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Grinnell Lake is the reward at the end of the Grinnell Lake Trail. And what a reward it is! The entire trail, although considered one of the easiest hikes in Glacier National Park, also offers some of the most spectacular scenery. The trail skirts several lakes and offers beautiful views of the Continental Divide, Mount Gould and three glaciers. The trail from the trailhead in Many Glacier Valley to Upper Glacier Lake is about six miles long. The trail gains about 1600 feet in altitude, but the climb is mostly gradual. Rangers regularly lead hikes to this location, but numerous visitors make the trek on their own each summer. Those who make the trip are rewarded with the sight of beautiful milk-white-to-turquoise Upper Grinnell Lake, a small glacier-fed lake that is always exceptionally cold. Few people attempt an end-of-trail swim in this cold little lake. The lakes and the glacier were named in honor of George Bird Grinnell, a naturalist who was instrumental in convincing Congress to establish Glacier National Park.
There are actually two Grinnell Lakes along the Grinnell Lake Trail, and visitors often confuse the two. Lower Grinnell Lake is a bit larger at 130 acres than Upper Grinnell Lake's 77 acres. It is also a turquoise color from the glacial rock flour carried by the melt water that feeds it. When people refer to Grinnell Lake, they most often mean the lower lake. Lower Grinnell Lake holds some brook trout, whereas Upper Grinnell Lake has no fish. Occasionally fly fisherman head to Lower Grinnell Lake, but most people complete the hike so they can be rewarded by the sight of Grinnell Glacier, Salamander Glacier, and little Gem Glacier. Salamander and Grinnell glaciers were once connected, but melting has caused them to separate. A small back country campground is located near Lower Grinnell Lake, and a picnic area with bench and pit latrine located there make some people think they have reached the end of the trail. The trail goes on, however, to Upper Grinnell Lake nestled at the base of the Continental Divide.
The trailhead is located near the Many Glaciers Hotel, one of the few hotels built by the Great Northern Railroad in an effort to encourage tourism to the region. Completed in 1915, the hotel's 214 rooms have hosted over half a million visitors to the eastern side of Glacier National Park since it opened. The National Historic Landmark maintains its sense of rustic history by not placing televisions in the rooms, the goal being to get people out of doors and into the Park. Major renovations recently have assured that the historic hotel will remain open to visitors for many more years. The Many Glaciers Campground is located near the trailhead. The hotel overlooks Swiftcurrent Lake, where the Grinnell Lake Trail begins. A tour boat cruises Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, cutting almost two miles off the hike to Upper Grinnell Lake. Those wishing an easier trek can take the boat one way to the dock at the far end of Lake Josephine. Most hike the entire trail, however, which skirts Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine.
The first couple of miles of the trail are relatively flat ground as they pass the first two lakes. Then the trail gradually starts to climb as it follows Grinnell Creek upstream. On every side the views are spectacular and wildlife are abundant. The glaciers come into sight, then disappear behind peaks as hikers progress along the trail. Short side-trails lead to viewing points, and one trail leads to a spot where hikers can actually stand on the glacier. Those planning to camp must be aware of all regulations regarding primitive camping in the area and also remain aware that this is prime grizzly bear habitat. At times, the trail may be closed due to excessive grizzly activity in the area. Those unaccustomed to back country hiking will do best if they take one of the ranger-led treks, as the local rangers are experts on both the trail and the needs of inexperienced visitors. The experienced and more adventurous hiker can approach Grinnell Lakes the long way, from over the much longer and more strenuous Piegan Pass Trail across the Continental Divide.
Hikers looking for solitude will do better finding another trail. The Grinnell Lake Trail is one of the most popular in Glacier national Park and could almost be called crowded on busy summer weekends. There are numerous trails in the area with fewer visitors, but every back country hiker should be equipped with an excellent map and accompanied by a hiking buddy. The trails are open year-round, although Park services are closed in winter. Some of the easier trails are favorites for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, while a few experienced alpine skiers seek out some of the more remote slopes to test their mettle against the wilderness. Visitors also can find all sorts of lodgings other than campgrounds just outside the park, from motels to guest cabins to guest ranches and hunting camps. There are few towns of any size near the east side of Glacier National Park, so motels or guest ranches with restaurant or meal accommodations may be the best bet. Campers will need to plan on bringing many supplies with them.
If you only have one trip to Glacier National Park in your future, then Grinnell Lake Trail is a great option for experiencing both the mountains and the glaciers that cover many of them. Bring the hiking boots and the binoculars. They and the camera will be your most important supplies for this lovely 11-mile round trip hike.
*Statistics are for Lower Grinnell Lake.
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