See Glacier Before its Glaciers Melt

Photo by Becky Lomax

Catch them while you can in Glacier National Park

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If you want to see Glacier National Park‘s namesake glaciers while they still exist, you’d better schedule a visit soon. Why? The warming climate is tolling a death knell for these pockets of moving ice. In fact, many of its remaining 25 tiny glaciers may melt into oblivion by 2030 or so.

From roads, a good pair of binoculars can hone in on some of the glaciers. But hikers can get up closer. Since lingering winter snow makes glaciers look like snowfields in early summer, the best time to visit them is late July through September. In that short window between the spring snow melting and the autumn snow falling, the glaciers reveal their blue ice, crevasses and debris bands. Most of the remaining glaciers snuggle on the Continental Divide, the highest rib of peaks. They hug north and east mountain sides shaded from the afternoon sun.

To do the day hikes to the glaciers, camp or lodge in Rising SunSt. Mary or Many Glacier. On the day before heading to Sperry Glacier, camp at Apgar Campground or Sprague Creek or overnight at Lake McDonald Lodge to get an early start.

Glacier Day Hike #1: Two Glaciers on Siyeh Pass Trail

This 11.8-mile trot on the Siyeh Pass Trail climbs through scads of wildflowers in Preston Park. It enters alpine tundra to summit a 7,911-foot divide. En route, Piegan Glacier comes into view. After the divide, views shift to Sexton Glacier. A side spur walks the contours of its moraines for a closer vantage point.

Glacier Day Hike #2:  Grinnell Glacier

Once connected glaciers on the Continental Divide, remnant Salamander Glacier now hangs on a ledge above larger Grinnell Glacier. From Many Glacier picnic area or Many Glacier Hotel, the 11-mile round trip hike starts on trails arcing around two lakes. After the second lake, the path grunts uphill into the glacial basin. On the final pitch, big steps climb the rocky moraine. Since the late 1930s, the latter has been melting into a growing lake. Whittle the hike down to 7.6 miles by taking the tour boat both directions.

Glacier Day Hike #3: Jackson Glacier

A climb to Gunsight Lake leads to the base of Mt. Jackson, which cradles Jackson Glacier on its east slope. The glacier used to be one of the biggest in the park when it connected with neighboring Blackfoot Glacier. The final stretch of this 15.6-mile round trip trail traverses across the base of Mt. Jackson to reach the moraine of Jackson Glacier, now melting far back up the ice-scoured basin.

Glacier Day Hike #4: Sperry Glacier

A demanding 20-mile day hike climbs into hanging valleys with small tarns. The trail appears to terminate in a cliff, but a hidden rock stairway pops hikers up into Sperry Glacier Basin. Once in the basin, the trail crosses the boulder-strewn moraine to reach a viewpoint of the glacier. Strong hikers can scamper the full 20 miles round trip with 4,500 feet of elevation in one day. If and when Sperry Chalet is rebuilt, hikers needing 2 or 3 days for the distance will be able to add an overnight option. In the meantime, backpackers can get a permit to tent in the campground near the chalet complex.

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