After a hearty breakfast under clear skies, we prepped for our trek across the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile engineering marvel that traverses the entire park. The road features narrow passages, dark tunnels, hairpin turns, and stunning vistas.
Glacier National Park was established in 1910. It is characterized by pristine waterfalls, deep lakes, wind-swept prairies, old-growth forests, a unique ecosystem, and some of the most spectacular glacial carved mountains in North America. Waters from Glacier flow to the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay, making it the “Crown of the Continent.”
Completed in the 1930s, the Going-to-the-Sun Road has the distinction of being the only road in the U.S. to be designated a National Historic Landmark, a National Civil Engineering Landmark, and a National Historic Place. It is narrow, steep and winding, but has numerous pullouts for viewing flora and fauna.
This year, the road is receiving a protective asphalt coating (a treatment process that takes place every seven years), causing 15- to 20-minute delays in some areas. Considering the historic importance of the road, spending a little of our vacation time waiting for significant roadbed and pavement work seemed a small price to pay.
We began our sojourn at the St. Mary Visitor Center, where we watched a 15-minute introductory film that oriented us to the park. Next stop was Two Dog Flats, a grassland prairie along St. Mary Lake where we observed a family of deer scampering along the roadway. A long delay at Wild Goose Island gave us ample time to observe the tiny piece of land against the majestic peaks.
Before long, we were at the Jackson Glacier Overlook, which provided an unparalleled view of the glacier from the road. Next up was Siyeh Bend, which marked the transition between the higher elevation subalpine vegetation and the forests of east Glacier. Then, we drove through the East Tunnel — a 408-foot passage that proved to be one of the most difficult engineering challenges of constructing the road.
We passed over Lunch Creek, a crystal clear waterway surrounded by a carpet of wildflowers, including something we’ve never seen before: Beargrass. One of more than 1,200 species of plants that thrive in the park, beargrass is characterized by tall-stemmed white flower clusters that look like sno-cones.
The literal high-point of Going-to-the-Sun Road is Logan Pass, located at 6,646 feet on the Continental Divide. Next stop was Oberlin Bend, where we were distressed to see a family of mountain goats (two nannies, a billy and a kid) being pestered by insensitive visitors determined to get a photo. We secretly hoped that Billy would take issue with the paparazzi and head-butt them off the trail.
Eventually, we made our way to Big Bend, a viewing area that allowed us to see Mount Cannon, Mount Oberlin, Heaven’s Peak, and the spectacular (although man-made) Weeping Wall.
The next point of interest was an overlook of Bird Woman Falls, a 560-foot waterfall fed by snowfields and a remnant glacier located on the north and west flanks of Mount Oberlin. The falls flow is greatest during late spring and early summer, so we were in the right place at the right time for optimal viewing.
The only switchback on the road, a place called “the loop,” brought us to a complete stop as we maneuvered our way past a truck coming in the opposite direction. It was like a scene out of “The Long, Long Trailer.” Yet it brought us to the West Tunnel, a 192-foot passage with window ports that overlook Heaven’s Peak and the Upper McDonald Creek Valley.
One of our favorite spots along the way was the McDonald Creek overlook, where we saw the typically placid creek transformed into a thunderous torrent powerful enough to carry trees and boulders. The early summer rush of cold snowmelt from Mount Geduhn makes this a mighty river. Its aqua waters are evidence of glacial activity. Glacial meltwater gets its color from “rock flour,” sediment from rocks grinding together beneath a glacier. The fine powder is suspended in the water, absorbing and scattering varying colors of sunlight that gives a milky turquoise appearance. Surrounded by lush forests of ceder and hemlock, the creek flows out to the 10-mile-long Lake McDonald. We soon made our way there, and to the historic lodge along its southeast shore.
Lake McDonald is the largest glacially carved lake in the park, the result of a massive glacier that once filled the valley and carved out a basin that is today filled with water 500 feet deep.
Lake McDonald Lodge resembles a rustic hunting lodge with Swiss-influenced architecture. As we walked into the large, open lobby, we were mesmerized by the massive fireplace, complete with a crackling fire and messages in several Native American languages inscribed into its surround. Built in 1913, the lodge is considered one of the nation’s finest examples of large-scale Swiss chalet architecture, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
We continued on until we reached West Glacier Village, where we turned around and began our trip back to our campsite.
We learned a few things worth sharing:
- Parents who have their children hang onto a cliff so they can get an interesting photograph should be thrown off said cliff.
- Slippery rocks near raging rapids are no place for dogs.
- Beer brewed in Montana shouldn’t cost more than beer imported to Montana.