About Grinnell Falls and Salamander Falls
Grinnell Falls and Salamander Falls, while spectacular in their own right, were really only incidental attractions on the epic hike to the Grinnell Glacier.
It was definitely one of the most popular excursions in the Many Glacier Valley section of Glacier National Park.
However, its popularity belied how much of a strenuously long hike it was, which you can see from the difficulty score that I gave this excursion.
Nevertheless, this was one of the dream hikes of mine ever since I longed for a return to the park after my first visit back in 2010 and I finally got that chance in 2017.
Grinnell Glacier – the poster child for Global Warming
In case you didn’t know, the Grinnell Glacier could very well be Glacier National Park’s most famous glacier.
That’s because it seemed to be used as the poster child of global warming as before and after photos were frequently shown in the general literature (as well as within the park’s own literature itself).
Such photographic time lapse evidence illustrated the accelerated recession of mountain glaciers around the world.
And in the case of the Grinnell Glacier, it was rapidly becoming Upper Grinnell Lake.
The glacier was named after George Bird Grinnell, who first discovered the glacier in 1885.
He was also instrumental in getting Glacier National Park gazetted as a national park in 1910 in addition to the enforcement of its protection.
As a key advocate of getting Theodore Roosevelt and the US Army involved in enforcing the national park protections for Yellowstone National Park at around the same time, he understood that national parks needed to be more than just labels.
Of the waterfalls in this write-up, Grinnell Falls was the more prominent one.
It featured a 280ft height with a wishbone-shaped drop that could clearly be seen from as far as Lake Josephine (and even as far as the Swiftcurrent Lake though it’s much harder to spot from there).
Grinnell Falls was sourced by the meltwaters of the Grinnell Glacier, and its cascading stream ultimately fed the colorful Grinnell Lake.
On the other hand, Salamander Falls was a relatively new waterfall resulting from the rapidly receding Grinnell and Salamander Glaciers.
This waterfall used to not exist when the two glaciers were joined.
Unfortunately, with both glaciers probably not going to exist by 2030, there’s no telling how much longer even these waterfalls will remain perennial.
The Logistics of Visiting the Grinnell Glacier
As far as logistics were concerned, the long hike up to the Grinnell Glacier was a long 11 miles round trip with over 1,800ft in elevation gain.
So you definitely need to come prepared for this hike with plenty of water, some food to keep up your energy, and adequate sun protection.
I witnessed one lady far along on this hike who was sick and throwing up from possible heat exhaustion, dehydration, altitude sickness, or all of the above.
That said, about 3.4 miles could be shaved off the overall distance if you could score a boat ride (crossing both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine) in both directions.
However, getting a boat ride when you want may not be easy as I learned the hard way.
In hindsight, I should have pre-booked a ride days in advance to score one of the earliest morning rides.
That would have given me ample time to complete the hike before it would get late.
On the other hand, the return boat ride would not be guaranteed unless I’d be willing to wait for the last boat at around 5pm.
So, I managed to score a boat ride on the way there, but then I hiked all the way back and skipped the boat ride back.
That wound up making the overall distance somewhere around 9-10 miles round trip, which took me about 6 hours of trail time.
The trail time didn’t include the additional time spent waiting on the boat docks and taking the boat rides themselves.
Therefore, visiting the Grinnell Glacier is pretty much an all-day affair no matter how much hiking and/or boat riding that you do.
Anyways, for the trail description in the next sections, this is the manner in which I’ll describe the hike.
Grinnell Glacier Trail Description – boating across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine
The boat dock was right on the shores between Many Glacier Hotel and the western shores of Swiftcurrent Lake.
Once I managed to board the boat (said to seat around 50 people or so at a time), it then took us across Swiftcurrent Lake to its far southern shore, where there was a landing dock.
I found the guided boat tour quite informative as the boat driver went into the history of the area as well as some of the need-to-know aspects of the Many Glacier area and the Grinnell Glacier hike itself.
When we got off the boat, we then briefly walked a short quarter-mile route going from Swiftcurrent Lake to the dock on the northern shore of Lake Josephine.
After boarding that boat while being serenaded with another informative narration of the area, we were then deposited onto the boat dock at the southeastern end of Lake Josephine.
This was the pickup point for return boat rides, but it was now time for the hike to begin.
Grinnell Glacier Trail Description – the Josephine Walk Trail
From the southeastern shores of Lake Josephine, the hike briefly went around the southern shore of the lake before traversing a long boardwalk going over the marshiest parts of the area.
This section was part of the Josephine Walk Trail.
I managed to see grizzly bear scat on the trail, which was a reminder of how often they frequent the area.
Although I came ready with bear spray, I recognized that it would be best to make noise whilst hiking to minimize the chances of surprising a grizzly bear (especially if it happened to be a sow with her cubs).
I was also advised not to use bear bells as they tended to act as dinner bells to grizzly bears who have learned to associate backpacks with food.
Making noise would generally not be difficult to do since this hike was so popular and heavily-used.
However, if you happened to be here early in the morning or in the late afternoon when fewer people would be around, then extra precautions would definitely be necessary.
In any case, after about 0.3 miles miles from the boat dock, I encountered a trail junction linking the Josephine Walk Trail with the Josephine North Shore Trail.
In another 0.1 mile, I crossed a footbridge where the Josephine Walk Trail then joined up with the Grinnell Glacier Trail.
Grinnell Glacier Trail Description – hiking up to Thunderbird Falls
Once I was on the Grinnell Glacier Trail, it immediately started climbing a combination of short switchbacks and straight inclines in a pretty relentless uphill stretch.
Since it was pretty much all exposed to the sun, it got hot and sweaty real fast.
After about 0.3 miles of this climb, I started to get my first glimpses of both Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Falls.
From here and for much of the next 2 miles, Grinnell Falls would remain in view.
Anyways, as I continued further along this scenic stretch of trail, I also managed to look into the valley containing Cataract Creek.
At the head of this valley way in the distance was what appeared to be what I think was Morning Eagle Falls.
At about 1.6 miles from where the Josephine Walk Trail junctioned with the Grinnell Glacier Trail, I encountered a series of wildflowers and cascades culminating in the so-called Thunderbird Falls.
This waterfall was where a weeping wall of lightly-flowing water spilled right onto the narrow ledge of the Grinnell Glacier Trail.
It pretty much invited me to dip my head in the water to momentarily cool off.
Grinnell Glacier Trail Description – from Thunderbird Falls to the outhouse and rest area
Beyond Thunderbird Falls, the Grinnell Glacier Trail continued to hug narrower ledges while maintaining its climb.
This stretch of trail yielded increasingly dramatic views down towards Grinnell Lake as well as ahead towards Salamander Falls and the Salamander Glacier.
At around a half-mile or so beyond Thunderbird Falls, Grinnell Falls started to disappear from view.
The trail continued to meander above the dropoffs responsible for the Grinnell Falls’ main plunge.
Then, the trail would momentarily flatten out before reaching another set of switchbacks at about a mile beyond Thunderbird Falls.
At the top of these switchbacks, there was a trail junction as well as some rest benches in the shade of some neighboring trees.
The trail going to the right (away from Grinnell Glacier) was actually for some pit toilets.
Given how busy the Grinnell Glacier Trail had been up to this point, this could very well have been the first moments of privacy to heed nature’s call.
I recalled there were two such outhouses.
Grinnell Glacier Trail Description – from the rest area to Upper Grinnell Lake
Continuing on the Grinnell Glacier Trail, it would continue towards another series of tight and steep switchbacks with steps in another quarter-mile from the toilets.
Given how much climbing it took to get up to this point, this next climb really tested my stamina and willpower as the end was tantalizingly near.
Once at the top of the switchbacks and steps, the trail continued another quarter-mile before finally arriving at the view of the Grinnell Glacier (or Upper Grinnell Lake).
This was about a half-mile from the junction by the toilets or 3.5 miles from the nearest Lake Josephine Boat Dock.
There were additional “social” trails leading down from the viewpoint to the shores of Upper Grinnell Lake, which was full of thin icebergs.
It took me about 2 hours of hiking to get to this point.
For all that hard work, I spent a good half-hour or more sitting on one of the giant rocks by the shore of the lake.
Meanwhile, I stared at the bittersweet beauty of what was left of Grinnell Glacier and the Salamander Falls spilling into the lake at its far southern end (fed by the Salamander Glacier mostly hidden above).
When I looked to the far western end of Upper Grinnell Lake, I noticed there were people high up the wall peering down at us.
That was the Grinnell Glacier Overlook from the Skyline Trail (said to be 13 miles round trip from Logan Pass).
Furthermore, that was where the famous before-and-after photo of Grinnell Glacier was taken from.
Anyways once I had my fill of this place and finished my picnic lunch, I headed back the way I came, which was now thankfully mostly downhill.
Grinnell Glacier Trail Description – the long return hike to the Swiftcurrent Hotel
When I made it down to within eyesight of Lake Josephine, I somehow missed the trail junction for the Josephine Walk Trail.
So I wound up continuing on the Josephine North Shore Trail.
This trail was exposed to the sun and wasn’t as flat nor as downhill as I have liked, but it was still scenic and peaceful nonetheless (it was noticeably quieter than the Grinnell Glacier Trail).
It would be another 1.3 miles of hiking along the North Shore Trail before I returned to the intersection with the trail linking the Swiftcurrent Lake Boat Dock and the Lake Josephine Boat Dock.
I then continued hiking around the eastern shores of Swiftcurrent Lake for the remaining mile eventually arriving at the Swiftcurrent Loop Trailhead right by the far southern end of the Many Glacier Hotel.
This stretch of trail offered some panoramic views northwards across Swiftcurrent Lake while passing by some residences that might be for park staff.
Anyways, that was the conclusion of my hike.
I managed to make it back just in time to have a dinner at the Many Glacier Hotel and before the late afternoon thunderstorms started to dump their load on the area.
Grinnell Falls and Salamander Falls reside in Glacier National Park near St Mary in Glacier County, Montana. They are administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
For all intents and purposes, the nearest trailhead for the Grinnell Glacier hike was from the Swiftcurrent Lake Loop Trailhead by the Many Glacier Hotel.
The hotel also had a boat dock right at the eastern shores of Swiftcurrent Lake.
To get here from the Many Glacier Road turnoff at Babb, we drove west for about 11.3 miles to the turnoff for Many Glacier Hotel on the left.
Then, we turned left onto that turnoff and drove to the fairly large parking lot for the Many Glacier Hotel another quarter-mile or so further.
As for driving the Many Glacier Road, we do have to warn you that its road surface (at least as of our visit in August 2017) was pretty rough with potholes and hastily patched sections of water damage.
This further reinforced our suspicion that Glacier National Park lacked the funds to keep up with the necessary maintenance to keep the park accessible to the general public.
For additional context, Babb was 209 miles (3.5 hours drive) north of Helena. Across the US-Canada border, Babb was 38 miles (an hour drive; not counting border delays) southeast of Waterton and 171 miles (under 3 hours) south of Calgary.
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