The Great Glacier trail is one of the quick, easy to reach hikes in Glacier National Park (in Canada) that you can stop and visit as you drive to Roger’s Pass. This trail used to lead up to the toe of the Illecillewaet Glacier. Nowadays the glacier has receded so far up the mountain that you cannot see if from this trail, but it is still a fun walk that rewards you with stunning views of Mount Sir Donald.
We did this on a pretty gloomy day – but if you visit when there are blue skies it will look even more inviting (and incredible!)
Great Glacier trail map
Great Glacier trail – the basics
Distance: 8 km
Elevation gain: 490 m
Time: 2.5-3 hours
What to bring:
The 10 Essentials
You can park at Illecillewaet Campground (to cut a few kilometers off the trail) or park at the day use area next to the highway and walk in. There’s a loo at the trailhead.
Dogs: Yes (on a leash)
How hard is it? Moderate. The trail is easy to follow and you don’t need to climb or scramble. However the steep sections will get your heart going if you’re not used to them!
Great Glacier trail – Getting started
Start at Illecillewaet Campground or just hike up the road from the day use parking area that is next to the highway. We were not sure if we were allowed to park at the campground without camping reservations, so we hiked up the straight access trail. You can see the Illecillewaet (the new name for the “Great Glacier”) off in the distance.
Historical trail – Glacier House
One really cool thing about this trail is its long history! People have been hiking up to the Great Glacier for over a hundred years. There used to be a train line that would drop Victorian tourists off to a super-posh hotel here called Glacier House. Back then visitors only had to hike 1.5 km to the toe of the Glacier. Now, the grandeur is lost, but you can see see the foundations of Glacier House…and imagine epic Victorian ladies and gentlemen setting out for mountaineering adventures from here.
The start of the trail is very laid back as it joins up with one of the easiest walks in the Rockies; The Meeting of the Waters trail. Still, even this early in the walk, you get a few glimpses up at the surrounding Rockies.
Be bear aware
Please note, this area has resident grizzly bears. When we visited in August, Parks Canada had set up notices with photos of recent sightings and staff to warn people about them. Bring bear spray (just in case) and make plenty of noise as you hike to avoid sneaking up on bears!
The Meeting of the Waters
We did a mini detour to see the Meeting of the Waters; Where the Asulkan Brook joins the Illecillewaet River. You can sit here to watch the rivers crash together – it is a great place to stop for a snack.
The Meeting of the Waters is a great mini loop if you don’t have time to hike up to the Glacier, but you would like to stretch your legs with a short walk.
Once we’d eaten, we headed back to the Great Glacier Trail. A little further up the mountain you can see wider, slower-flowing sections of the Illecillewaet River.
There is a section when you walk passed massive boulders, remember to watch out for pikas here! The distance from the surrounding trees allowed us out first views of Mount Sir Donald (left) and Terminal Peak (right.)
The trail then zips up several switchbacks before opening out into an area that must be prone to avalanches in the winter, as there were very few trees! Just keep the Illecillewaet River to your left and keep plodding uphill as the views get better and better.
Where is the Great Glacier?
The trail stops about 3km from the ruins of the Glacier Hotel. It is crazy to think that just One hundred years ago, this entire valley was still covered by the glacier. Tourists used to only walk for half an hour (1.5km) to reach the ice. Now, even hiking double the distance and climbing up 330m, you still cannot see the glacier!
You can see the smooth rocks that were grounded down by the Illecillewaet Glacier before it retreated. Now if you fancy seeing the glacier up close, you’d have to scramble up those rocks for a few more kilometers and least another 500m higher.
Illecillewaet Glacier Falls
You may not get views of the Great Glacier itself, but you will be able to see the Illecillewaet Glacier Falls. They were cool to see even at the end of the summer so they must be amaaaazing earlier in the year.
Mount Sir Donald and the Vaux Glacier
The views are also pretty good of the Vaux Glacier and Mount Sir Donald. I have not really done justice to this fantastic view as the weather was so gloomy when we visited. If you are lucky enough to arrive on a sunny day, this scenery will look spectacular.
There is a patch of bright orange rocks where you can stop, rest and admire the scenery. Isn’t it fabulous!?
Looking back from the Great Glacier area
You can look back down to the valley and the highway, as well as Cheops Mountain, Ursus Minor Mountain, Grizzly Mountain and Mount Sifton.
To return to the rest area, head back the way you came. The path is very easy so it is possible to run the whole way back.
It blows my mind that just over a century ago (which is not long on a geological scale) all of this would have been under ice. As you walk back towards the ruins of Glacier House each step is taking you close to where the glacier used to reach down to.
The hike to this Great Glacier, (now called the Illecillewaet Glacier) might be one of the shortest hikes in this area; But it will lead you to one of the best known landmarks. Plus, it is pretty cool to follow a path that has been popular since the 1800s! Even if you only have a few hours to spare as you pass through Glacier National Park, you should totally stop and go on this hike.
Or, if you’re not sure when you can go, click on the pins below to save this for later.