Where are you (park, forest, etc.)- Glacier National Park
Nearest town (s)-West Glacier, Kalispell, Whitefish
How long is this hike- 2-3 days
On your toughness scale (1 easiest, 10 toughest) 5 if done in three days, 7 if done in two
Tell us about it
This backpacking trip was one of my first introductions to Glacier National Park and man was I hooked after this. My boyfriend Korbin and I spent a week in Glacier during the summer before our junior year in college. He had been a guide for Glacier Guides/Montana Raft Company in summers preceding this one so he knew the area well and planned this crash course in Glacier awesomeness. This hike spans from Jackson Glacier Turnout, which is accessed by the Going to the Sun Road, and ends at Lake McDonald Lodge. It is generally recommended that you take three days to complete this trip, stopping to camp at Gunsight Lake and Lake Ellen Wilson along the way. Because we were only in Montana for a week and were trying to cram in as much hiking and rafting as possible, we chose to make it an overnighter. Still others choose to do the nearly 20-mile hike in one day. After climbing Mt. Siyeh, the 5th tallest mountain in Glacier, in brand new hiking shoes the day before for my first true hike ever, that was not going to be an option for me.
Day one got off to a slow start. By the time I got my sore body out of bed, helped Korbin get the gear in the Subaru, fueled up with breakfast burritos at the West Glacier Restaurant, parked at Lake McDonald Lodge and caught the Going to the Sun Shuttle up to Jackson Glacier Turnout it was nearly 1 pm. Our camping permit was for Lake Ellen Wilson that night so we had a 11 mile hike past Gunsight Lake and up over Gunsight Pass ahead of us. We descended downhill into Reynolds Creek Valley and crossed over a several footbridges and through marshes created by Reynolds Creek. During this part of the hike you can get a great view of the Jackson-Blackfoot Glacier complex. As we made our way to Gunsight Lake we encountered snow and down trees that had been plowed over by what looked to have been an impressive avalanche. This caused us to lose the trail for a while but we eventually picked it back up by the time we were closing in on Gunsight Lake about six miles in. We encountered another couple who were also trying to make their way over the avalanche debris. After talking with them, they told us they were camping at Gunsight Lake and I have to admit I was a little envious. Gunsight Lake is beautiful with glacial water running into it, usually giving it a characteristic turquoise color. At this point, setting up camp at the lake, making dinner and relaxing sounded incredibly appealing, but we opted to just rest for a few minutes, have a snack and continue on with hopes of making camp before night fall.
As we continued our ascent we encountered a large snow field blocking the trail. This is normal to encounter on this trail, especially earlier in the season, and you can usually just walk over them. However, we were hiking in late August and we could see that the snow field was melting quickly and was hollowed out underneath with water flowing below it down to the lake. It looked to be getting pretty thin so we opted to climb up the mountain a couple hundred feet and go above it. This was my least favorite part of the trip. It was a steep climb to the top of the snow field and I had never climbed with a pack on before. Every time I looked up ahead to see where I was going I felt like my pack was going to pull me backwards and I was going to tumble down the mountain. Korbin, on the other hand, gracefully scaled the mountain with ease and was giving me word of encouragement from the top. Once atop the snow field we had to hop across a few rocks to get over the wide stream of water that flowed down under the snow field below. I slipped and bashed my knee on a large boulder sticking out of the water, but I was honestly so happy we made it up and over all the snow I didn’t care at all. We quickly descended back down to the trail, aware that this detour cost us precious time. As we closed in on the pass, Korbin spotted a grizzly bear! Thankfully it was a ways below us and posed no real threat, but I was really excited to actually see one.
Finally, a little over nine miles into the hike we made it to the pass, which has an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet. Although I would not recommend starting this hike so late, I was glad we made it to the pass when we did. The sun was starting to set and the view was SPECTACULAR! You can see Gunsight Lake to the north, Lake Ellen Wilson to the south, Mount Jackson towers over you on the east and Gunsight Mountain towers over you to the west. Going to the Sun Mountain can also be seen in the distance behind Gunsight Lake. There was a little stone hut at the top of the pass. We went inside to explore and found a golf club. We took a moment to hit some little rocks off into the distance and admire the raw beauty surrounding us before we made our way down to Lake Ellen Wilson.
The trail down to Lake Ellen Wilson quickly descends about a thousand vertical feet and is comprised of switchbacks littered with a few waterfalls along the way. Racing the quickly setting sun, we hastily made way down the trail. Korbin was leading the way and I was following behind focusing on the trail and distracted by my painfully blistered feet. (Tip: walking around a college campus in new hiking boots a few times is not enough to break them in!) Suddenly, Korbin threw out his arm abruptly stopping me and pulling me out of my trance. Confused I looked ahead to see two beady eyes staring back at us from a large rock on the side of the trail. Moments later a small, stocky animal slightly resembling a small bear hops onto the trail twenty feet in front of us. Korbin informs me that this is a wolverine. What?! As far as I was concerned, wolverine was an X-man character with retractable knife like claws. This is something I had not anticipated running into. Clutching our bear spray we slowly started to back away, giving it space. The wolverine started to move away down the path away, stopping occasionally to pear back at us. We decided to cut down the mountain to the next switch back, giving it as much space as possible and after that, we never ran into it again.
The sun had set and it was completely dark as we finished up our hike for the day. We had headlamps but I still felt a little uncomfortable hiking in the dark. This unease was justified when we I saw a sign at the camp ground warning hikers not to hike alone as there was a mountain lion frequenting the campground… great. It turns out a few days before a mountain lion had slaughtered a mountain goat at the campground and caused quite a scare to campers. We quickly made camp and found the cooking area. As we made cheese quesadillas, we spotted a little light zigzagging down the pass. Apparently, to my disbelief, someone started even later than us. We both hoped they wouldn’t run into our little wolverine friend up there in the dark and headed to bed.
In the morning we headed back to the food prep area to make some pancakes before heading out. There, we met the late night hiker. His name was Jake and he was striving to complete all 734 miles of trial in Glacier National Park that year. He had gotten a late start on the shuttle the day before just like us and in his effort to cover every trail he took a detour before Gunsight Lake to see Florence Falls, something we wanted to do but opted not to because of our lack of time. He did not encounter the wolverine on his descent but informed us of what a rare and awesome sighting we had. I learned later that apparently there are only 40 wolverines in all of Glacier. I couldn’t believe we encountered one so close. After talking with Jake we packed up camp and headed out.
Day two was much less eventful. We headed towards Lincoln pass and Sperry Chalet. As we approached Lincoln pass it started hailing on us. We took cover under a rock to wait out the storm. Lincoln pass is the highest point of the entire trail and from there the rest was pretty much all down hill. When the hail passed we moved on toward Sperry Chalet. This historic Chalet is another option to stay overnight if you’re backpacking but we just chose to stop by and explore inside. Although pretty rustic, it’s beautiful and more accommodating than a tent.
At this point my feet hurt so badly from blisters I could hardly walk… and we were six miles deep in the backcountry. Korbin always carries crocks with him when he hikes and offered to let me wear them for the rest of the way. On numerous occasions I had made fun of him for his crocks. I always thought they were ugly and looked ridiculous but he raved about how great they were for backpacking trips because they are very lightweight and great to walk around the campground in. I can say I have never been happier to put on crocks in my life. I got some funny looks from hikers going up to the chalet as I strolled past them in the backcountry with bright red crocks, but I didn’t care, they were so comfortable. I will never knock Korbin and his backpacking crocks again. As we hiked down lower in elevation, trees began to swallow up the trail. Finally, we came upon a very welcome sight, Lake McDonald. We threw our packs down and relaxed on the pebble beach as we reminisced about the epic trip we just had.
See any wildlife? Yes! Aside from the grizzly and the wolverine we also came across a marmot. Thankfully, no encounters with mountain lions!
Would you recommend? (Yes or no) (1-10) 10. Absolutely! If you can go to glacier and can get the permit for any of these campgrounds, do it! It’s pretty popular so it may be hard to get a permit but you can also do day hikes to Sperry Chalet or to Florence Falls
Tell us a little about yourself- My name is Valerie Dawson and I am a twenty two year old recent graduate from the University of Maryland who will be attending Medical School next year. I have always been a lover of the outdoors but did not begin hiking and backpacking until college when my boyfriend Korbin took me out to Montana. I have also been hiking around Maryland and a section of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve been back to Glacier the following two summers, one of which I spent working for Glacier Guides Montana Raft Company. I plan to return this winter and spend a month skiing out there before Korbin and I take a few months to backpack through parts of Central and South America prior to med school. Hopefully, I’ll have some more epic hikes to share!
Trail Tuesdays is a new weekly segment of Father Nature Outdoors. We realized that we have friends and colleagues all across the country so why not take advantage of their knowledge, and hear some fun stories in the process. If you would like to contribute to Trail Tuesdays yourself just go to the “Contact Us” page and let us know. In return we will reward you with a free FNO microfiber headband. We get to hear some awesome stories and in return we’re rewarding you just to go get some fresh air! That’s a win-win in our book.