Hiking on the East Side of Glacier

Article & photos by Maryann Gaug

Grinnell Lake, waterfalls from Grinnell Glacier, and Salamander Glacier above
Grinnell Lake, waterfalls from Grinnell Glacier, and Salamander Glacier above

Steep-cliffed mountains rise high above rounded green valleys, their rocky summits and serrated ridges poking into the bluebird sky. When the last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago, peaks and valleys alike were draped in sheets of ice. Today only remnant glaciers survive on the peaks, while lakes of all sizes, a string of pearls, remain in long valleys. Colorful wildflowers including beargrass (with its cattail-like cluster of little white flowers), forget-me-nots, and paintbrush line the trails and meadows. Wildlife from grizzly bears to mountain goats to golden-mantled ground squirrels take advantage of food and shelter in the various ecosystems. In 1910, Congress agreed to make this spectacular gem the nation’s tenth national park and called it Glacier. The park is divided east/west by the Continental Divide as well as by the Hudson Bay Divide, where water flows north to Hudson Bay. The east side in particular has many glaciers, as wind-driven snow blown over the divide from the west added snow to form the once-thick ice fields.

Over 740 miles of trails take a hiker into this breathtaking area on both sides of the park. The Swiftcurrent Valley on the east side of Glacier provides several trailheads for numerous hikes beneath the towering peaks and along cascading creeks and strings of lakes. Along the banks of Swiftcurrent Lake, lie the historic Many Glacier Hotel, a campground, and other lodging and restaurants. Boat rides take visitors across the lake, where you can disembark and hike a short steep trail and catch another boat that glides across Lake Josephine.

If you have time before or after this year’s RMOWP conference, take a hike or two to feel the beauty of Glacier as can only be done on foot. A word to the wise: These trails may be closed due to grizzly bear activity in the area. Make sure to hike in a group of at least two and carry bear spray. Be vigilant not only to the scenery, but also to your close-by surroundings.

Four years ago a friend asked me to hike with her in the Many Glacier area. She goes there every year for her birthday. I jumped at the chance. Below are my impressions of several trails.

Swiftcurrent Valley as seen from Swiftcurrent Pass Trail
Swiftcurrent Valley as seen from Swiftcurrent Pass Trail

The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail is excellent for walking on gentle terrain through an aspen and lodgepole pine forest with great views of the surrounding peaks. After 2.0 miles you’ll reach Redrock Lake and then Redrock Falls at the lake’s head. You can stop at the lake for lunch or continue to Bullhead Lake at 3.3 miles. Beyond here, the trail climbs steeply to Swiftcurrent Pass to cross the Continental Divide. If you have time, walk a little up the steep trail for a sweeping view of the valley below and the steep cliffs above, dripping with waterfalls.

The Swiftcurrent Lake Trail circumambulates this gorgeous lake in about 2.5 miles. Or you can hike along either side of the lake to reach Lake Josephine and the trails to either Grinnell Glacier or Grinnell Lake. The lake is snuggled in the trees below towering cliffs, fed by a waterfall that drops from the Grinnell Glacier cirque (3.4 miles one way or 0.9 mile if you ride the boats). We hiked the trail to Grinnell Glacier. It hugs the south side of Mount Grinnell, with ever expanding views of nearby peaks and the valley below, including the turquoise Grinnell Lake. The trail passed below a cliff where we walked, or rather ran, next to a small waterfall! A picnic area with a pit toilet greets you just below the last grunt up the moraine to Upper Grinnell Lake. My friend and I didn’t make that last climb because the heavens dropped a waterfall of rain on us at the picnic area. If you hike to Grinnell Glacier from the Swiftcurrent Picnic Area trailhead, it’s 5.5 miles one way. If you ride both boats, you save yourself a 1.7-mile hike one way.

Another option takes you on the other side of the Swiftcurrent Valley to Ptarmigan Lake and, if you choose, to Ptarmigan Tunnel. This pleasant trail climbs past Ptarmigan Falls at 2.6 miles, then meanders through lush forest and flower-filled meadows to Ptarmigan Lake, entrenched in a rocky cirque. The bank of the lake is a great lunch spot. You can continue to the tunnel, following the steadily climbing trail as it traverses below a ridge to the east. Blasted through the narrow Ptarmigan Wall just below the ridge top in 1931, the tunnel leads you to one branch of the Belly River drainage, with Elizabeth Lake below. From the trailhead to the tunnel is 5.2 miles one way.

The trail to Iceberg Lake takes off from the Ptarmigan Trail. Unfortunately, the day my friend and I planned to hike it (her favorite), grizzly bears had been in the area and the trail was closed. From the trailhead to the aptly named lake is 4.5 miles one way.

The Two Medicine Lake area lies to the south of Many Glacier. While it doesn’t have the glaciated peaks that gave Many Glacier its name, the picturesque lake is less crowded. Trails lead you around the lake. My friend and I hiked the north side of the lake to the east side where Twin Falls provides a great place for lunch (3.8 miles one way). If you’d like to see the falls but want to hike less than 1 mile, you can catch the boat that plies the waters of Two Medicine Lake.

These hikes are just a sampling of the various and interesting trails available on the east side of Glacier National Park. Take time to enjoy at least one of them!