Glacier National Park offers a cornucopia of hikes, from casual strolls to serious expeditions, so choosing the best of any category of trails in this park is admittedly both a challenge'and just a bit subjective. That said, if you're looking for a short hike that offers magnificent views, and is easy enough to be completed by almost any visitor, one rises to the top of my list.
The Many Glacier area of the park offers some outstanding scenery from numerous viewpoints, and some of the best are along the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail, a 2.6-mile loop that circles Swiftcurrent Lake. One of the big plusses for this trail is the opportunity to easily enjoy even shorter sections of the path if that fits the needs of your group or schedule.
Choose Your Starting Point for This Hike
There are two designated spots to begin or end this hike: the boat dock near the Many Glacier Hotel, and the trailhead for the Grinnell Glacier Trail, which doubles as a picnic area and is located along the road to the Many Glacier Campground.
Unless you're staying at the hotel, you'll likely find it a bit easier to begin and end your hike at the picnic area/ Grinnell Glacier Trailhead. The single large parking lot above the hotel can be very crowded at times, and from that lot you have to either walk along the road for a short distance to reach the lakeshore, or negotiate a series of steps down to the hotel, then make your way though the building and downstairs to the boat dock. The "trail" in the immediate vicinity of the hotel is poorly defined, so just follow the shoreline and roads along the lake until you have escaped the major development in that area.
If your time is limited, it's easy to walk only a short section of this trail, beginning at either the Grinnell Glacier trailhead or the hotel, hike for as long as you'd like, and then turn around and return to your starting point. Because the scenery is so grand along this route, you'll be able to enjoy the views from different angles in both directions along the trail!
Pick and Choose Only Part of this Trail If Your Time is Limited
For a stroll of about a mile or so, you could begin at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, and take the trail to the left (north) back in the direction of the hotel. It's about a half mile to the point where the trail intersects the spur road to the hotel; you can then retrace your steps back to the starting point. This same short walk can also begin and end at the hotel. Total distance one way from the hotel boat dock to the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead/picnic area is about 0.8 miles; you're rarely very far out of sight of the road anywhere along this route.
Not many of us have more than one vehicle available on park visits, but if you're part of a group with multiple sets of wheels, and someone in the party needs to limit the distance covered, this trail offers yet another nice option: you can drop one vehicle at either the hotel or the picnic area, then begin the hike at the opposite end. That provides a nice hike that covers less than a mile of level walking, with no doubling back over the same route.
Hiking the Entire Loop Offers One Great View After Another
If you want to hike the entire loop around the lake, you won't be disappointed by the views. Beginning at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead/picnic area, you can head to the right (south) along the trail to circle the lake in a counter-clockwise direction.
After about a quarter mile, you'll cross a footbridge over Swiftcurrent Creek; the bridge itself offers some fine views of Mt. Wilbur and other peaks. Just be considerate of other hikers if you stop for a photo op!
About one mile into your hike, you'll pass a dock for the concessioner-operated tour boat Chief Two Guns, which makes multiple shuttles each day during the summer between this dock and the hotel. Near the dock, a spur trail to the right makes a short but rather steep climb over a ridge to the shore of Lake Josephine, where a trip via a second boat and trail continues on to Grinnell Lake.
A quarter mile beyond the boat dock, a second footbridge spans the channel that flows between Lake Josephine and Swiftcurrent Lake. Just beyond that bridge, keep left to continue on the Nature Trail; the trail to the right leads along the south shore of Lake Josephine to Grinnell Lake.
Roughly a third of a mile past the trail junction, you'll pass the winter boathouse for Chief Two Guns and a private residence for boat company employees. The remaining distance to the hotel, less than a half mile, continues to tempt you to stop and enjoy the views. From the hotel, it's about 0.8 miles back to your starting point, and the trail continues to offer plenty of spots to fill up the memory card on your camera, or exhaust all of your remaining film. This is one hike where you definitely want to have plenty of capacity in your photo gear.
Wildlife Watching - And Safety
In addition to the "Oh, my!" scenery, the Many Glacier area offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife watching in the park. This is prime habitat for moose, bighorn sheep, and bears, and as is true of any hike in Glacier, you need to be alert for wildlife. You'll find tips for bear safety at this link and in this story on the Traveler, but the key rules for bears, moose and other large animals are to make noise along the trail to avoid a surprise encounter, and to maintain a safe distance from wildlife (at least 100 yards for bears, 25 yards for other large mammals.) Take along a pair of binoculars, use the zoom options on your camera to get those prized photos, and consider carrying (and know how to use) bear spray for any hike in this park.
The Swiftcurrent Nature Trail is virtually flat, at an elevation of about 4,900 feet, so although it's not handicapped accessible, it provides a great opportunity for almost any visitor to enjoy Glacier's mountain scenery. The trail isn't especially wide and the footing is a bit rocky and uneven in spots, so (as is true for any other unpaved trail) you'll need footwear more substantial than flip-flops.
Mornings and Evenings Offer Best Times for Those Mirror-like Lake Photos
As the above photos indicate, if your walk coincides with a time when the wind is calm, you'll be rewarded with the bonus of mirror-like reflections of the surrounding peaks on the surface of Swiftcurrent Lake. Best odds for those shots are in early morning or evening, but keep in mind that's also when wildlife, including moose and bears, are most active. You can capture some great views at those hours without venturing too far afield by using sections of the trail in the immediate vicinity of the hotel and picnic area.
Finally, keep in mind that the summer season is pretty short in this section of the northern Rockies; like other trails in Glacier, this foot route may not be free of snow until mid-June or even later. The park website has a trails status page that lists current conditions.
Whether you have only time for a short sample of this route or three hours or so to enjoy the entire loop, the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail provides some of the best Glacier has to offer in terms of scenery and an easy walk. If you enjoy taking photos, just be sure your camera is "fully loaded" before you start this hike!
The following 3-minute video clip offers a sample of the scenery along the trail on the west side of the lake, between the hotel and picnic area.