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Grinnell Falls, Montana

Grinnell Falls is an easily-recognizable, iconic waterfall located within Montana’s Glacier National Park.  The falls are visible from the Grinnell Glacier Trail and are recognizable from their wishbone-like course of descent.

The trail veers away somewhat from the creek though, leaving no obvious way to approach the falls at closer range. The point of origin drainage-wise for the falls is the Grinnell Glacier, one of the most breath-taking regions of Montana and a geological wonder that easily qualifies as a ‘must-see’ for anyone visiting the park or the state.

From the glacier, the falls run into Grinnell Creek, and the resulting waterfalls cascade approximately 960 feet down the valley headwall through various sections and steps, with the first drop being the tallest at close to 300 feet.

grinnell falls

The History of the Grinnell Falls in Montana

American explorer George Bird Grinnell first discovered the glacier that would take his name in the mid-nineteenth century.

On November 2, 1887, along with fellow explorers Jack Monroe and James Willard Schultz, Grinnell scaled the headwall of the amazing glacial valley they had happened across, although reportedly Grinnell had already caught glimpses in the distance of the region through his spyglass two years prior to that.

Grinnell subsequently spent the next couple of decades making efforts to get the national park established, becoming one of the prominent characters involved in the cause. Grinnell was also perceptive enough to have concluded that the glacier was melting and receding—a point noted in his journal on his last visit to the region in 1926.

Grinnell wasn’t far wrong with his observations and predictions—one of the reasons you should perhaps consider visiting this glacier as soon as you can.

Apparently, the glacier lost something like 40% of its size between 1966 and 2005. If this rate of melting continues or even escalates, experts predict that the entire glacier could well have vanished before 2030.

Getting to Grinnell Falls

If you plan to visit the falls in the national park there are many different approaches. Heading into the park via the East Entrance off Highway 89 close to the small town of Babb is as good an option as any.

This will bring you to the Many Glacier entrances and from here you’ll need to drive another 10 miles or so to a large parking area close to the Grinnell Glacier Trail (first passing both the Swiftcurrent and Josephine lakes), which gets steeper after Lake Josephine and begins its ascent.

The falls become more apparent at the far end of Grinnell Lake as you head up the trail, and you may find you have personal preferences about where the best views of the falls are along the trail.

Hiking the Grinnell Glacier Trail to the Grinnell Falls

grinnell falls, mt. gould
Image: edward stojakovic

The main hike up to the Grinnell Glacier kicks off at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead located roughly half a mile past the infamous Many Glacier Hotel.

There are flush toilets and pit toilets at the trailhead and the ranger station is also just up the road if there is anything you need to find out first before hitting the trail.

TIP—if you want to get a spot in the lot at the trailhead, get there before 8:00 am—especially on weekends when visitor numbers increase significantly. The hike along this route equates to a 7.6-mile round trip, reaching elevations of around 6500 feet.

If that sounds somewhat on the arduous side though, you can halve that total distance by jumping on the two shuttle boats that run across both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine.

If you do decide to take this route, the hike will actually start out from Many Glacier Hotel’s boat dock, and there is a small fee for this service which takes around 10 minutes per lake.

Once across Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lake and having arrived at the boat landing on the south shore of the latter you can take the right-hand trail that leads to a junction.

From here the trail circles around the south end of the lake after heading right again, leading along a raised boardwalk above a marshy area on the first section. The North Shore Lake Josephine Trail junction leads up, rather steeply in some parts, to Grinnell Glacier.

Somewhere close to three-quarters of a mile along the route you’ll start to catch the first glimpses of Grinnell Lake down below.

Keep going up the trail and you’ll see Grinnell Falls crashing hundreds of feet down the headwall above the western end of the lake.

grinnell glacier trail

Conclusion

The Grinnell Falls and their surrounding environment are located in an area with the kind of scenery that draws visitors to Montana time and again.

Whether you are a lover of waterfalls and other stunning natural geographic features, a hiking enthusiast, or both—you’ll undoubtedly find the falls to be one of the national park’s most impressive features and terrains that is well worth checking out.

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