Glacier National Park, Montana, a Peace Park that borders Waterton National Park in Canada, is off the beaten path, but well worth the trip.
There are enough visitors that along with a National Park Pass or entry fee, an entry reservation is required to drive a private vehicle through the most popular entrances. While I take my vehicle, it is not necessary.
Guests who arrive by train or who choose to leave a vehicle outside the park can still get around. There is public transportation from the major entry gates to well-known lodges and trailheads, and the historic red buses are a perfect way to see the sights on the Going-to-The-Sun Road that heads over Logan pass and back from Lake McDonald Lodge.
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Starting at Lake McDonald Lodge
These specially made touring cars are often called jammers, after the need for the original drivers to manage manual clutches during the steep climb and descent of the road.
The Lake McDonald Lodge offers boat cruises leaving the dock several times a day for visitors who want to see the sights in comfort. The lodge also offers a variety of private rooms, duplex style cabins, ranger presentations, kayak rentals, fishing tours, red bus tours, and a full-service restaurant from mid-May through mid-September.
There is no cell service, and limited wi-fi is available only in the lodge lobby. It is a good place to unplug.
When I hike the Sperry Chalet trail, I arrange to stay at the lodge for one night before the hike, and one night after the hike. My preference is always to stay there so I can get an early start the next morning, as the trailhead starts at the east side of the parking lot. I also like to spend a night at the lodge after the hike back down, enjoying some of the more luxurious treats available after a couple of nights at altitude.
Sperry Chalet is located 6.5 miles, or 10.3 km, from the lodge and the forest covered trail initially follows along Sperry Creek. The elevation gain is 3,360 ft from the McDonald lodge, so the Chalet sits at 6,550 feet.
The guide-books describe this as a moderately strenuous hike, so I generally encounter just a few fellow hikers. I’ve often hiked long sections of this trail in quiet solitude.
A string of mules make the trip up to the chalet daily, carrying propane for the cook stove and supplies for guest meals. They start up in the morning and then head back down after unloading at the chalet just after noon.
They can be avoided by hiking this trail later in the day. I like waving “hi” to the wranglers and mules, so I don’t mind sharing the trail. They are always faster than I am, so when they need to pass me, I make sure to step off the trail.
It is helpful to move to the higher side of the trail and wait for them to pass. Besides, they are carrying all the ingredients for the cookies and pie I’ll be eating at the chalet.
Golden mantled ground squirrels live all along the trail, and they are pretty used to hikers. They are excellent early alarm signals, too. They whistle to warn each other when there are predators in the air above or approaching on foot.
Hikers are not a worry to them, but I am glad when their eyes and ears alert me to hawks, eagles, coyotes, foxes, and the occasional bear.
I do carry bear spray, and always hike with a partner or stick with a group. There are black and grizzly bears on the trail at times, so good bear etiquette is a must. I always check in with the rangers the night before heading up to see about the latest bear reports in the area.
The lower section of trail climbs quickly, leveling out in the middle section after crossing the wooden footbridge over Sperry Creek.
This bridge marks the 1/3 point in the hike up to Sperry, and is a great place to take a little break, enjoy the sound of the rapids, and take pictures of my hiking buddies.
The last two miles of the trail are high enough that the trees thin out, providing stunning views. This section is also fairly steep, and more exposed to wind and sun. I always plan to take my time here. I make lots of stops to look around, drink a bit of water, and eat little snacks.
Just below the chalet, there is a hanging valley, left by the glaciers the once covered the entire park.
This little valley is bowl shaped, and there is abundant wildlife and flowering plants to enjoy before making that last climb up to the chalet cook house. Guided horseback trips are also available for those who want to enjoy the scenery without carrying a pack.
Originally constructed in 1913 with local stone, the chalet is a complex of four buildings: a cook house / dining room; the chalet with rooms for guests; a ranger house; and a solar bathroom, complete with running water for washing hands.
Inside the cook house, hikers can check in if they are staying for the night. I always try to stay at least two nights so that I can do a couple of day hikes out from the chalet.
Day hikers and through hikers can grab a candy bar and some of the best lemonade in Glacier Park. Overnight guests check in here, and full dinners and breakfasts are served here as well.
Guests at the chalet also have bagged lunches to take either on the trail back down, or out on day hikes. Reservations to stay at Sperry Chalet fill up quickly. I usually watch for the day the reservations open in October of the season before I want to stay. Most available spaces for the whole summer are filled within a week.
The main bank house building was burned in the Sprague Fire on August 13, 2017. The interior fir-and-lodgepole framing was lost, but the exterior stone work remained standing. Restoration work reinforced the stonework that winter, and the rebuilt chalet was completed in October 2019.
There are 19 guest rooms with beds, but no electricity. A headlamp is helpful for getting around inside the hallways at night.
The chalet has a wooden front porch, and an even grander stone porch where guests can watch travelers coming up the trail below. Facing west, and high up the mountain, this one of the best locations for stargazing on clear nights.
All summer the mountain goats stop by Sperry Chalet. They have long since discovered that a little human activity creates a safer place for their kids to play.
Mountain goats use humans as a source of salt. There is not much naturally available at this altitude, so the goats will lick anywhere people have left a sweaty hand, reclined on a stone step, or taken a natural break off trail.
It is possible to pull out a camp chair and watch them for hours, though I would not suggest approaching them. They are wild animals and can be feisty if provoked. They wander the grounds at will, and they always have the right of way.
Trail to Sperry Glacier
The first side hike I take out from Sperry Chalet is up to Sperry Glacier. Starting at the bunk house, the trail goes back down into the hanging valley and then zigzags up the opposite valley wall. The walk meanders through several higher hanging valleys, heading up to the cliff below Comeau Pass.
The first section of this hike out of the hanging valley gains altitude quickly, even with the zigzags.
And the reward for the effort is unobstructed views across the hanging valley, ringed with bear grass and wildflowers.
In the upper, small hanging valleys, there are multiple cairns. These cairns were designate where the trail goes.
Early in the season when there is still lots of snow up this high, hikers cross snowfields from one cairn to the next. Hikers have lingered on this section of the trail, and the cairns have been added to over time. There are also pools of freezing cold snow melt.
Even in late summer, there are snow fields to cross in these upper valleys, and the snow stays all year round just below the stone wall at Comeau Pass at the top of the last valley.
Two and a half miles from the chalet, a stone staircase with a steel cable handrail was cut into the cliff so that rock climbing is not necessary to get up into Comeau Pass.
The steps are high, and the cable is especially helpful when navigating the narrow steps with a pack on. Once in the pass, Sperry Glacier sits below, reachable after a long boulder scramble. I generally spend my time here near the top of the stairs, resting and eating lunch before taking a leisurely stroll back down to the cook house in time for dinner.
Trail to Gunsight Pass
If I am pressed for time, I can do the Sperry Glacier hike in the morning and a second trail to Gunsight Pass in the afternoon. My preference, though, is to stay a second night and enjoy each of these additional trail as separate day hikes. The trail to Gunsight Pass starts behind the bunkhouse and leads up to Lincoln pass, just south of the chalet.
The trail passes the Sperry campground, where hardier souls than I can reserve a tent campsite. Then it climbs quickly up to Lincoln pass. This is a lower pass then Comeau, and once through, crosses a long slow descent into the next valley, where Lake Ellen Wilson rests. Gunsight Pass awaits at the far end of the valley.
This long, but much gentler hike is where I inevitably pick up a new hiking partner. Mountain goats, ever on the lookout for salt, will follow along behind hikers on this section. More often than not, I pick up a friend.
On this trip, by the time I got to the ranger hut at Gunsight Pass, my white woolly friend in tow, we were met by the resident marmot.
And as marmot’s will do, it sauntered right up to see what I had in my pack. Because the snow leaves this valley so late, the marmots emerge from their winter dens into high meadows that don’t provide lot of forage for grazing until late July.
Smart little dudes, they check out the people passing through, just in case they leave something after a lunch break. This friend is always quick to greet whoever is hiking through.
I had a relaxing long lunch in the company of marmot and goat before turning my boots back toward the chalet, where I knew a piece of pie and a tall glass of lemonade would be waiting.