Going To The Sun Road, Glacier National Park

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It’s been written in more than one travel guidebook that Glacier National Park’s Going To The Sun Road is one of the most beautiful highways in the country.  I can’t disagree.

Along its 53 miles, Going To The Sun Road (a.k.a. GTTS or simply “Sun Road”) passes two beautiful, crystal-clear mountain lakes, rounds switchbacks, hugs mountainsides, and climbs over the Continental Divide.  It’s the only road to cut through an area so rugged and foreboding, that it’s closed for more than half of every year, due to snow or construction.  And while it’s an obvious sign of man’s interference in an area that seems mostly untouched by the modern world, it still seems to flow in harmony with the landscapes it passes.

If you’re planning to spend just one day in Glacier National Park, Sun Road is all you’ll need to see.  I spent two days here: the first driving up to Logan Pass, then returning to Kalispell, and the second driving the full length of GTTS, then circling around the park’s south side on US Hwy. 2.

Within minutes of entering the park, you’re at the edge of Lake McDonald, a long, narrow body of clear water supplied by melting snow from the mountains that surround it.

There are many places to enjoy Lake McDonald.  The first is Apgar, a tiny village that’s just inside the park boundary.  Apgar itself isn’t very exciting–just a couple of restaurants and gift shops, and one motel.  There’s also a park visitor’s center, so it’s a good place to stop and gain your bearings.

For several miles beyond Apgar, Going To The Sun Road runs along Lake McDonald.  There are plenty of turnouts and small parking areas that provide secluded access to the lake, and its pebble-lined beaches.

Eventually, Lake McDonald turns into McDonald Creek.  The road continues to follow it for a few more miles, before beginning the arduous climb up to the Continental Divide.

This is, perhaps, the location where Going To The Sun Road provides its first thrill.  Round a curve, and suddenly there’s a huge glaciated mountain towering in front of you.  It’s spectacular, and the narrow, winding climb hasn’t even begun yet!

One small parking area along the side of the road offers a view of a small waterfall.

Then the climb begins, out of the valley and towards Logan Pass.  It is here that Going To The Sun Road gains its notoriously hair-raising reputation.  The narrow road is nothing more than a shelf, carved from the side of a steep hill.

When you pass through this tunnel, park at the end and take a moment to walk back through.  The views from the carved-out windows are great. (That’s Heavens Peak in the distance.)

As you come closer to Logan Pass, the road becomes even more dramatic.  It’s hard to imagine exactly how road crews carved out this narrow road with such difficult surroundings.

Here’s a short history lesson.  The proposed route for Going To The Sun Road was first surveyed in 1918.  Work on the road took place at both ends over the next few years, as money became available.  Finally, in 1924, $1 million dollars was approved by congress, for construction through the park’s mountainous middle.

The Logan Pass route was more thoroughly surveyed at this time.  Survey crews had to walk several miles, and gain about a half mile in elevation, just to reach their worksite every day.  Within seven weeks, they had enough data to draw up a plan for the road–and just in time, too.  Winter was setting in.

Construction began in 1925, and on October 20, 1928, the workers reached Logan Pass (right on schedule).  In order to get there, workers used 250 tons of explosives.  Only one life was lost, despite the fact that many of the workers had no mountain road-building experience.  The western portion of Going To The Sun Road was opened to visitors in 1929.

It was two years later that work began on the eastern half of the road, connecting Logan Pass with St. Mary Lake.  The biggest challenge here was tunnel construction.  Some workers were required to carry a 50 pound box of explosives down a 100 foot, 45 degree trail, in 30 minutes, just to reach the worksite.

The 53 mile Transmountain Highway was completed on July 7, 1933, and opened to the public with a dedication ceremony July 15.  The total cost: $1.7 million.

Going To The Sun Road officially received its name at the 1933 dedication.  It takes its name from nearby Going To The Sun Mountain.  According to a Blackfeet Indian legend, a spirit came down from the sun to teach the Native Americans how to hunt.  On his way back to the sun, he reproduced his image on the top of GTTS mountain, to inspire the hunters.

Throughout winter, Going To The Sun Road is buried under as much as 80 feet of snow.  In late spring, it takes an amazing effort to find the highway underneath all that snow, then shovel it clear.  The plowing process usually takes about 10 weeks.  For an idea of what road crews face, the National Park Service has posted these pictures and videos of the snow-clearing process.

As you close in on Logan Pass, you can enjoy this view of the valley below.  If you look veryclosely…

… you can see the lower portion of Going To The Sun Road, next to McDonald Creek.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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