Ecology, Travel Blog

Grinnell Glacier Trail, Glacier National Park (7/18/18)

View from Grinnell Glacier Trail

Climate change was the final theme of my Field Ecology course. I’ve heard about glaciers melting nearly my whole life, but like so many other concepts in ecology, this was just an abstract idea to me until I witnessed it firsthand.

What is a Glacier?

How does one differentiate between glaciers and all of the other snowdrifts that speckle the landscape in Glacier National Park? Well, luckily we had a Glaciologist from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) with us to shed some light on the topic.

Glaciers are defined as a mass of ice that is moving. They consist of an accumulation zone and an ablation zone. The accumulation zone is the area where snow and ice are added, there’s always snow, and it is above snow line. Snow lines are moving higher in elevation as global temperatures rise. The ablation zone is the area where the amount of snow and ice lost through natural causes is greater than the amount of snow and ice that’s replaced (net loss). Moraines are debris deposits left behind from glaciers moving forward and then retreating. There is still much research to be done on the formation of new alpine lakes as glaciers melt.

In Glacier National Park, 27 acres is the size threshold for defining a glacier and Grinnell is their lowest elevation glacier. Even with all this said, I still need a map to identify glaciers around the park.

Salamander Glacier on Garden Wall, waterfall, and Upper Grinnell Glacier Lake

The purpose of the day’s hike was to practice repeat photography to demonstrate glacial loss over time and in response to climate change. The below repeat photography was taken at Upper Grinnell Glacier Lake. In the 1958 picture on the left you can see greater ice mass, versus the open lake surface now present in the photo on the right.

Left: classic George Bird Grinnell photo, 1958.

Right: Photo Credit: Taylor Chenette, 2018

The ten mile (out-and-back) hike on Grinnell Glacier Trail was challenging, scenic, and bountiful with wildlife and blooming wildflowers. Elevation gain revealed clear blue lake after lake in the distance, culminating in the arrival to Upper Grinnell Glacier Lake at 6515ft high.

Chamerion angustifolium, Fireweed

Fireweed earned its name because it is one of the first plants to colonize disturbed areas after a fire.

Xerophyllum tenax, Beargrass
Beargrass forming seeds

Beargrass is a very charismatic plant that is hard to miss in GNP. As fun as the name is and much to my exasperation, beargrass is not a grass, but in fact in the lily family. It is a widespread perennial in Glacier National Park and lives about 5-7 years. It is a showy plant that elk and deer love to munch on. Bears will use its leaves for bedding in their winter dens.

A luxurious waterfall along the trail
Some fine NPS gentlemen shoveling a path for Taylor
Mountain goat and her kid

Yet another misnomer out there to confuse people, the mountain goat actually belongs to the antelope family. We had the fortune of running into this goat that appeared to be shedding and her kid on the trail right after the first snow patch. We backed up so they wouldn’t feel trapped and they used the opening to climb a hillside onto some snow.

Doing what mountain goats do!
Supervising the trail crew
Left to right: Swiftcurrent Lake, Lake Josephine, Grinnell Lake
Garden Wall, Salamander Glacier, Upper Grinnell Glacier Lake
The water was painfully cold
Glacial Head Dunks are Addicting
Mitchell sunbathing
A perfect lunching spot
Grinnell Glacier
Heading back
Mountain Goat Parade

The whole day was an exercise in respect for wildlife. Our goat friends met us again on the descent back down the mountain and about 20 of us stepped aside in salute to the goat parade. We snapped some shots, but made sure not to frighten the goats and give them as much as space as we could to walk in peace.


Penstemon confertus, Yellow Beardtongue
Unknown spp
Unknown spp
Unknown spp
Unknown spp

Somehow I managed to miss seeing two adult grizzlies and two cubs on my hike up the mountain and I was extremely disappointed to find that out later. However, on the return hike, my wish came true and I saw my first grizzly bear! It was several hundred feet off of the trail grazing in the grass. Even from afar, the humped back, which is one way to differentiate grizzlies from black bears, is distinct in the photo.

Grizzly bear grazing a hillside
A deer that jumped out of the brush

Other wildlife that we encountered but aren’t pictured include a moose drinking water at a lake, a marmot, chipmunks, and ground squirrels, or “squirrel dogs” as I like to call them.DSCF3621

Thank you to my professors, Diana and Jim, for really driving home the reality of climate change and reminding me about the importance of our field (and for literally driving us home)!

The showcase of wildlife, wildflowers, freezing glacial lake, and incredible vistas of our last field trip were the epitome of a Glacier National Park experience and a message that we need to address and manage for global climate change on individual and government levels.


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