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.
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.