Glacier National Park rugged and scenic
Rusty chinnis | sun
Gunsight Lake was the first day's destination,
where the group camped and caught trout.
I’ve always wanted to do an extended hike into the backcountry, so when I got an invitation I jumped at the chance, even though it meant training in the hot humid Florida environment.
To make the adventure even more exciting, I would be hiking for four nights and five days (Aug. 26-30) in Glacier National Park, one of the most ruggedly scenic American parks. I love the outdoors and while I’ve hiked extensively, I‘ve been limited to day-long excursions. This time I would be out for four nights and have access to some excellent remote, high country lakes.
I got the invitation from Michael Riter, who has hiked the park with his wife, Kimberly Ross, over the past 20 years. Riter and Ross worked at the park the last two summers and have been gracious about sharing the mountains they love with friends and neighbors.
Encompassing over 1800 square miles of the rugged Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park features the Livingston and the more easterly Lewis mountain ranges. The Continental Divide follows the crest of the Lewis Range where elevations vary from 3150 feet to 10,466 feet. Glacier National Park has six peaks over 10,000 feet and 32 peaks over 9100 feet.
The park was formed over 1.6 billion years through a number of geologic processes including sediment deposition, uplift, thrust faulting, erosion and glaciation. It was glaciation that sculpted the mountains into today’s mind bending shapes and features including massive U-shaped valleys, knife-like ridge of rock, pyramidal peaks, and numerous lakes, which were reported to have healthy populations of cutthroat trout.
The route Riter had chosen cut right through the heart of the park beginning on the Going to the Sun Road at the Jackson Glacier overlook. It also features some of the parks most impressive glacial features, which we would be traversing over the five-day hike.
The first day we hiked the Gunsight Trail to a campsite at Gunsight Lake, situated below the massive headwall of a cirque. We stayed there for two nights enjoying the beauty and solitude of the lake and surrounding mountains. During the afternoons, I managed to catch several cutthroat trout on a streamer with my five-weight fly rod.
We were blessed with beautiful weather during our hike with warm days in the high 70s and cool nights in the 40s. On the morning of our third day, we began the most ambitious and scenic stretch of the hike from Gunsight Lake, gaining 1,600 feet of elevation over three miles to 6,946-foot Gunsight Pass. The climb was exhilarating with views that have been described by veteran hikers as the best in the park, if not the whole country.
The main challenge besides the elevation gain and a snowfield crossing was keeping my eyes on the trail with awesome views in every direction. The high point, literally and figuratively, was reaching a small stone hut at the apex of the pass where we had panoramic views back to Gunsight Lake and ahead to Lake Ellen Wilson our destination.
While the 1,600-foot hike to pass with a 40-pound pack was challenging, it was the steeply descending switch backs that lead to the Lake Ellen Wilson campsite that was the most taxing. To make things even more interesting, I managed to slip to a sitting position in a rushing stream that crossed the trail. While I was in no danger, getting back to my feet in the icy water was a feat I was glad no one was around to witness.
When we arrived at the lake, we hoisted our food on poles high above the reach of grizzly bears, set up our tent on the lake front and took a plunge into the icy clear waters. After our refreshing dip, Riter relaxed on the lake shore with a book while I assembled my fly rod and started to explore the lake.
The payoff was almost immediate as I began to catch trout to 14 inches on almost every cast. I had heard that this was one of the best fishing lakes in the park, and that afternoon, it lived up to its billing.
One our fourth day we had breakfast, broke camp and climbed to Lincoln Pass at 7,050 feet before descending to the Sperry Campground, where we pitched our tent and set up camp. After three days of trail food, both Riter and I were eager to visit and have dinner at the nearby Sperry Chalet.
The Chalet was built from 1913-1914 by Italian stone masons who were brought to Glacier by owners of the Great Northern Railway, the prime developer of Glacier National Park. The Chalet is listed as a historic landmark, and will celebrate its one hundredth birthday in 2014.
The private guest rooms are without lights, heat or water. Flashlights are used at night as no candles or fueled lights are allowed. The dining room serves home cooked meals to guests as well as hikers who make reservations. That evening we enjoyed a full turkey dinner complete with dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and topped off with chocolate cake.
It would have been a gourmet meal on any occasion, but was a feast par excellent for two trail weary hikers. That evening we were treated to an amazing sunset over the distant Lake McDonald that spread a golden light over the cliffs and ridges ending in a crimsoned glow high above on Lincoln Peak.
After breaking camp the next morning, we enjoyed a breakfast of eggs, toast, hot cakes and bacon at the Chalet before beginning our final descent along Sprague Creek to Lake McDonald. Walking out to the road and across the street to the Lake McDonald Lodge was a bit of a cultural shock that was soon assuaged by cold draft beer consumed in the rocking chairs that face the lake.
The experience was one that surpassed my expectations and made all the early morning hikes across Longboat Pass all the more rewarding. And while the journey lasted only a few days, it was rich in lifelong memories. If you get the opportunity to experience “The Real America,” take it. Better yet make the opportunity. And don’t forget your fly rod!