Hiking: 10.9 mi / 3600 ft. climbing
Home: Swiftcurrent Pine Top Motel
We’d heard from Mojo and Speakeasy (the through-hikers we hung out with at St. Mary’s) that the Many Glacier Hotel does an all-you-can-eat breakfast for $21, and that’s just as valuable to touring-cyclists-cum-day-hikers as it is to through-hikers, so finally we had the morning to (literally) take advantage of the offering. Since we were going to ride out the half-mile east to the Grinnell Glacier trailhead anyway, we might as well ride another half-mile to the hotel. And today would be a day where we could use the calories. Plus then we could see this National Park Lodge, which generally are some of my very-favorite human-created spaces (without paying the $300-$500/night to sleep there).
We weren’t early enough to get a window seat (which the host said there was nearly a fist-fight over last year), but he was able to squeeze us into an “obstructed view” version. After filling our first plates (of three or four), Jonathan (the UWisc professor who we’d met out on the Swiftcurrent Pass trail three days ago) and his wife Jean were seated next to us, and it was nice to chat with them over eggs and french toast and bacon and sausage and $50 worth of berries (some of the only fruit available in Glacier!) When we told him we were staying on another day just to hike to Grinnell Glacier, he had a story for us! Two days ago, he had decided to hike to Grinnell Lake (same trail, but short of the glacier), knowing that the upper lake was still closed due to snow cover on the trail. But at the very moment that he reached the point where the trail was blocked by a rope, a ranger came down from above, removed the rope, and said “trail is open!” So he was the very first person able to hike to the glacier this season!
After breakfast we walked through the hotel a bit, and it is creaky and grand and wooden and labyrinthine, long-loved and long-lived, and just the place I’d hoped it would be. It’s a perfect human complement to the natural environment in which it sits, if such a formal human structure was to be created in this place.
The first part of the hike was a re-tracing of half the Lake Josephine loop we had done two days ago, which we wouldn’t have done had we known that Grinnell Glacier would open the next day. Though that means we would have missed the intimate black bear encounter, and bull moose viewing! And since we were a couple hours earlier in the morning, the light made the same places look different anyway.
And then when we hit uncharted territory, everything just took off. The first highlight was Grinnell Lake, which we never actually approached, but only passed from high above. The turquoise color was unlike any lake we’d seen here so far, so clearly the Chicago Plumber’s Union must have shown up recently to dye it.
Then the trail really ramped upward, a more-gut-busting (though still not technical) climb than we’ve done anywhere else in the park, but with that came mind-bending perspectives and “how are we even allowed to walk here?” segments.
And then, just like at Iceberg Lake, we crest a final rise, get a quick broad glimpse of our ice-water-in-a-rock-tumbler target, and race down to the lake edge. Except despite the quantitative similarities to Iceberg Lake (chunks of ice floating in a lake surrounded by high mountain walls), the feel at Upper Grinnell Lake is completely different. It’s a far larger, grander, and more-epic scene (not least because there is a glacier at the far end that makes it feel like we’ve arrived on the ice planet of Hoth). But that means that Iceberg is more-intimate, relatable, and human-scale. In short, I’m really glad that we experienced them both, and neither feels like a retread of the other.
We finished up our snack of buffet-stolen apples, and, satisfied with our time acclimating to and attempting to understand this space, headed back across the rocks to the trail. Midway we were excited to re-meet the Indiana couple who had informed us about the trail being open yesterday. Glad to see that they made it too! On the way up, we also passed a group that contained a woman I had been talking with in the laundry room several days ago (“hey, are you the cyclists?” is a strange thing to hear someone ask on a trail!), so along with Jonathan this morning, this park is feeling similar to Baja, where apparently there actually aren’t all that many people here, it’s just that you keep seeing the same people multiple times!
On the way back down, we had a close encounter with a mountain goat, allowing us to check the last large mammal off of our list! (except for the wolverine and mountain lion, but no one ever sees those). Not only that, he decided to appear right in front of Grinnell Lake!
Since the goat liked that spot so much, we decided to pick a similar rock shelf to sit on to eat a quick lunch, quick because ominous clouds were beginning to swirl between the peaks.
We encountered the same goat after lunch, this time being a bit more-stubborn about letting people into his space (aka, the trail), but eventually some encouragement from Rett (and the leader of the line coming the other way) got him to clear out a bit.
The skies, however, did not clear out, and soon the rain began in earnest. It continued for the last four miles, somehow stopping just as we got to the trailhead and our bikes. We essentially put our rain jackets on, put our heads down, and motored the four miles barely stopping, which wasn’t a super-fun end to the hike, but it was cool to learn that we now have the physical capacity to do such a thing (in our four days of hiking at Many Glacier, we averaged 10.5 miles per day on the trails, and basically felt ok at the end of it!) The strange thing was that we saw almost no other people in those four wet miles, once we passed a few groups still heading up in cotton t-shirts and shorts as the thunder boomed off the mountain walls (hopefully they didn’t die of hypothermia). I understand that people who might have wanted to start the trail decided not to, but did the ones already out there just melt?
The final half-mile to the trailhead is an interpretive (it has signs) and I believe “accessible” (wide, smooth gravel) section, but ironically, it was the most-difficult to pass in the rain, as a dozen mini-lakes had formed on its surface, where tiptoeing on the edges where the puddles met the wet brush seemed to be the best of a bad set of options. My best guess is that the contract to (re-)build this part of the trail went to someone more familiar with residential landscaping than mountain-trail-building, and so they said “pfft, a flat wide trail, don’t need an expert for that!” Whereas the actual mountain trails were made by deeply-experienced builders who understood all the factors necessary to make their trails stand the test of time.
Wet and a bit chilled, it sucked to get back to our hotel room and find that the key didn’t work. And then there was a long line at the desk while Rett waited by our door. But, that’s where Eve and I saw each other! She’s one of the girls that we shared an AirBNB with in Missoula and attended Pride festivities with. No, this wasn’t the day’s cake-taking unexpected re-meeting; it was planned ahead of time (she even brought a skincare product for Rett from Wal-Mart!) but being able to successfully meet with someone in this telecommunication-challenged area still takes some luck!
She came back to our room to hang out for a bit, and then we met up again for dinner, which was once again as crazy-crowded as it was our first night (I guess people from the campground not wanting to cook in the rain could be a factor?) Afterward, we saw on the trail status board that the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail had opened today. Noooo! This is another one we really wanted to do! Well, should we stay another day?! After all, staying this extra day to do Grinnell Glacier was totally worth it! No; as tempting as it is, we’ll likely never be able to hike all 700 miles of trail at Glacier National Park, so trying to be completists is futile.
Let’s instead just enjoy the “extra” day we had today. Our motel cost was $240 for the night. If someone had been standing at the Grinnell Glacier trailhead and charging $120 admission per-person to hike the trail, we surely would have refused. But now knowing what we would have missed, I think I would have paid at least $100! So the expense of the extra day was totally worth it, especially knowing the pointless generic crap that people (including ourselves!) will spend $120 on. Glaciers! Goats! Turquoise lakes! July ice! Oh man, what a place.