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, which was rapidly becoming Upper Grinnell Lake. It was definitely one of the most popular excursions in the Many Glacier Valley section of Glacier National Park, but its popularity belied how much of a strenuously long hike it was (which you can see from the difficulty score I gave it). 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. And in case you didn’t know, the Grinnell Glacier could very well be Glacier National Park’s most famous glacier 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 (let alone the park itself) to illustrate the accelerated recession of mountain glaciers around the world. 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, and he was also 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.
Grinnell Falls was the more prominent waterfall as its 280ft wishbone-shaped drop could clearly be seen from as far as Lake Josephine (though it’s much harder to spot, if at all possible, from Swiftcurrent Lake) and was pretty much visible for almost the entirety of the Grinnell Glacier Trail between the climb above Lake Josephine and the final stretch leading to the glacier itself. It also featured a long cascade tumbling its way down from the bottom of the main wishbone-shaped drop all the way to the colorful Grinnell Lake below. The 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, but now with both glaciers probably not going to exist in another 13 or so years, there’s no telling how much longer even these waterfalls will remain perennial.
As far as logistics were concerned, the long hike up to the Grinnell Glacier was a long 11 miles round trip with over 1800ft in elevation gain. 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 possibly 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 (to have ample time to complete the hike before it would get late), and 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 that wound up making the overall distance somewhere around 9-10 miles round trip, which took me about 6 hours of trail time (which didn’t include the additional time spent waiting on the boat docks and taking the boat rides themselves). So I’ll describe the hike in this manner.
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.
The hike briefly went around the southern shore of Lake Josephine 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), but don’t 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, but 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, and in another 0.1 mile, I crossed a footbridge where the Josephine Walk Trail then joined up with the Grinnell Glacier Trail.
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, where 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, which was where a weeping wall of lightly-flowing water spilled right onto the narrow ledge of the Grinnell Glacier Trail pretty much inviting me to dip my head in the water to momentarily cool off.
Beyond Thunderbird Falls, the trail continued to hug narrower ledges while climbing yielding as the views down towards Grinnell Lake and ahead towards Salamander Falls and the Salamander Glacier became even more dramatic. At around a half-mile or so beyond Thunderbird Falls, Grinnell Falls started to disappear from view as the trail continued to meander above the dropoffs that gave rise to the main plunge of the falls. 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. And given how busy the 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.
Continuing on the Grinnell Glacier Trail, it would continue towards another series of tight and steep switchbacks and steps in another quarter-mile from the toilets. Given how much climbing it took to get up to this point, this next climb would really test the 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 Grinnell Glacier (or Upper Grinnell Lake) Overlook at 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 overlook to the shores of Upper Grinnell Lake, which was full of thin icebergs. It took me about 2 hours 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 while staring 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), and 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 my picnic lunch, I headed back the way I came, which was now thankfully mostly downhill.
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, and I managed to make it back just in time to have a dinner at the Many Glacier Hotel and before the thunderstorms started to dump their load on the area.
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, which 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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