Hiking Grinnell Glacier Trail At Glacier National Park
An uphill struggle to a remarkable destination in Montana's Glacier National Park.
It was moving day at Glacier National Park and I’d just claimed my first-come, first-served campsite at Many Glacier campground just outside of Babb, Montana. It’s a challenging morning when you are at GNP trying to get a campsite. I’ll get to my hike in a minute, but this is part of the story. At 6:15 a.m. I’m pulling out of Two Medicine campground headed for Many Glacier. It’s nearly a 90-minute drive, campsites are limited, and it’s best to be sitting at your new campground early to increase your odds of claiming a spot.
I arrive at Many Glacier just before 8. The sign on the road shows “Full” meaning all sites were taken the previous night. I had already figured out during my stay in Two Medicine that the Park Rangers don’t get around to changing that road sign until late morning. I made my slow drive through the open loop of sites checking the dates on the site post to see which campers are moving out that morning. I see one that would do me well for the next 3 nights so I politely ask the campers if they were still planning to move out today. They confirmed they were leaving but not until after breakfast. Done deal. I fill out my mustard yellow reservation card, drop in a cool $30 and I’m good for three nights. Off to Babb to get some firewood.
I’m just about back to camp at 9:30 with firewood and I am pretty certain that my trip out and back was too quick to expect the campers in the site to have eaten, cleaned up and packed up so I pull into the trailhead parking lot for Grinnell Glacier Trail.
I pull out my trusty trail map showing trail specifications with miles out and back, elevation gain and difficulty level of hike… 7.2 miles, 1,850 feet of elevation with a difficulty rating of 11.85. I’m feeling good! Heck I’ll get this thing done and then go set up camp, it can’t take 3 to 4 hours… it’s only 7.2 miles.
Several things go through my head when choosing a trail to hike. Numbers is one of them. Many people probably have a lucky number or a favorite number for whatever reason. Your favorite player wore that number or it was your dad’s number or your anniversary maybe. Mine is 72. The trail map says it is a 7.2 mile trails, so what could go wrong? I’ll knock it out real quick and get back to make lunch.
I double-check my day pack to be sure I have the essentials. Binoculars, hat, water, more water, a snack, bear spray, check check check check. I threw on my sunglasses, grabbed a granola bar then headed across the parking lot.
Starting from the parking area the first couple of miles are a mix of dense and thin forest. The Many Glacier Hotel can be seen across the lake to your left when there is a break in the trees. It’s a wonderful view. You cross a wooden foot bridge over a creek, pass some educational interpretive-type displays with a mix of up and down trail.
I am about a mile into the hike when I see the sign that says Grinnell Glacier 4.9 miles with an arrow pointing right. I look again then reach in my back pocket for my map and trail description – 7.2, 1850, 11.85. The 11.85 is the difficulty rating on a scale of 0-20. For some reason I don’t trust the etched sign that the national park planted into the ground that says I still have 4.9 miles to go, nah, I’ll go with the trail description I printed from the internet.
It’s not much farther that the trees go away and I’m in full sun with a magical mountain range spotted with glacier ice, the largest being Grinnell Glacier. I’ll be honest, I was still confident in the trail information I downloaded off the internet, but at the same time that view had me scratching my head. That glacier looked an awfully long way off and it was way the heck up in the sky to be so close. Off I continued.
After another mile or so you start to see the deep emerald-green mountain lake of Grinnell Lake which sits at 4,950 feet of elevation. The final destination as best I could tell was that really large glacier off in the distance. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that ever since we hit that sun drenched part of the trail we’ve been steady going uphill knocking off that elevation. I look at my trail description again before stepping forward again.
Step after step I continue with sips of water from my camel back as sweat runs into my eyes. It’s not a long time and that emerald-green Grinnell Lake is now just off my left shoulder. I’m passing it and the destination still sits way the heck off in the distance. It’s still way up in the sky for a guy that just walked uphill for a mile! I pull out by trail paper again. It’s at this point when the thought hits me. That dang etched sign the national park service planted in the ground with the arrow pointing right showing 4.9 miles is most likely correct! I’ve still got a long stretch in front of me.
Having done 10 miles the day before, sporting low energy my brain got involved and started to say that maybe we didn’t “have” to do this trail today. It looks really difficult and I’m not sure if the eye team saw this but that glacier is way the heck out there. Yet I trudged on.
During what seemed like my 17th time stopping to catch my breath I decide to eat a bit. Get that energy up. Get motivated. I eat half the ham sandwich—which was only half a sandwich to start with—and I drink lots of water. I sit there for a little more than 10 minutes contemplating my next move. That’s it, I’ve decided. I’m headed back downhill. I can’t do it. The hill won.
It’s a funny thing that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten out on the trail more and more. Hikers are supportive folks. They are encouraging. It seems you pass people several times as you climb a trail. You go a bit then have to stop to recover and then they go by you. Then they stop. Each time you exchange a few words. It’s usually a hello, good morning or how are y’all (if you are from the south). I sat there, backpack off, half of my half a sandwich being put back in that backpack when a set of hikers that I’d been passing stopped to catch their breath. Small talk and as they walked away they left with “See you in awhile.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that” I replied.
Then I heard the words… “C’mon you can get there. Look how close you are. You can’t walk this far and turn around.” All the while I’m looking and thinking that thing moved. It’s gotten farther away! But the words range true, so I kept stepping forward.
I’m at 3.6 miles with about 2 to go. The trail itself is pretty rocky with slate and rocks the size you would use on a gravel road. It’s uneven, has many stone steps built in, it’s a narrow trail that only one could travel and then parts that are four hikers wide. Some spots have steep drop-offs and can be dangerous if you happen to catch a toe on something. Onward I marched nearly using the trekking poles to pull me up the hill.
After several more stops to breathe and wipe sweat off my face I finally get to an area with two benches from fallen trees allowing rest and a view of a rocky hill and an etched sign that reads “Grinnell Glacier Overlook 0.4 miles” with an arrow pointing left. There is a mountain goat about 100 yards in front of the viewing area so everyone has a camera or phone pointed in that direction. I ease through the crowd taking one glance at that goat knowing I have 0.4 miles to go before I can turn around! I even pass the couple that gave me the pep talk two miles back.
This last 0.4 miles is probably as bad as any of it. By now my legs are sore, the sun has beaten me down, and from what I see the 0.4 miles is severely uphill, but it wasn’t like I had a choice at this point. I’d go 50 yards stepping up on those stone steps, and then stop to rest. Then it was about 30 yards. I was inching forward. I make one last turn and see that dang glacier that a couple of hours ago was way way way off in the distance. It’s right there in front of me now. A random hiker headed back down says, “You made it.”
Joke was on me though because I still had a significant number of stone steps to climb before the “you made it” became official. But guess what? I did make it. And it was magnificent. Icebergs from shelves of the winter season that had fallen into the lake are floating around like a minefield. Unlike anything that I had ever seen. And I hiked to it! All 5.8 miles straight up a dang path covered in rocks, roots and a drenching sun.
I walked beyond the overlook and made my way down to the water’s edge. I took off my pack and stared at the scenery. Soon I grabbed the last half of my half a sandwich and finished it as I watched chunks of ice being pushed through the water by the wind. Having had my snack and water but still not ready to leave, I laid back onto my pack on the rocks to rest some more.
It was certainly the most unique natural scenery that I had seen. I found the energy to get up after about 25 minutes of watching floating car-sized pieces of ice in a mountain lake at a ridiculous elevation in Montana. Wow, that is cool.
Then it hit me. I’ve got 5.8 miles back to the car. The same path I just spent 3:12 minutes edging up. Going down has its own challenges, but with my trekking poles tapping the stones and rocks I headed back. The lungs take the beating going up and the knees take it headed home.
It took me 2:45 minutes to get back. I stopped several times to catch my breath or hide behind the random evergreen to steal shade. I passed several hikers headed up too. When they’d ask how it was and how far they had to go I’d just say “It’s beautiful and worth the effort. You can do it.” Because it is. It was. And I did. I wouldn’t have seen it without encouragement on the trail. I’m thankful for that.
I’m also thankful for being able to adventure in this awe-inspiring national park. Thankful for strangers I encountered along the way. America has some amazing places and I intend to see as many I as can. I hope you do as well. Seek the adventure but also speak encouraging words. Our world needs it and can use it.
My favorite part about hiking is that I get to see things that I can’t see from the car. Things that require effort if you are going to get to experience them. This day was an experience I will not forget.
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