Gunsight Pass Trail, Glacier National Park

The Gunsight Pass Trail is 20.6 miles long starting on Going to the Sun Road between Logan Pass and St Mary Lake and ending at the Lake McDonald Lodge. With day hike access to 2 glaciers, stunning scenery and 3,000 feet of total climb, it is deserving of a multi day backpacking experience.

The Map: The map is 1:24,000 scale and based on the USGS 7.5 minute topo. Download it for free by opening it full size, right clicking and saving it to your computer. The GPS track (red) was taken on our trip in September 2008 and it closely follows the trail depicted on the original topo. Waypoints (blue) are provided that match with the narrative. To avoid confusion, the miles used are based on the ones shown on the official backcountry campsite map. The green trails are camp ground spurs. Designated camp sites (green “^”).

Trip Mileage Table: Click here to view or download the mileage table (pdf).

Trip Video: Click here for the trip video.

GPS File: Right click this link to download the track in a gpx format. Save it to you computer and use your GPS software to load it to your GPS. If it exceeds your saved track capacity, you will need to break up into more digestible bites.

Google Earth Images: The following are GE images of the hike with an overlay of the trail and waypoints referenced to the map and narrative. Please note that the orientation changes on each image so refer to the north indicator in the top right corner.

East Trailhead to St Mary Valley
Gunsight Lake and Pass
Ellen Wilson Lake
Sperry Camp
Sprague Creek to Lake McDonald

Gunsight Pass Trail. Since it is a point-to-point hike, a shuttle is necessary. If you get there before September 1, there is a hiker shuttle that will take you from Lake McDonald to the Gunsight Pass trailhead, greatly simplifying the logistics of this hike.

The trailhead parking lot (N48.677846, W113.65258) is a big turn-out on the Going to the Sun Road and is shared by the scenic overlook for Jackson Glacier . If you pull off into trailhead parking lot, be sure to hike the 100 feet or so up hill to catch the view. When you are ready to hit the trail, the path begins at the southeast (downhill) end of the trailhead parking lot.

The hike begins with a gradual downhill hike of 1.3 miles through dense forest. At 1.2 miles take a quick look at Deadwood Falls where Reynolds Creek cuts through the red rocks of the Grinnell formation. A tenth of a mile further down the trail is the Piegan Pass trail junction, a bridge over Reynolds Creek and the spur trail to Reynolds Camp (GG-01, 1.3 miles, N48.66684 W113.63600). The Reynolds Camp was closed when we were there due to recent bear activity; a black bear had ripped open a tent looking for food.

At about a half mile further, you can start getting glimpses of a large meadow surrounding St Mary River. On the trail you will see thimbleberry, bear grass and queens cup lily. The thimbleberry is a delicious wild raspberry that is not only evident on the bush, but in the plentiful bear scat that liters the trail. Unlike the red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) with its one-to-two inch, oval shaped, pinnate leaves, the thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) has huge five pointed palmate leaves shaped kind of like a maple leaf that can be 12 inches across. The berries look the same. The bear grass is in the lily family and it looks a little like the yucca plant found in the north (yucca glauca, which is also sometimes called bear grass). It looks like a thick bladed grass in clumps about 8-10 inches high. The give away is the prominent stalk that grows out of the center of some of the clumps. The queens cup lily is found hugging the ground. It has long (~5 inch), narrow (1 inch) oval leaves that radiate from the center. In the summer it has a white six petaled flower, but by September its presents itself with a single, shinny, ovate blue berry, hence its alias, the blue bead lily.

At 4.0 miles is the junction of the Florence Falls spur trail (0.6 miles to the falls, we didn't go there but here is a photo by Jason Sampson I found on the web) and a bridge over a northern tributary of St Mary River (GG-02, N48.64998 W113.67920). The pretty waterfall next to the bridge makes a nice spot for a break. The next 2.2 miles is a 500 foot climb along an open hillside, affording views of St Mary valley and Jackson Glacier. As you look down into the valley you’ll see a tinge of red covering the trees. This is due to the spruce budworm, a drought induced blight that not only affects spruce but many other conifers.

Soon after you crest the hill you will enter an open clearing and the food preparation area for the Gunsight Camp. Scattered in the Engelmann spruce and subalpine firs to the north are several tent pads. Most of the pads are small and not large enough for 2 two-person tents. Although we managed to get one of the larger pads, it was not large enough for our 2 tents without some field modifications to get them guyed properly. NPS policy limits the number of tents to a permit to 2 for this very reason, but I suggest you try and get a permit for each tent. If we had ended up with a smaller site, we would have been out of luck. The pads were level and solid dirt, so even with the rain, they were not too muddy. Gunsight Lake is deep and clear and is the most convenient source of water.

The trails heads south past the foot of the lake and crosses the outlet stream (St Mary River) on a bouncy single hiker suspension bridge (GG-03, 6.3 miles, N48.62597 W113.70785). On the other 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. Turn right and begin a 1680 foot, 2.9 mile ascent to Gunsight Pass.

The trail up to the pass is a steady but gradual. As it leaves the grassy slope above the first half of the lake, it cuts into the vertical cliffs of the Helena (Siyeh) formation. This can be a little hairy for an acrophobe like me, but there was usually a low rock berm that kept me from calling for my mother. Most of the trail was socked in so we only had fleeting views of the lake and no views of the surrounding peaks, which was too bad because it would have been spectacular. However, because of all the rain, the water falls were running at full flow.

Sharing the trail with us were several mountain goats. We had heard about them at camp the previous night, but didn’t expect to see them. Though not tame, they were habituated to hikers and would come with in 10 feet of us.

This section of trail peaks out at Gunsight Pass where there is a stone shelter (GG-04, 9.2 miles, N48.60922 W113.73859). The shelter is a fully enclosed house with a door and plenty of log benches for sitting. While there is no camping allowed, it would be a welcome resting place in foul weather. However, animal droppings were present, so be wary of your gear. We had varmint eat through a pack pocket once in the short span of a lunch break in the Grand Canyon. No telling how bold these inhabitant are.

The decent to Ellen Wilson Lake is also on a good well graded trail. The switchbacks offer different views of the many water falls and peaks that ring the lake basin. After crossing below the waterfall at the head of the lake, the trail intersects the spur trail to Ellen Wilson camp (GG-05, 11.2 miles, N48.60787 W113.75545). The campsite is about 300 feet below the trail near lake level. The Gunsight trail continues southwest and begins its climb to Lincoln Pass. At 12 miles the trail wraps around a corner and enters a small hanging valley. Maybe it was because the sun finally came out, or maybe it was the mountain goats but what ever it was, the valley was a very pretty spot. The red rocks of the Grinnell formation almost glowed in contrast to the lush greens of the alpine grasses. The views up, down and across the valley weren’t bad either.

Lincoln pass was only another hundred vertical feet and a few switchbacks away (GG-06, 13.2 miles, N48.59973 W113.78344. From there it was a rapid 350 foot decent to Sperry camp and Sperry Chalet. On the way down you will see a small pond near where the camp is located and pass a slide full of truck sized angular boulders.

Sperry camp is situated in a open forest of subalpine fir on a bluff overlooking the Sprague Creek valley (GG-07, 13.9 miles, N48.60254 W113.78593). 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. We got there first and got the only site that would hold 2 tents. Several of the other sites were right next to the spur trail. If you have one tent, the site closest to the food prep areas has the best view. The water sources are either the pond seen on the way down or the chalet. You may also get a visit by more mountain goats.

The chalet is set up for overnight guest but you can make reservations for dinner and sleep at the campsite, which is what a couple of the women staying at the camp did when we were there. They don’t have alcohol so if you want wine or spirits, you need to pack it in. Once the rain eased up we had a rather intoxicated visitor come slumming from the chalet to see how the poor folk in the camp were doing. I think she was a little envious when we she saw us dry under the tarp sipping Captain Morgan.

On the way out the next morning we ran into a day hiker from the chalet that was turned back from his trip to Lincoln Pass because of a grizzly on the trail. We hung around for a few minutes scanning the hillside but never saw the bear.

The last leg of the trip is the 6.7 mile, 3,500 foot decent to McDonald Lodge. With its proximity to the lodge and the chalet, it is fairly busy trail. Here is my rant. The top half of the trail is literally covered with horses**t!. There is a stable at the bottom of the trail that leads day trips to the chalet and by the time the horses get to the top, its “let ‘er rip.” I fully support allowing horse on the trail; we need to share with everyone. However, this is a case where one concessionaire is having a very noticeable negative impact on the park and water quality (I’d love to see the coliform count in Sprague Creek) and the Park Service has failed in its stewardship. The solution is simple and has been adopted in urban areas where they have horse drawn carriages… horse diapers. By just requiring the concessionaire to use horse diapers, 99% of the problem would be solved. End of rant.

The trial passes the Chalet and the junction with the Sperry Glacier Trail (3.6 miles one way) and then crosses the Sprague Creek on a bridge at 14.5 miles (GG-08, N48.60917 W113.78724). At 18.8 miles it crosses Snyder Creek (GG-09, N48.60897 W113.84933) and then intersects two trails in a span of 0.2 miles. The first is the Snyder Lake Trail and the second is the Mt Brown Lookout Trail. By now the forest has changed from subalpine to montane and is dominated by Douglas fir. Look carefully and you may notice some western red cedar.

The trail ends where it crosses Going to the Sun Road at Lake McDonald Lodge (N48.61699 W113.87580). The trailhead parking lot is the lodge parking lot.

Alternate Trip Suggestion: We really enjoyed the 3 day version and had lots of extra time. This is especially true since we didn't hit the trail until 2:00 pm at the beginning of the trip and tried to get out as fast as possible on the last day because we had to fetch the car from the other side of the park. However, I wouldn't balk at an extra day, especially if the weather was good. Here is what I'd do: 1) On the first day, take the time to go to Florence Falls and stay at Gunsight Lake. 2) On day two, I'd take a morning dayhike to Jackson Glacier and then hike to Ellen Wilson Camp. 3) On day three, make a quick sprint to Sperry Camp, set up camp and day hike to Sperry Glacier. Maybe even plan ahead and have dinner at the Chalet (reservation are needed but we knew of 3 people who turned around at Gunsight Lake and never showed up for their prepaid meals).

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