The Switzerland of North America – A day hike in Glacier National Park

hiking in glacier national park

Glacier National Park is located in northwest Montana and was established in 1910. The park shares a border with Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. There are many trails to choose from in Glacier  National Park, but I want to tell you about one in particular that epitomizes the magic of the ice masses that gave the park its name sake. The Glaciers are made up of accumulated ice, snow, water, sediment  and rock and are about 7,000 years old. In the mid 1800’s during what is referred to as the Little Ice Age, the park had 150 glaciers. Today there are about 25 glaciers remaining. The Grinnell Glacier Trail is a great way to spend the day hiking under what remains of these majestic beauties while observing the wildlife, especially birds and in all likelihood a moose that call Glacier home. The biggest moose I have ever seen was about twenty feet off the trail only half a mile from the hotel. This is Grizzly country whether you are in the Many Glacier Hotel parking lot or miles from the nearest road. In Glacier, the animals are everywhere. Famous Zookeeper and wildlife advocate Jack Hanna was charged by a grizzly on the Grinnell Glacier Trail so even though it is a popular trail for tourists, it is also popular with wildlife, all of them.

The Grinnell is 12 miles round trip from the parking lot near the impressive Many Glacier Hotel ($207-$322 per night). If 12 miles cuts into your downtime, no worries, you can take a trail and loop around Lake Josephine and head back to the trailhead. But, be warned, you will miss the opportunity to walk under waterfalls, and gaze up at the last of Glacier’s glaciers. However, you can see it all and save the soles of those new hiking boots by making use of the tour boats on Lake Josephine and Swiftcurrent Lake thereby shaving the hike down by 3.4 miles.

From Grinnell Lake, you can see three glaciers. The Salamander is visible just below what is referred to as the Garden Wall. As beautiful as it sounds, the Garden Wall is a massive rock formation which is part of the Continental Divide. It is decorated with the lush grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees and the greenery of summer.  Then, there is the 152 acre Grinnell Glacier and Gem Glacier, the smallest named Glacier in the park. Everyone should see these glaciers. It is said that in the mid 19th century, Grinnell and The Salamander measured 710 acres.  In 2005, that area was less than 200 acres. So, waste no time, see them soon. is a good source of information for planning your trip. The site describes the trail as strenuous but I did not think so. I often go off trail, but my adventure ends when the wine bottle is empty so if your author doesn’t  think the trek is tiresome, most readers will find the hike a leisurely stroll.

A visit to Glacier National Park is not complete without driving the 50 mile Going To The Sun Road.  This is a picturesque narrow elk trail that at some point someone poured asphalt over. It is laden with potholes and people who have never driven motorhomes before, but it is still good for the soul to take this drive.  To say it is scenic is a severe understatement. I have driven to Glacier four times and on three of those trips I left feeling empty as I was unable to cross Going To The Sun Road due to forest fires or heavy snowfall. Glacier is truly a unique land.

I recommend staying in West Glacier for at least a night as well as East Glacier Lodge. From East Glacier it is a quick scenic drive to Many Glacier. There is little to see outside the park’s east border, on the west side however there is the quiet outpost called Polebridge.  From West Glacier, the North Fork Road cuts through the meadows and lodgepole pine like a scar, long and straight to leave you wondering just where the hell you are going, but remain steadfast, for there is a bakery there my friends.  Polebridge Mercantile offers, food, souvenirs, awesome sandwiches and amazing huckleberry bear claws and next door there’s a bar. Come to think of it, Polebridge has everything you need especially after a day hiking amongst glaciers. After gorging on bear claws you can head back into the park at the underutilized and uncrowded northwest entrance.  So, whether you hike the Grinnell Glacier Trail or if you find a trail all your own in Glacier Park, enjoy and spread the word about these magnificent creations.