The trail from Jackson Glacier Overlook in the St. Mary Valley over the Continental Divide at Gunsight Pass to Lake McDonald Lodge offers an amazing trip with a bunch of extras including Sperry Glacier, Sperry Chalet, Lake Ellen Wilson and Florence Falls.
I got a bit of a late start after taking the shuttle service up and over Logan Pass down to the Jackson Glacier Overlook which added an urgency to my trip. I still was able to get everything checked off, but a bit was in the dark.
After walking for a few miles in the trees, with a couple of bridged creek crossings and little views of mountains at such places as Mirror Pond, you’ll come to a junction with the Florence Falls trail. These falls are breathtaking and would be worth the trip in and of themselves if you’re looking for a 9 mile day hike. You can see these falls from miles away and when you stand at the base of them, they generate their own wind and are impressive, even though you’re only looking at the lower section of the falls.
From there, you’ll start climbing up into the Gunsight Lake basin and the views start really opening up with views up to Blackfoot and Jackson Glaciers which used to be one big glacier simply known as Blackfoot Glacier.
Things level off a bit and you come into Gunsight Lake Campground. This year, 2011, experienced above average spring snowfall which set the stage for enormous avalanches. One such avalanche tore down the mountain with great force causing the trail to be rerouted and the bridge to require repairs. Despite the destruction, the campground is still there and it is an incredible spot. You are camped at the foot of a gorgeous alpine lake with Gunsight Mountain to the north and Mount Jackson to the south creating formidable walls around the lake and coming together at Gunsight Pass.
Right after you cross over the creek coming out of Gunsight Lake, you can take the spur trail to the left and head up below Jackson Glacier. This trail is extremely steep at the beginning and not passable with livestock. It puts you in the meadows below the Glacier and gives you fantastic views into a basin harboring Citadel, Almost-a-Dog and Logan mountains.
Back at the junction, you’ll take the more popular route up and over Gunsight Pass. At the pass, you’ll find yourself perched on the Continental Divide and at the site of an old Shelter Cabin that you can go into to get out of the elements and have a bite to eat. Outside, you’ll see Gunsight Lake where you just came from looking out to the St. Mary Valley and toward the west, you’ll see Lake Ellen Wilson.
Many switchbacks later, you’ll find yourself at the base of a waterfall. The winter’s snowpack and the time of year will determine if you’ll be able to hop across rocks or if you’ll have to get wet. This waterfall drains into Lake Ellen Wilson (named after President Woodrow Wilson’s wife) which is another beautiful alpine lake with an incredible campsite. From here, you work your way around the shoulder of Gunsight Mountain into the next valley, passing mountain goats along the way and arriving in the basin that is home to Sperry Chalet.
Sperry Chalet is one of two backcountry chalets that hail back to the era of the Great Northern Railroad. This chalet has a dining hall where you can get breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast and dinner require a reservation. The hotel there is more rustic than you’re used to, but much more comfy than a tent. You can check out the Sperry Glacier site for more info on reservations.
From there you can head on up to Comeau Pass on your way to Sperry Glacier and pass waterfalls, alpine lakes, huge boulders and wildflowers. In order to actually cross over Comeau Pass, you must go up a steep staircase hewn from the rock with a cable handrail. Once on top, you walk across big snowfields to get to the Sperry Glacier Overlook and are rewarded with its blue ice and crevasses and incredible views out to the west.
The trail back down from Sperry Chalet spends about a half mile with views, then gets swallowed up by trees and takes a lot longer than you remembered, but that’s the price you pay for everything else that exceeds your expectations.