With a handful of our top East Glacier hikes closed due to COVID-19, we had to look to West Glacier for our final hike in the national park. I was initially thinking we could hike Gunsight Pass (a 20-mile thru hike from Jackson Glacier Overlook down to Lake McDonald) as an out-and-back from the overlook to Gunsight Pass/Lake Ellen Wilson. It would still be 20-ish miles, but would eliminate the need to hitchhike on the temporarily shuttle-less Going-to-the-Sun Road. However, when our AirBnb host – an expert with the area trails – suggested Sperry Glacier might be more interesting, we had to heed her advice.
The trail to Sperry Glacier is actually a side trail off the Gunsight Pass route. It joins the thru route at the historic Sperry Chalet, where it climbs 4 miles and ~1,600 vertical feet to the glacier. If you’re not staying at the chalet, it does make for a significantly more aggressive day hike, at just over 19 miles and 5,500 feet of elevation gain from Lake McDonald Lodge.
Beginning from the parking lot at Lake McDonald Lodge, the trail climbs moderately through a forested area for about six miles. A mixed-used hiking/horseback riding trail, nearly the entire trail is below the treeline. The views only start to open up as you approach Sperry Chalet.
Sperry Chalet is one of Glacier’s historic treasures. It was built in 1913 by railroad tycoon James J. Hill and his son Louis. James was responsible for creating the Great Northern Railway, which was a major developer of Glacier National Park’s facilities in the early 1900s. A 1,700-mile track that connected St. Paul, MN with Seattle, WA, the railway was the first transcontinental line built without public funds, and also the major transport of visitors into the national park. In addition to the railroad, The Great Northern Railway also funded the construction of hotels and chalets along the line, including most of Glacier’s nine original chalets. Today, only two of Glacier’s original backcountry chalets still stand – Sperry and Granite Park. While a few were lost to natural causes (avalanche, fire), most others fell into disrepair and were razed due to financial constraints following the WWII years.
Perched on an alpine ledge at around 6,500 feet, Sperry Chalet’s two-story lodge and dining buildings were built using native stone. Regrettably, the lodge was nearly a total loss in the 2017 Sprague Fire that ravaged the west side of the park. The NPS was able to stabilize the remnants of the lodge’s original walls, and the chalet was meticulously rebuilt over the next two years, with every effort to maintain its historical integrity. True to history, the guestrooms are primitive – with no electricity, heat, or running water – and the chalet can only be reached via the six-mile trail from the lake, either by foot or on horseback. A coveted stay at the newly reopened Sperry Chalet is hard to come by, but one that will evoke the rustic character that Glacier’s earliest visitors to the wilderness lodge would have enjoyed.
We had made pretty solid time up to Sperry Chalet, completing 6 miles and ~3,300’ of gain in about two hours. For the first week in September, it was pretty warm, so we treated ourselves to a cold lemonade. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing better after a sweaty workout, so if you head up to the chalet, be sure to order a glass.
After slugging back our cups of lemonade (we should have ordered a pitcher), we headed onward for the second leg of the hike – another 4 miles and ~1,600 vertical feet to Comeau Pass and Sperry Glacier. For most of the route, the trail consisted of moderately steep switchbacks that wound along an open ridge. About 1 mile from Comeau Pass, we reached a cluster of chain lakes, including Feather Woman Lake and the still icy Akaiyan Lake. The small pools sparkled under the distinctive peak of Edwards Mountain, whose undulating wave patterns looked like an artistic masterpiece.
Near the top of the ridge, a handful of mountain goats bounded around the rock-strewn landscape. Leading up to the high point, a steep, narrow, stone staircase climbs through a tall wall of rock, abruptly opening onto a shockingly barren alpine landscape.
We looked around wide-eyed, the terrain nothing like what we expected to find. Snowfields tumbled from the surrounding, jagged summits. The floor of the glacial valley was made up of uneven layers of vibrant red rock, and jewel-toned tarns dotted the craggy landscape. From the distant sea of craggy summits, the Little Matterhorn erupted from the foreground. It was markedly dwarfed by its colossal neighbors, but its pointed peak bore an uncanny resemblance to the iconic Swiss mountaintop.
After clambering over rocks and snowpack, following the illusion of a trail that traverses the glacial moraine (there are cairns to assist), we reached the edge of Sperry Glacier. Resting at an average elevation of 8,000’ on the northwest side of Gunsight Mountain, Sperry is one of four ‘benchmark’ glaciers in the U.S. – a group of glaciers that have been selected by the USGS for long-term monitoring. Consequently, Sperry is the most studied glacier within the national park.
We enjoyed a quick lunch beside the glacier, taking in the views of the almost otherworldly landscape. We were soon joined by a very tenacious mountain goat, who licked relentlessly at the nearby rock for salt and other minerals. If I didn’t have an anxious doggy waiting at home, I could have sat there and watching him (her?) all afternoon.
Eventually, we scrambled our way back to Comeau Pass. After descending the staircase, I turned to see if Stephan was still behind me. After a long pause, I figured he’d stopped for a photo and that I failed to hear him over the 40-mph winds gusting from the top of the pass. Several minutes later, I saw a shadow descending the stairs and figured it was him. Much to my surprise, it was one of the mountain goats, followed soon after by her young kid. My heart raced a bit, and I tried to yield as much of the path as possible to my caprine trailmates. Thankfully, after a bit of curious following (they were likely interested in my sweaty pack and clothing), the pair ultimately settled on a rocky outcropping as Stephan finally joined me for our descent.
Given its longer length, the trail was not overly scenic. Much of it traversed forested or recovering burn areas from Lake McDonald to Sperry Chalet, while the section along the ridge was lacking in views of Glacier’s iconic peaks. That said, the unique geological landscape surrounding Sperry Glacier was fascinating, and something you don’t necessarily expect when picturing the ‘classic’ Glacier National Park scene. If you’re looking for something just a little bit different, Sperry Glacier might be worth exploring. It makes for a pretty demanding day hike from the lake, but if you find yourself staying at Sperry or one of the nearby campgrounds, it would make for a great shorter day hike. Additionally, by overnighting and cutting the distance in half, you’d have much more time to explore a glacial moraine unlike any other you’ll find in the park.
Total distance: 19.3 miles
Elevation gain: 5,552 feet