I’ve been on some amazing hikes in my life so far, so it takes a lot for a new hike to make it on my favorites list – but Grinnell Glacier did it. This was one of the most incredible (and terrifying, if I’m being honest) adventures I’ve ever been on. Incredible because of the views, terrifying because of the bears I was convinced were around every corner. You know, just your average Friday.
Distance: 10 miles roundtrip
Elevation gain: 1,840 feet
Colby and I arrived in Glacier National Park on a Thursday evening in early October, and the Going to the Sun Road was still closed because of the wildfires this summer. We took the round-about drive to the east side of the park and camped at Saint Mary, where we had to sleep in our car because of the recent bear activity in the area. When we woke up the next morning, we found fresh grizzly bear scat right next to our campsite, so it’s safe to say we were already on edge.
We drove up to the Many Glacier hotel, where the hike started, but we weren’t sure exactly where the trailhead was, so we walked up the dirt road a bit until we found a sign that said “Grinnell Glacier.” In the summer, you can actually take ferries across the two lakes that run alongside the hike (Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine), which would shave 3.4 miles off the hike, but since we were there in the offseason, the boats weren’t running.
Little did we know, we didn’t take the main trail and soon we were hiking through a dense forest that seemed like it could be full of hungry grizzlies. Sure enough, we suddenly came to a section of the trail that was roped off with warning signs that this part was closed due to high bear activity. We had to take a long detour above this section, and noticed that we were walking right on top of fresh bear tracks. Both of us were on high alert, and it seemed to go on forever before we finally found an offshoot path that we thought would take us to the main trail, which we could see on the other side of the small valley.
All of a sudden, a loud animal call echoed through the trees. I’ve never seen Colby do something faster than in this moment when he whipped out the bear spray. We could make out the backside of a large mammal down the trail and we started backing away before we realized with a sigh of relief that it was just a moose. He called again, warning the two nearby female moose that we were coming, and they all moved off the trail to let us pass. We emerged from the trees on the shore of Lake Josephine, crossed a footbridge through the swamp and emerged onto the main trail. I tried to slow my heart rate, which had been pounding in my ears the entire hike so far.
From this point, the path wound up and up along the mountainside, revealing brilliant views of the lakes below. We watched bighorn sheep running through the meadow and tried to see if we could spot a bear now that we were at a safe distance, but we couldn’t find any.
After climbing for several miles, the air started to get colder and the trail began to get more rocky. Before we knew it, we were stepping out onto the banks of the turquoise waters below the glacier. It was so beautiful, more than I could have imagined.
We spent some time gazing at the water, taking photos, and enjoying the payoff of our hard climb. It was a bittersweet moment – this place was so incredibly gorgeous, but the knowledge that this glacier will most likely disappear in less than two years haunted the back of my thoughts.
Eventually, the biting wind started to pierce through our clothes, and we decided to head back down the mountain. I don’t know how it was possible, but the hike back seemed to be even more jaw-dropping. Maybe it was just the fact that I was a little less paranoid about bears by this point.
As we neared the lakes again, the sun was starting to drop lower in the sky and everything was glowing. We did have one more frightening moment when we saw some deer on a cliff above our heads and didn’t think anything of it. Moments later, I heard a noise behind me and whipped my head around to see the three deer running down the trail straight at me. I could only think to yell “They’re following us!” which I think was scarier than the actual deer. Of course, I knew they weren’t interested in us and they ran right by.
We didn’t dare to take the sketchy trail back to our car, so we followed the real trail back, which ran right along the lake shores, glittering water, and boat docks. Across the lake, we saw some deer prancing along the beach, stopping to drink from the water and chasing each other. It felt like we were right in the middle of Jurassic Park and it seemed magical.
When we finally reached the end of the trail, it was just feet from the dirt road we had wandered down while trying to find it. We couldn’t believe that such a small mistake had caused us so much stress – but at least now we have a good story to tell.
One of the main reasons Colby and I chose to go to Glacier National Park this year was because we wanted to see the glaciers before they are gone, which is projected to happen by 2020. There are only 26 left out of the once 150 glaciers in the park, and they’re shrinking every day. It’s a heartbreaking realization that the next generation won’t get to see some of the beautiful things in the photos in this post.
Climate change is real, and if we all don’t do our part to slow it, glaciers will only continue to shrink faster. Recycle, don’t idle your car, choose products that are easy on the environment, don’t litter, conserve water, plant more trees. There are so many easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint – there’s really no excuse not to do it.
Have you ever been to Glacier National Park or seen a glacier elsewhere? Leave a comment and let me know!
PS. I put together a little video of this hike + some of our other adventures in Glacier National Park, and it’s up on my brand new YouTube channel if you want to check it out!