A Hike to Receding Glaciers – Glacier National Park, MT
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, glacial recession is well underway with many completely gone. The retreat of these alpine glaciers reflects recent changes in climate as they respond to altered temperatures and precipitation. It’s been estimated that approximately 150 glaciers existed in Glacier National Park in 1850, and most were still present in 1910 when the park was established. In 2010, only about 25 glaciers larger than 25 acres remained in the park.
A computer-based climate model predicts some of the park’s largest glaciers will vanish by 2030 (Hall and Fagre, 2003). This is only one model prediction, but if true the park’s glaciers could disappear completely in the next couple of decades. However, glacier disappearance may occur even earlier, as many are retreating faster than their predicted rates.
One glacier that’s receding at an ever-quickening pace is Grinnell Glacier. Because of its relatively easy access it’s also one of the most popular destination hikes in the Many Glacier region.
The glacier was named after George Bird Grinnell, who is credited with coining Glacier NP as the “Crown of the Continent.” He was influential in establishing it as a national park in 1910, and he certainly made his mark on the Many Glacier Valley. The area has two lakes, a glacier, a mountain and an arete (Grinnell Point) bearing his name.
We started this hike super-early so we could enjoy at least part of it in solitude. There’s an option to take two boat trips across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine to shorten the trek significantly, but the boats didn’t start until 8:30AM. So we walked the 2.5 miles around both lakes to the starting point of the trail to the summit.
Being here so early, we were rewarded with stillness on the water, and took advantage to capture some reflection shots:
It was so quiet that we just stood for a while, enjoying the silence and basking in the morning glory. What a beautiful way to start the day!
There was a fork on the trail that allowed us to walk around the lakes either to the north or to the south. We chose the South Shore Trail, deciding we’d take the north trail back. The first mile of beautiful wooded area looked like prime bear territory, and we were super-vigilant since we were clearly the first ones on the trail that day.
After two miles of meandering along the lakes, the trail began to elevate. For the next 3.5 miles we climbed gradually and gained 1,600′. This was a long and strenuous hike, with the toughest part being the last half mile of switchbacks up to the summit – after already completing 5.5 miles of huffing and puffing to get there. But the scenery, wildflowers, waterfalls and lake views on this trek were among the best we’ve every seen, and we stopped frequently to enjoy and capture them.
Without describing the trail in detail, let me share the breathtaking scenery that just kept getting better as we climbed:
Even though we started our hike early, dozens of photo stops delayed our arrival at the summit, and a few folks passed us along the way. We didn’t get there until about 11:00AM.
And there it was, after a few final steep switchbacks along a boulder-strewn moraine, all three glaciers that sits just below the continental dive were now visible; Gem Glacier, a small rounded glacier, Salamander Glacier that we had seen earlier from the valley floor, and Grinnell Glacier.
When we began our descent around noon, people were swarming up the path and it took seemingly forever to get back down. After logging 12.2 miles and 7 hours of hiking, we were exhausted and couldn’t wait to get home for a shower and a healthy dinner. What a great day!
The three lakes we had passed could be seen from the summit. Streams from the melting glaciers above feed them, and all three display the characteristic turquoise color of glacial lakes.
This hike may be too long and strenuous for some folks, and dealing with all of the people (especially during the busy summer season) is not fun and requires patience. But we’re so glad we made this scenic and unforgettable hike!
As the overall trends show, glaciers in the park are quickly receding. So be sure to get here and see them while you still can!