Going to the Sun Road
[West Glacier, MT]
Today was our last day in Glacier, and what better way to end our trip than a tour of the famed Going to the Sun Road?
Our guided tour was on a red “jammer” bus – a historic convertible made out of oakwood that was made specifically for the national parks. The cars used to have a double clutch unsynchronized transmission, which meant the driver had to sync the engine RPMs with the gear RPMs. In the 1930s, young college kids were hired to drive the cars; they were great at memorizing facts about the park but not so great at synchronizing the RPMs. That earned them the nickname “jammers”, and the name transferred over to the cars. Glacier is one of the few parks that still operates these; built in the 1930s, they were renovated in the 1990s by Ford. The canvas top rolls back to provide amazing views around, and throughout the tour we had many opportunities to simply stand up and pop our heads out when the car was stopped. Our guide called this “prairie dog sightseeing.” It was a great way to see this famous but precarious road. Sheer drop offs make this road not for the faint of heart.
The Going to the Sun road runs for 53 miles the entire width of the park, crossing the Continental Divide at Logan pass. The road is considered an engineering marvel even today, especially given what tools and technology were available when it was built in the 1920s and 1930s. Rather than sneaking up the valley via a series of switchbacks, the road climbs up the mountain in a steady ascent up the side of a cliff, providing stunning views of the valley and the peaks around. Pounds upon pounds of dynamite were used to blast through the rock and provide enough room for a road to be built. Workers chiseled at the rock, then sent the pieces down the mountain on a horse-drawn carriage until enough progress on the road was made for stream trucks to get up there.
Every year, the harsh Montana winters cover this road with snow. On April 1st, crews start plowing it from both the East and West end; the progress is closely watched by everyone, including the Montana governor, as the opening of this road is vital to the economy of the state. As it is, the road does not usually open until mid June or early July – this is how long it takes to plow the whole thing! Some years, avalanches pile trees and debris on the road for crews to clean up before they can even start plowing.
From the West, the Going to the Sun road starts off gently enough, meandering around Apgar village and Lake McDonald.
It then continues along Logan creek before starting its ascent on the mountain cliff. At one point, we went through a tunnel that had cut outs on the side, providing views of Heavenly Peak across the way.
The engineers of this road were serious about the views; they didn’t let anything get in the way. Shortly after the tunnel, we pulled over on the side of the road to examine what looked like curved rock. We’d seen curved rock in many places around the park; tectonic activity bends it without breaking it, creating V shapes and A shapes that we saw at both Waterton and East Glacier. So that’s what we thought we were seeing when we stopped by these oval shaped rock-like formations. Turns out, that was fosilized algae, also known as stromatolite. Wait, doesn’t algae belong at the bottom of the ocean? Again, tectonic activity is to blame. The same tectonic activity that caused older rock to sit on top of newer rock at the Lewis Overthrust Fault also pushed up algae from the bottom of the ocean to this mountain peak.
As we continued our ascent, we passed by Weeping Wall – a giant rock that hangs over a turn in the road. In the spring and early summer, water comes down the face of the rock, splashing onto the cars passing by. We continued climbing until we finally got to Logan pass. This is the more famous one of the Continental Divide crossings, as it is within the park boundary and it’s about 1000 ft higher. Here, peaks surrounded us on all sides and the fact that the road descended in both easterly and westerly direction made it much easier to recognize that we were, in fact, on the Continental divide. We took photos at the sign, then spent some time around the visitor center learning more about the trails that started here.
We definitely got excited when we saw the trailhead for the Highline Trail – we could see people on it from the road. This trail is one of the more popular ones in the park, as it follows the Continental Divide along the cliffside above the Going to the Sun road. The trail to Iceberg lake also starts here – this is another glacier-fed lake that sports icebergs even on the hottest days of summer.
We couldn’t go any farther East past Logan pass, as the fire that had started in the eastern side of the park last week was not yet fully contained; in fact, we could see a little bit of smoke in the valley on that side. Our car turned around and took us to lunch at Lake McDonald lodge. From there, we went North on Canvas road, which took us into a less traveled area on the Western side of the park. This was the same area as the trailhead for our Apgar Lookout hike; in fact, the scenery around us showed signs of the same fire that we’d seen along the Apgar trail. New forest had started growing since that fire, and a short walk on a nature path gave us a glimpse into what young black cottonwood trees look like. Their stem was only a couple of inches wide, and they were maybe 10-15 ft tall.
Our final stop for today was Avalanche creek and the Trail of the Cedars.
In this area of the park, fire had not broken out in over 300 years; the forest here was much thicker and the trees much larger than on the Western side of the park. We got to see 300-year old black cottonwood trees – and let me tell you, the difference between them and their younger siblings was just startling. The adult trees were sequoia-like in size – thick trunk, super tall branches. They competed for grandeur with the cedar trees, whose trunks were just as big and tall. One could only tell one from the other by the texture of the trunk – cedar trees have tell-tale linear carvings in its trunk.
We followed the Trail of the Cedars along the entire loop, which was less than a mile. By then, it was late afternoon and it was time for our tour to end. We got back to our car and after a short pit stop to freshen up and combine our luggage into airport-approved pieces, we were on our way to the airport.
Even though Olivia and I both read up on this park, visiting it gave us a much better perspective on its size and diversity. We did not appreciate just how big this park is or how different its Western and Eastern sides are. Since the park straddles the Continental divide, that only makes sense. Pacific moisture carried by winds reaches the Western slopes, supporting the growth of a healthy forest. On the East side of the park, glacial activity is more visible as it has carved up the giant peaks that dominate the skyline.
Our trip was wonderful but there is much left to see. Many more wonderful hikes start along the Going to the Sun road as well as from the Many Glacier and Two Medicine areas. We could have spent another few days here and not gotten bored. Alas, there will always be more trails to be explored and more delicious foods made with huckleberry to be eaten. Till next time, Glacier!