Backpacking Adventures: Gunsight to Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

I must admit I was actually nervous for this hike. My knee was most definitely still in recovery mode and somehow I’d decided that it was a good idea to backpack 20 plus miles up and over a couple of large peaks in Glacier’s backcountry. But the allure of snow covered vistas, pristine alpine lakes, and wild mountain goats was too much. This had to be done. Perhaps it was never a real choice at all. 

As we rode the shuttle up and over the Going-To-The-Sun Road, I gazed out the window, admiring the peaks and mentally mapping the unforeseen trails of our hike which wound just behind them. Jared and I were the spectacle of the morning, as we were the only shuttle riders dawning anything larger than a day pack. Whispers of “Those guys are doing something serious” fluttered through the rear seats in our peripheral hearing.

The shuttle eventually pulled up to our stop and with much excitement, we immediately set to the trail. We had just over 7 miles of moderate hiking to do before we reached our first night’s camp at Gunsight Lake. We wound our way through the mostly wooded trail past patches of thimbleberries, very aware that this was perfect feeding ground for bears. As the Jackson Glacier came into view, we passed a couple of older gentlemen who warned us that there had been a few grizzlies sighted at Gunsight Pass. Fear and excitement settled deeper into our psyches as we climbed the last 2 miles to Gunsight Lake.

Gunsight Lake was relaxing and serene. As we settled into camp, we began to meet fellow hikers who were spending the night at Gunsight Lake and doing varying versions of the same backcountry trek. We enjoyed sharing dinner and camaraderie quickly built as we swapped background stories. That night, Jared and I found a comfortable sitting rock to watch the storm roll in through Gunsight Pass and over the lake. We stayed out as long as we dared, then quickly retreated to our tent in hopes that the storm would pass us over by morning.

Rain pelted our tent walls as it rattled and shook through the night and sure enough, by morning we awoke to sunny skies and a beautiful day to make the journey up and over Gunsight Pass. We started early as we knew that this would be our difficult day; ascending and descending both Gunsight Pass and Lincoln Pass. We worked our way quickly up above Gunsight Lake with enthusiasm when suddenly Jared shouted “There’s a bear in the trail!” Sure enough, several hundred yards up the way, there it was. There was no option other than to move towards it, so we began to make noise and continued up the trail. As we shouted our way up the trail, the bear began to walk away from us and we marched on. Eventually we came to a point where every corner was blind and we never knew whether we’d be finding this bear right in the middle of the trail or not. Bear spray in hand, we moved on until we rounded a corner to find it sitting several switchbacks above us, right in the middle of the trail. This time the bear wasn’t moving and we had no choice but to wait it out. After a 30 minute standoff, the bear finally abandoned his post, moving up and over the next hill. We intrepidly marched on to eventually find this young grizzly had moved up and off of the trail just far enough for us to pass.

Gunsight Pass was truly a sight to behold. We were greeted by a couple of friendly mountain goats and spent some time soaking in the vibe of the rock-walled lightning shelter amidst the pointed peaks just above us. Our next stop, Lake Ellen Wilson lay in the next valley below. We enjoyed our first downhill stint of the trek and became thoroughly entertained as we realized that the marmots, which hid in the hillside rocks, would respond to the emergency whistles on our packs by perking up and whistling back. While playing around with one of these marmots, suddenly Jared noticed a different animal perk up to the whistle roughly 100 feet behind me… this time it was a rather large grizzly bear. Holy shit. It was a good thing we’d already braved one bear, because we were amped and ready to face this one. Luckily, it immediately turned tail and romped uphill and away from us. We simply sat and marveled at this truly impressive animal.

After crossing under a cold, large waterfall and another standoff with a family of mountain goats, we enjoyed a nourishing lunch at Lake Ellen Wilson while chatting with a trail crew which had traveled by mule to do some work at the campground. We bid adieu to our newfound friends and began the dreaded leg of the day’s hike: making our way up and back down the next pass. Lungs heaved and feet trudged as we ground our way high above Ellen Wilson. What felt like several hours later, we gratefully summited at Lincoln Pass and rejoiced as we knew our remaining 9 or so miles of hiking was all downhill to Lake McDonald.

Our next campground at Sperry was an incredibly welcomed sight. Originally, we’d planned on hiking up to the Sperry Glacier, which we’d heard was one of the greatest sights in Glacier National Park, but we were held up as we attempted to run water back up the hill to some hikers we’d heard were having a difficult time getting down. After ensuring that these hikers were squared away and would make the rest of their hike out, Jared and I opted to spend some quiet time meditating and basking in our well earned mountain environment. The clouds rolled by and swirled overhead as an enormous waterfall rumbled across the canyon from us hundreds of feet above.

Later that night, we met our fellow Sperry campmates; a group on a guided backcountry tour through Glacier. We enjoyed preparing dinner and watching the sunset as a group. As we were talking over dinner, we learned that the Sperry Chalet, which was just down the trail from us, offered a free coffee hour every night to backcountry hikers from Sperry Campground. Hallelujah! With much excitement, Jared, one of our new campground friends, and I headed down to the chalet. Who would have known we’d be in the middle of the backcountry sitting in a chalet, sipping on hot chocolate and coffee? It was truly unexpected and incredibly luxurious. After coffee, Jared and I opted to sleep out under the stars on top of some rocks above our camp. What a splendid way to end the day.

We awoke on the last day groggy and a bit unsure as to whether we were ready for this journey to be done. A couple of local scraggly mountain goats lingered as we ate breakfast while overlooking our final destination of Lake McDonald. We immediately packed up and headed down after breakfast as I was quite anxious to get back down to Meisha. The hike down was spectacularly easy in comparison to our previous two days. All downhill and nothing technical. We practically jogged it, keeping an 18 minute mile pace (versus our 30 minute mile pace before). It was such a surreal feeling to emerge out of the woods and find paved road. What an incredible reminder of how truly “away” from the civilized world we were. We found thorough entertainment once again as people stared at us, the two dirty, grubby hikers emerging out of the backcountry and crossing the parking lot on our way to the shuttle stop.

All in all, our epic hike in Glacier’s backcountry will leave a permanent and positive impression on mind. Without a doubt, we will return to this magical place some time again within this lifetime.

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