Spectacular Trail! A feast for the senses!
The Gunsight Pass Trail: A remarkably spectacular hike in Glacier National Park that takes you past some incredible terrain: turquoise lakes of Gunsight & Ellen Wilson, cascading waterfalls, spectacular snow clad mountain ranges over the Continental Divide past historic structures with a generous helping of wildflowers & wildlife!
It's a long trail - at minimum 20 miles - you can make it longer! If you do it up Gunsight Trail & down Sperry Trail as a point to point (Jackson Glacier Overlook to McDonald Lake Lodge) with about 3575 ft. AEG. Couple of options for you on how you tackle this area:
Hike: Once you are done sorting out your shuttle logistics and have your vehicles appropriately positioned, you begin your hike at the Jackson Glacier Turnout along the Going-to-the-Sun road. Find the Gunsight Pass Trail sign on the southeast end of the parking lot and begin your hike. The trail heads down dropping about 650 ft. into the Reynolds Creek Valley along a thimbleberry flanked trail. After about a mile you start hearing water and soon you are along the creek and @ Mile 1.2 you are at Deadwood Falls: a beautiful 10-foot waterfall with some colorful rocks and clear pools of water above and below the falls. ( Here Reynolds Creek cuts through Grinnell formation's red rocks -- you can tarry here a bit and enjoy the falls!) You reach the Piegan Pass trail junction in another 0.1 mile; cross a bridge over Reynolds Creek. Reynolds Camp is here & I was told the campsite is available for thru-hike use only.
As you work your way back up the other side and head into the St Mary River Valley, Mt Jackson (10,052 feet) looming to the south. The trail meanders through beautiful marshes of Reynolds Creek as you are treated to a great view of the Jackson-Blackfoot Glacier Complex (left of Mt. Jackson). This area is dense with thimble berry which was just beginning to fruit as we made our way through them -- tall 4-5 ft. lining the trail & obscuring the trail underfoot. Watch for bears in this area ( as well as all other areas in Glacier Park - Be armed with bear spray that is in a handy place & let it be known that you are coming down the trail -- be it bear bell, talking , singing, blowing your whistle!) . The area also has bear grass growing along side the thimbleberry. I am sure earlier in the season a whole variety of other wildflowers flourish. Dusty Star Mountain's sheer face precedes a cirque below Citadel Mountain on your left.
You follow St. Mary River through some fairly level dense forests with some open views to what is called "Mirror Pond" at about 3 mile mark. We did not see the mirror -- it was too low & overgrown but the open grassy area makes form some nice views: Framed views of Mt Jackson, Gunsight Mountain and Fusillade Mountain, as well as Gunsight Pass. The area is moist & buggy as well. Keep your eyes peeled for a possible moose sighting in these meadows. At 4 miles from the start you reach a sign for the Florence Falls trail. This 0.6 mile spur takes you to the beautiful falls. We wanted to head down this way on our way back but our plans changed & we exited by way of Sperry Trail so we did not make it this time around.
You cross St Mary River on a log bridge & then the trail gains about 500ft in elevation in about 2.2 miles as head across the flanks of Fusillade mountain . Alongside, you will see much evidence of the damage (reddish trees) caused by spruce budworm - a drought induced blight in conifers. At over 10,000ft ; Mount Jackson looms large to the south and you can catch a glimpse of the Jackson-Blackfoot Glacier Complex to the left. Around 5.6 miles in your run into the massive damage caused by the 2010-11 Winter season avalanche damage -- pretty impressive to see huge trees snapped off like twigs & piled up high. Look uphill & you can make out where the slides came down from. NPS has made new trail through this area as of Aug 2012. Watch for roots & tree limbs that might trip you up as you make your way past the piles of uprooted trees and filled in shallow ponds. Further on, you pass through several beautiful meadows filled with flowers - head high cow parsnip & thimbleberry bushes, monkey flowers and whole host of other flowers make for a riot of color & the bees & flies are out in full force! Once you gain the top of the slope, you come into the Gunsight camp cook area & camp area is further behind away from the cook area. The trail heads south here and you eventually make your way through more meadows to reach the incredible, turquoise colored Gunsight Lake. The brilliant turquoise color of the lake is due to the suspended glacial flour in the water that melts down from the glaciers high up on Mt Jackson. The trail heads across the foot of the lake, close to the lake & you can take a few side use trails to get to the lake itself.
The trail crosses the outlet stream (St Mary River) on a single hiker suspension bridge that was unfortunately washed out when we got there from earlier flooding which allowed for some cold water crossing & a natural break spot for us. The NPS will rebuild this bridge & you should be able to cross quickly. On the far side the trail splits with the left heading to Jackson Glacier and the right leading to Gunsight Pass. The Jackson Glacier trail is 1.8 miles long and ends at a meadow below the glacier. The Gunsight trail turns a hard right here before beginning an earnest ascent of 1680 feet in 2.9 mile to Gunsight Pass. Again you make your way gradually uphill through meadows thick with flowers and it's a bit hard to see where the trail is underfoot due to dense foliage but it is Oh so Beautiful!! The brilliant lake to your right & the flowers ahead on the trail looking out to Gunsight Pass! Glacier splendor in full force!!
Early on the trail works its way steadily uphill past the grassy slopes on the west face of Mt Jackson. Gunsight Lake drops below you to your right like a brilliant turquoise embedded in verdant greens. Distant views of Gunsight Pass ahead and the narrow trail makes its way higher up on the mountain. You can see a small scratch across the mountain face - this is your trail to Gunsight Pass and yes you will eventually make your way up there! Views all around are breathtaking! This ascent is gradual with a few switchbacks along the way, and it eventually leads you to Gunsight Pass. The far side of the lake is walled in some beautiful rocks - layer cake of deep mauves & dark reds of Gunsight Mountain with waterfalls cascading like silver streamers from the ice & snow high up on mountain. The trail that is cut into the Helena formation cliffs is well laid out & I felt fairly secure but there are exposures & the effect of the high peaks & lake way below may be un-nerving if you are afraid of heights. Take a minute to look back along Gunsight Lake to the distant Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. The views get more spectacular as you climb higher & higher. Take a moment to look around you -- The Continental Divide wraps around following the high ridges that connect Reynolds Mountain , Fusillade, Gunsight Mountain across Gunsight Pass ( You can step over the divide here!) and to Mount Jackson and on ....You are on the east side of the divide here & once you get past Gunsight pass you are West of the divide!
Soon you reach the head of Gunsight Lake and begin to switch back your way up to the pass. The terrain heads well above tree line & into alpine zone with low growing shrubs, mosses & shattered rocks. You work your way past a few waterfalls ( will be drenching you in early spring as they tumble onto the trail!) , negotiate your way around a few snowfields. There is one snowfield more than ~ 300 yards long that bridges over a water fall ( early August) that requires some route finding and especially so earlier in the season but it can be by-passed somewhat by going lower. Gunsight Mountain now dominates to the southwest and Gunsight Pass is directly between Mt. Jackson and Gunsight Mountain. We saw a few Mountain goats making their way across one of the fields & stop quite close to use to lick some lichen & salt off the rocks - luckily we did not encounter them on the narrow trail earlier! More uphill and we navigate the final snow field where we had to go across quite low below the field, scramble up some shattered rocks & then find our way back to the trail. This is the only area we were not on a clear trail. Soon the trail comes up to the pass where you will arrive at the Stone hut and at the Continental Divide.
Gunsight Pass Hut is a sturdy stone structure with roof, door & windows with a few benches inside. No camping here but you can definitely take shelter in inclement weather. We are greeted outside by a rather chubby marmot bent on catching some sun & feeding! At Gunsight Pass (Elevation 6,946 feet) you are ensconced between the massive Mt Jackson (east) & Gunsight Mountain (west) and the views are amazing all around! Looking north; you see Gunsight Lake and Lake Ellen Wilson to the south. This pass is famous for being windy but we did not encounter any winds here although on a particularly warm day we would have love a good breeze to keep is cool!
Looking down far below on the other side is another turquoise gem - Lake Ellen Wilson. You see the trail plunging down immediately with steep switchbacks which affords some great views of the lake & the waterfalls that surround the area . The trail was decked in low growing blossoms of Mountain penstemon studded with cream blossom heads of bear grass. After crossing below the waterfall at the head of the lake ( which has a reputation of making you take a good dunking - one of our party paid our dues!) , the trail traverses the head wall of the lake to gain the west side. The trail stays fairly high and contours along with Lake Ellen Wilson staying well below you. Eventually you will intersect the spur trail to Ellen Wilson camp. As you hike along, you can see the camp about 300 feet below the trail near lake level. Backcountry camp @ Lake Ellen Wilson is a good 1000 ft below Gunsight Pass. We did not get down to camp here but it looks to be a wonderful camp!
The Gunsight trail continues southwest, you eventually leave Lake Ellen Wilson behind & begin to climb up to Lincoln Pass. About 12 miles in, the trail wraps around a corner and enters a beautiful hanging valley - the trail levels out as you make your way over red rocks & vibrant green alpine meadows. You tend to encounter mountain goats here -- we saw a few chilling on snow, panting away! Sure made us feel even hotter!! Lincoln Lake is directly below this area & not very noticeable. Couple of quick switch backs brings you up to Lincoln Pass to some great views. There is a hiker's trail heading off up to Lincoln Peak to your left! This takes you up to the summit of Lincoln Peak & some amazing views to boot! ( We did not do this either -- saved it for the trip back which we did not do!)
From Lincoln Pass, it's a quick 350 foot decent on well laid out trail though high alpine scree to Sperry camp and Sperry Chalet. You can see a rather small pond where the camp is located. You will pass by some slide areas with huge rocks and soon get back into the trees. Sperry Camp is situated in an open forest on a bluff overlooking the Sprague Creek valley. It is laid out on a 0.2 mile spur trail that leads to the south with all the tent pads to the north and the food preparation area and bear bar at the south end. You can filter the water from the pond or get it from a spigot in front of the chalet dining room. Mountain goats frequent this area so you are assured of multiple mountain goat sightings - some perhaps a tad too up close & personal! You pass the turn off to the "sleeping quarters" of the Sperry Chalet, head past the restrooms & finally pull up in front of Sperry Chalet Dining Hall. The chalet & its associated buildings are set in open sub alpine fir forest along the bluff above Sprague Creek much like the camp area. The historic Sperry Chalet is an icon of Glacier National Park, and it is a delightful bonus along the Gunsight Pass Trail if you are camping or an amazing destination if you are staying there! They have the best lemonade ever! (I think the long hot hike makes it so much more than just the plebian lemonade!). You can purchase lunch at the chalet but I do believe dinner is by reservation & served family style at 6:00 pm sharp! If you do have reservations, they will save you your plate if you happen to roll in a tad late....we did not know this so some of us literally ran the last mile to dinner!
Now that you are at Sperry Chalet, what do you do ?
Mileages to Key Points along the trail from Jackson Glacier Overlook to Sperry Chalet
Notes: Sperry Chalet
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This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.