by Joseph A. Sprince – Photography by Gerald B. Allen
The Glacier National Park Travel Guide is a resource for those planning to tour Glacier National Park and/or Canada's adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park. The adjacent national parks are typically visited at the same time and offer a variety of experiences. Both parks offer outstanding opportunities to view wildlife.
The scenery of Glacier National Park is often compared to Switzerland and the Swiss Alps. Nowhere is that more true than in the Many Glacier region in the northeast part of the park. In the photo below, the beautiful Swiss-chalet style Many Glacier Hotel sits on the edge of Swiftcurrent Lake, dwarfed by the spectacular mountain scenery in the background. Even more fantastic sights can be reached by hiking trail or tour boat, or a combination of both. Guided horseback trips are also available.
One of the most scenic and popular park attractions is the Grinnell Glacier and (lower) Grinnell Lake below the glacier. The beautiful lake has a turquoise color resulting from the glacier’s meltwater. You can hike to Grinnell Lake from the trailhead near Many Glacier Hotel in 3.4 miles (one way) with a 60 foot elevation gain. It takes 5.5 miles and a 1,600 foot gain to reach the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. You can combine the hikes with a scenic boat tour which reduces the hiking distance substantially (lake hike becomes 0.9 mile one way, glacier hike, 3.4 miles one way). The tour includes a cruise across Swiftcurrent Lake, a 400 yard walk to Josephine Lake, and a cruise across that lake to the point where you pick up the trails. Ranger and concessionaire guided hikes are available in conjunction with the boat tour.
It is a sad fact that in the past century most of Grinnell Glacier (and other park glaciers) has melted away. In the past 25 years the melting has become extensive due to global warming. As the glacier shrinks away, Upper Grinnell Lake at its base becomes ever larger. See the USGS-NOROCK photo study, Grinnell Glacier from Mount Gould 1938 – 2013. It’s highly likely that all of the park’s glaciers will melt away completely in the upcoming decades.
Glacier recession is underway, and many glaciers have already disappeared. The retreat of these small alpine glaciers reflects changes in recent climate as glaciers respond to altered temperature and precipitation. It has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, and most glaciers were still present in 1910 when the park was established. In 2010, we consider there to be only 25 glaciers larger than 25 acres remaining in Glacier National Park. A computer-based climate model predicts that some of the park’s largest glaciers will vanish by 2030. This is only one model prediction but, if true, then the park’s glaciers could disappear in the next several decades. However, glacier disappearance may occur even earlier, as many of the glaciers are retreating faster than their predicted rates.USGS, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center (NOROCK) – “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park (2013)”
Another popular attraction is the hike to Iceberg Lake. The beautiful lake sits in a basin (Iceberg Cirque) with a sheer 3,000 foot wall as a backdrop (photo, right)! Its glacier has long since melted but the lake holds a flotilla of icebergs well into the summer. The trail starts near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, and is 4.8 miles one way, with a 1,000 foot elevation gain. Along the way you will pass beautiful Ptarmigan Falls. Ranger-led hikes to Iceberg Lake are available.
The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail passes through a very scenic valley rich in wildlife. Redrock Lake and Falls is 1.8 miles from the trailhead near the motor inn, with a 100 foot elevation gain. The trail eventually starts to climb the Garden Wall reaching Swiftwater Pass on the Continental Divide after 6.6 miles and a 2,300 foot elevation gain. The Granite Park Chalet and the Highline Trail are another mile further.
The Swiftwater Nature Trail is an easy 2.5 mile level trail around the lake. Numerous other exciting hikes are available. The Many Glacier Ranger Station is near the campground. The ranger can offer more suggestions based on your skill level and condition. Strong hikers shouldn’t miss the hike to Ptarmigan Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel. Also, check for the current program and activity schedule. Information is also available at the Many Glacier Hotel.
Moose are especially common in the Many Glacier region. They often can be seen grazing right along the road. Do not approach too close, especially if there is a female moose with its calf. And if you go hiking, be aware that grizzly bears are common to the area as well. Be sure to carry bear spray on any hike.
The Many Glacier Region
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- The Many Glacier Region.
- On the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail in Many Glacier.
- Many Glacier boat tours, boat rentals, and guided hikes
- Many Glacier Trail Rides (horseback)
- Backcountry Camping
- Trails in Many Glacier Area. (Interactive Flash Map – Place mouse on numbered black dots for more info.)
Services in The Many Glacier Region
Food and Lodging
- Many Glacier Hotel. Early June to late September. Classic lodge constructed in 1915 by Great Northern Railroad. On the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake (18 miles west of US-89, north of St. Mary), the lodge features enormous mountain views as a backdrop behind the lake. It offers rooms in rustic lodge rooms, some with views of lake and/or mountains. All have phones and private bathrooms. Beautiful lobby with fireplace. Two lounges, restaurant with picture-window views, and gift shop. Horseback rides, boat tours, ranger programs, etc.
- Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins. Mid-June to mid-September. Modest motel and cabins suited to hikers, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts. About one mile from Many Glacier Motel. Offers rustic cottages with or without bathrooms (common shower/bathrooms nearby). Standard motel rooms have private bathrooms. Casual restaurant, camp store, laundry, and showers. Recreational activities located at Many Glacier Hotel.
Food and Lodging – Backcountry
- Granite Park Chalet. Located high in the Glacier National Park backcountry and is accessible by hiking trails only. Generally open from late June to early September. Granite Park Chalet is a hiker's hostel (with 12 rooms) where you bring your own sleeping bag and prepare your own meals in their kitchen. Private bunk bed rooms assigned at time of reservation and can accommodate up to six guests. Freeze-dried food and bed linens may be pre-ordered at an extra charge. No heat, electricity, or running water in rooms. Bottled water may be purchased.
- Many Glacier. Late May to late September. Extremely popular campground in a spectacular scenic area. Campground fills very early in morning during the summer. Large campground on east side with 110 sites (13 sites can accommodate up to 35 foot RVs). Water and flush toilets. Take spur road west from US-89, north of St. Mary. Mostly wooded sites. Showers at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Activities and programs at nearby Many Glacier Hotel. Area has great day hiking and excellent chances to see wildlife. Access to fee-based concessionaire shuttle bus.
Nearest Visitor Center
The Many Glacier Ranger Station is open daily June to September. Maps and publications are available for sale. Rangers are present to answer questions, issue backpacking permits, provide emergency assistance, etc. Ranger programs are scheduled at the campground and Many Glacier Hotel.
Other services in area
Restaurant, camp store, showers, and laundry located nearby the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.