Updated on February 24, 2020
Day 11 of 2019 Western US Tour, July 22, Hiking to Grinnell Glacier
Our second day in the charming Glacier National Park as we hiked to Grinnell Glacier.
Grinnell Glacier was probably the most visited/accessible glacier in the park. Of all three day-hikes I attempted during our stay (Grinnell glacier / iceberg lake + Ptarmigan tunnel / Highline) it’s certainly the most popular.
The official Grinnell Glacier Trail from Swiftcurrent was 18.2km roundtrip with 659m elevation gain. For about 30 dollars, a boat service departing from Many Glacier Hotel cuts through Lake Josephine and Swiftcurrent Lake, saving about 5km roundtrip. There was an 8:30am boat with ranger-led hike to Grinnell Glacier, and for reasons that will be discussed later it’s highly recommended that hikers, especially those not in the best shape, take that boat if possible.
Unfortunately, the tour boats were so popular that by the time we made reservations, about three months in advance, the 8:30 boat was sold out. So we picked the next available one at 9am.
By the way, many of Glacier National Park’s trails passed through bear country, so most visitors would bring bear sprays along. However, Glacier Trail was so popular that we were never alone in our hike . In my opinion, here bear sprays became more of a burden than utility. By the way the rule of the boat company was that bear sprays must be kept inside of bags on their boat.
And on the morning of July 22, we drove from St Mary to Swiftcurrent. These two places didn’t look that much apart on map, but with the entrance road to Swiftcurrent riddled potholes (glad it’s a rental car), the trip took more than half an hour.
By the way there’s a waiting list for each of the morning departures, about many times the boat capacity. Unfortunately, I was stuck in the ticket pickup line while they were calling this waiting list, so there went my breakfast.
The good thing was that I still enjoyed a feast of the scenery.
And our boat departed at exactly 9am. During the short 10-minute cruise our captain/guide showed us many points of interest, like the original caretaker’s cabin, or the surrounding forests that’s made of different breeds of pine trees.
After getting off at the other end of Swiftcurrent Lake, there’s a 400-meter trail to the shores of Lake Josephine where we would board a different vessel.
So at about 9:45am, we left the pier at Lake Josephine and began our hike. Here’s GPS tracking:
And once we crossed Cataract Creek, the trail began to take on a constant ascent.
And since this is a national park, wildlife was never absent.
Also, the trail up Grinnell Glacier passed some gorgeous beargrass fields.
For which I was reminded of “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” again. It only took a bright moon and some autumn gust to recreate the solemnly stirring scenes in the game.
At the same time, the flowers were surely a cheering companion.
There’s no way to dash through this waterfall without getting wet. That’s why it’s on almost all the blogs describing Grinnell Glacier trail.
Just before Grinnell Glacier, there was a rest area with many benches and probably the only outhouse on the trail. That’s where we caught up with the ranger leading the 8:30am boat hike (it’s seemed that they were in no hurry at all).
And that’s also where we found this cute squirrel searching for food among hikers.
After getting some rest and enjoying our lunch, we headed up the final leg to Grinnell Glacier.
Technically, the actual Grinnell Glacier was located a few hundred meters South of the trail end, on the left of the previous two photos. For safety (surface of glacier may be unstable) and conservation (dirt on glacier surface absorbed more light and heat) concerns, most (if not all) people did not venture farther.
Besides, standing just meters from floating icebergs while wearing shorts was a fabulous experience in its own. (The breeze was mixed with bitterness as one approached the waters.)
Just as we were about to head back, we spotted a gorgeous goat, the type with elegant horns.
And just as we were heading downhill, we came across another breed of goats. This time, they seemed to be a family.
It was 3:45pm by the time we got back to the pier at Lake Josephine. Ideally, that’s right in time to catch a return boat by their schedule. And that’s where the problem came.
At Many Glacier Hotel, only return trip tickets were sold for the boat tour. The rule was that anyone can choose to get off the boat at Lake Josephine, have fun in the wild(hike/climb/swim/bath… whatever), and get back onto any returning boat if there’s space. However, most hikers on the morning boats did get off the boat, but most tourists on the afternoon boats, who just wanted to see the magnificent landscape, who wouldn’t have time for hiking trails from Lake Josephine, chose to stay on the boat. And since the boats were so popular (did I mention there’s a waiting list?), the incoming boats to Lake Josephine were always full. And with few people getting off these boats, there’s a huge crowd stuck at the shore of Lake Josephine.
And there’s the benefit of 8:30am boat with ranger-led hike. People on this boat were guaranteed seats on a special return boat, that would depart Lake Josephine at about 4:30pm (I didn’t remember the exact time). They distinguished this group with color of return ticket. The 4:30pm departure wasn’t on the official schedule, and the inbound boat would be empty.
Of course, the boat company knew it would be irresponsible and dangerous to strand people at Lake Josephine. So after 5:15pm, which was the last scheduled departure from Lake Josephine, if there were still people left waiting to board, they would make as many trips as necessary to bring everyone back to Many Glacier. From our experience in the peak season of July, that’s at least three additional trips with the last one departing at about 6:15pm?
Despite waiting was bored and unexpected, I don’t want to rush to judgement by blaming the boat company. They were doing a tremendous job by keeping their boats functional through harsh winters. And since this was such a sought-after service (huge waiting list, unable to increase service capacity), if one look at this with reason:
- To accommodate hikers there must be empty seats. They could leave a few seats empty on afternoon outbound boats, and charge hikers higher prices to make up the losses. Unfortunately this is NPS land and in their opinion both hikers and tourists were getting the same service (return trip) so it’s not right to charge one group more than the other. Besides, they could easily be leaving too many empty outbound seats (return times of hikers were hard to predict), thus wasting already-limited capacity. Despite this, they made an entire outbound boat empty to pick up the 8:30 hiker group.
- They could sell one-way tickets, which would be logistically challenging, as boat captains on the outbound trip have to keep track of two groups of people with different types of tickets.
- They could give hikers who chose to hike back refund. This would also be difficult as the ticket office at Many Glacier Hotel has limited hours. Tickets to board the return trip was also easy to forge. And this is only a partial solution as hikers have to wait for a boat to arrive to know whether there were seats left.
So at the end of the day this was a tricky situation with no optimal solution. But I believe the boat company could certainly do better, like
- Inform hikers before they purchased tickets or boarded the boat, that sales were good and they likely had to wait beyond the last scheduled trip to get on the return boat. I believe most people at the pier weren’t prepared for such long waits. They would certainly be happier if they knew this in advance.
- Make a “virtual” line to determine, if there were spots on return boats, who should board first. It’s difficult to set up physical lines at Lake Josephine, but the captain could make a simple announcement, like the airline boarding process, asking those that had been waiting since Xpm to come forward, before going to the (X+1)pm group.
But the reality was that none of these happened, and we were stranded by the mosquito-infested shore of Lake Josephine for more than two hours, amid a chaotic crowd.
Probably to cheer us up, a group of weasels appeared out of the bushes, and they didn’t seem to be too afraid of people. Probably because they were used to seeing people waiting at the pier.
So finally, we boarded the return boat on 5:50pm.
However, our not-so-smooth day had a surprise ending towards its end, as we came across this bear crossing the road on our way back. I took the following photo with my cell phone. Unfortunately, by the time I reached my camera from its bag, the bear’s long disappeared into the woods.