculous number of hikers on this guided hike, and I often think of breaking from the pack. It’s a bit like a game of whiplash where the fast hikers race ahead, then wait for the slower ones to catch up, while those of us in the mid section collapse and expand like an accordion to hurry up and wait to hear the ranger talks. Just about the time I decide I am going to break ranks and continue on my own, Ranger Rick tells us all that he has a foot ailment, and will not be able to make the entire hike. So he will finish his narration midway up, at which time we will be free to complete the hike on our own, at our own pace. Yes! Best of both worlds!
After the first third of the trail which is mostly climbing, the trail levels out a bit, but becomes quite narrow, most of it carved into the side of the mountain, or positioned on outcroppings. There are a few small waterfalls to cross, and views of the stunning turquoise Grinnell Lake come into view. At the furthest stretch of the narrow trail, it is possible to see three lakes in the distance, Grinnell Lake, Lake Josephine, and Lake Sherberne Reservoir.
Finally when Ranger Rick reaches his limit, he gives the talk we have all been waiting for…the melting of the glaciers. Back when Grinnell first explored the glacier in the late 1800’s, the glacier, then one large glacier consisting of both Grinnell and Salamander combined, was reported to be a thousand feet high and several miles across. Now, an estimated 90% of the ice that Grinnell first saw is gone. It has created its own melt water lake from the massive thawing. Once it is gone, there is concern for a sustainable water source at this elevation. Whether or not you believe Global Climate Change is induced by man, or merely by the natural warming and cooling cycles of our planet, there is no doubt it is having an impact on the park’s ecosystem.
Before Ranger Rick turns us all loose, he tells us of a nice picnic area up ahead with benches and pit toilets. “It’s a good stop to have a rest and regroup for the hardest part of the hike yet. The final quarter mile to Upper Grinnell Lake is steep and rocky. But persevere. Trust me, the views are worth it!”
Although I have done research on access to the hike via the boat tours and the trail itself, I have no idea what lies ahead at the end of the trail. After making the final quarter of a mile climb up through the scree, I crest a large berm to get my first glimpse of Upper Grinnell Lake. I let out what sounds like a combination of a gasp and a sob, as I had no idea I would be encountering an iceberg filled lake! I am mesmerized! I sit on a rock for a good hour, just staring into the shimmering ice-blue lake with the frozen chunks of ice floating, so still and beautifully sculpted by the elements.
I have been hearing a lot of debate lately as to whether our National Parks are really “worth it.” The massive crowds, the entrance fees, the restrictive rules about pets, the smoke-filled campgrounds, the stamp collectors and bucket-listers, of which I am one. As I sit here on this rock pondering the majesty of this place, I for one am extremely grateful for the NPS. Oh sure, there are the crowds, as I have to sidestep and yield to groups of hikers along the trail. But the payoff is so worth it!! Call it a theme park if you like, but just like Disneyland for Outdoor Enthusiasts, I will endure the masses to enjoy the beauty and splendor of such a “Magic Kingdom” of place as this. Can you imagine what Upper Grinnell Lake would look like if there were no NPS protecting it? I would be staring down at the ice-blue lake from a 20 story hotel with a glass elevator overlooking fake iceberg cubes floating in the poolside cocktails below. I am taking the stand (on an iceberg, no less!) “Support our National Parks!”