A Hike to Receding Glaciers – Glacier National Park, MT

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Many Glacier Hotel

According to the U.S. Geological Surveyglacial 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.

Grinnell Glacier 1910

This 1910 photo shows Grinnell Glacier poised at the top of the waterfalls in the foreground, joined with Salamander Glacier in the background

Grinnell Glacier 2016

As of our hike in July, the wall of ice is gone and Grinnell Glacier is no longer visible from a distance.  Salamander Glacier, now separate, lies along the wall below the ridgeline

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:

Many Glacier Hotel

Historic Many Glacier Hotel built in a Swiss Alpine theme

Mount Gould

Mount Gould in the center and the Garden Wall to the left

Grinnell Point

Steve stepped up with an interesting capture of Grinnell Point

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!

Swift current Lake

Swiftcurrent Lake

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.

Grinnell Glacier Trail

We made lots of noise to alert any bears in the area.  Steve said my singing even made him want to run away!

Josephine Lake

Our first glimpse of Salamander Glacier and the surrounding mountains reflecting beautifully on Josephine Lake

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:

Lake Josephine

The first load of boat riders arrives at Lake Josephine at 9:15AM.  Many of these folks took the short 1.1-mile walk to Grinnell Lake instead of hiking up to the glaciers

Lake Josephine

Grinnell Glacier Trail

No bear sightings, but a snake crossed our path


Grinnell Glacier Trail

Hanging gardens

Bear Grass

Bears don’t eat their namesake flower – Bear Grass

Grinnell Point

Looking up at Grinnell Point

Grinnell Lake

Grinnell Lake sits at the bottom of Angel Wing mountain. Its incredible turquoise color comes from the way light is dispersed by “glacial flour” – rock ground into a fine powder by glaciers



Grinnell Glacier Trail

Alpine meadows with multi-colored wildflowers in bloom

Grinnell Glacier Trail

This section of trail hangs on a narrow ledge with steep drop-offs.  There were several small waterfalls crossing the trail that we had to navigate, too

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.

Gem Glacier

Gem Glacier is a small rounded glacier perched on the upper left wall of the Continental Divide

Grinnell Glacier

The USGS reports that Grinnell Glacier lost nearly 40% of its total acreage between 1966 and 2005

Grinnell Glacier

Tired but happy hikers with Salamander Glacier at the upper left.  Time for a well-deserved break and  lunch!

Grinnell Valley

Viewing Many Glacier Valley

Glacial action

Glaciers left deep scratch marks on the rocks here

Grinnell Glaciers

Terrace-like ridges caused by glacial movement

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!

Grinnell Glacier

Looking down from the summit at hikers resting before the final stretch

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.

Three lakes

A grand view of Grinnell Lake, Lake Josephine, and Sherburne Lake in the distance

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!

Grinnell Glacier Trail

This is my new all-time favorite trail!

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!


Next Up:  The rest of our scenic hikes at Glacier National Park



Picturesque Lakes – Glacier National Park

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As you might imagine, Glacier NP has an enormous snowmelt every spring and summer. Water cascades down the mountains and creates hundreds of beautiful waterfalls, some captured in my previous post.  Then the glacial water continues down the cliff walls to fill picturesque lakes.

Of the over 700 lakes within the park, 131 are named.  According to the NPS, Glacier’s water can be considered the headwaters for the entire continent.  From Triple Divide Peak, a droplet can theoretically split three ways and eventually make it to the Pacific, Atlantic or Hudson Bay watersheds.

Lake McDonald

Lake McDonald viewed from Apgar Village, with craggy mountain peaks as the backdrop

Having hiked to some enchanting waterfalls, our interest moved to the lakes that receive the meltwater.  Two of the park’s big lakes are accessible from Going-to-the-Sun Road, and are therefore very popular.  The hub of activity on the west side is Lake McDonald, the largest of the many glacially-carved lakes.

Lake McDonald

Lake McDonald looking south from Lake McDonald Lodge. Note the multi-colored rocks

On the east side is St. Mary Lake – the park’s second largest – which provides incredible views of the mountains bordering it.  The boat tour we took was at St. Mary Lake, that post is here.

Saint Mary Lake

St. Mary Lake viewed from Going-to-the-Sun Road.  There’s tiny Wild Goose island out in the lake

Smaller lakes in the backcountry require hiking to reach, and we picked a few to head up to.

Fish Lake (west)

The 3-mile trail leading to Fish Lake begins a steep ascent almost immediately, passing through old growth forests of red cedar, western larch and hemlock to a dense spruce-fir forest at higher elevations.  We didn’t like that this trail is also used for horseback riding excursions, but at least we got up there before those smelly creatures did.

We saw day-old bear scat on the trail, which kept us very “bear alert” all the way to the lake. This 8-acre lake is lined with lily pads and surrounded by dense forest.  The quiet setting (we were all alone) made it a good choice for our breakfast, as we arrived before 8:30AM.

Fish Lake Trail

Bear Scat

Yup, a bear was there

Fish Lake

Breakfast with a view at Fish Lake, which is filled with lilies and surrounded by dense forest

Avalanche Lake (west)

This was a great trek that reminded us of many trails we’ve hiked in the pacific northwest. The first segment is on a raised boardwalk, called The Trail of Cedars, as it passes through a forest of ancient western hemlock and red cedar.  These huge old-growth trees created a wonderful canopy for us to walk under, as we moved parallel to a rushing creek.

A moderate hike of about 5 miles roundtrip, the lake with several dramatic waterfalls feeding it was our reward.  The large number of people we encountered on our way back to the car was testimony to how popular this trail is.  Highly recommended, but be sure to start early!

Trail of the Cedar

Ancient trees that were still young when Thomas Jefferson crafted the Declaration of Independence

Avalanche Gorge

Lower Avalanche Gorge, one of the highlights along this trail

Avalanche Lake

Multiple waterfalls feed the lake

Avalanche Lake

Avalanche Lake sits at the base of 8,694′ Bearhat Mountain, which rises almost 4,800′ higher

Avalanche Lake

Another view of the pristine lake

Hidden Lake (east)

For good reason, Hidden Lake is one of the most popular destinations in the park.  The trail features views of alpine meadows and rugged peaks.  As always, starting early was the best way to enjoy solitude – at least for a while.

The trail started at the west side of the Logan Pass visitor center, with a 500′ ascent on a raised boardwalk built into the mountain.  That got the blood pumping pretty good right away.  Then it was a fairly easy walk to the platform that overlooks the lake at the 1.5-mile mark.  The majority of folks stop there to enjoy outstanding panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains, but they don’t continue the challenge down the mountain to the lake.

Hidden Lake Trail

Snow still lingers well into July

But we continued to the lake, tackling the strenuous 780′ descent/ascent over the next 1.2 miles to the shoreline.  At just under 6 miles round trip, this was a great hike on which we encountered Hoary Marmots, Mountain Goats and a swath of vibrant wildflowers.

Mountain Goat

On the way to the lake, this friendly guy gave us a good morning greeting!

Hoary Marmot

A Hoary Marmot playing in the meadow stopped to say hello


What a wonderful palette of wildflowers we’ve been blessed with all this summer!

Hidden Lake

Hidden Lake at the base of Bearheart Mountain

Hidden Lake

Colored rocks glimmer from under the water

Hidden Lake

You will huff and you will puff when you climb away from this lake!

As expected, on our way back the trail from the visitor center to the overlook platform was swamped with people.  The parking lot was total chaos as cars circled around looking for a spot.  We were told the parking lot at Logan Pass fills up as early as 8:00AM, so remember that if you drive here during the busy months!

Mountain Goat

Another mountain goat ignores the paparazzi

Hidden Lake

Crowds on the trail picking up

The lakes in Glacier National Park are stunning, with the towering mountains rising up right at their shorelines.  Their waters are absolutely clear, and not surprisingly also cold even in late summer.  Although we’ve seen only a few of the 700+ lakes here, we have no doubt they all have one thing in common – incredible scenery in an unspoiled environment.

Hidden Lake

I had to save my favorite picture of pristine Hidden Lake for last

So far we’ve hiked to cascading waterfalls and picturesque lakes.  Next up is a hike to one of the few remaining glaciers that’s a source of the beautiful water here.

Next up:  Hiking to a receding glacier


Waterfalls and Mountains – Glacier National Park

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Glacier National Park

A visit to Montana’s Glacier National Park had been on our wishlist since long before we began our RV adventure.  Now into our fifth year of full timing, we finally arrived.  Having been here for more than a week now, we can attest to the park’s beauty as awe-inspiring, stunning and dramatic.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park east entrance

Within its 1 million acres, Glacier NP is comprised of high alpine meadows, glacially-carved mountain peaks and valleys, hundreds of lakes, cascading waterfalls, glaciers, rolling foothills and unparalleled vistas.  I initially thought the park was named for its existing glaciers, but actually it’s for the work done by earlier glaciers at the conclusion of the last ice age.

Those glaciers left scoured dip valleys, sharp ridges, carved rugged mountains and deep lakes.  Of the 150 or so glaciers known to have existed in the mid-19th century, only about 25 remain.  Global warming models predict that by 2030 – or even sooner – they will be gone as well.

Going to the Sun Mountain

Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, the namesake of the Going-to-the-Sun Road

Jackson Glacier

Jackson Glacier is one of the 25 remaining glaciers

Many hikes begin at trailheads along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only highway that crosses the park from east to west.  An engineering marvel and National Historic Landmark, the road spans 50 miles and crests at the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (6,646′).

Free shuttles run on the east-west route, with Logan Pass as the transfer point to proceed to either side.  Coming in for a quick visit, folks would probably want to take shuttles or drive their own car (start EARLY) to best see the park in a hurry.

Of course, staying a while and hiking as many of the wonderful trails as possible is really the way to go!

Triple Arches

Triple arches on Going-to-the-Sun Road blend a man-made structure into the surrounding environment

Going to the Sun Road at Sun Rift Gorge

Going-to-the-Sun Road at Sunrift Gorge

St. Mary Area Waterfalls hike

We were camped right outside the east entrance to the park, at Johnson’s of St. Mary RV Park (Steve’s review here).  With dozens of trails to choose from, we decided to warm up with the St. Mary Area Waterfalls hike.  Armed with our latest hiking accessory – bear spray – we tried the park’s shuttle service from the east entrance visitor center at 7AM.  We got off at popular St. Mary Falls and noticed several cars already parked in the small lot.

We followed the moderate trail that descends 200′ to St. Mary Falls and then climbs 250′ to Virginia Falls.  This area was involved in the July, 2015 Reynolds Creek Fire that burned 4,800 acres.  It wiped out all of the trees, but the area is recovering rapidly as evidenced by new growth and the incredible variety of wildflowers – most notably the Alpine Fireweed – blooming in abundance.

Saint Marys Falls Trail

We hiked through burnt stands of fir, spruce and cedar which graced the west end of St. Mary Lake

Alpine Fireweed

Alpine Fireweed


Saint Mary Falls

St. Mary Falls gushes through a rocky channel, thundering down 50′ feet over two tiers

Unnamed Falls

Unnamed Falls, a quite impressive cascade that drops in a series of four separate tiers

Virginia Falls

Virginia Falls tumbles 100′ down a string of tiers

Since we didn’t even break a sweat on this short 3-mile trek, we added a segment of another trail that continued along the cliffs to descend toward St. Mary Lake.

St Mary's Lake

St. Mary Lake glimmers behind this colorful, but ailing, tree

Eventually we reached a small boat dock (which we actually docked at later in the day) then turned left to Baring Falls, only a couple hundred yards away.

Barring Falls

Baring Falls drops about 25′

From here we climbed back up to the road to end our hike at 5.6 miles, then took the shuttle from Sunrift Gorge back toward the visitor center.

Baring Creek Bridge

Archway of the Sunrift Gorge Bridge

Sun rift Gorge

Sunrift Gorge is a straight steep canyon cut through the bedrock just 200′ off the main road. All of these waterfalls feed into St. Mary Lake, the second largest in the park

Rising Sun Boat Tour

We thought this day in the park was over, but our shuttle driver was very persuasive when she told us it was a perfect day for a boat tour on the lake, if we could get a seat.  When she stopped at the Rising Sun Boat Tour stop, Steve jumped off and got tickets ($26 each), then we had lunch as we waited for our tour.

Rising Sun Boat dock

A family-owned business, the boat tours have been offered at four locations in the park (Many Glacier, Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake and Two Medicine) since 1938.  The 1.5-hour narrated tour at St Mary’s Lake features classic wooden boats.

Little Chief

Our boat “Little Chief” at Baring Dock, where folks were allowed to check out the falls we had hiked past earlier.  Note the scarred trees in the background

Instead of describing the tour, I’ll let my photos tell the story of of the immense mountains and lake scenery we viewed during our relaxing ride.

St Mary Lake

Diseased trees displaying orange and brown contrasting colors

Wild goose island

Iconic Wild Goose Island, a little spot the initial glacier failed to carve out of the deep lake

Wild Goose Island

A different perspective – Wild Goose Island seen from Going-to-the-Sun Road


Glacier National Park

Heavy Runner on the far right and Reynolds Mountain to its left

Fullisade Mtn

Fusillade Mountain on the right and Gunsight Mountain on the left

Baring Dock

Crystal clear St. Mary Lake with Dusty Star Mountain in the background

Little Chief Mountain

Little Chief Mountain on the left and About-to-be-a-Dog Mountain on the right

Baring waterfall

A waterfall cascading from Sexton Glacier to Sunrift Gorge, running under the Going-to-the-Sun bridge, through Baring Falls and into the lake

Divide Mountain

Divide Mountain marking the border between the Blackfeet Indian Nation and Glacier NP

East Glacier NP shuttle

The shuttles on the east side of the park run only every 45 minutes – far too long between shuttles when the park is busy.  After the boat tour we waited 40 minutes for the next shuttle, which zoomed right by because it was full.  Now we were getting very unhappy.

We started walking toward the visitor center and our car, but it was a daunting 5-mile walk along the busy highway with no shoulders.  I suggested we wait at the next shuttle stop just up the road, but it went to Logan Pass – the opposite direction.  Steve agreed with me that it was better to take a trip up to Logan Pass and back and see the scenery, than to sit around and stew for another 45 minutes hoping for a shuttle with space.

Rising Sun Dock

An unhappy camper waits for the woefully understaffed shuttle service

It turned out to be a good move.  Enjoying our first scenic views of Logan Pass, we ended up back at our car an hour later.  This is terrible shuttle service – these shuttles should be running every 15-20 minutes like on the west side of the park!  We never took the east side shuttle again, instead driving our car early in the mornings to guarantee parking for our hikes.

And these hikes were just for starters!


Next up:  Picturesque glacial lakes