Hike and Backpack through Gunsight pass in Glacier National park.
Before starting, it is recommended you check in with the backcountry office or the park service and ask about bear activity in this area. During our visit, a Grizzly was spotted on this trail near Gunsight Lake. Another Grizzly attacked a hiker near the Many Glacier area of the park, closing down most trails for a few days. Information about these impressive carnivores is readily available in the park and you should educate yourself before hiking. We carried bear spray on our hike and although we had no opportunity to use it, it made us feel quite a bit safer.
Starting from the Jackson Glacier Overlook, the hike descends through a patch of wild raspberries. The red stains on our shirts were witness to the fact that these berries were quite delicious! After about 1.3 miles of hiking, there is a trail junction, with the left fork going towards St. Mary Falls. Stay right here, heading towards Gunsight Lake and Gunsight pass. The trail here climbs slowly through a majestic glacier cut canyon, with St. Mary river on your left. After 4 miles of hiking, there is a spur trail (1 mile) to Florence Falls. The hike continues ever higher while the views of the surrounding glaciers on mount Jackson to the left. After 6 miles of hiking, you will reach Gunsight lake and Gunsight lake campground. The lake itself is clear and scenic. The trail continues across a seasonal bridge across the St. Mary river and climbs more steeply up the left side of the canyon towards the always visible Gunsight Pass. As the trail switchbacks up, the forest and vegetation fall away, leaving behind a plethora of waterfalls fed by the melting ice and snow. Be sure to look back at Gunsight Lake once in a while for a visual treat.
Soon your climbing is rewarded in reaching Gunsight Pass. There is a basic emergency shelter here, but the true reward are the fantastic views of Gunsight Lake on one side and Lake Ellen Wilson on the other. The trail drops down swiftly, passing still more waterfalls as it descends back into the forested areas surrounding Lake Ellen Wilson. A curious Marmot greeted us as we hiked the final 1.5 miles from the pass to the lakeshore and our first night camp.
Camping in this area requires that the sleeping and eating (food preparation) areas be separated because of the possibility of bears and other animals. It is very important to follow the backcountry rules here about 'leave no trace' camping. The park service is trying very hard not to teach bears and other animals that hikers = food. There is a pit toilet here as well in order to keep the campgrounds clean.
The campsites along the lake are peaceful and lovely. The next morning, we were greeted by a family of mountain goats wandering around the campground, looking for food. These goats are only found at the high elevations, which protects them from most predators.
The next day hike was short, scenic, and steep. It was only 3 miles to the Sperry Campground, but this required 1000 ft of elevation gain to get over the Lincoln pass. This pass provided additional impressive scenery of Lake McDonald and the Sperry Chalet.
From the Sperry Chalet, there is a very enjoyable day hike opportunity to Sperry Glacier. The hike is 3.5 miles to Comeau Pass (and another 1500 ft of elevation gain), but the scenery is well worth the effort. Hiking up to Comeau pass exposes you to a variety of mountain pools, waterfalls, and more mountain goats. The final obstacle to the pass is a narrow slot carved out of the rock, which requires the use of hand cut steps in the rock and chain guard rails. Once reaching the pass, I was greeted by more mountain goats and an impressive view of the glaciers of the area.
Sperry Chalet (www.sperrychalet.com) provides a luxurious alternative to camping, but you had better make reservations well in advance. They do allow hikers to dine with them once in a while (space permitting) so if you don't want to deal with another freeze dried dinner, it is worthwhile to ask. The Chalet itself is worthy of a walking tour.
The final day was the 6.4 mile and 3300 ft elevation loss back to Lake McDonald. The trail follows Sprague Creek and passes Beaver Medicine Falls. The lower the elevation, the more dense the forest becomes. As you get closer to the Lake McDonald trailhead, the trail will become more crowded from day hikers using the many trails in this area. Each trail junction is well signed, so make sure you stay on the trail heading towards Lake McDonald.