Glacier National Park: Driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road

As the name of this blog implies, I generally prefer traveling by train or plane- and for that matter, exploring on foot when I get there!  That being said, I have no objections to traveling by automobile when the drive itself contributes to the experience.  The Going-to-the-Sun Road (occasionally referred to as the Going-to-the-Sun Highway) in Montana’s Glacier National Park is one such drive.  Opened in 1933, the road is approximately 50 miles (80.5 km) in length and spans both sides of the Continental Divide.  This engineering marvel winds through picturesque, glacier-carved mountains; it is not hyperbole to state the Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the most scenic drives in the United States if not the world.

A bend in the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2014
A bend in the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

Road with a Brief Season

Every winter, snow buries the road; at the so-called “Big Drift” at Logan Pass, the snow can be as much as 100 feet (30 m) deep.  Every spring, a colossal undertaking to clear the road begins.  Depending on the snowfall in the preceding months, it may be well into the summer before the entire road reopens; the latest opening was mid-July in 2011.  During my first visit to Glacier National Park on June 23, 2007 the Going-to-the-Sun Road was only open a little past the “Big Bend”, short of Logan Pass.  When I began planning a return trip to Glacier National Park in 2014, experiencing the entire road was a top priority.  In August, odds are that weather will be favorable for a visit.  Of course, in an alpine environment nothing is guaranteed.  Although the weather was good for most of our visit, we departed just before a storm that was anticipated to drop at least some snow at Logan Pass.

Kalispell Grand Hotel during the Blue Hour
Kalispell Grand Hotel during the Blue Hour

Arrival in Big Sky Country

We arrived in Kalispell, Montana on August 17, 2014 after flying from Portland, Oregon; Glacier was the last leg of a three-state western United States trip.  We rented a car from Budget at Glacier Park International Airport (FCA).  They “upgraded” us to a Chevy Impala- it had a sunroof and the option of a semiautomatic transmission (useful on mountain roads) so I had no complaints.  We stayed the night in the Kalispell Grand Hotel, a beautifully modernized old hotel in town with friendly staff and warm home baked cookies in the evening.  Not too many restaurants are open on a Sunday evening in Kalispell; our hostess referred us to Moose’s Saloon, which she promised had the best pizza in town.

Most so-called saloons only go so far as putting up the swinging wooden doors on the front, but Moose’s goes all out for authenticity- cheerfully embracing aged (or at least carved up) wooden booths, wood shavings and peanut shells on the floors, and a B+ health department rating.  (In fairness to Moose’s, I discovered while researching this post that the B+ was the worst inspection it has gotten since 2008- it’s usually in A territory.)  A couple craft beers only set me back $4.  Too bad the pizza was not only slow to come out but among the worst pizza I’ve ever had in my life.  I have to take some of the blame- our hostess’s recommendation notwithstanding, would you really expect good pizza at a saloon?

Avalanche Lake is a short hike from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2007
Avalanche Lake is an easy hike from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

Driving Through the Lake McDonald Valley

We headed into Glacier National Park the morning of August 18, entering the park at West Glacier.  After a brief stop at the Apgar Visitor Center, we picked up the Going-to-the-Sun Road heading east.  We passed Lake McDonald and the Avalanche trailhead.  We didn’t stop this time, but the hike to Avalanche Lake is a fairly easy hike (4.5 miles or 7.2 km roundtrip) and was one of the highlights of my first visit to Glacier.  The lakes and rivers in Glacier National Park have a beautiful light blue or teal look due to suspended rock particles pulverized by glaciers into “glacial flour”.  Avalanche Lake is surrounded by a cirque that at least in early summer features numerous waterfalls from snowmelt.

McDonald Creek flows alongside the Going-to-the-Sun Road for a stretch.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2014
McDonald Creek flows alongside the Going-to-the-Sun Road for a stretch. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

After passing Avalanche, we drove a stretch along McDonald Creek.  There are numerous pull offs on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, including one that gives a good view of rapids along the creek.  Continuing through the Lake McDonald Valley, we got our first view of the Garden Wall, the row of mountains north of Logan Pass that at the highest point reaches 9553 feet (2912 m).  The Garden Wall towers above the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the Highline Trail and is visible from both sides of the park.

Red Jammer on the road
Red Jammer on the road

The most remarkable vehicles traveling the Going-to-the-Sun Road are a fleet of Great Depression-era buses known as Red Jammers.  Originally manufactured from 1936-1939 by the White Motor Company, they have been in service for decades at Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.  Ford modernized Glacier’s fleet during 2000-2002.  The nickname Jammer is now anachronistic, having referred to a loud noises their original transmissions made.  The roofs can be rolled back when the weather is good.  Drivers act as tour guides and pull over at some locations for photo opportunities.

The Garden Wall seen from the Going-to-the-Sun Road in the Lake McDonald Valley.  A stretch of road further east is barely visible at lower right.  Infrared photo
The Garden Wall seen from the Going-to-the-Sun Road in the Lake McDonald Valley. A stretch of the same road further up the mountains is barely visible at lower right. Infrared photo

The road began to climb into the mountains and it was my impression that it got narrower as well.  The speed limit dropped from 45mph to 35mph and eventually 25mph in particularly twisty areas.  We passed through the West Tunnel (one of two built for the road) and passed through The Loop, where the road makes an almost 180 degree turn.  The Loop is about halfway through the drive, but it marks where the scenery really starts to impress.  Unfortunately, it also seems to mark the start of where the road sorts out the capable drivers from the frightened ones.

The Experience of Driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road

Lest that comment come off as overly critical, perhaps a word is in order about the experience of actually driving the road itself.  I was surprised that reviews on TripAdvisor ran the full gamut, with some reviewers describing driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road as absolutely terrifying and others saying it was easy.  From The Loop until St. Mary Lake, the eastbound road is on the cliff side while the westbound side is along the rock wall.  I’d heard that in some places there were no guard rails and sheer drop offs because of damage to barricades from avalanches and such.  Despite these horror stories, I found there was almost always a stone or heavy timber guardrail in place and the speed limits were always appropriate.  At 25mph, you can stop on a dime if needed.  Still, lest I make the road seem too easy, an overturned motorcycle east of Logan Pass was a reminder that the road may be unforgiving without constant vigilance.

Road at Big Bend
The road at Big Bend

Although I was at ease on most of the road, I did have a couple scares…from other drivers.  Even though they had the inside lanes, a few times westbound drivers started to come across the double yellow line into my lane.  In principle the drivers heading westbound should have been more comfortable, seeing as the consequences of a bagged up fender from clipping a wall pale in comparison to going off a cliff.  Their unease might have been caused by an illusion: if you glance towards the rock walls, it can look like you’re drifting towards them and it’s easy to over-correct across the center line.  The solution to that is a basic lesson from driver’s education: keep your eyes centered down the road and you’ll be able to instinctively make the corrections to stay centered in your lane.

East Tunnel, one of two tunnels on the Going-to-the-Sun Road
East Tunnel, one of two tunnels on the Going-to-the-Sun Road

Then again, it seemed like there were a lot of people driving who should have just taken a shuttle bus or Red Jammer tour instead of driving themselves.  In addition to the lane jumpers, there were those who puttered along at 15mph, their hands clutching their steering wheels in a death grip.  More often then not, they did not use the turn offs to let the traffic piling up behind them pass.  And on the other side of the pass, I was stunned by how many people rode their brakes the entire way down.  Switching the Impala into semiautomatic mode, I could switch between first, second, and sometimes third gears to control my speed while barely using my brakes at all.

Bird Woman Falls seen from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  HDR
Bird Woman Falls seen from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. High Dynamic Range (HDR)

Driving to the Continental Divide

As the road continued to gain elevation, sweeping panoramas came into view.  The colorfully named Bird Woman Falls was visible at a distance flowing off Mt. Oberlin, one of the mountains near Logan Pass.  The one thing you can say for visiting Glacier in spring or early summer is that the waterfalls are more impressive.  Since it’s fed by snowmelt, the Weeping Wall (part of the rock face along the road west of Big Bend) was actually more impressive during my visit in June 2007; it was just a wet wall in August 2014 with little flow visible.

The Weeping Wall can wash your car early in the spring, but slows to a trickle in late summer.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2007
The Weeping Wall can wash your car early in the spring, but barely moistens the rock face in late summer. Lowell Silverman photography, 2007

We stopped at Big Bend, which was about as far as I got back in 2007.  We explored the fields of fireweed blooming on the mountainside above the road.  Big Bend is a great place to view the peaks of the Garden Wall towering above the bend as well as Mts. Oberlin, Clements, and Cannon further up the road towards Logan Pass.

Mts. Oberlin, Clements, and Cannon seen from the Big Bend.  Infrared
Mts. Oberlin, Clements, and Cannon seen from the Big Bend. Infrared photo.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

We stopped at Logan Pass Visitor Center astride the Continental Divide.  It’s hard to believe that water falling as rain a few feet away may eventually make its way to oceans on separate sides of the continent.  Actually, Glacier’s Triple Divide Peak marks North America’s “hydrological apex”.  Water falling on various sides of that mountain flow to rivers that are tributaries of larger rivers that eventually flow into not only the Atlantic (via the Gulf of Mexico) and Pacific, but also the Arctic Ocean (via Hudson Bay).  The scientific distinction of the divide may be lost on visitors who struggle to find parking in what surely must be Glacier’s most crowded parking lot.  We must have patrolled twenty minutes looking for a space.  We finally spoke to a group of hikers walking to their car who told us that if we were willing to wait for them to load their gear, we could have their spot.  This accomplished, we enjoyed a hike to the Hidden Pond Overlook, a trail that passes through a favored mountain goat grazing area.  Since this post is already way too long as it is, I will merely whet your appetite for a future post about the hike with this adorable photo:

A young mountain goat near Logan Pass
Young mountain goat near Logan Pass

After our hike we surrendered our hard-won parking spot and continued east.  We had good views of the road’s namesake, Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and passed through the East Tunnel.  We began our descent behind the brake-riders.  At Siyeh Bend, the forest began- and so did the road work.

Going-to-the-Sun Mountain
Going-to-the-Sun Mountain

When a road is old, buried in snow for about 75% year and is subjected to heavy stresses from traffic and weather, there’s really no convenient time to do road work.  In recent years the National Park Service squeezed the work into the height of summer and sections of the road have been completely closed in fall for work even before the snow starts.  Maybe we were distracted by the road work, because on the eastbound drive we completely missed two classic sights: Mt. Jackson, which hosts the largest glacier left in the park, and Wild Goose Island, a quaint little island in St. Mary Lake.  I suppose that brings me to my last piece of advice: it’s a good idea to drive the road in both directions, since you may have a completely different view of some of the scenery or catch something you missed the first time.

St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island
St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island.  The Going-to-the-Sun Road is visible on the far side of the lake.  HDR photo

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the town of St. Mary, the eastern terminus of the Going-to-the-Sun Road; we were camping nearby just inside the park.  We squeezed dinner and an unexpected moose safari in before dark, but that’s a tale for another (shorter, I promise) post.

Fireweed abloom at
Fireweed abloom at “Big Bend”

Date: Monday August 18, 2014

Distance: About 50 miles, not counting the drive from Kalispell and at the east end after completing the road

Equipment: Chevrolet Impala

Duration: About 6.5 hours including stops for hiking and sightseeing

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