Glacier National Park is often described as a "hiker's paradise," and over 700 miles of trails offer plenty of choices for what the park describes as "adventurous visitors seeking wilderness and solitude." Glacier also offers some fine shorter hikes that offer a taste of the backcountry with only moderate physical demands, and one of the most popular is the combination boat trip/hike to Grinnell Lake.
Along with Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, Grinnell Lake is one of a string of three lovely mountain lakes that stairstep gradually through the Many Glacier area on the park's eastern side.
Some of the most scenic views in the park are those across Swiftcurrent Lake from the vicinity of the Many Glacier Hotel, but to catch a glimpse of the other two lakes, you'll need to hit the trail. For those who'd prefer to shorten the trip, or combine it with views from the lakes themselves, a boat ride-hike combo is a popular summertime option.
Those who decide to include the boat trip'which actually includes short boat rides on two lakes'will have a total hike of under two miles. By way of comparison, the boots-only route will cover about 6.2 miles of trail (round-trip) between the Many Glacier Hotel and Grinnell Lake.
So, how does the boat shuttle work?
The boat trips, offered by the Glacier Park Boat Company, begin each summer once the trail to Grinnell Lake is free enough of snow to allow travel; that's usually by mid-June, but the exact date varies from year to year. The last boat trip scheduled for 2014 is September 14th.
During the peak of the season (July 1 ' Labor Day), boats depart the dock near the Many Glacier Hotel seven times a day; the number of trips is scaled back slightly in June and early September. You'll find schedules and rates at this link, and advance reservations are a good idea, especially in July and August.
The first segment of the trip, a short cruise across Swiftcurrent Lake on the Chief Two Guns, takes less than 15 minutes, and offers fine views of the surrounding mountains. For the best odds of catching a photo of those rugged peaks reflected in a mirror-like lake, opt for the earliest boats of the day.
At the completion of this ride, everyone disembarks from the boat and makes a short but rather steep 400-yard walk via a paved trail up and back down a ridge to the lower end of Lake Josephine. It's this brief climb that keeps this trip from falling completely into the "suitable for all audiences" category. Participants on my trip in early July ranged from family groups with youngsters to senior citizens, and except for brief stops by a few to catch their breath during the uphill section, no one had any apparent difficulty.
Once everyone has assembled at Lake Josephine, the group boards a second vessel, the Morning Eagle, for a similar cruise across Lake Josephine. This trip typically takes about 12 minutes, and again offers spectacular views of the surrounding peaks.
Upon reaching the opposite shore of Lake Josephine, you're finally ready for a slightly longer hike'the virtually level 1.8-mile roundtrip to Grinnell Lake. If for any reason you don't choose to make that easy trek, you can remain on the boat to return via the same route, or simply hang around the landing area for a picnic or short stroll.
The trail to Grinnell Lake from the boat landing on Lake Josephine is heavily travelled and well signed. Unless you're looking for a longer and much more strenuous hike, don't take the right-hand fork that leads up to Grinnell Glacier. That's a great hike for those who are prepared, but the trip gains 1,600 feet in elevation over a roundtrip distance of about 7.5 miles!
For those who do want to make the longer trip to Grinnell Glacier, the boat-hike combination is also a option, and the boat shuttle cuts about four miles off the total distance to that destination. A guided boat-hike trip to Grinnell Glacier leaves once daily at 8:30 a.m. during the core of the summer season, which, it should be noted, can vary from year to year. Due to a heavy, late-season snow this year, the trail to Grinnell Glacier had not yet opened when I visited the area on July 1st.
From June 14-September 14, the Grinnell Lake trip is offered twice daily (9 a.m. and 2 p.m. departures from Many Glacier) as a conducted hike, usually led by a National Park Service Naturalist, and depending upon your personal preferences, the guided trip option has some pros ... and one main con.
Unless you're already an expert on the area, a ranger-guided hike can be a great way to learn something about the flora, fauna (and in Glacier's case, the geology) of the area. My wife and I opted for the 9 a.m. conducted hike on July 1, and had a very positive trip with an experienced seasonal ranger.
There's one additional plus for conducted hikes that make those trips especially appealing to some visitors to Glacier: Since this is prime grizzly bear country, some visitors are simply more comfortable hiking with a group.
The presence of lots of people who are encouraged to make plenty of noise on the trail (and an experienced ranger "armed" with bear spray) aren't an absolute guarantee of safety during any hike, but the odds of a unpleasant outcome from a bear encounter under such circumstances are certainly about as close to zero as one could expect.
The trade-off for such trips, of course, is the loss of a sense of "solitude" on a hike that includes up to several dozen of your friends and/or total strangers. It's your choice. If you're making this hike on your own and want to avoid the company, try to calculate your schedule so your arrival at the upper end of Lake Josephine doesn't coincide with the arrival of one of the boats... or make sure you're one of the first off the boat and get a quick start on the trail!
What about the trail itself?
The route is mainly through a heavily wooded area, although there are breaks along the way to allow some fine views of the surrounding peaks. In early July, we still encountered some patches of snow and a few wet areas on the trail itself; sections of planks or narrow boardwalks are installed in areas that tend to be wet much of the season.
For a little sense of adventure, the trail to Grinnell Lake does include a short suspension bridge over Cataract Creek. It's a one-customer-at-a-time crossing, and after some skepticism by a few members of our group, everyone navigated the bridge without any problems. Tips from veterans of the hike: take small steps, and look at the opposite shore rather than down at the rushing water visible between the slats of the bridge.
The end of the hike offers a lovely if somewhat crowded photo-op for the lake itself. At the far end of the lake, you'll have a nice view of Grinnell Falls. If the angle of the light is favorable, you may notice an emerald or turquoise tint to the lake water, a typical situation in lakes which carry suspended silt from an upstream glacier.
If you take one of the conducted trips, you're welcome to make the return hike with the ranger, or go ahead of or behind the group at your own pace. Those who purchased the boat trip receive a small ticket, which is good for any of the remaining return cruises that day.
It's about 2.2 miles back to the Many Glacier Hotel by trail from the head of Lake Josephine, so just make sure you don't miss the final boat of the day, unless you're properly prepared for a brisk, late evening hike. As a courtesy to the staff, if you made the outbound trip by water, advise the crew if you don't plan to return by boat.
On our hike, my wife and I opted to start back ahead of the remaining group, and thus confirmed that even with a lot of hikers in the area, it's still possible to see some interesting wildlife. Less than a quarter mile from the lake, I spotted movement in the dense forest just off the trail about 50 feet ahead, and quickly realized it was a large cow moose. She was taking her time, enjoying lunch, and showed little interest in our presence.
We paused, backed up slowly, and advised those who were coming along behind us'including the ranger'of the sighting. After about 10 minutes, the moose wandered across the trail and out of sight into the woods, and we all completed our hike without any difficulty.
If you're one of those "adventurous visitors seeking wilderness and solitude" in Glacier, this hike is probably not one for your list, especially during the peak summer season. If, however, you want an easy, non-threatening peek at what the park has to offer away from the road, the Grinnell Lake hike can be a good opportunity.