Sperry Chalet via Gunsight Pass
Glacier National Park, Montana
Most of us know what it’s like to plan a hike months in advance, and then wait in anticipation for the big day to arrive—the excitement builds, and all of your planning begins to pay off as the day draws near, and then you take your first step on a trail you have only read about in books. That day came for us on July 18, 2003 when we set out at 9:00am to hike the Gunsight Pass Trail up to the Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park—a 29-mile roundtrip trek through some of the most scenic backcountry that the United States has to offer.
Gunsight Pass Trail allows the hiker to climb from the St Mary Valley to the Continental Divide—crossing rocky ledges, alpine meadows, and granting unparalleled views of active glaciers. To hike the trail from east to west, a moderately strenuous undertaking, take the Going-to-the-Sun Highway east of Logan Pass to the Jackson Glacier Overlook—the trailhead is located at the east end of the parking area. Those hikers with loads of stamina may choose to hike the trail from west to east, a more strenuous task, by catching the trail at the Snyder Creek Trailhead, located across the GTTSR from the Lake McDonald Lodge.
On the morning of our hike, the sky above was a deep, clear shade of blue and the sun was rising with the promise of a warm alpine day. The three of us (Dar, Pick, and Weisey) set off from the Jackson Glacier Overlook towards our goal for the night—the Sperry Chalet, located 13.3 miles down the trail. We had booked a night at the Chalet several months prior to our hike, and our only deadline was the ringing of the dinner bell at 6:00pm later that evening—without a need to carry camping equipment, our packs were nice and light. The fact that we were able to carry a lighter backpack made for a day of hiking that was more comfortable—the heaviest thing in each of our packs was our 70-ounce bladder of water, and of course, the ever present photo equipment.
With every step on the trail we distanced ourselves further from the rush of one of the most scenic drives in the USA—the aforementioned Going-to-the-Sun Highway—bringing us closer to the high country heaven of subalpine lakes, waterfalls, active glaciers, and a myriad of wildlife. The beginning of Gunsight Pass takes you for a brief descent to the valley floor where you meet up with the St. Mary River—it was here that we also met up with our constant hiking companion, the infuriating mosquito! We stopped for a brief time at Deadwood Falls and applied liberal amounts of Deet to keep them at bay—they, the mossies, were especially bad along this section of trail, due to the marshy forest along the river—don’t be caught without insect repellant in this area, and products with Deet seemed to work the best. The trail is also quite narrow all through this area—perhaps it was because it was early in the hiking season, or maybe it is just always that way, but while hiking through these lower sections we were crowded in by towering stalks of Cow Parsnip. It was actually kind of fun being hemmed in—lending an air of Indiana Jones to the adventure—but at other times it was a little unnerving, like when you remember you are in grizzly territory and that you can’t really see very far in front of you! No worries though, just sing a happy tune and make your presence known.
As we continued along the trail, we soon found ourselves crossing Reynolds Creek via a footbridge just below Deadwood Falls—our watches read 9:46am and we were happy with our progress thus far. We had just passed the 1.3 mile marker and were heading up a hill when I heard Pick say, “Wait a minute! Something isn’t right!” Well, I of course thought at first a grizzly was about to bite one of our head’s off, but then I quickly returned to the land of level headed people to realize that Pick was throwing her backpack off in a hurried manner—we rushed to her side to see what was wrong only to realize that a minor disaster had occurred. Her CamelBak bladder had worked its way loose from the attached hose and had leaked all over her pack and down her backside! Well, it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened, but on the other hand, we now only had two 70-ounce bladders of water to share between the three of us over 12 more miles—I know, I know, we should have brought a water filter, but unfortunately, it never occurred to us to pack one—live and learn! Anyway, we continued up the trail making light of the fact that Pick was soaking wet, and reveling in the thought that we would soon be higher up on the ridge where some sunshine could dry Pick off—not to mention the fact that the views would open up as well.
At 10:50am, we passed the 4-mile marker and the junction with the Florence Falls Trail, from here, the trail climbs the east slope of Fusillade Mountain and indeed the views do open up—fantastic views of Mt. Jackson and Mt. Logan can be seen from the high ridge. The sun was beating down on the trail, making for a hot climb, but Pick was finally starting to dry off—it was unseasonably warm in Glacier during the summer of 2003, with temperatures in the mid-nineties even high up in the mountains. Luckily, none of us were overly bothered by the heat. The views, by the way, were amazing—wildflowers were blooming everywhere, including profuse displays of beargrass, and open, sweeping views of the mountain range were spread out before us as we made our way to Gunsight Lake. We arrived at the lake at11:58am—just in time for lunch—we could not have asked for a better place to rest and snack. We found a little trail through some bushes that brought us right to the edge of Gunsight Lake, where we each grabbed a rock on which we laid out our individual picnics. We had now hiked 6.2 miles, but the hardest climbs were yet to come—knowing what lie ahead made that perfect rest spot even more enjoyable. Just as we were finishing up our lunch, two people (Roger and Don) came walking down the trail towards the lake—we all exchanged greetings and then shared a few trail stories. Roger and Don were heading up to Lincoln Pass, and Don was worried about his fear of heights—we offered our encouragement, and then asked if they would mind posing for a picture by the lake. They happily posed for a portrait and we promised to make them “famous” through our website—so if you guys are out there, we hope you like your photo, and be sure to drop us an email! As we have said many times before, you always meet the nicest people out on the trail!
The trail crosses the outlet of Gunsight Lake via a wooden suspension bridge and then climbs steeply up the north face of Mount Jackson—Gunsight Pass is 3-miles, and nearly 1,600 vertical feet away. But trust me, you won’t even notice the climb—the views along this portion of the trail are unbelievable! To your right will be a steep drop-off into a green valley and in its center will be the blue waters of Gunsight Lake—feeding into this nirvana are ribbons of waterfalls fueled by snowmelt—the cascades are virtually everywhere you look. These streamers cascade down the intricately cut striations of Gunsight Mountain, its folded strata being a perfect example of glacial carving—one thing that captured our attention more then the outstanding views, was the snowfield that was blocking a large portion of the trail. It covered the trail at about a 45 degree angle and was being severely undercut by snowmelt. We had two choices—one, we could try to walk across the snow and risk falling through or slipping and sliding down into that beautiful green valley, or two—climb the scree field about 100 feet above the trail in order to circumvent the snow and then climb back down to the other side. Seeing as how we were not experienced in mountaineering and not wanting to win any Darwin Awards for our demise, we opted to climb the scree field—as we reached the top of the snowfield, three hikers below us donned crampons and crossed the icy snow. They made it with no problems, and so did we, at about the same pace.
Continuing along the proper trail, we passed several rushing, seasonal, waterfalls, which were great for reviving the tired hiker—we stopped at nearly every cascade in order to refresh in the cool water.
Our next stop was the shelter cabin, sans roof, that sits at Gunsight Pass—below us, sparkling in the sun, was Lake Ellen Wilson. It was now 2:54pm and we had hiked 9.2 miles—everyone was holding up pretty well, and we were looking forward to the home cooked meal that was waiting for us over the next pass.
From the shelter cabin the trail descends down to Lake Ellen Wilson and then skirts around its shores to begin the climb to Lincoln Pass—the whole time I was hiking, I kept wishing that Sperry Chalet had been built in this ideal setting. The lake was absolutely stunning and the high cliffs all around us were decorated with waterfalls and wildflowers. The beargrass along this section of the trail was unbelievable—everywhere you looked, it was out in full bloom. Not only the scenery was breathtaking—the steep climb was taking our breath away as well, and really giving us an aerobic workout. It was along this section of the trail that we ran out of water—thank goodness, the chalet was just over the ridge. In addition, the heat was starting to affect Dar’s pace—in an effort to help keep the quick pace going, Pick took Dar’s backpack and carried it up the steepest section of the trail—the kid is a hiking machine! Finally, after several rest stops, we reached the 7,050-foot Lincoln Pass—it was now 5:03pm and we had hiked 12.1 miles, that left just 1.2 miles, straight down I might add, to Sperry Chalet. We were really excited to get to the Sperry complex where we could sit down, unload our packs, and get some nice, cold lemonade! We made the rest of the hike in just fourteen minutes, arriving at the chalet at 5:17pm, and man did that lemonade hit the spot! We ordered a whole pitcher for $3.00 and enjoyed every sip! The Sperry crew was super nice and friendly, and after a warm welcome they gave us the run-down on the complex and assigned us our room—we had room #5, with three beds, a balcony, and a great view of Lake McDonald. The balcony would soon be a perfect place to end a perfect day, but for now, it was time to get ready for dinner.
We were summoned to dinner in proper backcountry style by the ringing of a nice loud bell—we entered the dining room and found the table that had a card with our party’s name on it and took a seat. Dinner is served family style, allowing you the chance to meet other hikers and share a good meal—that night the crew offered up a special treat of traditional Thanksgiving dinner fare. We started off with pasta salad and pumpkin bread, and then moved on to an excellent tomato basil soup. The main course consisted of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, and peas—topped off with chocolate cake for dessert—yummy! Coffee, tea, ice water, and lemonade were all offered as refreshments. We shared a table with some wonderful people—a physician and his two sons, and a couple from the Midwest. After some great after dinner conversation, we decided it was time to retire to our room—we spent a few hours out on the balcony watching the sunset over Lake McDonald and then we turned in for the night.
We awoke the next morning feeling refreshed and ready for our next hike—the Sperry crew was there at the dining hall ready to serve a piping hot breakfast with your choice of eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, pancakes, oatmeal, toast, and orange juice. Dar was feeling a little under the weather from the strenuous hike the day before, so we decided to skip Sperry Glacier and just continue on out to Lake McDonald, that is until Judy—one of the helpful Sperry crew members—told us that Dar could stay there at the chalet if Pick and I wanted to tackle the 8-mile hike ourselves. Well, this sounded like a great plan to us, and Dar was cool with the whole thing, so off we went to see a glacier!
The trail to Sperry Glacier is steep and challenging, rising 1,600 feet to Comeau Pass in just 2.5-miles—early morning light was casting a beautiful radiance through the mountains when Pick and I began our climb. Once again, the scenery was stunning—waterfalls, towering cliffs, and beargrass were everywhere. Access to even better high alpine vistas awaited us at the end of the steep trail—climbing via a series of switchbacks, the route took us higher into the mountains where lakes studded with icebergs dominated the landscape. Hoary marmots and mountain goats grazed along the trail providing constant entertainment, and before we knew it, we had reached the pass—Comeau Pass consists of 45 granite steps cut right into the rock, creating a steep climb to the top of the stairway, but the view from the pinnacle is fantastic! Sparkling streams, blinding snowfields, and soaring mountain ranges greet you from the top of the pass—views of Edwards Mountain, Mt Brown, and my favorite, Little Matterhorn, dominate the horizon. Scattered among the lofty peaks are rock cairns that will guide you the remaining 1.5 miles to the foot of Sperry Glacier. We crossed several snowfields on our way to the glacier—what fun—we felt like kids playing in the snow. In contrast, the glacier itself is an intimidating place—large boulders and deep crevasses mar its deceptive outer shell, so we stayed a healthy distance back from the perilous surface.
On our return hike to the chalet, we met up with Tom from Kalispell, who had just returned from the summit of Edwards Mountain. We joined forces with him just above Comeau Pass and then completed the hike back towards Sperry Chalet together—Tom was an amazing hiker, having accomplished much of his hike in the darkness of night, and making the summit of Edwards solo!
We returned to the dining hall at around noon for a roundtrip hiking time of 4 hours—while there we treated ourselves to another pitcher of lemonade, grabbed our sack lunches, thanked the crew, and then hit the trail destined for Lake McDonald.
Not much can be said about the hike from Sperry Chalet to Lake McDonald—except that it is steep, and rocky, and that we were thankful that we didn’t hike up that monster! If you have reservations at Sperry Chalet, do yourself a favor and hike in via the Gunsight Pass Trail from the Jackson Glacier Overlook—even though it is longer, it is so much more scenic and not nearly as steep. Needless to say, the hike from Sperry Chalet to Lake McDonald was straight down—losing 3,300 feet in 6.7 miles—Dar even blew the end of her shoe out on that one! We made one rest stop at Crystal Ford on Snyder Creek, stopping to soak our weary feet in the ice-cold waters—refreshed, we continued hiking the final 2-miles to Lake McDonald, ending our hike 2 hours and 40 minutes after we began. Later that evening we enjoyed a spectacular sunset at Lake McDonald—the soft glow from the dipping sun turning the clouds a soft pink that reflected beautifully in the calm waters of the lake—providing the perfect ending to our exhilarating two day adventure in Glacier National Park.