Iceberg Lake Ranger led Trail - Hiker’s Favorite


“Just as I was staring at the handful of clouds above that created beautiful time lapse over floating icebergs on an aquamarine lake, I felt the deep air of fresh crisp air and nostalgia combined. Iceberg Lake trail is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful & pleasant hikes in the park and as our ranger said, no two days are the same here. Few folks were so excited that they jumped into the icy cold water right away! We however thoroughly enjoyed the soundscape and the smell-scape and the visual retreat the trail to Iceberg lake awakened in us”.

Date Visited: 4th July 2018

The whole hike is astoundingly stunning – I may run out of words to describe how pristine I felt there. The hike takes you through plenty of Spring Flowers and Shrubs and Bear Grass in early July, through Wild Thimbleberry shrubs, through Wildfire areas, through views of Mountain Goats on the cliffs, through Colorful rocks, through several trickles beneath your feet, through Pink Snow due to growth of Pink Algae in the Snow that smells like Watermelon, through several views of Valleys and Mountains, through insights on Snowfields and receding Glaciers, through vegetation that needs no trampling on, through waterfalls. If any hike has a final and an all-embracing motive it surely would be to hike here with an intent to soak on all the senses (visual and the smell and the feel of it) and let wild be!

Tip: Many Glacier is 45 minutes drive from St. Mary. Iceberg Lake is a day-long hike of 10 miles roundtrip. Carry water. It does almost take an entire day on a moderate paced hike. 

                                                         The drive to Many Glacier

Tip2: There is a popular Many Glacier campground in the area. During our visit, soft tents were closed due to Bear activity. 

Previous Blogposts on Glacier National Park
Logan Pass and Hidden Lake Trail
25 Tips to Drive the Iconic Going to the Sun Road
First Come First Serve Camping in Glacier
A week in Glacier National Park | 20 Tips to get you started

Blogposts I really liked of others:

Hiking with a Ranger – An Advantage

Listed as moderate, this hike can be done both on your own or with National Park Service (NPS) ranger. Here are a few advantages of hiking with the ranger:

1. We love ranger led guided hikes than going solo as some of these trails – Grinnell & Iceberg are active bear habitat areas. If you are travelling solo, you have to be cautious and make constant sound, so as to not come face to face with a bear. In case if you do, you need to use a bear spray or walk back slowly gradually. We have never faced this situation, but I am sure that requires swift presence of mind. With ranger accompanying you, they are well versed of the area and any possible bear sightings in the area.

2. The advantage also here is, that you are in a large group of like-minded people that you can talk to. A large group will not remain as silent as compared to solo hikers.

                                            Would you rather go solo or with people?

3. Rangers take adequate stops in between and get you aware of the ecological and biological happenings in this region which if you are on your own you would completely miss. I really loved our hike more, because of her inputs. She also stopped us at the pit toilets which if we were on our own could have missed.

                                               Would you pay attention otherwise?

4. If you are an avid hiker who prefer fast paced hiking the ranger led hike may not be for you. However, the hiking speed of the Ranger is usually moderate, and they make sure everyone’s included. They wait till the last person on the trail is in synch, so it could also be bit slow at times. Even if you are an amateur or a newbie to hikes, you would completely enjoy with the rangers. You also have a choice whether to accompany them or not during your return. In case you wish to accompany them, they go fast on the return with no stops. You can also come back on your own.

5. Iceberg Lake Trail has many people hiking on their own too, so chances are you’d always find someone on your view. Iceberg lake is very doable even with kids. Do not return to late back from the Lake as there might be more Bear activity when the daylight is less, and people get fewer during late hours. Also, carry bear spray if you are hiking on your own.

6. On one of these short hikes that we were planning to take (not iceberg), there were no one after daylight started to get a little dim and it was scary to be wading through forests on your own knowing that Bear can be anywhere especially when we had seen them next to the meadows of our campsite every single day.

Nature of Hike – Moderate Initially Then Even Paced

The trail begins near the cabins of Swift current Motor Inn and immediately climbs onto the slopes beneath Mount Henkel. Before the start of the hike you can use restrooms in the grocery store at the motor inn and grab some sandwiches as breakfast to eat.

Tip 3: The Iceberg Lake Trail gains elevation of 1200 feet. The only steep part is a short section (first half mile) at the beginning. Rest of the hike is pretty even paced and surprisingly levelled with unobstructed views of the valley. 

As we reached to the top of the steep short section, our ranger told us about the Allen Mountain (9000 feet) that was farthest from where we stood. She also told us about Grinnell Point and how Swift current lake sits downstream of Lake Josephine and draws water from both sides of Lake Josephine. She continued, and said, that the right of Grinnell Point is the continental divide and on the low spot of continental divide is the Swiftcurrent Pass. There is a trail that goes from Swiftcurrent Lake to Swiftcurrent Pass and up from Swiftcurrent Pass is the Swiftcurrent Peak where there is a fire lookout. By Photos and Artifacts, we can say the Native People used to live in this area some 10,000 years ago and this was the trail used long ago even before this was a park.

There is a rich human history of the place. If you try to climb the rocks, you would still get the handhold to hold onto, these are the time-tested routes people have tried. So, she said, Grinnell wasn’t the first to discover the park, the park was already discovered. There are several guided published on this area on how to climb these rocks as rock climbs here are considered scrambles due to presence of sedimentary rock that can’t be trusted.

As you further walk through the trail, you would encounter several variants of flowering plants including Bear Grass and Paintbrush and Balsam Root Flowers etc. List of plants in Glacier NP here

Glacier & Snowfield - The Difference!

Our ranger then said to us, that behind us was Swiftcurrent Glacier. Swiftcurrent Glacier is more than a snowfield. She said, you may spot Snowfield starting from here till Kleine. These icebergs melt by the summer but some of them are larger and hence permanent. Swiftcurrent Glacier is still a Glacier.

She continues, “When the snow starts falling / melting you can measure the amount of Glacial budget so as to speak. So can look at how much Glacier is exposed and how much of it is covered by the end of Summer and by seeing that you can tell whether it’s growing or its shrinking kind of like a Bank Account. Like a Bank account if you spend more than you have deposited, then there is going to be a problem. Glaciers are only fed by snow and their only driver is Climate. With the mobile climate change, the more Glaciers are shrinking and becoming smaller. “

Tip 4: For a Glacier to remain a Glacier, it has to have 25 acres area and at least 66 feet of depth.

When they lack that depth, they do not have enough mass. It is the mass of the Glacier, that pressure in that snowpack that changes the molecular structure of ice allowing the lower level to flow almost like a liquid. So, Swift current Glacier still remains. However, north Swift current which used to be a Glacier, is now a Snowfield since it does not have enough area to be a Glacier.

Are we losing Glaciers every year - yes, we are?

She says,” We don’t study the depth of every Glacier every year - sometimes the measurements are taken Ariel. It is a labor intensive to get to each Glacier and do depth study. Currently we have 25 Glaciers, but we are losing Glaciers every year. “

Due to Climate Changes we are losing Glaciers every year. Since the 80’s, Grinnell Glacier which was 300 acres itself has shrunk to its half (currently less than 140 acres). I was stunned when I was looking at pictures from previous years in TripAdvisor, some of the Glacier look way massive than how it looks now. Grinnell Glacier still has the signboard that says 300 acres, but it is less than half of what it used to be.

She says, “We don’t have say over how these Glaciers gradually are receding - it depends on natural process as it gets colder or warmer, but we do as humans have control over how we impact Climate in our day to day lives. We are changing climate to be warmer.”

Is Iceberg Lake a Glacier?

Iceberg lake is about 150 feet deep at its deepest point and the snow on the back of the wall is not a glacier any longer. But at one point, up until about 1920’s, it was an Iceberg Glacier. Now, it’s a snowfield.

                                                      Is Iceberg Lake - A Glacier or not?

When we went in the first week of July, the snow hasn’t melted completely off the lake, but as they melt more, there are chunks of falling snow from the back wall that makes its way into the lake. May be coming back during last week of July is a great idea.

Our ranger says, “And every time you come to Iceberg Lake it’s a different scene depending on where the wind is blowing. I have been to Iceberg Lake when the wind was blowing, and it creates sound like windchimes or tingling of bells when the little ice shards was hitting the shoreline. This lake has inspired artists, musicians, poets, photographers etc. And even if one is not as creative, one always feels a lot smaller when they come here. “

How Fire Gives New life

Our ranger tells us, “Pretty much where we were standing on the iceberg trail was once burnt in 1936 fire that caught in the entire valley from Swift current Valley to the Many Glacier hotel. But nature has its way of coming back, and not necessarily for bad. It’s still drawing you back to the place. More of that biodiversity in the picture, comes with wildfires. For the most part, we have let nature be nature and we can also allow fires to change the landscape when it’s appropriate and take it back to its early stages. ”

Iceberg Lake Trail is also one of those trails that highlights the biodiversity of the region and how everything re-emerges for good. Wildfires for example, are not bad. Even though we may see patches of bare trees, it has not completely destroyed forests. Instead, it has changed the landscape to have different kind of plant life and species than what may have been in 1936. This new change also encourages new type of habitat for different wildlife. Forest fires just changed the landscape – dead trees lead to wildflowers, new pines etc. The difference in landscape can be seen on the other side of Grinnell Point, near Lake Josephine where the forest is different as it hasn’t been burned for 400 years. One forest is not better than the other they both are supporting different types of wildlife and plant life as well as supporting some of the common things as well.

If you are driving through Going to the Sun road, you’d see several spots with Green patches. If you are doing the St. Mary Falls trail you would also view the impact of burnt fire up close on trees - in fact you will be walking through them almost the entire time whereas Iceberg Lake trail is like a journey of sorts. You get a conglomeration of everything. Avalanches too, like fires, effect glaciers that create green bare patches that create new habitats.

Bears Claws on the trail trees, Research and Sustainability

As we hiked more on the trail, our ranger pointed us towards the Bear Claw marks on the trees. This tree reminded her of the studies that was done in the early 2000’s – The Grizzly Bear DNA Case Study. Because Grizzlies were endangered species, a lot of money was spent into their research. The Rub trees around trail corridors were laced with barbed wires in a zig zag fashion that was not enough for gathering blood but was enough for gathering fur. The bear would come to scratch their backs on the trees and their fur would get caught in the barbed wire and was collected by the research team.

Most of the trail corridors in the park was chosen for this study. In fact, they also had a 7*7 km grid initially, then a 6*6 km grid on which they would place a set lore surrounded by barbed wire. The Set lore was made to smell of cattle blood and fish gut etc. The bear would go under the wire of the set lore and find nothing and would come out. Their fur was getting picked up by the barbed wire who used it into more research. At that time, we had around 300 Grizzlies in the park, the Black Bears are 3 times the Grizzlies in the park. Now we are looking at around 400 Grizzly Bear in the vicinity. The study hasn’t been done in a while, but the researches are looking at the reproductive study of the females and then using their success as number of Grizzlies in the park.

Fact 5: Glacier National Park has pretty untouched landscape or untouched ecosystem to find the answers to questions that maybe we haven’t asked yet. Some of them research that are done in the park is to get baseline information of health of different populations and also for the benefit of the society. One of the Cancer Drugs called Taxol that was discovered has its compound that comes from one of the plants that grows here.

Our ranger added, “When you add a species onto an endangered species list, the goal is to have to have it recover. Once they are recovered, they are removed from the endangered species list. The northern continental divide is already delisted. Yellowstone ecosystem is already de-listed. The challenge for Montana after delisting would be to figure out how to maintain.

Tip 6: Glacier NP trail is not a place to leave your toilet paper anywhere. It may biodegrade someday but with this number of people coming on the trail, could take years. If you still have to take care of your business you are responsible for digging your own hole and filling it back covered with soil and rock, so that it leaves no trace. There is, however, a pit toilet just after the Bear Clawmark Trees and before the Ptarmigan Tunnel Signboard and before the Waterfall stop. The toilets are smelly, but we all went there.

Ptarmigan Tunnel – The Early Horsebacks and a Tunnel with the Steel Doors

Did you know that the early visitors used to travel by horses in the park? They would arrive by the train and would travel on a horseback hopping from tent camp to tent camp, staying in these 9 Chalets (2 still remain) and hotels. Horses are still allowed in many of the trails. If you hike the cracker lake, you would see historic trails still being used.

Ptarmigan Tunnel was built for historic horse travel because the only way to go to the North Side of the park was through Red Gap Pass which was a long circuitous route – dry & hot and not so scenic, so they created this tunnel after blasting their way through and jack hammering on both sides with Dynamites. There is also a trail on the other side of the tunnel. This is a continental divide route, there is no end, you can go as far as Canada and more into this route.

It was a great way to travel, however during winters it filled with so much snow that steel doors were installed. During each winter, these steel doors are closed to keep the snow out. With that, you can still go to one side, but a very sheer thin wall of snow on steel door sits for longer. So, it’s not typically until mid-July that the trail crew is able to get up there and clear the snow so it’s safe for everyone to travel like in early days. There is also a backcountry camping there on the Ptarmigan trail.

Tip 7: If you wish most trails to be open, hike during Late July to August Months. When we were there in Early July, The Grinnell Glacier wasn’t fully open yet. We could hike as much as we could, but we could not go as far as the overlook and further into the Glacier as it was closed. The trail on the Ptarmigan tunnel was also closed due to the Carcass.

But what is a Ptarmigan?

A Ptarmigan is an alpine grouse almost a size of a chicken. We do not find Ptarmigan in the Ptarmigan Lake but at Glacier above tree line in the snow. These birds have feathered feet that work as snowshoes. These birds also change color based on their environment. In winter, they look pure white, now they must be modeled brown.

Crossing Ptarmigan Falls

At 2.5 miles we stopped at Ptarmigan Falls for a little water break and munch on our snack that we had bought with us from Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. This was also where our ranger filled her water bottle (Bottle that came with a filter eg. Lifestraw hiking bottles)  right from the waterfall.

The Smell and The Sound

Tip 8: Did you know you cannot use drones in the National Park? Our ranger asked us to report any, should we see any. They want to product the natural soundscape of the area.

Are we only here on what we can see or are there other things of value that we aren’t even experiencing? One of the benefits of wilderness is taking in the sounds, the smells, the chirping of birds, the everything that we pass by. There is a distinct smell in the trail. Our ranger tells us that the scent of the wind reminds her of Spicy Jellybeans that used to be in her Easter Basket. Some of the sounds that we collected on the way was sound of the water, the little trickles, the ground squirrel and chipmunks chirping as we pass by. It invigorates all our senses.

Pink Snow, Mountain Goats and the Predators

As we proceeded ahead in the trail, we found ourselves walking on the Pink Snow – the color pink due to pink algae that’s growing in the snow. Since, we were walking on the snow, we were advised by our ranger to follow her step by step as there was chances of us trampling on vegetations beneath.

Up above on the cliff we could see Mountain Goats. The Mountain Goats go up the cliff because that’s the place where they are safe. Grizzly bear won’t climb on the cliff, the most it would do is boulder on the rocks. The only predator of Mountain Goats is Golden Eagles. These eagles’ nests on the cliff and knock off the young Mountain Goats off the cliffs and once they are injured, the eagles feed on them.

Lastly, the Iceberg Lake

At 4.5 miles we crossed a small footbridge that took us over Iceberg Creek.

Just after we hiked on the pink snow, comes these yellow flowered meadows, that also has a small unnamed lake that has almost crystal clear light bluish water. Its delight to see a small lake just before the actual lake.

As we climbed on the slightly damp steps thereafter, we could see the Iceberg Lake shimmering! I wanted to run and jump into the lake, but the first thing we did was, get on top of one of the icebergs and get our pictures clicked. One or two people actually jumped into the lake, but the water was icy cold for a swim or a dip. I have seen more icebergs in late July in pictures. So, may be all of the snow hasn’t melted yet, to form more icebergs but there were few we enjoyed watching.

As Bernard Devote, a prize winning historian wrote about wilderness “ It is imperative to maintain portions of the wilderness untouched so that a tree will rot where it falls, a waterfall will pour its curve without generating electricity, a trumpeter swan may float on uncontaminated water - and moderns may at least see what their ancestors knew in their nerves and blood.”

Some more pictures from the hike:

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