Glacier National Park: Gunsight Pass Trail
Trying to go backpacking at a national park while living on the road with two dogs is hard to do. Restricting dogs to just paved roads and parking lots in national parks limits where we can go inside parks and for how long. We aren’t comfortable leaving Tybee and Tyki with a Craigslist dog-sitter or even at a kennel. So when our friend Barbara, who also lives in an RV full-time with her partner Mary, offered to watch the dogs for us so we could visit Glacier National Park, we took her up on it.
Because of how timing worked out, we ended up heading out to Glacier on the Friday before July 4. We were slightly worried how crowded the park would be over the holiday weekend. When I asked a ranger over the phone about the traffic, she said that July 4th doesn’t seem to affect the park traffic much, partially because July and August are its busiest months anyways. But we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at Glacier by how not crowded it was.
When researching where we wanted to go backpacking I came across this really great and informative website called EnjoyYourParks.com. It seems like the couple, David and Shannon, have hiked and backpacked all over Glacier National Park (in addition to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Waterton Lakes Park) and provides great detail about trails, backpacking routes, logistics and photos on their website. Jerud and I decided that we wanted to backpack the Gunsight Pass Trail after looking through their backpacking route suggestions. There were a couple other backpacking routes we wanted to do, but this one was logistically the easiest because you utilize the park bus shuttle to close the loop.
Glacier National Park’s website has great information about backcountry camping along with up-to-date status on trails and backcountry site availabilities. Permits and reservations are needed for all backcountry campsites. If backpackers want to reserve a campsite more than 24 hours in advance then they have to fill out the backcountry application and submit $30 for each trip they are reserving for. For backpackers whose want to try their luck and get a backcountry campsite permit on the day of their trip, they can just go to the backcountry permit office ($5 per person/per site). The latter was us. The park keeps half of its backcountry sites at each campground available for walk-ins. The ranger I spoke to over the phone said that because of the unseasonably warmer weather this July, the campsites along the Gunsight Pass Trail were open earlier than its usual August opening date. This meant that people who reserved campsites in advanced this year didn’t even have the option to reserve those campsites until just recently. But she wasn’t sure if Gunsight Pass itself was passable or not due to snow.
At 6 AM we were in line at the Apgar Backcountry Permit office with two groups ahead of us. The office opened at 7 AM and by about 7:30 AM, after also watching a 15-minute mandatory safety video, we had our Lake Ellen Wilson campsite permit (which we found out later is typically extremely hard to get). Glacier offers a free bus shuttle from Apgar all the way to St. Mary’s and back along Going to the Sun Road. We parked our truck at the trailhead of Sperry Trail, where we would come out at the end of our backpacking trip, and after two bus transfers we were dropped off at Jackson Glacier Overlook. Gunsight Pass Trail is a 20-mile long hike that drops down into Reynolds Creek Valley along Reynolds Creek from Jackson Glacier Overlook, comes out of the valley with a spectacular view of Mount Jackson and Jackson Glacier, runs along Gunsight Lake before it starts up and over Gunsight Pass.
In Reynolds Valley we met a backpacking couple who had started up towards Gunsight Pass from Gunsight Lake that morning only to come across a grizzly bear at the first switchback. The grizzly intimated the couple enough that they turned around and headed back out. This made us a more cautious when we got to that section of trail. We had mix feelings, on one hand we really wanted to see a bear, but on the other hand, we didn’t want to be put in a position where we felt we couldn’t continue our hike up and over the pass because of the bear. So our “hey bears” got a bit louder and more frequent, except it wasn’t “hey bear” that we (really me) were yelling but random words like “turtle”, “Batman”, and “aquamarine”. Whenever Jerud yelled “hey bear” I thought he saw a bear and was greeting it. We never did see that grizzly, but it turns out the tracks Jerud saw on the snowfield that we had to cross were his. John, a backpacker we met at camp, had seen and hiked around that grizzly earlier that morning. John said the grizzly was sliding and walking down the snowfield - the tracks that Jerud saw were actually the grizzly’s butt tracks!
The ranger at the permit office told us that there would be a snowfield that we would have to cross to get up to the pass. Neither her nor other rangers we talked to were sure of the actual condition of the snow. So she erred on the side of caution and made it sound like crossing the snowfield would be pretty bad, along with a waterfall that runs over the trail. But we were prepared and had brought ice axes and microspikes – just in case! The snowfield wasn’t that bad when we saw it for ourselves. The snow was slightly slushy from the sun and there were other footprints through it. It was a really large snowfield spanning up the side of the mountain and all the way down the slope towards Gunsight Lake with nothing to stop a fall if it happened. We ended up using our ice axes and I put on my microspikes because heck, we carried them all the way up the mountain!
The section of trail from Gunsight Lake over Gunsight Pass to Lake Ellen Wilson was spectacular. It’s what we imagine New Zealand would look like. The mountains surrounding us were covered in waterfalls created from melting glaciers. The wildflowers were abundant – beargrass, pink spiraea, rosy paintbrush, white mountain avens along with others covered the hills. Waterfalls fell onto the rocky trail one after another, with us scooting around them or quickly walking through them enjoying the cool water.
After three more snowfield crossings we arrived at the top of Gunsight Pass that is situated between Mount Jackson and Gunsight Mountain, greeted by a stone hut, two vocal marmots, and a long-range view of Lake Ellen Wilson. Because of the openness we could see exactly where the trail went, leading us to the campsite on the shores of the lake.
By the time we got to the campground we were starving and headed straight for the cooking area. Taking photos was forgotten about, as was setting up camp, as we made dinner and chatted with John, the other backpacker there. From John we heard a story: When he had arrived the campground, a couple was heading out and gave him the heads-up that there was a marmot stuck in the bottom the outside pit toilet. Apparently the toilet lid wasn’t closed and the marmot was seduced by the fragrant smells wafting from the bottom. That couple had put a long branch into the toilet in hopes that the marmot could climb up and escape its shitty prison. John decided to check on the toilet to find that the marmot had escaped but left a mess all over the toilet seat. Out of his desire to not have to sit on a poop covered toilet seat, he cleaned it and then placed a huge rock on the lid to prevent any future poor sucker from having the same fate as that marmot. Sadly, or luckily, we never did see a shit-covered marmot hanging around the campground.
The clouds rolled in and the wind picked up after dinner. We hung out by the lake briefly before seeking shelter from the wind in the tent. The rain came in that night, hard, bringing with it bright lightning and deep thunder that rumbled through the valley. It was a glorious thunderstorm.
That is until it lasted through the morning, making packing up a slight pain in the butt. The clouds hung low, obscuring the peaks around us as we hiked up to Lincoln Pass at 7,050 ft., the highest point on Gunsight Pass Trail. At the pass we hooked up with John and hiked all the way out together. At Lincoln Pass we picked up three mountain goats that decided to hike behind us to Sperry Lake where they passed us and went ahead to Sperry Chalet. The delicious roast beef sandwiches and pies that John said the chalet typically has were nowhere to be seen. The chalet wasn’t open just yet. Drooling, we sat outside and ate our now-not-as-tasty lunch.
For me, the last 6 miles down to the trailhead were the worst. I’m not a fan of hiking downhill, and this section is a steep continuous down. But having the opportunity to hike into the Gunsight Pass area and to see the scenery there was worth the discomfort at the end. It was also a great way to spend my birthday.