The 52-mile long Going-to-the-Sun Road bisecting Glacier Park is rightfully famous. Brainchild of park superintendent William Logan, serious construction on this road between west and east Glacier began in 1921. Eleven years later (1932), the last portions of the road were completed and it was opened to the public. Its construction was a remarkable feat. It crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, 6646 feet elevation, in one of the most highly scenic and extremely rugged segments of the Rocky Mountains, known as the Rocky Mountain Front.
The road that traverses the Crown of the Continent is officially designated as a National Historic Landmark, National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and is registered as a National Historic Place. Since we were lucky to have a full week at Glacier Park, we drove portions of the road several times on the western segment, and once from east to the Loop.
When you turn off Highway 2 at West Glacier just before the railroad station, you will find yourself on a 2 mile stretch of road that passes through park headquarters and the west entrance. Some publications include it as part of Going-to-the-Sun Road. At the fork, Camas Road heads west to Apgar and North Fork country, and Going to the Sun Road veers right, soon hugging glacial Lake McDonald, Glacier’s biggest lake.
It’s impossible not to notice that the entire area across the lake, Howe Ridge, is covered with skeletal remains of trees. Tones of black and gray still predominate this re-birthing lodgepole-larch forest. The Roberts Fire, which devastated Howe Ridge, was one of many raging in and around Glacier Park in summer of 2003. Roberts Fire burned 52,700 acres both inside and outside the park, and did not stop smoldering until substantial winter rains.
Lake McDonald Lodge on the north end of the lake, is a destination resort with lots of activity around and inside it. It was built in Swiss-Chalet style, as were all the lodges and chalets in Glacier Park. In front of the lodge, (for it faces the lake), you can take a boat tour on the historic DeSmet, rent a smaller boat, take a Red Bus Tour, horseback ride, or hike from the lodge.
McDonald Creek and Falls may be viewed from a pullout and wooden decks a short drive up the road from the lodge, or from the trail off North McDonald Road, on the north side of the creek.
Trail of the Cedars takes you for a pleasant stroll, much of it boardwalked, in a small, moist ecosystem along the McDonald drainage up Avalanche Creek. Even if you don’t hike all the way to Avalanche Lake, just proceeding a short distance up the offshoot trail gives you misty views of sculpted Avalanche Gorge, a semi-slot canyon of the North.
The Sun Road continues to ascend alongside McDonald Creek and before you know it you’re climbing the Loop, the single switchback, and turning on your headlights in the West Side Tunnel. There’s a fair-sized pullout at the turn of the Loop. From here, you can again see evidence of another 2003 fire, the Trapper Fire. This high elevation fire almost made it across the Continental Divide before winter rains squelched its progress. Panoramic views from the Loop pullout include Heavens Peak and Mt. Oberlin.
Between the almost 180-degree Loop turn and Weeping Wall, we spot a ptarmigan nonchalantly walking alongside the road. Related to the grouse, these very adaptable birds camouflage themselves depending on the season. White in winter and brown and gray in summer, this one-pound puffy little bird simply fluffs up its feathers to stay warm, creating an air pocket around itself like a small down-jacket.
Weeping Wall isn’t weeping much this late in the season before rain or snow, but just beyond, Triple Arches is in plain view. These were built as an aesthetic alternative to unattractive retaining walls, thanks to the creativity of Williams and Douglas construction firm of Tacoma, Washington (1927).
On the last stretch before the summit, the the Garden Wall looms above the north side of the road. This massive arête, is a long narrow ridge that formed when glaciers ate away both sides of mountains between Lake McDonald Valley and Many Glacier Valley. The very popular alpine Highline Trail follows just under the crest of the Garden Wall west of the Continental Divide, 7.6 miles from Logan Pass to the backcountry Granite Park Chalet.
The summit at Logan Pass and eastern portion of Going to the Sun Road will be covered in the Glacier East journal. Click here for FAQ’s about Going-to-the-Sun Road.