In a previous blog, we began talking about our trip to Glacier National Park at the end of June 2021. Initially, we stayed in Kalispell, Montana, to explore the west side of the park. Obviously, entering at West Glacier on the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTSR) is the main highlight for most. Apgar Village, Lake McDonald, McDonald Lodge, some campgrounds, many pull-offs and hiking trails, are just some of the many features from West Glacier. Also on the west side, it is fun to explore Polebridge and the Camus Road entrance.
After a few days on the west side, we headed to the east side, staying in St. Mary, which is at the beginning of the eastern portion of the GTTSR. As with all national parks, the landscape and characteristics of the east side are no less beautiful but decidedly different than the west. From our campsite at Johnsons RV Park of St. Mary, we had a view of St. Mary’s Lake and the lower St. Mary’s Lake (which is outside of the park). We drove the GTTSR up to Logan Pass and walked a short trail to a historic ranger station on our way back to St. Mary.
The big highlight on the east side, for us, was driving up to Many Glacier to take a hike. Please note that driving on Route 2 from West Glacier to East Glacier (a small town where many travelers congregate before going to Glacier National Park and where many of the summer employees and volunteers of the park check in) is remote. Then, driving another 3-4 hours north to St. Mary, is more remote. But, driving another hour and a half even further north to Many Glacier is … you guessed it … even more remote!
Our day at Many Glacier had some surprises. First, it is mostly dirt road from Babb—a small town on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation—to the entrance. We like driving on dirt roads, but it is about 12 miles long (so be prepared!). Second, given its location and that it was the middle of the week, we were not expecting it to be very busy. Au contraire, my friends. It was PACKED! Our plan was to drive to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn—which is at the end of the road—park, and follow a hiking trail out and back (five miles total). We circled the parking lot three times, with no luck for parking. We headed back up the road to the next parking area we could find at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead. Again, no parking, but we noticed some parking on the main road, so we drove just a slight bit further and parked on the road.
We had no plans to hike to Grinnell Glacier. It is straight up hill for several miles one way, and there was bear activity in that area so they were not allowing hikers to go all the way to the glacier. There were two other trails starting at this trailhead, so we started on the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail, which is about the length of the one we were planning to take. I think it was supposed to go around the perimeter of Swiftcurrent Lake, but we must have missed a turn (third surprise). We definitely hiked past Lake Josephine (which is beyond Swiftcurrent Lake), and the sun was already blazing down on us. We saw the sign for the turnoff heading toward Grinnell Glacier, and then we saw a sign for Grinnell Lake. It didn’t seem to be too far away, so we decided to go to the lake (fourth surprise).
The trails were busy with hikers. We had periods of time when we were hiking alone, but there are many times when others were ahead or behind us. Grinnell Lake was not as close as we thought, and, after crossing a swinging bridge (and it did swing!) and ascending an incline, we finally arrived there. A few dozen people had already arrived. The water was clear and bitterly cold, although that did not stop one lady from stripping down to her skivvies and taking a polar plunge! Our feet were red ice cubes just after a few seconds!
After finding this lake and enjoying the view, I can understand the appeal of being one of those backpack hikers who get a permit to hike for days. Those adventurers are rewarded with raw, mostly-untouched beauty that the majority of us will never see. I will not … I repeat … I will not be a backpack hiker! I prefer the comforts of my own bed, a bathroom, and not lugging everything with me. Grinnell Lake was spectacular, though.
The last surprise of the day was a mistake on our part. Not that we don’t make mistakes! Most days are full of little mistakes, but who’s counting, or looking for that matter? On this day, however, we made a critical mistake, and luckily no one was harmed in the making. We decided to hike back a different way than we came in.
It all started at the boat dock at the tip of Lake Josephine. We arrived just as a water taxi boat full of people was pulling away. The person driving the boat said the next one wouldn’t be there for about 2-3 hours, plus it was $17 per person. It would have been worth it if we didn’t have to wait 2-3 hours, but we decided we’d be back to our truck in less time than that. Then, we heard something about the trail on this side of Lake Josephine being more shaded than the other side (where we originally came from), so we decided—in the high heat of the afternoon—to follow the more shaded trail.
Not the best decision. It finally led us to the Many Glacier Hotel/Lodge, which was bustling with activity. We were completely exhausted (hence, lack of good photos) and needed cold water, so we sat in the lobby to cool down and get fresh water. We were still not anywhere near our truck. It was at least one-half to one mile away. Carl was going to be my knight in shining armor and walk back to the truck along the main road and come pick me up. But when he left, I noticed he forgot his hat and then 5-10 minutes later I saw him walking up a set of stairs outside of the main entrance to the lodge. I think he got completely turned around and wasn’t quite sure which direction to go. I knew I’d be sitting there for a while, so I ventured out in the direction I knew the truck to be, hoping I’d meet him or beat him there. We ended up catching up with one another and finding the truck together.
It was our longest hike EVER! And we are not likely to repeat it. It turned out to be NINE (9) miles. We have done a hike that was close to six miles, and that pushed the limit for us on a day that had a milder temperature than this one. We learned a few lessons: 1) Stay on the trail you started on; 2) Take plenty of water and snacks (we had both, just not for nine miles!); 3) If you see a stream, creek, river, or lake, be sure to remove your socks and shoes and cool off (the water here is ICE cold); and 4) Wait for the water taxi!
The last two miles of our long hike were the longest two miles. We were grumbling and complaining the entire time. We passed just a few people, and they assured us that Many Glacier Lodge was not that far away (liars, every one, LOL). We found out later that we were basically following a horse trail. We didn’t see anyone on horses, though, but we did see horse poop.
Hiking to Grinnell Lake was well worth the agony we put ourselves through. We are not likely to take such a long hike again in this lifetime, but who knows? We might be setting ourselves up to be true adventurers in our next one![Special thanks to those who had the foresight to set aside so many beautiful places as national parks so that we can all enjoy their exquisite beauty. Please visit when you can!]