Traversing Glacier National Park: Hiking Gunsight Pass Trail

Blue hour at Gunsight Lake

One of the most popular trails in Glacier National Park, the Gunsight Pass Trail takes you past various alpine lakes and over two alpine passes, filled with breathing-taking views of mountains and glaciers. It will come as no surprise then that permits for this hike are hard to come by. In order to get a backpacking permit, you’ll have to either apply in advance or try for a first-come first-serve permit; for more information, visit the park’s backcountry page located at https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm.

Camping and Route Options

This trail has many different options and can be done in all sort of variations. You can do it as a thru hike or you can stop at up to 3 different places – the available campsites along the way include Gunsight Lake, Lake Ellen Wilson and Sperry Campground – allowing you time to explore the many side trails such as Jackson Glacier or Lincoln Peak. You can also opt to stay at the historic Sperry Chalet, but reservations are needed way in advance for that – they do, however, sell lunch and other snacks, but be sure to bring cash (Note this was written before the 2017 fires, which destroyed much of the rooms). Regardless of where you decide to stay, your hike will begin at either Jackson Glacier Overlook or Sperry Trail. Beginning at Jackson Glacier provides for way less immediate elevation gain and would be my preferred option. In either instance, it is a thru hike so you will need to either take a bus/shuttle back to your car, hitch-hike or set-up your own transportation.

The entire hike is extremely scenic, but the best section of this trail is between Gunsight Lake and Sperry Chalet, where you go by two pristine lakes, Gunsight Lake and Lake Ellen Wilson, as well as two alpine passes, Gunsight Pass and Lincoln Pass. Gunsight Lake also has the nearby trailhead for Jackson Glacier, where you can walk up to the tongue of the glacier. Along the way you can also attempt various summits, including Lincoln Peak.

We elected to start at the Jackson Glacier Overlook trailhead, and spent nights at Gunsight lake and Lake Ellen Wilson campgrounds The mileage gain and specific distances for our trip were as follows:

Gunsight Pass - Traill Mileage and Elevation

Starting PointEnding PointDistanceElevation GainElevation Loss
Jackson Glacier OverlookGunsight Lake Campground6.2 miles500 feet500 feet
Gunsight Lake CampgroundLake Ellen Wilson Campground5.0 miles1,620 feet1,017 feet
Lake Ellen Wilson CampgroundSperry Trailhead9.1 miles1,120 feet3,882 feet
Total20.3 miles3,230 feet5,399 feet

Trail Overview

Day  1 – Jackson Glacier Trailhead to Gunslight Lake

We departed from the Jackson Glacier Trailhead at about 2:30pm. The trail begins by slowly descending down into a wooded forest towards Deadwood Falls (it will be on your right) and over the first suspension bridge right by Reynolds Creek Campground. If you need a break, the Deadwood Falls area is a nice stop off but in reality it is only .6 miles into the trek, so it may not be worth more than a quick stop to see before continuing on. Once you pass Reynolds Creek Campground, the St. Mary River Valley will come into view shortly thereafter; from here on out for the next few miles you will wind along the valley, popping in and out of the forest, with views of Dusty Star Mountain and Citadel Mountain. At many points along this trial you are essentially walking through chest high vegetation filled with wildflowers, thimbleberries and cow parsnip, so remember to be especially bear aware in this area and to occasionally yell out “HEY BEAR!”

Crossing the rope bridge located by the Reynolds Creek campground

First views of the St. Mary River Valley

The trail begins to slowly climb up along the valley

Views of Mt. Logan, Blackfoot Glacier, Jackson Glacier and Mt. Jackson

Afternoon light hitting the peaks

Hiking through vegetation that is sometimes chest high

At about 4 miles in, you’ll reach a turn off for Florence Falls. The area right by the turnoff along the river is a great place for a break with easy river access and plenty of flat areas to sit. From here, you will cross a very short wooden bridge and then begin the final 2.5 mile climb to Gunsight Lake. As the climb begins, you will be treated to sweeping views of Mt. Logan, Blackfoot Glacier, Jackson Glacier and Mt. Jackson. About a mile or so further up the trail, you’ll reach a flat area that was the victim of a massive avalanche slide in 2011. Here, you’ll be flanked by Fullisade Mountain to your right. Meander on for about another mile and you will find yourself sitting at the base of Gunsight Lake. The campgrounds are located by the lake, with 2 of the 6 spots being within a stone’s throw of the lake, and 4 other spots further back into the trees. Near Gunsight Lake you will also find the trailhead for Jackson Glacier, which you can take up to the base of the glacier or choose to continue further on depending on your skills and equipment (e.g., ice axes and crampons). Many people will also ski Jackson Glacier, and we even ran into two guys coming back out after their successful ski. From Gunsight Lake, you can see the trail that will take you up and over Gunsight Pass if you look closely.

Sweeping views of the glaciers and mountains as you climb higher

Closing in on Gunsight Lake

Last bit of alpen glow on Jackson Glacier

Sunset from the meadows at Gunsight Lake

The milky way over rising directly above Gunsight Pass and Gunsight Lake

Day 2 – Gunslight Lake to Lake Ellen Wilson

After spending a night at Gunsight Lake Campground, we hit the trail the next day at about 11:00am. The trail begins with crossing another suspension bridge, this one slightly more wobbly than the first. Once over, you’ll see a trailhead – to the left, Jackson Glacier, and to the right, Gunsight Pass. As you begin the gradual climb, the vegetation becomes taller and thicker with  views of Gunsight Lake and the St. Mary River Valley becoming better and better. The many waterfalls cascading down into Gunsight Lake makes the setting all that more spectacular. While you’re climbing the entire way, the trail never feels too strenuous. Depending on the time of year you attempt this trek, there may or may not be various snow fields to cross. When we did this trail in July of 2017, there were 3 snow fields to pass, one of which was already partially a mini waterfall. The park may recommend crampons and an ice axe just in case, but we didn’t opt for either – we did have trekking poles though, which does help provide some stability. Prior to making our way up, we ran into some french day hikers who came across with no traction devices and told us about the one tricky snowfield that had a mini waterfall running through it. This advice came in handy, as we rolled up to that snowfield and saw an older group of people from Montana carefully pondering their next move. Armed with the advice from the french hikers, I spotted the hard areas they mentioned and guided our new friends across without trouble – unknowingly, this group of hikers ended up helping me out big time 2 days later when I ran into them at Sperry Chalet on the way out. Eventually, you’ll reach the top of Gunsight Pass, where there is an old shelter you can retreat to as an escape from the high wind gusts that can usually be found at the pass. This is a great spot to stop for a quick break before making the next 2.5 mile descent to Lake Ellen Wilson. Mountain goats can be frequently spotted at the top as well.

Sunrise at Gunsight Lake

Our camp at Gunsight Lake

The meadows glowing under the first light of the day

Strolling through the wild flowers to Gunsight Lake

Along the shores of Gunsight Lake

Getting back on the trail – next stop: Lake Ellen Wilson 

Hiking along the trail felt like walking through the gardening section of your local hardware store 

The hike became slightly more exposed the higher we went

Along the trail with Gunsight Lake down below

Crossing one of the many seasonal waterfalls that flow in this area

One of three snow fields we crossed in mid July

Looking down at Gunsight Lake from the pass 

Notice all of the layers in the rock wall and the many seasonal waterfalls flowing down – seriously breathtaking

Passing one of the snowfields that had receded enough for us to find a part of the trail

Once you cross the pass, you’ll immediately be greeted with views of Lake Ellen Wilson. You’ll follow a set of switchbacks down making your way to the far left side of the lake before hanging a right and heading back to the right side, where the campground is located. On our way our down to the lake, we only ran into some mountain goats hanging on a piece of lingering snow. Other hikers mentioned seeing bears on the switchbacks, so we kept a good eye and made plenty of noise – fortunately, or unfortunately, we didn’t see any bears on the way in (but did see one later…). Eventually, you’ll come to a trailhead sign, directing you left to make your way down to the campgrounds, or right to continue on and up to Lincoln Pass. The hike down to the campgrounds from the trail head is somewhat long. On the way in, you’ll pass the turnoff for the pit toiler, which is considerably further from the tent sites and food storage/prep area than at other back country campgrounds I’ve visited in Glacier. At Lake Ellen Wilson, there are 4 campsites, all of which have lakeside access. Some other people we met on the trail mentioned to be careful with  mountain goats at the campground, as they would lick anything with salt (apparently, someone had to rescue their camera strap from the mouth of a goat). The goats did roam the campground freely but never seemed threatening. The marmots, however, were a different story as one actually chewed through my tent to nibble on my backpack strap the next morning. After setting up our tent, we took a quick dip in the freezing water and made dinner. While shooting sunset we saw a bear coming down the trail under Gunsight Pass until it eventually broke trail and made a b-line sprint down for the shoreline – watching that bear sprint down the mountainside definitely was an eye opening experience filled with raw power. We lost him somewhere within the bushes along the shore, probably about 200 yards away, and then proceeded to spend the next hour making noise and looking out for the bear thinking he was going to sneak up on us at any time now. Of course, he never did reappear that evening.

Looking down at Lake Ellen Wilson from Gunsight Pass, a view I had been looking forward to for the past 2 years

Making our way down to Lake Ellen Wilson    

One of the friendly inhabitants of the Lake Ellen Wilson campground

Lakeside campground at Lake Ellen Wilson

Even the goats like to hang by the lake

Last light of the day at Lake Ellen Wilson

Day 3 – Lake Ellen Wilson to Sperry Trailhead

When I woke up the next morning, there was the craziest scene of clouds coming over Gunsight Pass and swirling its way down the pass to the Lake Ellen Wilson. It definitely was not something I had ever seen nor is it likely something I will see again – all I could think about was how I was literally the only person in Glacier National Park that was witnessing this, and it was truly a special moment for me as I had been looking forward to camping at Lake Ellen Wilson for over 2 years. How does that saying go again, patience is a virtue? Anyway, after shooting sunrise we ate breakfast and this was when the marmot struck. He chewed through my tent and nibbled on the strap of my backpack. My strap must have been really sweaty! A little damaged, but still in one piece, we finished packing up camp and got back on the trail as we were determined to get down in time to meet our friends up at Cracker Lake to spend the night (a mission indeed that we somehow pulled off that you can read more about HERE). From Lake Ellen Wilson until you reach the top of Lincoln Pass is another gradual climb for approximately 2.5 miles. However, once you reach the top of the pass and catch your first views of Lake McDonald in the distance, the rest is all downhill. At the top of the pass, there are many off trail summits you can attempt. Most notably, Lincoln Peak will provide you a view of Lincoln Lake, which is fed from Lake Ellen Wilson via the Beaver Chief Falls. In my opinion, this stretch of the trail was undoubtedly the prettiest. Once over the pass, we quickly came up on the Sperry Chalet, where we ran into the nice Montana family we hiked with the previous day before – when I told them about my marmot mishap, they laughed, shared their own stories and had some duct tape I could use. Cheers to meeting awesome people on the trail – also, another reason to always be friendly out in the backcountry as you never know when you will need someone’s help. After stopping for a quick snack at the chalet, we charged the rest of the trail downhill to Sperry Chalet, literally sprinting down at times as we were in a rush to make it out to Cracker Lake that same day. Unfortunately, this came with its consequences as I severely sprained my ankle on the way down. Did I mention that I had over 80+ miles of backcountry trails on this road trip still? Yeah…anyway…

Blue hour just before sunrise along the shores of Lake Ellen Wilson

Clouds pouring in over Gunsight Pass with the early morning color

The swirling clouds continued throughout sunrise well past daybreak       

Beautiful clouds and color over the peaks surrounding Lake Ellen Wilson

The view as we climb out of Lake Ellen Wilson on a beautiful & sunny summer morning

Littered boulder fields atop the meadows

Making our way through Lincoln Pass

Looking back at the Gunsight Pass trail, winding along the mountainside

Making our way through Lincoln Pass

First views of the Sperry Chalet

Looking up towards the trail for Sperry Glacier

Glad to be off the trail, the journey was not over. We still had to take a bus and two shuttles to retrieve our car at the Jackson Glacier overlook. The other option was to hitch hike, but after 30 minutes of useless trying, we went the bus route. We were  attempting to make it out to Cracker Lake that night to meet our friends, so we were really on a speed mission without stopping much the last day. Technically speaking, it took us just as long to retrieve our car and drive to the Cracker Lake trail head (4 hours) than it did for us to hike out from Lake Ellen Wilson or to hike out to Cracker Lake. Thankfully, we were able to get it all done and rolled in to Cracker Lake around 7:30pm, surprising our friends who were already there.

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