Ask Me: How to Grab a Hard-to-Get Permit For Backpacking Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail
Hope you are well. I was inspired by your Gunsight Lake trip with the family in Glacier National Park and was planning on backpacking there in August with a friend. While I have confirmed air travel, hotel, two-night Sperry Chalet and workshop reservations, I just found out that my advance mail-in reservation for Gunsight Lake and Lake Ellen Wilson campgrounds have been denied.
I arrive on Day 1 to Kalispell at 2 p.m. local time, so have a bit of time to see if I can snag one of the potentially open walk-in spots. But having never done this before, I am not sure if that is a realistic option. Any advice to offer?
My itinerary was as follows:
* Day 1: Arrive and overnight at Lake McDonald Lodge
* Day 2: Park at the Lake McDonald Lodge and catch the first morning shuttle up to Logan Pass. At Logan Pass, grab another shuttle down the east side toward St. Mary. Jump off at the Jackson Glacier Turnout, and begin your hike there from the Gunsight Pass Trailhead. From Gunsight Pass Trailhead, hike 6.2 miles and spend a night at Gunsight Lake Backcountry Campground.
* Day 3: Hike 5 miles to the backcountry campground on Lake Ellen Wilson. Spend the night.
* Day 4: Hike 2.6 miles from Lake Ellen Wilson to Sperry Chalet, sperrychalet.com. Stay the first night at the Chalet (reservation confirmed).
* Day 5: Sperry Glacier workshop. Stay second night at Chalet Confirmed.
* Day 6: Hike from Sperry Chalet 6.8 miles to Lake McDonald Lodge, a 3,300-foot descent. Stay the night.
* Day 7: Leave from Lake McDonald Lodge
Ellicott City, MD
The Gunsight Pass Trail is one of the most popular backpacking destinations in Glacier, and August is the prime season, so I’m not surprised you had trouble reserving a permit for it. First-come permits are also hard to get for that trip, unless you arrive the day before you want to start the trip and show up at the backcountry office an hour or two before it opens that morning, to be ahead of others who will show up wanting to get the same permit.
Given your Sperry Chalet reservation and your travel dates, there are options you can consider:
1. On the day you arrive, go straight to the backcountry office and see if you can get the permit you want for your original itinerary to backpack starting on day two. You might get lucky.
2. Otherwise, on day two, show up at the backcountry office (wearing warm clothes) ideally two hours before it opens and try to get a permit to start on day three from Jackson Glacier Turnout and backpack to either Gunsight Lake or Lake Ellen Wilson that day.
The Gunsight Pass Trail is very well constructed and, like many trails in the park, built at what’s called a “horse grade,” meaning never more than moderately steep. While it’s a bit over 11 miles from Jackson Glacier Turnout to Lake Ellen Wilson, backpackers in good shape wouldn’t find it unreasonable to hike there in a day (provided you’re not carrying too much weight; here are my tips about that). The first time I backpacked the Gunsight Pass Trail (on a longer trip in the park that I wrote about in this story), a friend and I hiked from Jackson Glacier Turnout to Lake Ellen Wilson in about five hours at a fairly leisurely pace, with lots of photo shooting. Similarly, it’s a reasonable one-day hike to go from Gunsight Lake to Sperry Chalet.
With either option above, I think you’ll find you still have time to enjoy the scenery, take breaks and photos, etc., and you’d arrive at Sperry Chalet on day four. By the way, given the choice, I’d camp at Lake Ellen Wilson over Gunsight Lake, though the latter is a nice spot, too.
3. If you have no better choice, you could get a permit to backpack on day three from Lake McDonald Lodge to spend that night at the Sperry backcountry campground, and then dayhike out-and-back to Lake Ellen Wilson on day four, and you’ll come back to Sperry Chalet that night. But I wouldn’t recommend starting from the lodge and hiking all the way to Lake Ellen Wilson on day three. You’re starting at low elevation at the lodge and it’s a big uphill slog that’s often hot and much more strenuous than hiking in the other direction. (It’s also a knee-pounder coming down it because of the relentless descent.) But spending a night at the Sperry backcountry campground allows you to dayhike that really scenic stretch of the Gunsight Pass Trail between Sperry and Lake Ellen Wilson.
By the way, the hike up to Sperry Glacier from the chalet is fantastic, crossing terrain scoured by glaciers that receded only decades ago, so it’s quite stark, but also dappled with alpine tarns. I saw mountain goats up there as well as near Gunsight Pass and Lincoln Pass on my two trips on the Gunsight Pass Trail.
My third alternative leaves day two free for you to dayhike. Take the park shuttle up to Logan Pass and dayhike out-and-back (as far as you feel like going) on the Highline Trail, which is entirely above treeline with spectacular views of the mountains. Also from Logan Pass, it’s an easy, 2.7-mile round-trip hike to Hidden Lake Overlook, another alpine trail with wildflowers and killer views.
If you end up dayhiking on day two from Logan Pass and have a permit to start backpacking from Jackson Glacier Turnout on day three, I would plan to camp on night two at one of the campgrounds closer to Jackson Glacier Turnout, ideally on the east side of the park. There’s less traffic on that side and you’ll get to the trailhead much faster the next morning. There’s frequently heavy morning traffic heading east from Lake McDonald to Logan Pass.
In general, when I have trouble getting my first choice for a backcountry permit, I always look for other ways to get where I want to go. Even within a park’s permit rules, there are usually multiple options. Whenever possible, start on a weekday, and go outside the prime season of July and August; the first half of September is often a great time in U.S. mountain ranges.
I hope that’s helpful. Have a great trip. You’re going to one of my favorite national parks.
Thank you very much. This is very helpful and the suggestions for day hikes if we are not successful in getting a campground are definitely something we will be utilizing.
Note: See all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in Glacier National Park.
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