Jagged Peaks and Wild Goats: Backpacking Glacier’s Gunsight Pass Trail
By Michael Lanza
We’re just seconds beyond the sign at the start of the Gunsight Pass Trail that reads “Entering Grizzly Country” when Nate, who’s a month shy of his tenth birthday, begins aggressively making the case for why he should be armed.
“Why can’t I carry a pepper spray?” he asks me—again and again.
It’s an idyllic, late-summer afternoon in the Northern Rockies—the sun shining warmly, a gently cooling breeze rippling the air, not a white speck of moisture in the sky. We are heading out on a three-day family backpacking trip to Gunsight Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. One of the logistically easiest and shortest multi-day hikes in the park, the 20-mile traverse from Gunsight Pass Trailhead to Lake McDonald Lodge—both of which are on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and served by the park’s free shuttle bus—takes in some of Glacier’s most spectacular scenery, including views of one of its largest rivers of ice (all of which are steadily shrinking), scores of waterfalls, and a backcountry campsite at Lake Ellen Wilson that is one of the prettiest in the park.
Unfortunately, I was not able to get a permit for the full traverse; it’s popular and backpacker numbers are restricted to avoid overuse and preserve a sense of solitude. (Read my tips on how to get how to get a permit for this hike.) So instead, we’ll spend two nights at Gunsight Lake, dayhike to Gunsight Pass, and then backtrack to the Gunsight Pass Trailhead on our last day.
Having hiked the traverse before, I knew Nate and our seven-year-old daughter, Alex, easily have the stamina for the three six-mile days we’ll do. The much bigger concern for my wife, Penny, and me was the preoccupying idea of backpacking in grizzly-bear country with our young kids. In fact, a year ago, I had a close encounter with a sow griz and her two cubs on the Gunsight Pass Trail. Although we know that such encounters are rare, we’ll have to be diligent about making sure the kids don’t inadvertently bring a pocketful of Jolly Ranchers into the tent for the night.
Thinking along similar lines, my hyper-focused son is consumed by the conviction that he should be armed with one of the pepper-spray canisters holstered to the hipbelts of Penny’s and my backpacks. When not distracted by throwing sticks into the raging creek at Deadwood Falls, or watching for moose in the boggy, partly forested flats of the St. Mary River, he persistently returns to his argument that he is just as capable as his mother or me of calmly deploying pepper spray at a charging grizzly. I try, in vain, to convince him that an adult is better able to react to that inconceivably frightful circumstance—although I’m not really sure I believe that.
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Glacier National Park covers a million acres straddling the Continental Divide hard against the Canadian border. More than a hundred peaks here in the northernmost U.S. Rockies rise above 8,000 feet, the highest over 10,000 feet. Meat-cleaver wedges of billion-year-old rock line up in rows stretching to far horizons, blades pointed upward.
The Blackfeet Indians called these mountains “the backbone of the world.” The description fits a place where the land vaults up so dramatically from the very edge of the Plains—and where Triple Divide Peak is one of only two North American mountains that funnel waters to three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic. George Bird Grinnell, a writer who began lobbying to create a national park here in the 1880s, called these mountains “the Crown of the Continent.” The Great Northern Railway, hoping to bring paying tourists in, dubbed the area “Little Switzerland.”
With just one road crossing the park—the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile-long ribbon of pavement clinging to avalanche-prone mountainsides—Glacier is more than anything a backpacker’s park. More than 700 miles of trails crisscross it. While you can see quite a lot of world-class scenery on dayhikes, most of this vast, wild area is accessible only to people willing to carry on their backs everything they need to survive for days in the wilderness.
The Gunsight Pass Trail is a great choice for first-time Glacier backpackers and anyone who wants a short backcountry trip with easy transportation logistics. It’s also not crowded with dayhikers like trails around Many Glacier and Logan Pass—all good reasons for making it my kids’ first multi-day hike in Glacier.
Best of all, though, the views really are among the finest in the park.
On our first afternoon, we walk past an overlook of the Blackfoot Glacier, one of the park’s largest, which sprawls across the cirque at the head of the St. Mary River. A little while later, we stroll into camp at Gunsight Lake, a long, blue-green gem embraced by an arc of rugged mountains, including Mt. Jackson, one of just a half-dozen in the park that rise above 10,000 feet.
After Nate and Alex play by the lakeshore for a while, launching driftwood boats and bombing them with rocks, I accede to giving them a lesson in using the pepper spray—and letting Nate carry one canister, but only in camp, where there are at least 15 other backpackers spread among several sites under the pines, a substantial human presence to deter ursine visits. For the remainder of our time in this camp, tonight, tomorrow, and on our last morning, Nate will assume the role of the world’s smallest bodyguard, escorting Penny, Alex, and me around the campground with the canister hanging from a belt loop on his shorts, looking like a mortar shell against his skinny thigh.
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Alex glances over her shoulder at me with a look that says, “Soooo, what now?”
On our second morning, the four of us have stopped high up the Gunsight Pass Trail. Cliffs rise steeply up to a small glacier on our left, and drop off precipitously on our right a thousand feet down to the clear, emerald waters of Gunsight Lake. We’re dayhiking from our campsite on the lake to Gunsight Pass. And the critter obstructing us brings authenticity to the phrase “goat path.”
A young mountain goat, as white as fresh snow, with sharp, straight horns and coal-black eyes, stands in the trail, occasionally lifting its head from nibbling on plants to return Alex’s quizzical glance. I meet Alex’s look, smile, and shrug. We wait.
When the goat finally relinquishes the trail to us, scrambling nimbly down the cliff below us, we peer over the brink to see where it went. Alex mutters in awe, “I can’t believe it went down there.”
Continuing upward, we look out over a deep cirque carved out by ancient ice that has mostly disappeared. Waterfalls too numerous to count pour hundreds of feet down cliffs. Snowfields and a lobe of the Harrison Glacier dapple the mountainsides above us.
Some three hours after leaving our campsite, we reach wind-hammered Gunsight Pass, 6,900 feet above sea level and three miles and 2,000 feet above Gunsight Lake. We sit and eat lunch on big, flat-topped rocks, perched on the rim of a vast stone bathtub—the high basin embracing Lake Ellen Wilson, where more waterfalls plunge over cliffs and their streams pour into the emerald lake.
It was just a couple of miles beyond this lake, at Lincoln Pass, where a friend and I ran into a grizzly sow and her cubs almost a year ago. We won’t walk that far today, but those bears and others are wandering around out there somewhere, perhaps even within the considerable expanse of sub-alpine meadows, boulder fields, and scattered copses of conifer trees that we can see from here. After our lunch break, we turn around to retrace the trail back to our camp on Gunsight Lake. Once there, the kids play more at the edge of the lake, Penny holes up in the tent with her book, and I lay on the sun-warmed stones of the beach.
I wanted to bring Nate and Alex to this iconic park in part to see its glaciers before they all melt away completely, a fate that U.S. Geological Survey researchers here predict may occur by 2020—when my kids are barely young adults. It seems incomprehensible that climate change could so rapidly remove ice that has inhabited this landscape for at least 7,000 years. But scientists tell me with amazement how they have observed and recorded for two decades this park’s glaciers collapsing, retreating, shrinking ever faster.
With average temperatures climbing steadily higher, and the health of glacial ice so inextricably tied to temperature, there is no disagreement among scientists that this park will lose the very natural feature for which it was named. The far-reaching impacts of this transformation on streams, vegetation, and wildlife remain largely unpredictable.
Of course, for our kids, other things will leave a more lasting impression than melting glaciers: playing on the shore of Gunsight Lake, seeing a mountain goat up close—and for Nate, feeling the cold power of a canister of Counter Assault pepper spray in his hands.
But I think they will also take away some subtle but ultimately more valuable gifts from Glacier National Park.
On our last morning, we pack up camp beneath battleship-gray skies. Just as we hit the trail to hike back to our car, the first raindrops start falling. We plod through four hours of steady rain that slowly soaks our boots and pants, giving my kids a valuable lesson in hardship that they endure with patience beyond their years. They even surprise me with how positive and unruffled they remain throughout our long, wet, raw walk—affirming my belief that, even at their age, they draw knowledge and self-confidence from our wilderness adventures that they will carry with them always.
NOTE: I write more about this trip and Glacier National Park’s climate story in my book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press. See also my other stories about a longer backpacking trip on Glacier’s Northern Loop and long dayhikes in Glacier.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR reasonably fit, beginner to experienced backpackers and families with children that can hike six to seven miles a day and follow safety instructions, as long as some party members know how to camp safely in bear country (see Concerns below). The trails are well built and never very steep, and well-signed, so the full traverse from Gunsight Pass Trailhead to Lake McDonald Lodge is only moderately strenuous and navigation is straightforward. Fit hikers do the traverse in a day. Hiking from Gunsight Pass Trailhead to Gunsight Pass and back over three days, as described in the story, is easier than the full traverse; our family’s round-trip time dayhiking from Gunsight Lake to Gunsight Pass took six hours at a very leisurely pace. Check the weather forecast pre-trip—snow is not uncommon in August and September. Campsites are designated, marked by signs, and have food storage.
Make It Happen
Season The prime season is July through mid-September, though snow can linger well into July and sometimes August. New snow is not uncommon in August and September, but it usually melts away as soon as the sun comes out.
The Itinerary Hiking the 20-mile traverse east to west, from the Gunsight Pass Trailhead (at Jackson Glacier Overlook) to Lake McDonald Lodge, involves less uphill than the other direction. Take three to five days, depending on your party’s stamina, and add on the 7.4-mile round-trip, out-and-back side hike to the Sperry Glacier.
Day 1: From Gunsight Pass Trailhead, hike 11.2 miles to the backcountry campground on Lake Ellen Wilson, one of the prettiest in the park. (Alternatively, break up this day by spending a night at Gunsight Lake, at mile 6.2, and hiking five miles on day two to Lake Ellen Wilson.)
Day 2: Hike 2.5 miles from Lake Ellen Wilson to Sperry backcountry campground. (Alternatively, stay at Sperry Chalet, a full-service wilderness lodge, 0.1 mile farther, which requires reservations weeks or months in advance; sperrychalet.com.) Leave most of your gear in camp and dayhike the spectacular 7.4 miles out-and-back over Comeau Pass to an overlook of the Sperry Glacier. (Alternatively, build in another day for the Sperry Glacier dayhike, which involves 2,000 feet of ascent and descent.)
Day 3: Hike from Sperry campground 6.8 miles to Lake McDonald Lodge, a steep and strenuous descent.
Getting There Gunsight Pass Trailhead (at Jackson Glacier Overlook) is 4.1 miles east of Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Lake McDonald Lodge is 21.2 miles west of Logan Pass and 8.2 miles east of Apgar Village. Both trailheads are served by the park’s free shuttle bus (see Shuttle below). Park in the large lot at Lake McDonald Lodge or at the Apgar Transit Center, take the shuttle to Gunsight Pass Trailhead, and hike back to the lodge.
Shuttle The park’s free shuttle runs regularly between the Apgar Transit Center and St. Mary Visitor Center to numerous stops along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, including trailheads, from early July through early September; see nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/shuttles.htm for details.
Where to Stay Glacier National Park has 13 campgrounds with about 1,000 sites total, many operated on a first-come basis and popular, so don’t arrive too late in the day. Reserve rooms at least a few months in advance if you want to find lodging within the park. Glacier Park, Inc., (406-892-2525, glacierparkinc.com) operates the Village Inn Motel, Lake McDonald Lodge, Rising Sun Motor Inn, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, and the Many Glacier Hotel. There is also the Apgar Village Lodge on Lake McDonald (406-888-5484). Other lodging is available outside the park.
Permit Under an entirely online system at Glacier, backcountry sites can be reserved in advance starting March 15 for groups of one to eight people and March 1 for groups of nine to 12. There is a $10 processing fee and a $30 application fee for each reservation request submitted; the $30 gets refunded if your application is unsuccessful. The camping fee of $7/person/night is paid when you pick up your permit. See nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm.
Map Trails Illustrated Glacier/Waterton National Park map no. 215 ($11.95; 800-962-1643, natgeomaps.com).
* Follow protocol for camping safely in bear country, which are covered in a short video that backpackers are required to watch when picking up their permit. Guidelines include storing all food and odorous items (like toothpaste) in the designated food-storage area in every backcountry campground.
* Travel in a group, stay together, and make noise.
* Carry pepper spray in an easily accessible place (e.g., on your pack’s belt); make sure you know how to deploy it.
* Other large wildlife you’re likely to encounter, like mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, or elk, are generally not aggressive toward humans; but maintain a distance so as not to harass or provoke them.
* Check the weather forecast before your trip; cold weather and snow are possible even in August.
Contact Glacier National Park, (406) 888-7800, nps.gov/glac.
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