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Take a Drive to the Sun

When Congress established Glacier National Park in 1910, there were only a few rough wagon roads. Transportation to and in the park was provided through the Great Northern Railroad which operated not only the trains, but the hotels and lodges as well. Most guests stayed close to their lodges, but the more adventurous could choose a long trek by horseback and mule to reach into the park’s vast interior where they could stay at one of the railroad’s alpine chalets.

Glacier’s first park Superintendent, William R. Logan, wanted to open the interior of the park to more people and he began to lobby for the construction of a road. The first appropriation for the road was approved in 1921 and construction began in 1925. This was not an easy project.  In fact, the road is such an engineering marvel that it earned designations as both a National Historic Landmark and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. In many places, the road was literally carved out of the mountainsides. Contractors were required to use small blasts of explosives in order to reduce the destruction to the surrounding landscape.

Thanks to the ecological forethought of the National Park Service, bridges, retaining walls and guardrails were all made of native materials.  And many of the structures along the road were created with rock excavated from the mountainside during road construction.

In late fall 1932, the first automobile passed over the entire 50 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  It was formally opened in a special ceremony on July 15, 1933. Until that day, the road was simply called the “Transmountain Highway”, but it was officially designated as the Going-to-the-Sun Road during the dedication ceremony. The road borrows its name from a nearby mountain of the same name.  A press release from 1933 tells the story of the story of the deity, Sour Spirit, who came down from the sun to teach Blackfeet braves the rudiments of the hunt. On his way back to the sun, Sour Spirit had his image reproduced on the top of the mountain for inspiration to the Blackfeet. However, an alternate story suggests a white explorer in the 1880s concocted both the name and the legend. No matter the source, everyone who travels the road agrees that the name is perfect for this spectacular route.

Until the late 1930’s the road was crushed rock.  The park began laying asphalt in 1938, but World War II interrupted the paving process.  It wasn’t until 1952 that the entire road was fully paved.  Today, the road is almost 80 years old and is undergoing an extensive rehabilitation. This multi-year project was designed to ensure that the road will remain available to visitors while still providing much-needed repairs and rehabilitation. During the summer months, construction delays will be limited to 40 minutes total for a one-way trip across the road. In late September and early October delays up to two hours are possible. The Park Service provides updates on the status of the road at www.nps.gov/glac.

This spectacular route is only about 50 miles long, but many visitors find that they will spend a full day along the route. Starting from the forests of the west side or the prairies of the east side, the road gains altitude until it reaches the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (6,446’).  The Logan Pass Visitors Center features exhibits, publications and informational programs. Along the way, there are majestic vistas, waterfalls, rushing streams, mountain meadows of wildflowers and trailheads for almost 700 miles of hiking trails. These trails range from easy strolls along handicapped accessible trails to treks into the park’s backcountry.

We encourage everyone to take their time and enjoy some of these special points of interest. A companion article provides details of favorite hiking trails found along the road:

  • Lake McDonald: The park’s largest lake is located on the west side where the Sun Road winds along the lake’s eastern shore.  Lake McDonald Lodge, one of the park’s historic lodges, is located at the northern end.  In August 2003, a forest fire advanced to the west shore of this beautiful lake.
  • Sacred Dancing Cascade: A photographer’s delight on McDonald Creek.  Take a short walk through red cedar/hemlock forest to Johns Lake.  Watch for Moose along the way.
  • The Loop: The only switchback on the Sun Road provides a view of Heaven’s Peak. In the summer of 2003, fire reached the loop and jumped the road.
  • Bird Woman Falls Overlook: Provides a spectacular view of Bird Woman Falls as is cascades from a hanging valley on the slopes of Mount Oberlin.
  • Weeping Wall: The kid’s love it, but roll up the car windows if you don’t want to get wet!  Spring runoff creates a rushing waterfall while the flow from the rocks might be a trickle in fall.
  • Logan Pass: The 360-degree view stretches into Canada to the north and Montana to the south.  Hidden Lake Nature Trail and Highline Trail provide great wildlife viewing opportunities. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep frequent the area.
  • Jackson Glacier Overlook: The best view of a glacier from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
  • Sunrift Gorge: A water carved gorge just a few feet from the road.  See if you can spot the water ouzel in the creek.
  • St. Mary Visitor Center: From the east, the starting point of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Because much of the road was literally carved out of the sides of mountains, there are restrictions concerning the size of vehicle allowed.  Vehicles (and vehicle combinations) longer than 21 feet or wider than eight feet (including mirrors) are prohibited between Avalanche Campground and the Sun Point parking area.

For those who prefer to let someone else do the driving, the park provides a free shuttle service during the summer.  And the historic red buses of Glacier provide one of the best ways to see the sights along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  The 17-passenger red buses are perfect for sightseeing with a rollback canvas convertible top, an entry door for each row of seats and windows that all open. Thanks to a complete renovation by Ford Motor Company, the historic “reds” now run on propane fuel, making them not only a historic treasure but also a model of alternative fuel solutions for our national park.

To find out more about this historic road: Glacier National Park, West Glacier, MT 59936  406-888-7800  www.nps.gov/glac

To learn more about Bigfork and surrounding area, visit www.bigfork.org.  Media queries may be directed to Carol Beck-Edgar at edgecomm@montanasky.us. 406-837-2061.

 

 


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