Gunsight Pass Trail: Backpacking in Glacier National Park, MT

More wildlife in 30 hours than I have seen in my life.

At least, it seemed that way with the frequent goat encounters along the trail, pika dashing about talus fields, a golden eagle blocking our path, and a grizzly bear feasting on huckleberries above Lake Ellen Wilson. And those are just my favorite sightings from our 2 day, 1 night trip on the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. A couple of days before the trip, our group of three was hiking an out-and-back trail to Trout Lake where we started a game called “Creature Count”. Trout, waterfowl, and small woodland critters were spotted and counted. The tally was pretty low even though we traveled about 8 miles that afternoon. But, by the end of our overnight trip on the Gunsight Pass Trail, we had stopped counting and concluded that the game had been won. We joked that the only creature we didn’t catch a glimpse of was Sasquatch.

The views did not disappoint either.

The Blackfoot Glacier watched over our trek for a good stretch, shining brilliantly white in the sun. The clouds above the mountains appeared, to me, as reflections of the glacier and remnant snow packs in a lake blue sky.

Varicolored rocks and boulders covered the slopes around us, a mixture of pistachio green, rosy red, chocolate brown, and sandy yellow. I fancifully thought of them as giant scoops of Neapolitan and French vanilla ice cream that had been tossed randomly onto the landscape, ever so gradually melting away into smaller and smaller pieces.

In the evening, alpenglow blushed the faces of peaks above our campsite as we prepared dinner in the fading light. This optical phenomenon is not only beautiful, but has a curiously calming effect.  I must borrow one of John Muir’s often-used adjectives, and say that these particular sunsets have an ‘ineffable’ quality.

Best and simplest of all, is the unusual blue-green color of high alpine lakes. Gunsight Lake and Lake Ellen Wilson, with their billions of suspended glacial particles reflecting my favorite wavelengths, happily delayed my progress.

This was a trip that almost didn’t happen (Reynolds Creek Wildfire caused several trail closures in the St. Mary/Two Medicine areas of the park) and got off to what is definitely not considered an alpine start.  Although I tried, there really is no way to plan for everything. I admit now that it’s not always best to do so.

If we had made it to the trailhead at the ideal time of 8:30am, it’s possible we wouldn’t have come across that eagle scanning the trees below, close enough to see the scales of its talons. The size of its wingspan when it drifted down from the ridge and latched on to a branch below still surprises me. And each goat that allowed us to share the trail, showing off rock scrambling skills, some leaping up and seeming to disappear, only to peek white horned heads over the edge to get another look at what we were doing in such terrain. Then there was the late arrival to camp, which caused us to sleep in the next morning and eat breakfast at a leisurely pace in the misty mountains. By the time we were hiking, the sun had burned off the mist and we observed, about 30 feet away in the huckleberry bushes, a grizzly bear watching us pass as we watched her snacking. Crossing the pika habitat, little squeaks of “eenk eenk” would make me smile, and now when I think of that sound, I return to a place where I was so content just enjoying each moment.

Logistics:

Start at the Jackson Glacier Overlook Trailhead, located on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. There is a shuttle stop here called Gunsight Pass which will eliminate the need for two cars. End at Sperry Trail Trailhead. Across the Going-to-the-Sun Road, you may park overnight at Lake McDonald Lodge.  The shuttle also stops here. Glacier’s Shuttle System is convenient, but may require some waiting depending on the time of day. The trip may be done in reverse, but know that the 6.5 mile Sperry Trail is mostly uphill, wooded, and accommodates the pack trains of horses servicing Sperry Chalet.

Permits and Fees – The most up to date information will be posted on the National Park Service website. See their Backcountry Camping and Trip Planning Aids. Although possible to complete the 20 miles in a single day, eliminating the need for a permit, taking it more slowly and spreading the trip into multiple days will allow for a bit more exploration. The permit reservation process is not too bad, but to get a spot at Gunsight Lake, Lake Ellen Wilson or Sperry Campground (the 3 sites along the route) requires planning well in advance of the actual trip. Requests must be received with a nonrefundable payment of $30 in April. By May, you will be notified and with any luck, have a permit. By providing flexible dates, you will have a better chance of securing your ideal site(s). Once you arrive in the park, you may pick up the permit from one of the stations 24 hours before the start date. A bit of a hassle to do in person, but the park service means well. A video on backcountry camping, Leave No Trace, and traveling safely in the wilderness must be viewed by the trip leader. Answer a couple of quiz questions and you are on your way. If trying to get an early start, taking care of the permit the day before will help.

Maps – below is a link to a topographic map with the trail outlined in red. The National Geographic Two Medicine Area Map is easy to read and contains all of the information necessary for this trip. Even though the trail is well-maintained and easy to follow, a map detailing the surrounding area should be brought.
Gunsight Pass Topo Map

 

 

Weather considerations – due to the higher elevation of the trail (we slept at 5,929 feet), weather is unpredictable even in summer. Be prepared for rain, storms, cold, heat, you get it… Weather – Glacier National Park

Water – lighten your load, carry a filter. There are plenty of good (and cold!) water sources along the way.

Camping tips – practice hanging a food bag if you’ve never done it before. Every site requires that you hang food from a metal pole at all times unless you are preparing a meal in the “kitchen” area.

Fishing – no permit is required to fish waters within the boundaries of Glacier National Park. I would recommend catch-and-release for a few reasons. The trout are small, the trout are very likely native, fragile species, and the smell (even of a live fish out of water) will attract bears. Fishing Regulations

Bears – carry the spray, know how to use it, and make loud human sounds while hiking (especially loud around corners). Summer bears seem to be preoccupied feeding on berries, but you never know what any bear will do. The park service offers good advice. Bear Safety

Helpful trip reports – Hike734Enjoy Your Parks

 

 

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