Our first full day at Glacier National Park started with a climb to Grinnell Glacier. This is one of the Park’s most easily accessible glaciers. Grinnell measures about 152 acres (0.62 km2) and it is in the same valley as two other glaciers: Salamander and Gem.
At the end of the Little Ice Age, around the nineteenth century, Grinnell and Salamander were connected as one glacier. Due to climate change, they are now two separate glaciers and only Salamander is visible from the Lake Josephine. Visitors of the early 20th century could still see the two glaciers from this location.
Today if you want to see Grinnell, you will have to hike to it. There is no drive-to overlook, or shuttle. The best you can do is take a couple of boats to shorten the ride, but the climb will test your commitment and make you prove you are worthy of standing next to its majesty. Grinnell is for those that earn it…when they earn it.
In retrospect, the hike to Grinnell is not particularly hard, but you’re going to see a glacier and that may not sink in until you’re at the foot of a big mountain. Grinnell is a categorized as an Alpine Glacier. This means it isn’t like glaciers you see in pictures that come down to some shore or lake. The glaciers on this valley are remnants of the last Ice Age, and they do not form in places that you can simply walk into. Part of their beauty is that they form in remote and dramatic locations like this one and that is why we came all the way to this location. The altitude isn’t bad, but if you’re a low lander like us, well, you do feel as soon as you move, and even more if you do this on the day after you arrived and have not had the chance to adapt.
The Ranger said overcast hikes are the best. We don’t think so. The weather was perfect the day before, but this was our assigned day so we had to make it one way or another. We took rain coats and other gear to stay warm. We left all the massive Nikon cameras and tripods behind since we had concerns about weather and exhaustion. Emma with the backpack was over 40lbs already so we only took the Sony RX100 and the GoPro.
The group lead by a Ranger was big, but basically they stick to the top gear policy of leaving you behind. It is easy when you don’t have a kid on your back but we were determined not to let them see us turn around!
This view is after the most vicious set of switch backs. They call this part the hill of regret or something because you may regret getting into this if the rest of the way is as hard. It isn’t. It doesn’t mean it gets that much easier but at least it doesn’t climb so fast the rest of the way.
A Perilous Journey
Lets just say that you give up the right to fall after this particular section. There are a few things going on here. First the ranger talks while you hope this isn’t the day you get chased by a bear around here. Second you try to catch your breath as you admire the most amazing scenery ever. And third, in
our case we kept checking on Emma wondering if she would start crying or fussing. At this point she was just looking around. Emma is a curious child with a tremendous disposition for the outdoors. I remember dipping her fingers in creeks before she was one, and taking her to the forest on many occasions. But in many ways, this was as new to her as it was to us. She was simply mesmerized by the mountains and kept quiet as her father pushed up the continental divide with her hanging in a way that must have resembled Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (Sacagawea’s son) during his journey to find
the Northwest Passage.
Mary had done very well so far considering this was her first real test of continental divide hiking. Her backpack was mostly Emma’s supplies and some lunch for us but it was still heavy.
These trees look this way due to the wicked winters around here. Half the tree is killed by the cold winds that blow past these mountains at 70+ mph. If this was Westeros, you could probably imagine the White Walkers roam around these trails at night.
The roar of Grinnell Falls is a constant reminder of the tragedy that is going on around you. This is not snow melt but rather glacier melt from all 3 glaciers in this valley. The amount of water is hard for the camera to capture but it is vast and constant. I honestly have no idea how any of these glaciers remain here if they have been melting and releasing this much water for over a century. Their size is difficult to grasp even at this distance. They are giants but in reality, just shadows of what they once were. So while they may look like a snow patch from here, you have to realize we are a few miles away from them and to our eyes, they are larger than life even from here.