Gunsight Pass – Glacier National Park
We knew we would need an early start for this hike. We were looking at 19 plus miles that included two big passes. We then would need to get to Lake McDonald with enough time to transfer between three shuttle buses before the last one stopped running from Logan Pass down to our trailhead. For this reason we started our hike at 4:45 am. Since we were staying at St Mary it wasn’t a very long ride to the trailhead at the Jackson Glacier overlook. Even though the Going-to-the-Sun road is one of the most famously congested roads in our national parks it sure wasn’t a problem driving up on the East side at 4:30 in the morning.
The trailhead was clearly marked on the east side of the parking area which was a relief because we have seemingly begun a new tradition this year of starting down the wrong trailhead. Of course when the trail abruptly ended five minutes later at the parking lot up the road it occurred to us that we may have missed a turn somewhere. The tradition continues! After walking back down the road, past our car and back down onto the same trailhead we noticed a very steep traverse to the left that we missed the first time. We were officially back on trail.
We were now hiking in the dark in Glacier National Park and most likely the first ones on the trail for the day. Normally, when the sun’s up and there is plenty of traffic on the trail there is little chance of surprising a bear so, although we always carry bear spray in grizzly country, we reserve wearing bear bells for times like this. I’m sure the bear knows what’s going on when he sees a pair a headlamps beaming through the forest…yeah but still. The main thing with bears and especially grizzlies is no surprises. I’ve read studies that indicate that bear bells will actually attract curious bears but the main thing is to make sure they know we are in the forest before we get too close. The bells always come off once we start running into hikers and it’s daytime especially when we are hiking a main corridor trail such as this one. These bears have spent their entire life watching the human highway cut through their neighborhood.
The first wild animal we came across was a toad. He was standing in the trail and over the following mile we must have stumbled across another six or seven of them, all of them with a toad caught in the headlights expression on their faces. It was kind of odd since we were not walking through a swamp. There was thick undergrowth but no ponds to speak of.
Just as it was getting light we crossed a river over a long suspension bridge. After a few more river crossings we found ourselves at the first clearing on our left. We could see up the canyon for the first time which was beautiful but also reminded us of how far we still had to go since the pass was still quite far away. After the clearing we spent another hour or so walking in and out of the “green tunnel” as we made our way up a ridge to our right. Whenever we did go through an clearing in the forest we were treated to some very impressive wildflowers.
It was about six miles to Gunsight Lake and just as we were approaching the lake we noticed our first human being. A man caught us from behind and we chatted for about ten minutes as we walked. He was planning on going up the mountain to the left of Gunsight Lake and hike up over Jackson Glacier and then to the peak. He commented on how impressed he was on how we were day-hiking through Gunsight Pass but we all knew he was taking on the most impressive day.
We knew we were close to the lake when the human activity started to increase and there were several side trails without signs. When we arrived at the suspension bridge we realized we had passed the north shore of the lake so we hiked back a little way and pushed our way through some brush to get to the shore. With the towering mountains showing off several distant waterfalls and a glass like surface the view of Gunsight Lake was incredible.
After crossing the suspension bridge, which was a blast by the way, we started our climb up the ridge that borders the lake to the east. At first we were pushing our way through some thick undergrowth but as we ascended up the ridge the trail was cut into the rock cliffs clearing the trail of overgrowth. With each switchback we were treated to an increasingly inspiring view down to Gunsight Lake and across to the very large waterfalls coming down the surrounding mountains.
The trail then transitioned off the cliff and up into a steep green valley with snow patches and flowing water everywhere. We crossed several streams as we followed the switchbacks up the hillside and then headed south across the bottom of a beautiful waterfall. As we made our way more south towards the pass we came up on a snow field. It was probably only about 50 yards across but it was on a very steep slope. We took it slowly because a misstep here would be very tragic but the footprints were fairly solid since it was still early in the morning so we crossed with little problem.
After crossing several more waterfalls that went right through the trail we came up on a small family of mountain goats laying right on the trail with cliffs above and below them. As we approached it was clear that they didn’t really give a crap about us. They briefly made eye contact and then resumed staring off into nothingness. It appeared to be a male, a female and a youngster but who can tell. After taking several photos and asking them nicely to move along we started edging into their personal space. We had a schedule to keep and we weren’t even half way yet. As it turns out, a Glacier NP mountain goat’s personal space begins at about ten feet away. We were inching towards them at an almost undetectable rate while bouncing our poles against the ground. At this point they slowly rose and meandered up the trail. Once we got around the corner they walked to the side of the trail and we slowly made our way past them. This was so cool.
After the goats we ran into another snow field. This one wasn’t more than 20 to 30 feet but it was extremely steep. We carefully made our way across to a rock field and then scrambled our way across the rocks below the snow field until we could see the trail above us again. After making our way back up to the trail it was only a short distance further before we ran into the hut at the top of Gunsight Pass. The hut was a small stone shelter for bad weather and not for camping in. The door was jammed shut but after some persuading we made our way inside. I always expect more than just an empty box when I get to a shelter for some reason but that’s basically what it was, only with a bench seat that spanned three sides. It was clean and in pretty good condition, though.
The view of the other side of the pass was that of Ellen Wilson Lake. We were looking down at the lake from the north which was bordered on the east and west by steep mountains and it dropped off abruptly into the canyon to the south. We could see the trail leading up from the western shore that led up to the next pass over the southwest side of the lake. Now we just needed to walk down some switchbacks until we almost reach the lake shore below us.
On the way down we came across several more waterfalls that went through the trail and had views of much bigger ones up in the cliffs to the east. We then ran into the first hiker going the other direction. It was a kid in his early 20’s who was also thru-hiking the trail only the other direction. He said that if he had time he was going to hike up to Jackson Glacier on his way through. We walked away reminding ourselves that we were in our 50’s and he was young and spry. Of course, when we were his age we were never even close to being that spry.
We saw a lone mountain goat down the hill as we continued to descend. We then ran into several backpackers heading the other direction. From a conversation we had with a few of them it seemed that almost all of them likely spent the night in the Sperry Chalet the previous night and were hiking out to the north. Some of them appeared to be in questionable conditioning and were clearly struggling after only going uphill for short distance for the first time today. They had hiked about 3.5 miles so far but had about 10 more miles ahead of them and some sketchy snow crossings on the other side of the pass. Since most of them had day packs there was no option of staying the night at Gunsight Lake.
Just as we were visualizing many of these folks dragging themselves into the trailhead after dark with potentially no means of transportation since the shuttles stop at 7 pm we noticed some mountain goats making there way down the hill towards the trail in front of us. Nothing like wild animals to quickly relieve you of the concern for your fellow man. We could see a large waterfall ahead of us where several goats seemed to be heading toward. The goats had disappeared into some thick bushes near the falls so we inched our way up the trail looking for flashes of white fur through the foliage.
Suddenly they were on the trail in front of us. There was a mother and baby goat that went into the bushes a little way to our right. The baby was extremely cute. Just then we looked up to see a large goat walking down the trail toward us past the baby and its mother. We have been around mountain goats several times and never once had one been aggressive with us. Well, until now that is. It kept backing us up until I noticed that Sandy was about to walk off a small cliff before I yelled out. Once I had Sandy back on the trail I noticed that this goat had worn out horns while all the other goats had perfectly pristine horns with very sharp ends. It now occurred to me that it had worn its horns out being the herd enforcer. With our poles extended in front of us in a defensive posture we continued to back down the trail until the goat lost interest. Once it had wandered back up into the bushes a little way we made our way past the goats and to the waterfall. As Sandy was posing in front of the waterfall for a photo the Enforcer came back down the trail at us. I yelled some awful things at it in the heat of the moment, which I now regret, and we both quickly made our way over the rocks under the falls to the other side of the river. Once we were on the other side of the falls they all lost interest in us and started grazing along the hillside. This was so cool!
The waterfall marked the low point of this portion of the trail. We were now settling in for about a 2.5 mile uphill grind to the pass above Sperry Chalet. As we climbed the hill on the west side of Ellen Wilson we were walking in and out of fields of bear grass in varied stages of bloom. The only other time we came to Glacier the bear grass was not in bloom so this was a real treat for us. To have our view of the lake be through waves of fluffy bear grass was so beautiful.
There were again waterfalls coming off the cliffs above us and then converting to wildflower laden streams that gently made their way down across the trail in several places. As we made our way to the southern end of the lake we continued to gain in elevation so that by the time we reached the end of the lake the views were again breathtaking.
The trail then turned west as we left the Ellen Wilson valley and headed up the ridge that led to the Sperry Chalet. As we made our way west we could see more of the valleys down to the south of us. We commented on how this otherwise very beautiful part of the trail seemed so drab due to the fact that the last eight miles or so were some of the most incredible scenery we have ever hiked through.
It wasn’t too long before we crested the pass looking down to the west. We could see Lake McDonald in the distance and the buildings down to our right that were part of the Sperry Chalet. We hiked down a few switchbacks and passed a nice little pond and then spotted the Chalet through the trees. The Sperry Chalet was a rustic hotel, of sorts, located about seven miles up the trail from Lake McDonald. For a premium, people can stay the night in a room at the Chalet which also comes with a restaurant and very nice outhouses. We headed straight for the outhouses.
Once we left the outhouses we headed over to the restaurant to see if they only served guests or if the public was welcome. We were very pleased to be welcomed by friendly faces asking what we would like for lunch. Lunch was limited to a few types of sandwiches but that beat the heck out of the trail food we thought we were having for lunch. We ordered some food, found a table in the back where we quickly removed our backpacks and shoes and made ourselves comfortable. The food was served rather quickly and eaten even more quickly. Although we would have loved to have lounged around the place longer we knew we still had a lot of trail and several bus transfers ahead of us before our day was done. We were probably only there for 20 minutes but it really helped put some pep back in our step.
We passed a bridge with a small waterfall above in the cliffs shortly after leaving the Chalet. After that there was four more miles of sun baked trail followed by two more miles of walking through the trees. There were occasionally views of Lake McDonald or the river but not much to speak of. There are so many people who hike up to the Chalet and never see Gunsight Pass. Wow, what a wasted trip. There are so many other great places to go in Glacier that beat the snot out of those 6.5 miles.
Once we got down to Lake McDonald we eventually found our way through some buildings to the bus stop. We were probably there for about 50 minutes waiting for the bus and then that bus only took us a few miles up the road. As it was pulling off the road we could see a line of well over a hundred people at the next bus stop. We were so tired. The thought of waiting much more time for the next shuttle broke our hearts. As we got off the bus we were greeted by a nice man asking us where we were going. We told him we were going up to Logan Pass and he ushered us over to a small shuttle bus to the left with no people on it. Life was good again! Apparently everyone along the road was heading the opposite direction. We were even treated to a bear walking next to the bus as we went up the Going-To-The-Sun-Road. We probably only waited about 10 minutes for the next shuttle to take us from Logan Pass down to the Gunsight Pass trailhead.
This was easily one of the greatest hikes we’ve ever done. Granted, it was over 19 miles and all of the greatness was packed into the middle eight miles but we will never forget it. Hiking along cliff sides with incredible lakes below us and countless waterfalls all around us is hard to capture on video or photos. Sometimes has we hiked we would just stop, look around and try take it all in. This was so cool!
Date: July 28, 2017
Elevation Gain: 3,554 ft
Start Time: 4:55 am
Duration: 11:26 hours
Here’s a YouTube video of our hike: