Glacier National Park
Okay, so you are going to Glacier National Park. Your journey will take you through the center of the park on Going-to-the-Sun Road, an iconic mountain highway. Going-to-the-Sun Road runs west to east from the town of West Glacier to Saint Mary, Montana, over a distance of about 53 miles. The road passes through America’s most spectacular wilderness country.
Glacier is a land of mountains. Pushing up toward the clouds, mountain peaks near Going-to-the-Sun Road reach elevations as high as 10,014 feet (Mount Siyeh) and are often in view. That gorgeous mountains, pristine alpine lakes, and alpine valleys and meadows are all bundled together is a huge part of the allure of Glacier National Park.
Going-to-the-Sun Road was constructed in the early part of the 20th century, and it opened for the public in 1933. After eleven years of construction, 1921-1932, the road was completed. Drivers will experience a narrow, winding road, with some hairpin curves along the way. This is a two-lane and paved road, an engineering masterpiece.
Going-to-the-Sun Road features spectacular scenery in every direction, mountains, forests, waterfalls, alpine lakes, rock walls, and alpine valleys. Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bald eagles, grizzly bears, and other wildlife live here and can often be seen not far from the road.
Historic lodges and engineering marvels, such as tunnels and bridges, add to the wonder of it all. Many scenic outlooks along the road allow motorists to stop, take pictures, and simply enjoy.
From the Park’s entrance near the town of West Glacier (3,198 feet in elevation), Going-to-the-Sun Road follows McDonald Valley for several miles in a northeasterly direction, gradually gaining in elevation until the road reaches about 3,572 feet in elevation.
At the beginning of the Loop (elevation 3,572), the road starts its ascent up the side of the mountains. Along a path of several miles, Going-to-the-Sun Road increases in elevation, as it hugs to the side of the mountains, until it reaches Logan Pass at 6,646 feet elevation.
From the head of the Loop, going in a southeasterly direction, Going-to-the-Sun Road starts to get scary for some drivers. Along the shoulder of the road (passenger side of car), a steep cliff goes down slope, several hundred feet in many areas.
On the driver’s side is the rock face of the mountains. Drivers need not worry as a low speed limit and guardrails protect vehicles from going off the road. However, as if anyone needs a reminder, drivers must keep eyes centered on the road. Passengers can enjoy the awesome scenery.
At Logan Pass, Going-to-the-Sun Road starts a gradual descent to Saint Mary Lake at about 4,718 feet in elevation. The road runs along the north shore of Saint Mary Lake for about 9.9 miles before ending near the Park’s Saint Mary Visitor Center at an elevation of 4,495 feet.
Logan Pass is not unusually high in elevation by Montana standards. Near Red Lodge in south-central Montana, the Beartooth Highway starts from Red Lodge at 5,568 feet in elevation and ascends into the mountains until the highway reaches Beartooth Pass at an elevation of 10,947 feet.
Some have suggested that Going-to-the-Sun Road is less scary if driven from east to west. If this is the case, the face of the mountains is on the passenger side of the car and the steep cliff side (the drop-off) is one traffic lane over from the driver and thus seems less worrisome. Regardless, drivers must be extremely careful and keep eyes on the road ahead.
Accidents occasionally happen on the road. In July 2018, a two-vehicle collision snarled traffic for hours west of Logan Pass, near Triple Arches. No personal injuries in this one, but traffic from the West Entrance was stopped from entering the Park, and traffic that had reached Logan Pass in the east was turned back.
The wonders along Going-to-the-Sun Road are almost endless. A short list of things to experience and enjoy, traveling west to east, over the distance of 53 miles, includes:
- START OF ROUTE: Apgar Visitor Center at west entrance to the park
- Mile 3.0: Fabulous Lake McDonald, a 10-mile long glacial lake
- Mile 10.9: Historic Lake McDonald Lodge
- Mile 12.8: McDonald Falls
- Mile 16.2: Avalanche Creek Campground
- Mile 20.8: Start of The Loop at Goose Curve where the road veers sharply left to the northwest
- Mile 23.3: West Side Tunnel, cut some 192 feet through a mountain
- Mile: 23.9: Head of The Loop where the road bends back and continues in a southeasterly direction toward Logan Pass
- Mile 29.8: Triple Arches, a 65 foot long stone bridge built across a gap in the mountain side
- Mile 32.0: Logan Pass Visitor Center on the Continental Divide at 6,646 feet elevation
- Mile 32.9: East Side Tunnel, a 408 feet long structure cut though a mountain
- Mile 39.2: Saint Mary Lake, a 9.9-mile long glacial lake
- Mile 43.0: Wild Goose Island in the middle of Saint Mary Lake
- END OF ROUTE: Saint Mary Visitor Center and the town of Saint Mary
Due to deep snow blocking the roadway, a section of Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed during the winter months. A few reports say the snow can get over 80 feet deep at Logan Pass.
Officials at the Park do not give an exact date when the full length of the road will be open. They say opening is typically late June or early July. Usually the road remains open until the third Monday of October. In alpine environments all depends on the weather which can change quickly, causing officials to close the road at any time. A hard closure of the road in the alpine section is on October 17. However, portions of the road at lower elevations are open year-round giving travelers access to some locations and activities inside the Park.
Visitors flock to Glacier, some 3,049,839 came in 2019 alone. Many who travel on Going-to-the-Sun Road spend a half-day or longer to drive the full distance of the road. So much to see and do. When the journey is over, visitors take home memoires that will last a lifetime.
Lodging is limited along Going-to-the-Sun Road inside Glacier National Park. Guest rooms are available at Lake McDonald Lodge, Apgar Village Lodge and Cabins, and Motel Lake McDonald on the west side of the Park. Rising Sun Motor Inn and Cabins offers rooms near Saint Mary Lake on the east side of the Park.
Campgrounds are another option on Going-to-the-Sun Road inside Glacier National Park. Three campgrounds are on the west side of the Park: Apgar (194 sites); Sprague Creek (25 sites); and Avalanche (87 sites). The east side of the Park has two campgrounds: Rising Sun (83 sites); and Saint Mary (148 sites).
On any journey surprises are always best. However, in this case a quick read in advance is recommended. The book is Going-to-the-Sun Road: Glacier National Park’s Highway to the Sky, by C.W. Guthrie.
Lose of a Young Person’s Life in Glacier NP
A tragedy occurred on Going-to-the-Sun Road on August 12, 2019. A car was traveling westbound from Logan Pass when rocks from the face of a mountain broke loose and fell to the road below hitting the car. A 14-year-old girl was killed and four others in the same vehicle were injured. NPS reported that the rockfall would have filled the bed on a small pickup truck.
Safety is always first on the minds of Park officials, but nothing could have averted this catastrophe. Of the sorrow and pain felt by the family, no words can convey.
Glacier National Park is requiring “ticketed entry” for travel on Going-to-the-Sun Road between the park’s west entrance near West Glacier and the east entrance near St. Mary from May 28 to September 6, 2021. This is an online reservation system.
Road crews start plowing winter snows from Going-to-the-Sun Road around the first week of April. Work continues until mid-June or mid-July when the full length of the road is finally open from West Glacier on the west side of the park to St. Mary on the east side. The road is partly open to Lake McDonald Lodge on the west side to the park and to Rising Sun Campground on the east side of the park earlier, typically in mid-April. The National Park service posts details of the road’s opening dates on their Web site.
The speed limit on Going-to-the-Sun Road is 45 miles per hour at lower elevations, 25 miles per hour at higher elevations (alpine areas).
There are no gas stations on Going-to-the-Sun Road. So, fill up in small towns near the west or east entrances to the Park: village of West Glacier or village of St. Mary.
Absaroka Mountain, Mont.
© 2021 John Sandy