Glacier National Park is one area in the Western U.S. where I waited way too long to visit. When I had a chunk of time off in the summer a few years ago, my girlfriend and I finally took a trip up to Glacier from Jackson where we spent the better part of week camping and hiking.
We chose the Iceberg Lake Trail as our first hike upon arriving in Glacier and I felt like it represented much of the beauty and character of this amazing park.
For fit and experienced hikers, Iceberg Lake is a relatively mellow half-day hike that takes you through open meadows with big views. The destination, Iceberg Lake, features a picturesque lake surrounded by steep cliffs.
True to its name, chunks of ice from the winter snowpack calve off into the lake early to mid-summer every year, making for an entirely unique and dramatic setting.
Distance and Elevation Gain
Difficulty: For a reasonably fit and experienced hiker, this is a relatively easy trek due to the gradual elevation gain. For a less experienced hiker, I would consider this a moderate-level hike mainly because of the distance.
Distance: 9.0 miles roundtrip or 4.5 miles one-way. This hike is an out-and-back.
Elevation Gain (and Loss): The total elevation gain from the trailhead to Iceberg Lake is 1,653 ft. with 462 ft. of elevation loss, resulting in a net elevation gain of 1,191 ft.
Estimated Time: Most reasonably fit hikers will complete this hike in 4-5 hours of hiking time, but you’ll want to spend plenty of time hanging out at the lake too!
The map I used for this hike and recommend is the Trails Illustrated Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks Map. This map covers the entire park as well as neighboring Waterton Lakes.
Trails Illustrated also sells region-specific maps for different sections of the park, including Many Glacier which covers the Iceberg Lake Trail.
How to get to the trailhead
From St. Mary, the trailhead is about a 40-minute drive, all on paved roads. If you’re camping or staying in Many Glacier, then the trailhead is within walking distance!
Upon reaching the Many Glacier area, follow the signs to the Swift Current Motor Lodge and park at the north end of the lodge area near the cabins. Look for a sign marking the Iceberg-Ptarmigan Trailhead, which is where your hike will begin.
Trail Breakdown and Highlights
The trail starts out by ascending gradually across open meadows on the southwest-facing slopes of Mt. Henkel while paralleling the Wilbur Creek Valley below. The views on this section of the trail occur early and often, with expansive panoramas in the distance of the cirque where Iceberg Lake lies.
If you hike here in July, you’ll enjoy brilliant green slopes with plenty of wildflowers to go along with the consistent views.
Keep an eye out for beargrass — the tall white flowers that Glacier is famous for. According to the National Park Service, these flowers do not bloom in high quantities every year, but if you are lucky enough to catch them in a “super bloom” (when moisture/soil conditions are favorable) then you are in for a real treat.
After 2.5 miles of hiking, you’ll reach Ptarmigan Falls and a trail junction. Stay left at this trail junction and continue the final 2 miles to Iceberg Lake. Just before the end of the hike, you’ll come across this scenic turquoise pond — which is just an appetizer for the final destination.
From here, it’s only another tenth of a mile before you reach the wonder that is Iceberg Lake.
As long as bad weather isn’t threatening, this is definitely a spot to take a nice long lunch break. And if it’s a hot day, then take a quick dip in the icy water to cool off!
Make no mistake, this is a popular hike, but for good reason. Don’t let the hiker traffic dissuade you because the views are outstanding the entire way and of all the alpine lakes I have hiked to, Iceberg Lake is certainly one of the most captivating I’ve visited.
Best time of year to hike the Iceberg Lake Trail
In an average year, this hike is typically do-able from mid-June through mid-October, but be prepared to encounter snow on the upper half of this trail early and late in the season, and running water/mud early in the season.
That being said, the best time to do this hike is in July and early August when the trail to the lake has dried out and there are icebergs are in the lake. Wildflowers are at their peak during this time, too.
Usually by mid-August, most if not all of the icebergs have melted except for heavy snow years when the icebergs could linger later into the year.
As far as weather goes, before you make a trip to Glacier you’ll want to prepare for just about any kind of weather, from warm/hot and dry weather to afternoon thunderstorms to cold and wet or even snowy weather.
Average highs at the Many Glacier weather station are in the 70s during July and August, but when I did this hike during the second week of July, there was an ongoing heatwave with dry conditions and high temperatures at Many Glacier were getting into the upper 80s.
June can be quite wet in Glacier with frequent showers and thunderstorms and occasional heavy rains. July and August are drier but afternoon thunderstorms sometimes occur. September is wetter than July/August but drier than June.
When it comes to thunderstorm potential and lightning exposure — the trail stays in the lower portions of the valley, but it is open and fairly exposed for much of the way. Therefore, if thunderstorms are in the forecast, it’s best to do this hike in the morning.
Keep in mind that cold fronts can bring cool and wet conditions at any time of the year, and snow can fall as late as June and as early as September.
Glacier National Park does update its current trail conditions periodically throughout the season.
Wildlife, bugs, and water
Wildlife viewing opportunities are numerous on this trek. Both grizzly bears and black bears are frequently spotted on this hike, so be sure to keep you awareness level up and to hike with bear spray.
In addition to bears, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, deer, foxes, and ptarmigans are other animals that can be seen on this hike.
I did this hike during the peak of bug season in mid-July, and periodically encountered sections of black flies and mosquitoes, especially around Ptarmigan Falls, but there weren’t many around Iceberg Lake itself.
There aren’t any significant water issues or stream crossings to deal with on this hike, but if you are here during early season (i.e. June) then you may encounter runoff and wet/muddy sections of trail.
This hike is do-able as a dayhike only as there are no backcountry campsites available along the trail or at the lake. Backcountry camping is only allowed at designated sites in Glacier National Park.
Car camping in and around the east side of Glacier requires you to stay at designated paid campsites as there are not any primitive camping areas outside of the eastern border of the park since all of this land lies within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Camping tends to be in high demand during the summer, so you will need to get creative with your planning. When we visited Glacier, we planned the trip only 1-2 weeks in advance, and our camping involved a mix of advanced reservations and first-come, first-serve sites. Flexibility is the key when planning to car camp in this area.
Campsites inside the boundaries of Glacier National Park typically offer a mix of reserved sites and first-come, first-serve sites, but every location is different. To reserve a site in advance inside the national park, you must visit recreation.gov and book your site through here rather than the national park service site.
The closest campground to this area is the Many Glacier Campground and this would be a wonderful place to camp, but the sites here fill up quickly, both for reserved sites and for first-come, first-serve sites. Unfortunately, Many Glacier will not be offering first-come, first-serve camping in 2020 and 2021, so getting a site here will be tough during these years.
Outside of the park, we stayed at the Johnson’s of St. Mary’s Campground, near the village of St. Mary’s. It wasn’t overly exciting and a neighboring dog kept us awake barking all night long, but it was a place to sleep and not too far from where we needed to be.
We also stayed at the St. Mary’s Campground inside the park — this is the second most convenient camping spot inside the park to the Iceberg Lake Trail and Many Glacier area. This campground is in a beautiful setting, but the mosquitoes were gnarly here in mid-July, so be prepared!
Here are a few items I consider to be essential for this hike:
- Bug spray if hiking before mid-August
- Extra layers
- Bear spray
- Personal locater device, such as a SPOT or DeLorme beacon
- First aid kit
- 1.5-2 liters of water
Here are a few items I might bring depending on current conditions:
- Trekking poles (if hiking early or late in the season when there is snow)
- Rain jacket and rain gear (if anything but a dry forecast)
- Down jacket
- Ski hat or lightweight gloves
Where to find weather forecasts
Here are links to National Weather Service point weather forecasts near the start of the hike and at Iceberg Lake. Both of these forecasts do a solid job of take elevation and terrain into account.
Keep in mind that there is a greater margin of error in mountain forecasts for remote areas, but the NWS point forecasts are one of the more reliable sources.
Post-hike food and drink
Conveniently located next to the trailhead is Nell’s Restaurant inside the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. A good place to pick up a burger or sandwich for lunch after your hike along with a beer.
The Many Glacier Hotel also offers a few dining options, though some of these restaurants are on the pricier side. However, the Swiss Lounge inside this hotel has more reasonably priced food and a good beer list. The Many Glacier Hotel is a neat place to check out if you have the time, even if you just walk around.
Outside of the park, we had a good, quick meal at Two Sisters Cafe between Babb and St. Mary. There are also a couple of restaurants in the small town of Babb and several more in the town of St. Mary to give you plenty of options.
There is apparently a beer garden in St. Mary as well, which I didn’t even know about when we were there!