GNP Day 3: Grinnell Lake/Glacier

Lower Grinnell Lake
On our third day in Glacier we had booked ourselves spots on a Ranger-Naturalist lead hike to Grinnell Glacier.  Grinnell glacier was "discovered" in 1898 by George Bird Grinnell a man who played a huge, huge role in the preservation and formation of our national parks.    Hiking to an actual glacier while in Glacier National Park was the highest of my vacation priorities.

One can hike the whole way to Grinnell Glacier, just over 11.5 miles round-trip.  Or one can pay for a boat ride on a historic wooden boat which shortens the hike by nearly four miles.  The Ranger led hike takes the boat route.  We don't often get to go out on the water and we really wanted to hike with a Ranger, so we took the boat.   As a result our trip hike was just a shade over 7.5 miles long round-trip, not counting all the wandering we did up at Upper Grinnnell Lake and the Glacier area itself.
The boats were neat.  We saw common loons and common mergansers on the water.  The mountainscape takes on a whole new appearance with the water as the foreground.  It was lovely.  Just lovely.  Money well spent.

And actually there were two cool, old, wooden boats to get to the trail.  The first boat leaves from the rear of the Many Glacier Lodge and took us across Swiftcurrent Lake.  We then got out and hiked just a scant bit of forest until we emerged from the trees on the shore of Lake Josephine where we got on our second boat.  During the cruise the Ranger introduced himself as David Benson and gave us a little bio.  He's been a Ranger in Glacier for 19 summers, during which he leads hikes and conducts research on ptarmigan.  The rest of the year he is a biology professor in the mid-west.  He showed us some photos comparing the glacier in historic times to now to demonstrated how much it has receded in the past hundred years or so.
As the second boat came to dock Matt and I spotted a striking bird on the shore.  It looks sort of like a robin, but....fancier.  It has a dark bib and seemed almost blue.  By the time either of us got it into focus (Matt in his binoculars and me with my camera since at this point my binoculars were still lost) the bird flew off.  We were bummed.  We knew it was something we'd never seen before, but we didn't get a chance to figure out what it was!  The ranger had noticed it too and announced it to be a varied thrush.  Cool.  We got to ID it anyways.  They do look a lot like robins--they are in the same family--but they are just fancier and much less common.

We took this as a very good sign for our hike.
We set off on the trail, which was a raised boardwalk for the distance that skirted the edge of Lake Josephine.  As we made our way up to the glacier we played a nature version of the party game "Telephone."   David would point out a flower, tree, or other plant and teach the name to the first hiker in the line.  That hiker would then repeat the name to every other hiker in the group until the end of the line.  And repeat over and over and over.  I learned SO many new plants this way--bane berry, rocky mountain maple, corn lily, service berry, bear berry, bog orchid, red stemmed dogwood, sitka valarian, and possibly my favorite from the day, fringed grass of parnassus.  We also saw stinging nettle, mountain penstemon, orange dandelion, Lewis' monkey flower, yarrow, and pearly everylasting.  We also learned how to identify both beargrass and pasque flowers after they have gone to seed.  The pasque flowers David called Mouse on a Stick.  I don't know that I would have come up with that name myself, but once he said it I could totally see it.  It was pretty funny.  There were lots of mice on sticks.  : )
Fringed Grass of Parnassus
Hiking with a group was a bit of a challenge for me, I must confess.  I do not want to be part of a crowd in the woods.  That is part of the joy of hiking for me, actually.  I am out of the city and away from all those people!  But, I do so love learning and know these Rangers are wonderful resources.  So with slight reservations about it we went on the Ranger lead hike full well knowing it would involve hiking with a crowd.  It ended up being about 25 people or so, I think, ranging from little-bitty kiddos through their grandparents.
It didn't take long for me to realize all would be well as long as I stuck close to the Ranger.  Plodding along in the single file of slow hikers nearly made me lose my mind until I realized that I should just pass them and go to the front.  That is what I would do if I came across another group of hikers moving more slowly than me on any other trail.
I was shocked to find that Matt and I were the fastest hikers in the group (aside from the Ranger). Everyone else was easily 20-30 feet behind us most of the time.  We talked with David--who ever so patiently answered all my questions about flowers and plants--as we hiked.  Again, I learned so very, very much.
Lower Grinnell Lake with Salamander Glacier at top right and Gem Glacier on the top in the center of the photo.
The Ranger would stop and rest and let the group consolidate again at several points along the trail, usually timed to show some neat geologic feature.  At each stop he would give a mini-lecture about the surrounding landscape.  Because David is a biologist he always had neat ways of relating how climate and geology affect the plants and animals around which I found to be an exceptionally interesting angle.
We stopped for lunch at a small picnic area about three miles in.  Some of our group enjoyed the view from there, but most of the party continued on the last uphill push up to the glacier.  That last bit was fairly steep, but the switchbacks and the sheer excitement of being so close to our destination made it pretty easy.  The view from up so high was amazing.  The glacier capped ridge ahead of us was so stunning is made me want to cry.  Looking back the way we had come we could see Lake Josephine, Swiftcurrent Lake, and Sherburne Lake way down below us.  It seemed so far away.  I was amazed by the glorious beauty and expansiveness of it all.  I felt to bless to be alive.
Grinnell Glacier spread along the bottom, Gem Glacier at the top of the ridge in the center, and Salamander on the right in the middle of the frame.
We crested a rise and all the sudden Upper Grinnell Lake and the glaciers were right before us.  This beautiful lake is thick with glacial flour (the fine sediment caused by glacial action on rock) which makes it milky and opaque with gorgeous green hues.  When George Bird Grinnell came across the glacier that would bear his name there was no lake.  It gets larger and larger every year as regional temperatures continue to rise.  And, of course, the glaciers get smaller and smaller.  Salamander and Grinnell used to be one and the same.  But, they have receded into two distinct, individual glaciers.  Gem Glacier is, technically, not a glacier anymore at all.  It has shrunk too small to qualify.  Its now, again technically, an ice field.
David gave his concluding thoughts about climate change and what we can do about it.  In the end he said the glaciers don't really matter.  They are just ice and time, but they are a sign that things are changing, and more quickly than in all of recorded history.  They are our canary in the coal mine.  They should prompt us to action, even if it is too late to "save" the glaciers themselves.  He used the analogy of sanitation and germs to illustrate his point.  Not too long ago the common practice was to throw human waste into the street.  Then we learned about germs and disease and we chose to change.  It was hard.  Buildings had to be retrofitted with plumbing.  Jobs were lost.  The Economist magazine editorialized against doing so because it would hurt the economy.  But, we'd never dream of going back now to chamber pots and open sewers.  Its the same with environmental sustainability.  It will be hard, but it is so important none the less.  I thought it was a pretty brilliant analogy.
Afterward, he told everyone to feel free to wander around, or return back to the trail, or follow him a little further if we wanted to learn a little more.  The latter of which, of course, Matt and I elected to do.  He showed us fossils of single-celled, algae-like organisms called stromatolites.  These things were huge for single-celled critters, I thought!
Matt walking across some of the countless stromatolite fossils.
David also clued us in to the fact that we could actually see the grooves and scrapes caused by the glacier action.  I rubbed my fingers over them and was awestruck by the powers of nature.
See those horizontal lines?  Those were from a glacier dragging other rocks across the top of this one.
Eventually we all sort of split up and wandered around enjoying the view and the experience in our own little ways.  I soaked my hands in the cold glacier water until it became painful.  It was only 26 seconds.  The water so close to the glacier is quite, quite cold.  I rubbed some on my boots, somehow feeling that giving them a glacial baptism was in order.
And then we headed back down, retracing the route by which we had come.  Along the way a student working as David's research assistant popped up on the trail having been out collecting samples.  He had a little bag of ptarmigan feathers and poop.  What a job! 
We spotted a bachelor herd of big horn sheep.  We'd seen a couple on the way up to the glacier, but even more on the way back down.  Some had quite nice curls to their horns.  We watched one maneuvering about on some fairly steep terrain with what appeared to be great ease.  Not quite as unbelievable as the mountain goats, but close.  We stopped and watched them for some time.  By this point our group had shrunk to eight, counting the research assistant.
I always used to think that out-and-back hikes, where you hike in and out on the same trail, were too boring.  But, you know, I come to realize that it offers a completely different perspective on the same landscape.  I always see things--rock formation, waterfalls, flowers, berries--that I failed to notice on the way in.
The trail comes with a shower, too, in the form on an on-trail waterfall.  Thunderbird Falls pours down the rocks crashing over the stone steps of the trail.  It was quite wonderfully refreshing, I must say, and it didn't take long at all to dry as we hiked in the sun.  The Ranger said early in the season the waterfall can completely soak a person.  As it was I thought I got pretty wet!
We saw a moose as we were descending the final switchbacks down to Lake Josephine again.  We stopped to watch.  It was a cow moose and a good ways off, but we could see her drinking deeply from the cool, clear water.  And then suddenly we became aware of a grizzly bear trotting along the shoreline below us.  It was an amazing vantage for a grizzly encounter while hiking.  We were elevated above the bear who was out in the open and highly visible and a safe distance away.  Yet, still close enough to see the bear splashing through the water and examining a dead fish floating on the surface of the lake.  It was funny because we'd just heard a woman ask David how often he saw bears on the trail to Grinnell Glacier.  He said he used to see a bear every four trips or so, but that he hadn't seen one from that trail all season.  And then we parted ways with him, as he planned to hike all the way back instead of taking the boat shuttle, and saw a bear from the trail less than five minutes later.
When the bear headed the opposite direction of the boardwalk trail we planned to take to get back to the boat dock we took that to be our moment to continue.  We only had to wait a matter of moments before the boat arrived and we made the last leg of our journey back to Many Glacier Lodge where we had begun our adventure.
A great third day.


  1. Stunning! Thanks for sharing!

    1. It was AMAZING. So totally fantastic. Its hard to recap in words!

  2. Love the trail shower from the waterfall! MT is really calling my name this morning

    1. It was a delightful refreshment in the middle of the hike, I must say. We miss you!


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