A relic of the Hill railroad empire, Glacier National Park's Sperry Chalet offers a slice of heaven after a day of hard hiking.
We were 12 miles from the nearest trailhead, 8,000 feet up a mountain pass so steep a staircase had to be dynamited out of the cliff. Our second of three grizzly bear encounters would occur on our way down, and we were quite grizzly ourselves after three days without a shower.
All this virile ruggedness suddenly seemed for naught, though, when my friend interrupted our hike to ask the kind of question you more often hear at grandma's bridge club: "What kind of pie are you gonna get today?"
If I told you I roughed it for my birthday this past July, pushing myself like I was still 22 and fit as a racehorse, I wouldn't be lying. If I also told you that I slept like a baby in a comfy, warm bed at night and my meals were catered to me daily (with dessert), that would be true, too.
Such is the comfy but crushing dichotomy of Sperry Chalet, a hike-in-only mini-hotel high up near the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park. Built in 1914, the 17-room granite-walled structure was part of a chain of nine high-elevation retreats built by St. Paul railroad baron James J. Hill's son, Louis, whose imprint is all over the premier park.
Now a National Historic Landmark, Sperry is just one of two such chalets left in Glacier. And it's the only one where you'll be offered a piece of blueberry or peach pie upon arrival (the other, Granite Park Chalet, is a serviceless, cook-your-own facility; as if!).
Make no mistake, though: Getting to Sperry Chalet is no piece of cake. The 7-mile hike up Sperry Trail -- the easier of two routes -- sharply gains 3,500 feet in elevation. You can travel by horseback for $165, which is how a few retirees and all of the chalet's supplies arrived during our visit. Otherwise, you have to hoof it up yourself.
We four middle-aged boys made the trek much harder than it needed to be. Being a birthday celebration and all, we stocked our backpacks with beer and other libations in lieu of the usual stuff that weighs us down: tents, food, mini-stove, cooking utensils. The ease of not having to carry up a heavy pack is one of Sperry Chalet's main selling points.
The real reason to go, however, is because it's unlike any other mountain experience offered in U.S. national parks. Just staring out the window of our room was unforgettable -- especially since a couple times when we looked out, one of the many woolly mountain goats that hang around the chalet was looking in at us.
No wonder reservations at Sperry can be harder to come by than a mountain lion sighting. The company that manages it for the National Park Service starts booking rooms in late October for the following summer's season. The seasons are naturally short, too -- for reasons we would soon find out.
The American Alps?
From below, it blends into the mountainside atop a steep cliff like just another rock outcropping. As you approach it from behind, the small cluster of stone buildings appear to be levitating off the rocky ledge. The spine-tingling view down toward Lake McDonald is right there, just outside the dining hall's back door and straight off the porch of the chalet.
"Take a flashlight if you run to the restroom in the middle of the night," one of the 15 or so staffers advised us upon arrival. No kidding: One wrong step in the dark, and you'll wind up halfway down the mountain.
A reminder of its Great Northern Railway roots, the initials "GNRy" are still ensconced on the side of the two-story chalet. Sperry was part of the Hill family's grand scheme to create an "American Alps" to drive up rail traffic to the park. It worked for about 40 years. When America took to the highways after World War II, most of the chalets fell by the wayside -- literally in the case of one lost to an avalanche.
Accommodations today are pretty much the same as 98 years ago. There's no electricity in the rooms. No lighting, heating or running water, either. Walls are so thin that earplugs are stocked on the bedside tables. The antique beds and thick blankets are a bit lumpy and musty, too.
After a day of hard hiking over rocky terrain, though, you'll think you're at a Ritz Carlton -- at least until you need a toilet or sink, which are all in a newer, smaller building 100 yards from the chalet (there are no showers).
That restroom facility was actually the linchpin in Sperry's 1999 reopening after a seven-year closure. Suffice it to say 80-year-old toilets built on solid rock with no sewage lines created a sticky situation. Thankfully, all is clear now.
At the heart of every Sperry stay is the dining hall, with its high log-frame ceiling and checkered tablecloths. The stoves, refrigeration and lights in the hall run on propane, and the meals run like clockwork. Pack lunches are ready first thing in the morning for eager day hikers to take with them. After dinner is cleared, guests are welcome to hang in the dining room for games or conversation (but no alcohol, which is prohibited i the hall).
One of our grizzly encounters occurred just outside the dining room one afternoon, a rare event even for the staff. The one park ranger who stays at the chalet told us the bear was a two-year-old male they had been watching since birth -- always from afar, though.
"I wish I could've Maced him," he told us after the lad quickly skedaddled away. "We don't want him to think he can come wandering in here whenever he wants."
Maybe Sperry's most comforting trait was the helpful chalet staff. Mostly college-age kids, plus a den-motherly director named Dolly, they all seemed genuinely excited to be there. It probably helped that we arrived in mid-July, when the chalet had been open less than two weeks. The staffers spend the duration of the chalet's season up the mountain without any trips down -- usually about a 2 1/2-month stretch. That's up to the snow, though, not the staff.
"They just opened the trail two days ago," one of the young staffers excitedly told us over breakfast on our second day, when we asked about our upcoming hike. She added with warning, "You're still going to run into snow, though."
As much as we enjoyed hanging around the chalet, the peak of our trip still lay above. We did a nice little afternoon hike toward Lincoln Peak on our first day, where we looked down at Lake Ellen Wilson and one of the park's tallest waterfalls, Beaver Chief Falls. The area's showpiece, though, is the chalet's namesake glacier.
Sperry Glacier can be reached via a 3 1/2-mile one-way scramble up over Comeau Pass, where the blasted staircase is. The trail's opening was delayed to allow park staff to put in "bridges," a generous word for the long wood planks laid over the mid-July snowmelt pouring down the mountainside. Those weren't as scary as the snow itself, though.
We hit the first of several icy packs about an hour into our hike. It took my friend Steve -- a lifelong Texan -- all of two minutes to lose his footing in it. He went sliding down the hillside uncontrollably, never really in mortal danger, but the rest of us still took credit for saving his life by instructing him to use his hiking stick for an ice ax. There were several more precarious snow crossings where a real ice ax might have been justified, but thankfully nobody else skidded -- unintentionally, anyway (my brother Craig opted to coast down one steep stretch on his rain jacket).
Along the way, we simultaneously caught our breath and lost it, stopping to stare at a series of glacial lakes that sparkled a candescent blue. When we neared the top of Gunsight Mountain, the 360-degree panorama competed with our attention for the actual final destination.
Sperry is one of 25 active glaciers left in Glacier National Park. And like all 25, it's melting fast. There's no global-warming debate in these parts. More than 35 percent of Sperry's surface area has vanished since 1965, leaving it now around 200 acres. Some experts fear that Glacier could lose all its glaciers over the next decade.
Frankly, the carpet of grayish glacial ice itself wasn't much to look at compared with the ribbons of surrounding mountains. We were more in awe of the thought that Sperry Glacier literally might not be there the next time we visit.
Fortunately, Sperry Chalet doesn't seem to be going anywhere. It survived the decline of the railroad, an icky wastewater quagmire in the '90s and harsh winter conditions that even Minnesotans can't imagine -- and now it's just two years away from its 100th anniversary. If somebody else lugs up the bubbly and beer by horseback to mark the occasion, I'm so there.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib