Glacier National Park: Grinnell Glacier

above: taking a break, with Grinnell Lake just coming into view on the left

Our final hike was to Grinnell Glacier on the east side of the park. It would take almost three hours to get to the trailhead if we drove from West Glacier, so instead we packed up Rover and drove around the park to a campground on the east side. From there it would only be a 30 minute drive to the trailhead at Many Glacier Hotel.

There are a couple ways to tackle this hike. The full hike is 12 miles round-trip, but many hikers instead opt to take two tour boats across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, cutting almost four miles off the round-trip hike. Since we had done the 12 mile Highline hike a few days before and we’d be driving Rover 350 miles the next day, we opted for the boats. Reservations must be made at least three days in advance, and when we made ours for the 8:30AM departure we were told that there were only three tickets left after ours! The boats run throughout the day, and usually take a slow 90-minute tour around the lakes with sight-seeing commentary provided by a ranger. The 8:30AM boats are “hiker express” service with no commentary and a faster pace, for hikers who just want to get from the hotel to the other side of the lakes to start hiking.


Waiting to board our first boat to cross Swiftcurrent Lake

Jeff and Sue, who took care of Max and Opie during our previous hike, were interested in hiking to Grinnell Glacier too. They didn’t have boat tickets but got to the dock early to see if there were any cancelations or standby tickets. As an added bonus they brought and shared cinnamon muffins which gave us an extra boost for the hike (we never had to dip into our granola bars like we usually do when hiking). Those of us with tickets boarded the boat, but there was still quite a crowd waiting on the dock. Fortunately, there ended up being room on the boat for everyone on the standby list, so we were able to hike to the glacier together, a nice change from our usual solo hikes. I guess they hold back plenty of tickets for walk-ons!

Sue and Jeff made it onto the hiking express boat too.

Sue and Jeff made it onto the hiking express boat too.

We had been nervous about the weather, as it had rained the night before and more rain was in the forecast for our hiking day. We ended up only getting a few drops of rain the whole day, but the sky was overcast and hazy most of the time. While this made some of the views a little less scenic, it also kept us much cooler on the almost entirely uphill and exposed hike to the glacier. The trail was relatively straightforward, but with a few steep sections. There’s also a pair of pit toilets about 80% of the way to the glacier, always a welcome sight on a long hike.


Making good progress on the Grinnell Glacier trail.

One of the more interesting and fun features along the trail was a waterfall flowing right across the trail, with a series of rocks to ascend to make it across! We did get a little wet during the crossing, but I was mostly paying attention to my footing in case the rocks were slippery. Fortunately they weren’t, since a fall here wouldn’t have been fun.


You’re going to get a little wet, but watch your footing, it’s a long way down!

As we got closer to our destination, we rose above the top of Grinnell Falls which flows into Grinnell Lake, and we had close-up views of Salamander and Grinnell Glaciers. Glaciers, by the way, are densely packed ice fields that form from repeated snows over hundreds or thousands of years being compressed under their own weight. The most important characteristic of a glacier is that it slowly moves downhill under its own weight. This sliding and grinding motion is what carved the mountains and valleys throughout the park and many other parts of the world. The glaciers which Glacier National Park is named for are long gone… thousands of years ago they created the landscape we now see. Today only a few small glaciers remain, and while they too are changing the landscape, it is on a much smaller scale. Comparing photographs from the last hundred years show the glaciers here rapidly shrinking, and current estimates say that there will be no active glaciers left here by 2020, five years from now.


Looking down at Grinnell Falls and Angel Wing mountain

At the end of the trail we were greeted by the amazing turquoise waters of Upper Grinnell Lake and what’s left of Grinnell Glacier, much of which is breaking up into icebergs inside the lake. We walked around the area a bit admiring the views before choosing a spot to get off our feet and have some lunch.

Our destination, with Salamander Glacier above, and Grinnell Glacier below, feeding into Upper Grinnell Lake


We made it! Time for some lunch…

With our mission accomplished, we headed back the way we came, hoping to catch the 1:45PM tour boat back to the hotel and our car. Since we had no dog-walkers today, we didn’t want to make the dogs wait too long for us. The return boats, being tours loaded with people who just want to see the sights, are available to hikers on a space-available basis. If we couldn’t get onto the 1:45PM boat, we’d need to wait an hour for the next one (or hike back the two miles along the lakes). We ended up picking up our pace on the way back down, making great time and arriving at the dock third in line for the boat. Like before, there wasn’t much to worry about, as many of the tourists on the boat got off to walk around the lake area or do other hikes, leaving plenty of room for the rest of us. As we returned, we had a great view of the impressive Many Glacier Hotel, which just celebrated its 100 year anniversary.

Arriving back at Many Glacier Hotel via one of the afternoon tour boats

Another fantastic day coming to a close, we made our way back to camp to take care of the dogs and prepare for our departure the next day. We said farewell to Glacier Park, but immediately decided that we’d be back again soon. We’d left so many sights unseen and heard reports of many other great trails. We don’t know exactly when we’ll be back, but we’re not done with Glacier yet!

Michael Fischer

After a high-tech career spanning software development and systems administration to leading hundreds of engineers across cities and continents, I'm now slowing things down a bit. Traveling full-time in an RV with my awesome wife Kathie and our two big dogs Max and Opie, I'm now pursuing smaller personal software projects while seeing North America up close.


  1. Marie   •  

    Loved this post! Thanks for taking me on the hike with you. I am new to RVing and new to National parks. Saw tons of trailheads, but the one in the Badlands wasn’t super well defined, or we are too green, so we gave up.

    • Mike   •     Author

      Marie, glad you enjoyed it! We were new to RVing and National Parks last year, so it took some time to figure everything out. We’re on our way to South Dakota today, and will be at Badlands for our first time next week! Sounds like I’ll have to keep my eye on the trails there…

  2. Holly - AoW   •  

    Hi, We really enjoyed your post! I have a beautiful screen saver of a hike that has been “calling me” for the past 3 years. But, I didn’t know where it was. I finally did some digging and found this post. In fact, your header photo was taken at about the same spot as my screensaver image. We are hoping to go to Glacier next year and would like to hike Highline and Grinnell for sure. You didn’t mention where you parked to access this one. Is there a campground where you stayed near the trailhead?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *