Difficulty: Moderate; this hike would be an easy-moderate if not for the distance
Access: Paved but poorly maintained road to trailhead; Glacier National Park entrance fee
Iceberg Lake is exactly what the name suggests: a gem of a lake in Glacier National Park's Many Glacier region that is studded with startlingly blue icebergs early each summer. The lake is set in a deep cirque, bordered on three sides by the rugged cliffs of the Continental Divide. In winter, avalanches roaring down the walls of Iceberg Peak build deep snowdrifts on the shores of Iceberg Lake; these snowdrifts consolidate into ice over the course of the winter and spring. When summer finally arrives and the lake thaws, the built-up ice at the foot of Iceberg Peak calves a steady stream of blue ice into the lake. Even in poor weather, the lake is a magical place where one can sit and watch the random walks of various icebergs through the lake. The hike to the lake is quite straightforward: despite being a longer 10 miles round trip, the grades on the trail are relatively gentle and there are no major obstacles en route.
Iceberg Lake and the entirety of Glacier National Park are grizzly country. While I did not encounter any grizzly bears on my hike, grizzlies are often spotted in the Many Glacier area. Most grizzly encounters are resolved when bears leave the scene to avoid confrontation, but grizzlies can be extremely dangerous as well. You should come prepared with bear spray; if possible, avoid hiking alone and stick to hiking on trails during the higher traffic daylight hours. Few visitors have problematic grizzly encounters, but serious incidents do happen: just a week prior to my visit to the park, a grizzly bear killed a cyclist near the western side of the park.
I first heard of Iceberg Lake while flipping through National Geographic's Guide to the National Parks when I was in middle school; the idea of a lake set in a stony cirque filled with glowing blue ice captured my imagination. A decade and a half later, I finally found myself back in Glacier National Park, 22 years after Glacier National Park became the first national park I visited as a kid. While I planned visits to more famous destinations on this trip, such as Granite Park Chalet and Crypt Lake, I knew I couldn't come this far and not see Iceberg Lake. So on the last day of my stay in Glacier, despite ominous clouds that signaled the impending threat of rain, I set out from Many Glacier in search of the Promised Lake.
The trailhead for Iceberg Lake is behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in the Many Glacier section of Montana's Glacier National Park. Glacier National Park is a long way from any major city, so presumably you know your way to Many Glacier if you've taken the time to travel this far. The actual trailhead starts from the loop around the motel rooms behind the main building of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, but parking there is limited so I encourage you to park instead in the main parking lot in front of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. From the Motor Inn, signs direct hikers along the road among the Motor Inn motel units to the actual trailhead. Two trails departed from this trailhead: the one leading left headed towards Swiftcurrent Pass, while the trail to the right headed towards Iceberg and Ptarmigan Lakes. I started on the trail to the right.
The trail started in the forest but soon passed through some semi-open spaces with meadows interspersed with woods. After a little bit of uphill climbing, I came to a trail intersection 0.3 miles uphill from the trailhead. The right fork led towards Swiftcurrent Lake, so I took the left fork instead, which aimed for Iceberg and Ptarmigan Lakes.
For a little more than the next mile, the trail traversed meadow-filled slopes above the forested floor of the valley of Wilbur Creek. Although clouds obscured the summits of the Continental Divide, there were still good views of the fin of Mount Wilbur, the spires of the Ptarmigan Wall, and the ridgeline connecting Grinnell Point to Mount Grinnell.
|Mount Wilbur and Ptarmigan Wall|
The trail embarked on a slightly more aggressive uphill climb through the forest in the next two-thirds mile past Ptarmigan Falls, although even here the grades were never too challenging. At this end of this uphill stretch, the trail emerged into alpine meadows on the south slopes of the Ptarmigan Wall and stayed out in the open for more or less the rest of the hike. Although I couldn't see the summits of the surrounding mountains, the alpine scenery here was still beautiful, with views of rocky ridges and forests down the Wilbur Creek Valley and of waterfalls tumbling down from the cirque below the headwall formed by Mount Wilbur, Iceberg Peak, and the Ptarmigan Wall.
|Beargrass and Swiftcurrent Valley|
|Iceberg Lake Trail|
|Iceberg Creek flowing out from Iceberg Lake|
|Small tarn before Iceberg Lake|
|First view of Iceberg Lake|
I walked to the far north end of the lake, where small icebergs congregated at the lake's outlet. From here, I had an excellent view along the impressive barrier of the Ptarmigan Wall. Even though the glaciers of this part of the Rockies are beating an unstoppable retreat, the geologic legacy they leave behind- one of aretes, horns, moraines, and cirques- remain an essential part of this beautiful, glacier-carved landscape.