This post is part of a series about our trip through Glacier and Waterton National Parks in July 2019. As per the recent Blackfeet Tribe Resolution # 264-2020, the eastern entrances to Glacier National Park will likely remain closed through the remainder of the 2020 season. This will include the access road to the Many Glacier area. Hopefully this post will be a valuable resource as you start planning trips for 2021.
Many Glacier is in the northwestern corner of the Glacier National Park, about 40 minutes from St Mary. It is one of the premier hiking destinations in the park, including short hikes around the closest lakes and very long hikes that cross all the way over to the Going-to-the-Sun Road (notably Piegan Pass and Swiftcurrent Pass). On our hike on the Grinnell Glacier Trail (11 miles RT, of which we were able to do 8), we saw dense landscapes of mountains, valleys, and turquoise and jade lakes shaped by glacial activity, along with lots of wildflowers and plenty of wildlife.
Note that in the early season, many of the trails to the high alpine lakes, glaciers, and passes can be blocked by high-angle snow drifts. Some, like the Ptarmigan Tunnel, actually close, but most trails are open with warning signs and rangers cautioning against travel. We saw some people trying to cross through these areas, but even with traction devices and poles, this can be very dangerous, especially as temperatures get warmer. Regardless of how far you’re able to make it on these trails, you’re sure to see some great scenery, so don’t be disappointed if you visit early and can’t make it the whole way!
Because the area is so popular and tends to photograph best in the morning, we started out from our hotel in St Mary shortly after the coffee shop opened at 6:30AM, arriving in the Many Glacier area around 7:20AM (based on historical data, we’d definitely recommend arriving before 8AM). We were first treated to a wonderful view of the area from a roadside stop at Sherburne Lake. Do be careful if you get out to take photos here (or in fact anywhere in many Glacier), as there are grizzly bears here – we saw one slowly wandering up the road on our way to the parking lot!
It was easy to park in the lot above the Many Glacier Hotel when we arrived. The hotel is one of the largest properties within the park itself and also a historic landmark, built in 1915. The view from the parking lot was awesome, with the historic hotel in the foreground and Grinnell Point towering over Swiftcurrent Lake behind it.
One of the first things we noticed when we were planning our trip is that many landmarks in the Many Glacier Area are named after after George Bird Grinnell, including the Grinnell Glacier, Mountain, Lake, and Point. Until this trip, we hadn’t heard about Grinnell, one of America’s most ardent conservationists, even though his views shaped much of the west’s approach to land conservation and helped lay the foundations for the National Parks Service. To get to his namesake Grinnell Glacier Trail (he first saw this glacier in 1885), there are a couple of options: a shuttle boat or a walk along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine.
We didn’t have a boat reservation, which tend to sell out in advance or require a separate trip to Many Glacier a few days before you arrive, so we started off walking clockwise around Swiftcurrent Lake and counter-clockwise around Lake Josephine, with pretty views of the lakes interspersed with stretches through mostly forested areas for about 1.8 miles.
After Lake Josephine, we started ascending above the valley, getting one breathtaking view after another. The most prominent feature in the next section was a view of Grinnell Lake and the waterfalls feeding it from the glaciers above. The turquoise color of the lake was mesmerizing, especially as the sun poked through the clouds, creating wonderful patterns on the lake’s surface.
In the early season, park rangers install a warning sign about 2 miles from Lake Josephine warning about high-angle snow drifts, but the sign isn’t updated as the snow melts. We passed the sign and had easy going along the trail for a little while, even seeing a moose in this section.
We ran into an issue at the 4 mile mark, about 2.2 miles from Lake Josephine. Here, the trail becomes pretty narrow and hugs a cliff face. There was lots of water runoff from the snowmelt, making a cold shower of sorts along the trail at this point. Just past that, we saw a very steep snow drift and didn’t want to risk crossing it. We cooled ourselves off a bit under the shower at this point and turned back towards the parking lot.
On the way back, we tried our luck at catching the boat to shave 1.7 miles off our return trip. While you can just walk-up to purchase a ride for the return trip, the boat company has an obligation to carry ticketed and reserved passengers first. We spent about 20 minutes waiting for the boat, only to be turned away, so in retrospect we would have saved time by walking the whole way back without stopping. On the plus side, though, we got some pretty views from the boat dock.
As we got back to our car, we took in one final view of Grinnell Point before calling it a day at about 8 miles round trip, heading back to our hotel for lunch, and hitting the Going-to-the-Sun Road for more adventures later in the day.
Even though we didn’t see the Grinnell Glacier on this day, stay tuned to our next post to find out how we got this bird’s eye view of the Glacier from a trail off the Going-to-the-Sun Road!