August 9, 2010

Gunsight Pass, the video

Finally found time to edit the hour of video I recorded on our recent three-day backpacking trip over Glacier National Park's Gunsight Pass. Below is the result, in 2 minutes, 16 seconds. Watch for the babbling brook, the bleating sheep, the flying fish and the buzzing bug.

Update: I've replaced the original YouTube video on this post with a Vimeo version, which looks a bit cleaner. They are otherwise identical.

August 2, 2010

Goats of Gunsight Pass


We made our annual anniversary foray into Glacier National Park recently and, as usual, were rewarded with plenty of beautiful views of wildlands and wildlife.

Every year, we look for new places to stay and new trails to hike - we've lodged in lodges and camped out of our car, walked paths popular in Many Glacier and quiet in Two Medicine - and this time was no different.

In the past, we haven't spent much time in the St. Mary Lake or Lake McDonald areas, and we've never slept under the stars of the park's backcountry. This year, we secured a short-notice permit to pitch our tent along the Gunsight Pass trail bridging the regions and crossing the Continental Divide.

While the 20-mile route can be through hiked in a long day, we took our time - and plenty of pictures, as usual.


We reserved a car camping site in the St. Mary campground on the east side of the park months ago and arrived under cloudy and rainy skies at dinnertime the first night of our trip. After a meal and a few photos on St. Mary Lake, we headed for bed, opting to roll out our sleeping bags in the back of our Subaru rather than start the trip with a wet tent.

The next morning, we rose early and had our permit in hand by 7:30 a.m., then went about positioning our car at the end of our trip. This required driving west back over the Divide on the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road and parking at Lake McDonald Lodge, then catching the park shuttle back over to the trailhead on the east side. Unfortunately, this meant going through two construction zones twice, and we didn't set foot on the trail until 1 p.m.


While the route begins and ends in fairly dense forest with little to see but trees, the middle section is what Glacier is all about: sharp peaks, lingering snowfields, the rush of waterfalls, blue lakes, wildflowers and wildlife. In fact, aside from the Logan Pass area, I don't think I've ever seen so many mountain goats. They were lying in the trail, checking out our camp and even circling at dinner one night.

After three days of hiking west over the Continental Divide and two nights of camping, at Gunsight Lake and Lake Ellen Wilson, our delayed start paid off with a quick escape from the park and back home.

Day 1: Jackson Glacier Overlook to Gunsight Lake


Our route began at Jackson Glacier Overlook, dropping through the forest to Deadwood Falls on Reynolds Creek at 1 1/2 miles, crossing on a suspension bridge, then continuing southwest roughly along the St. Mary River.


At about four miles, we arrived at a junction for Florence Falls. We decided to check it out, but afterward concluded it would have been better to stick to the main trail - while the falls are big and beautiful this time of year, the trail was almost too overgrown for backpacks.

From the junction, the trail begins to climb steadily along the base of Fusillade Mountain, rising out of the trees and providing views of Mount Jackson, Blackfoot Mountain, their respective glaciers and Mount Logan.

At about 6 1/4 miles, the trail arrives at the camp on the eastern end of Gunsight Lake. A notch above the west end of the lake marks Gunsight Pass, and waterfalls cascade down the rocky red and brushy green slopes all around. Here, we camped under cloudy skies in the company of a handful of other backpackers, a couple of nosy deer and at least one snowshoe hare.

See photos from the hike to Gunsight Lake here and here.

Distance: About 6 1/4 miles one way with optional 1 1/2-mile round-trip extension to Florence Falls.

Trailhead: Jackson Glacier Overlook is about 13 1/4 miles west of Glacier's St. Mary entrance on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Day 2: Gunsight Lake to Lake Ellen Wilson


The next morning, we awoke to nearly clear skies, and after some breakfast chat with other campers we packed up and hit the trail. This would be our shortest day of hiking, but also the most scenic.

After crossing the suspension bridge at Gunsight Lake's outlet, we followed the path as it climbed the side of Mount Jackson. In the rocky traverse between two sets of switchbacks, we encountered our first mountain goats of the day lying there in the middle of the trail. They arose and approached us, an inquisitive younger one cocking its head at us under the watchful eye of what was likely its mother.


We continued onward and upward to the southwest, taking in the view across the blue lake and back down the valley, and eventually reaching the first of several lingering snowfields and runoff creeks that we would cross. This high stretch of trail before Gunsight Pass runs nearly level and only the final, high-angle snowfield forced most hikers to detour around it.

At the top of the 6,946-foot pass at three miles, we stopped for a break and to take in the view down to Lake Ellen Wilson, our destination. After a snack and the entertainment of a few marmots that thought they were sneaky, we started down the rockier, drier switchbacks two miles to the campground.


In camp, we pitched our tent at a nice, open site just off the shore of the lake and settled in for some relaxation. Soon, a trio of goats wandered into the area, grazing around us. As afternoon became dinnertime, more arrived and circled our cooking area within spork's reach. We never felt in danger, but at least one of the mother goats was uncomfortable with the close quarters, repeatedly chasing off others that came too close to her kid. At dusk, they followed as I explored the lakeshore, leaving only as the last sunlight rose up the canyon wall.

That evening was clear, so we slept without the rain fly, allowing us to take in the bright sky one night short of the full moon.

See photos from the hike over Gunsight Pass here and here.

Distance: 5 miles one way.

Day 3: Lake Ellen Wilson to Lake McDonald Lodge


The morning of our final day in the park, we rose as the sun arrived on the valley floor, packed and got under way, trailed out of camp by more goats.

We made our way west through the rocky terrain, up and around the end of the valley. There, one final goat perched on a picturesque boulder with the ridge on the opposite side of the drainage in the background. Toward Lincoln Pass, we caught our first glimpse of the Lake McDonald area.


By about three miles, we came over the pass and down to Sperry Chalet, where we rested for lunch. After that, it was a little more than six miles down, down, down and back into more dense forest, arriving on the Sun Road at Lake McDonald Lodge.

After cooling our heels in the lake, we got in the car and headed for home - with me already imagining the next trip to the park.

See photos from the hike back to Lake McDonald Lodge here and here.

Distance: 9.1 miles one way.

Trailhead: Lake McDonald Lodge is 10 1/4 miles east of the park entrance at West Glacier on Going-to-the-Sun Road.