Special Merit Classification IV

the dormitory at sperry chalet

Above, the dormitory building at the Sperry Chalet complex still shows the original stone initials of the Great Northern Railway. Notice how the structure blends seamlessly with its surroundings.

Sperry Chalet Glacier NP, 1913
Classification IV
Location:
Sperry Trail, Lake McDonald, Montana
Theme: Swiss Chalet; National Park Rustic "Parkitecture" with multiple rectangular structures
Original Architect: Cutter and Malmgren; some sources list Samuel Bartlett. Glacier Park Hotel Company
Construction: Glacier Park Hotel Company (later renamed Glacier Park Company), subsidiary of Great Northern Railway. Most aspects of design and construction were controlled by Louis Hill, president of GN Railway.
Structure: Two storey stone dorm building with asphalt roof, multiple porches and dormers. Interior walls cedar tongue-and-groove, floorboards are painted wood, interior and exterior railings are peeled log. One storey kitchen-dining room building, stone structure with wood shingle roof.
Known Timeline:
Construction begins, 1912
Kitchen/dining room building completed, 1913
Open for guests, 1914
Closed due to war, 1918
112 total season guest count due to depression, 1932
Dormitory altered, 1940
Closed due to war, 1942-1944
Concession transferred to Luding family, 1954
Dormitory altered, 1955
Dining Room altered, including roof replacement, 1961
Deck and balconies replaced, 1978-1979
Restoration of entire complex, 1996
New restroom building added, ca. 2008
Presently offers 17 guest rooms

Observations

The fact that Sperry Chalet is an operational lodge is something of a miracle; considering that the majority of chalets constructed by the Great Northern Railway have closed, it seems unlikely that Sperry and Granite would be the survivors. But survive they have. Sperry is the true lodge of the pair, and considering its past and the fact that the offering today is much the same as it was nearly a century ago, it walks a fine line between functioning as a lodge and as a museum. If you can reach it, if you can afford it, and if you can land a reservation, the Sperry Chalet is not to be missed.

kitchen and dining room building

This unassuming kitchen and dining hall has been the location of many memorable meals for Sperry Chalet guests since 1913.

The Experience

An Alpine Adventure

Sperry Chalet has provided generations of guests with an incredibly memorable lodging experience. For some, it has been the ultimate stay in a National Park. Most would agree that it is the ideal way to experience Glacier. But for a few, the mere mention of the name Sperry conjures images of a harrowing journey. Fortunately, the latter is a very small minority.

A stay at Sperry requires a strenuous 6.7 mile hike with a 3,300 foot elevation gain. This virtually eliminates the casual hiker who generally keeps to the 1/2 mile nature loops. Even avid hikers "feel the burn" after pushing themselves the equivalent of 2/3 of a mile straight up. An optional 13.7 mile route through Gunsight Pass is generally regarded as more scenic and easier travel, but in the end the distance balances out the elevation of the other. In short, both are nasty hikes. If you can handle the distance and a snowfield crossing, the Gunsight Pass route is preferred. Some backcountry enthusiasts are experienced with a torturous bushwack route from Logan Pass, but this is officially advised against by both the NPS and the concessionaire. Pack horse trips are the only alternative, but unless you're a seasoned rider, it's definitely no picnic.

So no matter how you choose to travel, the rugged walls of Sperry Chalet are a welcome sight at the end of the trip. The overall experience at Sperry is similar to other alpine camps, such as the High Sierra canvas cabins in Yosemite or the LeConte Lodge in the Great Smokies. The atmosphere is a general camaraderie among the guests; all but the most extreme introverts find themselves in lively conversation with total strangers. Guests are mostly physically fit outdoorsy types with an equally healthy income -- the price tag tends to keep out the rabble. A majority of guests in fact are decked out in the backcountry fashion du jour; as of this writing it's an ensemble of zip-off pants, Vasque boots, grey wool blend socks, synthetic shirts, and a $200 Osprey day pack. Top this off with a floppy beige Tilley sun hat and you've got the look.

dormitory building at sperry chalet glacier national park

Notice how the stone work on the corner is extended in opposing angles on every other piece, as if to emulate log construction style. Photo courtesy the National Park Service.

A popular travel guide reports that after arriving, you're famished enough to eat just about anything, yet the meals at Sperry are surprisingly good. That's a highly accurate description. The hearty fare isn't about to be featured on any Food Network cuisine programs. The backcountry location precludes the fresh fruits and vegetables we take for granted. Sperry cooks rely on a lot of canned foods, but with 60 years of experience by the current concessionaire, they know how to make the most of the resources at hand. Add that to generous helpings of fresh meat, vegetarian offerings, baked goods to die for, in a setting that's out of this world, and you've got the recipe for a dining experience that is simply incredible. The dinner bell rings loud across the campus, and you head for the group dining hall. Your newly met dining companions, often from all points on the compass, complete the magic. During the dining hour you'll get high on this shared experience, because you can't get it out of a bottle: No booze allowed in the dining hall.

The lodge building, or "dormitory" as it is known, is the star attraction at the complex. Considering its remote location and size, the odds of Sperry Chalet being constructed today would be slim and none. But in the early 20th Century, "national park" had a different meaning than it does now. Development was encouraged and embraced; the Park Service itself had yet to be formed. The stone construction would seem to indicate an overriding desire to have as little visual impact as possible, however that is only part of the story. An unpaved road near Lake McDonald only went to within six miles of the site, which meant that absolutely anything that couldn't be scrounged on-site would have to be hauled in by horse or mule.

The materials for Sperry were were obtained from the park itself, thus creating the seamless appearance with the setting. From many vantage points, the structure appears to have swelled up from the stone it is set upon. Inside, the cedar tongue-and-groove panelling also makes sense, it was one of the lightest and most easily transportable materials at the time of construction.

Once inside this harmonious lodge, the time spent is like that of a bygone era. With no electricity, no television, and no internet connections, an air of quiet civility takes over. While some guests are conversational and others are introspective, the tranquil atmosphere in a visually stunning structure is unforgettable. The setting creates a dramatic backdrop for the Sperry Chalet. Well isolated from Going-to-the-Sun Highway and the bustle of Lake McDonald, it still provides the "Swiss Alpine" experience that Louis Hill intended a century earlier.

Classification

Special Merit Classification IV

Sperry Chalet provides design, decor, ambiance and historic value that will enhance a visit to Glacier National Park. With the cautionary statement that it may not be suitable for guests who expect certain comforts and amenities, and because it requires a strenuous hike to reach, Sperry Chalet is classified in the fourth tier by the National Park Lodge Architecture Society.

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