Of all of Glacier National Park’s sublime summits, only six of them crest over the 10,000 foot mark. Mt Jackson, with its long, rounded ridge is one of those summits and it is as rewarding as it is a long grind. While you could (and probably should) break it up into two days by camping at Gunsight Lake, we decided to bust it out in one mammoth day.
Our car sat idling near Apgar, waiting for the road to open at the construction site at 6am. From there we followed the train of cars as we went up and over Logan Pass to Jackson Glacier Overlook. It would be wise to start this climb a bit earlier in the morning, but we took what we were given and hit the trail at 7:30am.
The drop down from Jackson Glacier Overlook always has a bit of dread for me because I know that I’ll have to ascend it at the end of a long day when I’m exhausted. On the way in with fresh legs, however, it was a breeze as we quickly dropped down through the lush vegetation to Reynolds Creek.
Reynolds Creek was flowing at a nice clip and Deadwood Falls was beautiful as the water wound through the red rocks and then dropped into a small pool before heading down the valley. We crossed the creek moments later and began working our way up the St Mary River drainage.
I love hiking that stretch in the morning and keep an eye out for moose (and anything else) because of the abundance of willows and slow moving water through riparian areas. Robins and a ton of other birds were feasting on berries and a cow moose made an appearance about 75 yards off the trail, turned to look at us, then resumed her breakfast.
The morning sun was shining on the gorgeous mountains at the head of the valley. Mt Jackson, in particular was aglow in the warm light of the morning and looked beautiful with its rounded ridge rising up from our view at Mirror Pond.
After a crossing of the unnamed stream (with a small drop of a cascade near the bridge) that flows down from Florence Falls, we crossed through the blowdown area of a small rise. In the past Florence Falls was only visible by heading up its trail, but a keen eye can show a couple glimpses of it as it drops down into the valley.
There is a spot in the trail where you drop from this small rise (most likely a lateral moraine) and begin the slow, gradual climb to Gunsight Lake. We traversed the steep hillside scaring up flies, sneaking a couple raspberries, and enjoying the ever-expanding views. Both Jackson Glacier and Blackfoot Glacier are visible from this trail as is Siksika Falls and numerous peaks with names like Blackfoot, Logan, Citadel, and yes, Jackson. Turning around, you can also check out Going-to-the-Sun Mountain.
After a climb and around 6.5 miles, we reached Gunsight Lake reflecting the magical walls that lead to Gunsight Pass. Gunsight Mountain’s walls in particular are a gray and purple striped wonder that have been smashed and gnarled into wonderful patterns. To top it off, long strands of numerous waterfalls cascade down into the blue-green water.
Knowing a huge mountain awaited us, we headed over to the lake’s outlet where we had to ford the St Mary River. On the opposite shore we dried our feet off and headed out not towards Gunsight Pass, but we took off on the Jackson Glacier trail where we crawled through some overgrown vegetation and climbed up the super steep trail to a wonderland of huckleberries.
I’m not sure if I’ve seen so many huckleberries per bush, but the huckleberry to bush ratio was so high we almost abandoned our climbing plans. Alluring as they were, however, we continued on, then broke off through flower-strewn meadows.
We didn’t want to start the day with all of the water we’d need, so we planned on getting more at Gunsight Lake. Due to the bare feet of our own and four backpacking strangers at the outlet, we decided to find some meltwater. After a bit of searching around through the meadows, we found a lovely trickle below a big snowfield.
Monkeyflower and paintbrush in stunning colors lined the stream and we filled up while swatting at the biting flies that must drive the mountain goats to madness. Once we had our water, we began the climbing part of our journey.
Up through the meadows and rock we went. I’d climbed up via the north bowl route twice before and we decided to try the east ridge route. This route can be tricky with snow earlier in the season, but with the heat and being later in the summer, it was not an issue.
Footing got a bit tricky as we transitioned out of the meadows and onto glacial till and hard-packed dirt before getting into some cliffs. We spotted a mountain goat who traversed over us. It knocked a couple rocks down and didn’t even have the courtesy to yell out “Rock!” to give us any warning. They aren’t known for their courtesy.
We were out doing double duty. Not only were we climbing for our personal enjoyment and so Kristen could tick Mt. Jackson off on her summit list, we were out collecting goat scat. They are doing some DNA analysis of the mountain goat population to see if the goats are multiple, distinct populations or if they interbreed across the entire region. Their numbers have been declining, dramatically so, in the last 10 years. We are trying to find out how robust their population is, and DNA is one piece of that puzzle.
The goat went up into the rocks and bedded down. We crawled around for a bit looking for some scat. I found some old scat, collected it into an envelope, made the necessary data entries and then we continued up to the ridge.
At this point, you feel like you’ve done quite a bit of work and the summit doesn’t appear to be THAT far off. In reality, we had another 2,000 ft to go. This summit is what I call an “honest summit”. You can see the top almost all day instead of many false summits that make you think that you’re almost there only to have another “summit” pop up in front of you.
We poked our way, scrambled, clawed, climbed and worked our way up the ridge. Numerous, large snowfields dotted the north bowl below and in front of us. I heard a few people ahead of us and noticed some tracks at the top edge of a snowfield below us. I first thought that maybe they had walked up the top edge of that (a sketchy, but viable option). The tracks looked curious, however, and upon inspection with my binoculars, I realized that they were fresh grizzly tracks in the snow headed in the same direction. We never saw the bear, but the group in front of us did and watched it for a little bit before it disappeared in the rocks somewhere, not to be spotted again by either party.
The rounded dome of the rock feels like forever, but the views are outstanding and grow as you climb. After a couple of hours of climbing, we finally reached the long ridge at the top. We found the other three climbers lounging around the top. The conditions were perfect for lounging with a warm sun, a gentle breeze and views forever.
After some conversations, some food, and a fun sighting of a black swift flitting around overhead, we turned around. Our route down was the traditional north bowl route. I kept trying to break into the bowl too early which made for a bunch of unnecessary side-hilling on scree, but we finally made it all the way down to the targeted “last switchback before the Gunsight Pass Trail traverses to the pass”.
A quick stop to refill our depleted water bladders at a stream and we began motoring out on the trail. The shadows were getting longer and we had about 2.5 hours left of walking. The evening was gorgeous as the golden sun lit up the mountains on their west faces and feeding fish in Gunsight Lake sent ripples of concentric circles across an otherwise still surface.
Instead of removing our shoes for the crossing of the outlet of Gunsight Lake, we just forded through the river and busted our way out knowing that we only had a couple of hours left.
We chatted and made noise as we left knowing that animals get more active in the evening and it was getting darker. We spotted a cow moose feeding, maybe the one from the morning. I noticed a smaller black bear working his way up the trail until he spotted us and took off crashing up into the forest.
The rest of the walk out was fairly uneventful save the dozen boreal toads hopping off the trail underneath us. It was almost headlamp-worthy light as we climbed up the last section of lush trail to Jackson Glacier Overlook. We arrived as it turned dark with a moon rising over Mt Jackson at 9:15pm. Tired. Happy.