First, the bad news: we didn’t get to do a single thing we’d planned to do on Day 3 in Glacier.
The good news?
Day 3 turned out be one of our favorite days of the whole trip!
We pulled into the Many Glacier entrance of Glacier National Park early with high hopes of hiking Grinnell Glacier. Chatting with the ranger at the guard shack, however, we were crushed to learn that the last 2 miles of the Grinnell Glacier trail were closed. The ranger explained that we could do the first half of the trail if we wanted to. “But,” he said, “I wouldn’t advise it.” He peered into our car and shook his head, solemn. “Especially not with little guys. The snow’s really steep and sketchy. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up closing the whole trail later today.”
From the backseat, my daughter cheered; she’d been dreading this hike for months after reading accounts of bear maulings on the trail. The boys were more stoic about the situation, though I could’ve sworn I heard a whispered, “Thank goodness, we don’t have to hike 12 miles today!”
“So, what now?” my husband said, eyebrows raised.
I unpacked our itinerary and pointed to a list of alternate hikes. “We choose another trail,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it. Grinnell Glacier is an iconic hike, one I’d been anticipating for months. To be sure, this unexpected monkey wrench was about as First World as problems come, but I was still disappointed. And then it hit me–this was Glacier. Iconic or not, every hike here held promise. I scanned the list in earnest. “Well, we could try Piegan Pass,” I offered. The kids nodded. With renewed enthusiasm, we headed to the nearest bulletin board to check on the trail’s status.
Only to find that Piegan Pass was closed.
Ditto for the Highline Trail. And Siyeh Pass. And Ptarmigan Tunnel.
Feeling more than a little desperate, I pointed to one of the few ‘open’signs left on the list. “Look! Swiftcurrent Pass is open,” I said. I traced a finger across the posted map to locate trail details. “And it’s only…15 miles long,” I managed to say, before being met with a chorus of “Are you crazy? 15 miles? No way!”
My heart sank. And then I remembered the one option I’d forgotten to list: Grinnell Lake. To be sure, it was no Grinnell Glacier. But it was the gorgeous turquoise lake I’d looked forward to seeing from the Grinnell Glacier trail. Seeing that the lake was open, I quickly scanned the trail details.
“It’s a little less than 8 miles roundtrip,” I said. “And there’s no elevation gain, I promise.” The kids were dubious, but we were already in Many Glacier, minutes away from the trailhead, and the next nearest option meant an hour-long drive to Logan Pass, a prospect no one relished. And so it was that we found ourselves pulling into the Many Glacier Hotel parking lot.
Situated along the scenic shores of Swiftcurrent Lake in the heart of Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Hotel is an historic lodge reminiscent of a Swiss-style chalet. With its incomparable views of Grinnell Point and Swiftcurrent Lake, Many Glacier is the kind of hotel that gives new meaning to the phrase “location, location, location.” It’s the kind of place I dream of staying at post-lottery win. It’s also the kind of place that can be confusing to navigate when you’re searching for a trailhead, especially with all of the renovation work being done there this summer. For those who may be planning a Grinnell Lake hike in the near future, please note that the trailhead is not located near the parking lot. You’ll want to avoid poking around various stock trails near the parking lot like we did and mistaking them for Grinnell Lake trail. Rule of thumb? If it smells reallllly bad and/or you find yourself sidestepping steaming piles of unknown origin–gingerly as through a minefield–you’re probably on the wrong trail. Instead, take the stairs from the parking lot down into the hotel lobby’s back entrance, and exit the lobby via the hotel’s front entrance toward the boat dock. Following the lakeshore, bear left past several private cabins, eventually reaching a marker for Swiftcurrent Lake Nature Trail, which you will follow for a mile. Note that there is no actual marker for Grinnell Lake for at least 2-3 miles.
About a mile in, we reached a proverbial fork in the road and opted to take the North Shore Josephine Lake Trail instead of the South Shore trail. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, both trails eventually merge into a single trail to Grinnell Lake. Without a map or printed directions, we were operating on faith in choosing the northern route and hoping for the best, our flawed logic being, “well, if we can see the ferry, we must be going the right way…right?” We agreed to confirm with the next visitor we saw–only, there were no visitors to be found! We plodded through the shoulder-high shrubbery, calling “Hey, Bear!” every few yards to nary a soul. The secluded quiet came as a welcome surprise. Any worry that we might’ve taken the wrong trail disappeared as we contoured gorgeous Lake Josephine. The going was easy, all flat terrain and soft dirt; the unassuming views both immense and peaceful. If the North Shore trail was wrong, we had no desire to be right.
Eventually, we reached the ferry dock (the merge point for the North and South Shores), hearing the familiar strain of voices and laughter ahead of us. Ferries shuttle visitors across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine Lake several times a day; this popular-though-somewhat-pricey option saves you 5 miles roundtrip. Still, the term “crowd” here remains relative, with less than 20-30 people entering and exiting the trail from the landing at any one time.
We took a short spur trail to a small cascade called Hidden Falls 3/4 of a mile past the boat junction and crossed a suspension bridge, continuing the last 1/2 mile to Grinnell Lake along narrow wooden boardwalk planks. The kids loved the swinging suspension bridge–or maybe they just loved poking fun at my irrational fear of swinging, unstable structures. All I know is that we seem to have an inordinate number of video recordings of the ‘Mom crossing the bridge incident’ where the sound of rushing water is obscured by giggles and shouts of “Don’t die, Mom!”
Grinnell Lake was every bit as gorgeous as I’d imagined, hints of its famous turquoise tinge visible in the distance. On the opposite shore, Grinnell Falls meandered an intricate yet gentle path beneath Salamander Glacier, with Angel Wing and Grinnell Point towering above all.
We sat along makeshift log seats, hoping to enjoy our picnic lunch among the grandeur. The mosquitoes, however, were relentless in their voracious pursuit of our every square inch of exposed flesh. We gave lunch a valiant attempt before fleeing to the mosquito-free asylum of the boat dock. From there, it was an hour and a half jaunt back to Many Glacier Hotel, where we nursed hot coffee from the gift shop before gatecrashing the lobby to take a peak at how the other half lives. It was quite the luxurious bathroom break, complete with plush arm chairs, power naps, and picture windows overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake.
Caffeinated and refreshed, we decided to rent a rowboat on Swiftcurrent Lake, just outside the hotel lobby. I cannot recommend this highly enough! For a grand total of $18.50, the five of us had more fun in an hour than should be legally allowed. None of us knew what we were doing, which made the experience all the more fun. We bumbled around the lake, alternately lazing and laughing at each person’s pathetic attempt at rowing and then combining our efforts in furious, panicked, spastic bursts to avoid colliding with incoming ferries. I can only imagine how ridiculous we must have looked from shore, but we had an absolute blast!
Rounding out our evening was dinner at Nell’s Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Though not inexpensive, dining out was a treat, having cooked the rest of our meals at camp. And boy, had we worked up quite the appetite! We feasted on burgers and salad, finishing the evening with sweet and smooth huckleberry soft serve from the gift shop next door and a final dip in the St. Mary KOA swimming pool and hot tub. It was as perfect a day as I can remember. It’s said that happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember. All I know is we were lucky enough to find ourselves in the midst of a perfect day–and even luckier to know it. Thank you, Glacier.