Grinnell Glacier Trail Glacier National Park ~ a slow hiker's guide™


Grinnell Glacier Trail is one of the most historic trails in Glacier National Park

Many Glacier Trail Map

  • Grinnell Glacier Trail
    11.6 miles (round trip) from Many Glacier Hotel Trailhead or Swiftcurrent Lake Trailhead.
    7.6 miles (round trip) from Lake Josephine Boat Dock
    Heavily traveled trail.
    Moderately Strenuous

    Great view hike
    Late opening trail usually mid July at earliest, sometime mid August
    First boat 8:30 am frequently full
    Last boat 5:15 pm far dock Lake Josephine
    Trail opened July 27, 2014
    Trail opened July 18, 2013

Grinnell Glacier Trail opened July 18, 2013 which is much earlier then the opening of August 7, 2012

During 2013 on 7-22-13 the actual Grinnell Glacier Trail had several sections of snow starting just after the ice water fall. Hiking poles can help you from sliding down the snow steps.
OK deciding were to start this hike can be a challenge. For those wanting to hike the entire way then you best option is the Swiftcurrent Lake Picnic Area located a short distance past the turn off for the Many Glacier Hotel.
The trailhead sign is for the Swiftcurrent Lake Trail, which will then connect with unnamed connector trail between Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. The far boat dock on Swiftcurrent Lake Trail intersection can be confusing. CAUTION the trail signs when you get to Lake Josephine can be confusing, I've met up with more then one hiker that started towards or ended up at Grinnell Lake instead of Grinnell Glacier. The connector trail goes up a slight rise while the other trails hug the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. This trail then goes along the north shore of Lake Josephine rising very gradually till it intersects with the south shore trail and FINALLY the actual Grinnell Glacier Trail, stay to the right as there are two trail intersections along Lake Josephine.

The trail at this point gets rougher and more uneven. Do yourself and your wallet a favor stop to enjoy the views. Many hikers trip and stumble onto rocks on this trail because they gave all of their attention to the view and not to the trail. Lake Josephine starts to disappear and then peak a boo views of Grinnell Lake start to appear.

chief two guns

Chief Two Guns Swiftcurrent Lake © Shawn Coggins

From the point that you left the far boat dock on Swiftcurrent Lake until you finally make it up onto the moraine for Grinnell Glacier you will have been hiking a very long, usually slowly climbing traverse of Mount Grinnell. Once you reach the moraine the slow climb stops and you will have to make your way up the man made loose rock steps. But your not there yet. (Take a look at Google Earth sometime to get a birds eye view of this trail and Grinnell Glacier) One of the strange aspects of this trail is that at about the point that you first see Grinnell Lake more of Salamander Glacier is visible then when you get to the moraine. So if your taking pictures keep that in mind.

grinnell glacier glacier park © Shawn Coggins

Panorama of Grinnell Glacier August 2011 © Shawn Coggins

Eventually you will come to a series of switchbacks which will raise the trail up to another long traverse. This traverse is broken up by a series of wet, narrow steps with an ice cold waterfall cascading down onto the steps and onto you as the hiker going up the steps. Lots of hikers turn around at this point. This is the trickiest part of the Grinnell Glacier Trail. For those of you that have hiked the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail to Bullhead Lake on another day, at this point you are south of the lake which is on the other side of Mount Grinnell. I have never encountered a Big Horn Ram below this point on the trail, not that they aren't there so far it hasn't happened for me. Almost every time I have hiked this trail there have either been Big Horn Rams on the trail or on the rocky ledge above the 'Lunch Spot'.

The 'Lunch Spot' is located on a flat, treed area with a rocky bluff just before the moraine. There are pit toilets nestled away out of sight in the trees. Beside the Big Horn Rams this spot is home to many large marmots. The rocky steps up the moraine can at times be covered with water trickling down from the snow still on top of the moraine. Once up the moraine you will encounter Elrod's Rock. In 1924 this is were Grinnell Glacier ended.

Care should be taken when going around blind curves to make sufficient noise to alert any bears to you presence. This trail is frequently closed because of bear activity. The Lake Josephine part of this trail is even more frequently closed because of bear activity. This is a very active grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) corridor. In 2011 the rock face that the Big Horn Rams use to rest was still snow covered as of 8-26-11. You can't see Grinnell Glacier from the foot of the glacier moraine. In 2008 I was not able to get to this trail until mid August, two weeks earlier the steps were carved out of snow up to Grinnell Glacier Overlook. In mid August of 2008, these normally dry rock steps had turned into a shallow creek bed. I'm looking forward this year to hiking the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail soon after it opens and climbing those rocky steps with walls of snow on both sides. Well due to bear activity on the trail almost all of the snow was gone by the time the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail opened on August 22, 2011. Most of those steps are put together by Glacier Park's trail crew out of the smaller loose rock from the glacier moraine. Once you climb this last uphill section which is the terminal glacier moraine of Grinnell Glacier you will be able to see Grinnell Glacier, Salamander Glacier and Gem Glacier. Frequently more striking are the large icebergs, for Montana, in what is now Upper Grinnell Lake. One hundred years ago when Glacier National Park first became a national park there was no Upper Grinnell Lake. There also wasn't a Salamander Glacier as the glacier now known as Salamander Glacier was the upper part of Grinnell Glacier.

Please bear in mind that wildlife prefer the ease of travel on established trails. Didn't see a bear when hiking with the ranger led hike on 8-26-11 but did see two big horn rams at the overlook to Upper Grinnell Lake. When I hiked this trail in August of 2008 I didn't see a bear. 2011 is a very active bear year, it is a short eating season for bears this year. On the North Shore Trail of Lake Josephine I did see a moose with a calf on the trail in 2008. The safest method I know of viewing wildlife is from The Morning Eagle on Lake Josephine. By the time I started up the trail to Grinnell Glacier this moose and calf were in the water at the head of the lake. Upper Grinnell Lake was mostly frozen, all three glaciers visible from the overlook were covered with snow from the past winter. The icebergs frozen in the lake were remnants from 2007. This is the roughest trail that I'm familiar with in Glacier National Park. During 2008 the trail was even more tricky then usual. There are a few tight spots on the trail in 2011 from large rocks moved onto the trail by the heavy snow accumulation this year. The Grinnell Glacier Trail as of late August 2011 was drier then I expected. The Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail was finally clear of snow in 2008, but the trail in places had become a stream bed from late summer runoff. One portion of the trail, which is always tricky, with steps carved into the rock face is now a good place to cool off in the frigid waterfall that sprayed over the trail. The water is just above freezing, if you don't want to get wet bring a raincoat. This section of the trial depending on how much water is coming down the falls and how slippery the wet rocks are is one of the trickiest section of any trail I have been on. Note: deleted waterfall pic for a few days.

The dark band of rock seen to the left of Salamander is known as the Purcell sill.
"Today the igneous materials are evident as pillow lava formations (black basalt) in the Granite Park area (granite does not occur in the park) and as the Purcell Sill that runs through the Siyeh Limestone, a dark band of igneous rock (diorite) about 100 feet (30 m) thick. The heat of the intrusion forced out the dark organic matter from the surrounding limestone, recrystallizing it into white marble (metamorphic rock). " quote from NPS

Upper Grinnell Lake was about 90% frozen as of 8-26-11 the surprise was the lack of large icebergs. Usually the rocks on the icebergs on Upper Grinnell Lake are the size of a house! The tip of Salamander Glacier is visible in the upper right hand corner of this photograph taken in August of 2006. Salamander Glacier was once a part of Grinnell Glacier @ 90 years ago. The icebergs on Iceberg Lake (technically aren't really icebergs) are much smaller and less abundant.

icebergs Upper Grinnell Lake 2006 Glacier National Park

"...a man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by. The Alps and the glaciers together are able to take every bit of conceit out of a man and reduce his self-importance to zero if he will only remain within the influence of their sublime presence long enough to give it a fair and reasonable chance to do its work."
- A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain

My guess was Late July 2008 for the Grinnell Glacier Trail to be cleared of snow. (the trail opened July 25th but was not clear of snow until the second week of August.) Wildflowers peaked by early August in 2008. The North Shore of Lake Josephine is a 'favorite lunch spot' for wildlife. When you are hiking through chest high cow parsnip you need to be extra vigilant for bears. Cow parsnip is a popular forage for deer, elk, and bear. The underbrush restricts wildlife movement and the trail is an essential passage for bears, moose, elk and bighorn sheep.

If your not prepared for a bear encounter take the 8:30 am Glacier Boat from the Many Glacier Hotel boat dock and join the free (the boat ride is $23.00) ranger guided trip along the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail.

If your looking for peace and tranquility then time your hike so that you are not on the trail when 40 hikers start out from the end of Lake Josephine sometime between 9 and 9:30 am seven days a week.

June 10, 2013
Grinnell Glacier Trail clear of snow for 3.3 miles. This point gives you a view of Grinnell Lake from above. Lots of water, from snow melt, crossing the trail after the intersection with the far boat dock trail. Please note the sign referring to Cataract Creek suspension bridge refers to the Grinnell Lake Trail NOT to the Grinnell Glacier Trail! I met hikers on Sunday that had started down the wrong trail and were on the way to Grinnell Lake instead of Grinnell Glacier. Big difference between the trails the Grinnell Lake is easy once the suspension bridge goes in and basically flat. Grinnell Lake Trail is a moderately strenuous hike of 5.7 miles ONE-Way and 1,600 feet of elevation gain. Most of that gain is near the end of the trail. If you are NOT going to take Glacier Boat in EITHER direction then start the hike from the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail parking area. This parking area is located a short distance past the turn off for the Many Glacier Hotel on the left as you are entering the park. During the summer season there are toilets as of June 10, 2013 these toilets were NOT open. Many Glacier Campground has flush toilets. However if you are here before the campground opens then you are out of luck! There are basically three segments to this trail if you start at the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail parking area. The first and easiest segment starts out over basically flat ground (for Montana) crosses a newly rebuilt wooden bridge over Swiftcurrent Creek and heads towards the western shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. Their are frequent openings in the trees creating viewpoints across the lake. I have frequently seen bears swimming across the lake. This segment of the trail ends at the far shore boat dock. At this point there is a 'T' intersection in the trail take the Right Fork towards the Lake Josephine boat dock. This small intersecting trail is partially paved and climbs up a little knoll between the two lakes. (If you have trouble with this knoll then you should hike to Grinnell Lake instead of Grinnell Glacier.)

As of August 12, 2012 Grinnell Glacier Trail is clear of all snow!
Upper Grinnell Lake is mostly frozen.

Recently it's late July to August before the Grinnell Glacier Trail opens.

When planning a hike to Grinnell Glacier keep in mind this report from the NPS during the summer of 2008 Grinnell Glacier Trail opened 7/25/08.
Clear of snow as of 8/16/08
This trail didn't open in 2011 until 8/22/2011.
Please note that Glacier National Park has for the past few years used the confusing term of Glacier Overlook when referring to the Grinnell Glacier Trail. The park has started to change that to Glacier Viewpoint. In Glacier Park the Grinnell Overlook Trail is for most hikers a spur trail off of the Highline Trail which GNP now calls the Garden Wall Trail.

Either take Glacier Boat from Many Glacier Hotel dock or use the Lake Josephine Trail that starts at Many Glacier Hotel.

Almost completely clear of snow!

Hiked this trail on 8-26-11 very little snow on the trail but were the snow is on the terminal moraine I recommend going to the left of the snow as there is little or no traction and it is steep. This involves a little more then one hundred feet of the trail.

Hiked the Grinnell Glacier Trail on 8-26-11. The last boat back from Lake Josephine is at 5:15 pm and if you didn't ride Glacier Boat in the cost for the return trip is $12.00 cash only. Do NOT hike this trail without bear spray! Bear spray is available at the general store in Many Glacier.

NPS Trail Crew report 5-28-2012
From Josephine Lake to Glacier Overlook/ 3.7 mi. Initial clearing scheduled for: Clearing of downfall will begin in July 2012 Trail is 10% snow covered for the first mile, then steep hazardous snow crossings are encountered, travel beyond is not recommended.
5/28/12 Trail is clear of snow and trees, 9/5/11
Opened with bear caution on 8-22-11.
TRAIL CLOSED from picnic area to Swiftcurrent Creek Bridge
for repair. 8-29-11 ~ TRAIL RE-OPENED 9-6-11
North Shore Trail to Oastler Shelter / 1.7 mi. ~ Trail POSTED: for bear frequenting 9/2/11 according to NPS Trail Reports as of September 1, 2011.

Grinnell Glacier Trail
From Josephine Lake to Glacier Overlook/ 3.7 mi.

TRAIL POSTED: Adams change the trail from closed to posted on 8/22/2011
TRAIL CLOSED: 7/21/11 due to bears

Initial clearing scheduled for: week of 7/31/11
TRAIL CLOSED: 8/2/11 due to bear frequenting.
Several snow fields remain the last 1/4 mile from the picnic area to the glacier overlook.
Trail below that is cleared and the 5 snowfields remaining are dug out. 8/12/11 Trail 40% snow covered, with steep, hazardous snow bridge crossings 1.5 miles up from the head of Josephine Lake. Travel not advised. "Snow Hazard" warning sign in place. 7/17/11
Trail 60% snow covered, with steep, hazardous snow crossings 2 miles up from Josephine Lake. Travel not advised. "Snow Hazard" warning sign posted on 6/28/11

  A hiker died 7-18-11 who had taken a 100 foot slide
  on a steep snow field on the Grinnell Glacier Trail.

Grinnell Glacier Trail opened on 8-22-11, the trail is currently posted for bears but NOT closed!

Trail Crew started clearing the Grinnell Glacier Trail on Monday, August 8, 2011. Late opening initially due to snow then due to bear activity along the trail.

The winter of 2010/2011 has been a record breaking snowfall winter. In higher elevations snow fell as late as June 11, 2011. Late July would be a good time to plan on hiking to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook during a 'normal' year.

grinnell glacier from above glacier national park © Shawn Coggins

Grinnell, Salamander and Gem Glaciers from the Garden Wall 8-30-11.

There is a free ranger led hike that starts every day at 8:30 AM at the Many Glacier Boat Dock. The boat ride is NOT FREE and reservations are needed. Contact Glacier Boat.

I remember first seeing a print of Grinnell Lake taken from the Grinnell Glacier Trail and thinking what a poor color reproduction the print was of the water color in the lake. Well if you hike the Grinnell Glacier Trail you can see for yourself that glacier flur from Grinnell Glacier transforms the lake surface into a turquoise color.

Grinnell Lake from grinnell glacier trail glacier national park  © Shawn Coggins