The bitter majesty of Ginnell Glacier slowly disappearing in Glacier National Park
August 28, 2016
Read on for author Kim Fenske's guide to high-alipine hiking at Argentine Pass near Keystone.
Fifty years ago, my family took me on a trip through Glacier National Park and a loop of Canadian treasures in Alberta and British Columbia. They included Waterton Lakes National Park, Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. This summer in Glacier National Park, I wanted to repeat a hike to Grinnell Glacier and look back five decades through the beauty of the northern Rocky Mountains.
Glacier National Park includes more than one million acres south of the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Grinnell Glacier is named after George Bird Grinnell (1849-1938), an advocate for the creation of the park, who worked with Theodore Roosevelt in protecting the American bison from extinction.
Grinnell Glacier rests on the north shoulder of Mount Gould (9,553 feet) in the Lewis Range, part of the Continental Divide. In 1850, Grinnell Glacier was 710 acres in size. However, the glacier has been substantially reduced during the past century to a mere 220 acres, plus another 57 acres in an adjacent fragment named The Salamander Glacier. Since 1966 when I last saw the glacier, Grinnell has been reduced 40 percent from its former range. Scientists predict that the glacier will vanish within two decades due to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
Hike to Grinnell Glacier
The trail to Grinnell Glacier begins on the western edge of Swiftcurrent Lake at 5,000 feet in elevation, rising to 6,500 feet along its 5.7-mile length. After a short hike near the shoreline of Swiftcurrent Lake, the trail emerges with a splendid view of the surrounding mountains from the shore of Lake Josephine. The trail quickly rises above tree line after passing Lake Josephine and ascends above Lower Grinnell Lake.
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In the wetland meadows beside the trail, the white blooms of beargrass explode from tall stalks among dense stands of alpine flowers. The dark red shale on the trail and pyramid-like slopes of Mount Gould are similar to the Maroon Bells near Aspen.
At a resting spot, I stopped to snack on a few trail bars. I watched a silverback marmot foraging among the bushes nearby. Suddenly, I felt a tug on my backpack as the marmot set his teeth on the shoulder strap and attempted to drag the pouch into the undergrowth. A brief tug-of-war ensued, during which I was able to convince the marmot that I was not going to surrender my lunch bag to him.
I continued up the path, climbing past a wall of snowmelt that provided a refreshing shower in the noonday sun. I soon reached the frozen lake at the base of Grinnell Glacier and met a large bighorn sheep grazing among the tundra herbs. After exploring the surrounding shelf below a steep wall rising to the summit of Mount Gould, I started back down the trail and arrived at Many Glacier seven hours after my start.
How to get there
The road to Glacier National Park has many routes. I attempted to drive not more than 300 miles per day and favored scenic backroads rather than freeways. I drove north to Casper, Wyoming on the first day. The second day, I entered Yellowstone National Park from the east and dropped down to the Gros Ventre River in the Bridger-Teton National Forest to find a dispersed campsite for the night. The third night, I stayed at Georgetown Lake west of Anaconda, Montana. After a night near Kalispel, Montana, I drove up Going-to-the-Sun Road, arriving at Logan Pass (6,646 feet) in Glacier National Park. Still early morning, I took a short hike to view the melting snowfields on Bearhat Mountain (8,684 feet). The next day, I found the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead at Many Glacier.
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