Talking to rangers about today’s drive, we were warned that much of the road “hangs from the cliff.” That is a polite way to say “if you are scared of heights and depths and narrow roads and straight-down cliffs . . . take the shuttle . . . or the legendary red-bus tour.”
Tom has been known to be a bit sensitive about twisting roads with vertical drop-offs, but was surprisingly comfortable driving this road --- the legendary Going-to-the-Sun road. It bisects Glacier National Park in half, east to west, and is renowned for 50 miles of stunning scenery. There are not many other roads in Glacier National Park, and none that venture into the interior of the Park, so you can’t say you have seen Glacier unless you have traveled the Going-to-the-Sun road! Some of the road is open year-round, but the higher sections are only open after winter snows are plowed – that would be less than a week before we arrived!
The road is one of the most difficult roads in North America to snowplow in the spring. Up to 80 feet of snow on top at Logan Pass, and more just east of the pass where the deepest snowfield has long been referred to as the Big Drift. The road takes about ten weeks to plow, even with equipment that can move 4000 tons of snow in an hour. The snowplow crew can clear as little as 500 feet (150 m) of the road per day. On the east side of the continental divide, there are few guard rails due to heavy snows and the resultant late winter avalanches that have repeatedly destroyed every protective barrier ever constructed.
We began at 9:00 knowing that it would take a full day to see and fully appreciate this road and the beautiful views it offers travelers. Starting out was easy with familiar, pleasant driving past Lake McDonald. As we ventured away from the lake and commenced to climb, we passed a few trail-heads and stopped at several scenic turnouts and overlooks.
The half-way point is called the loop – the only switchback on the east-bound road as it abruptly turns west-bound in one giant turn. At this point the drive takes a definite increase on the Richter Scale as the road narrows, the cliff crowds in, and the granite wall starts gushing multiple waterfalls across the road, known as The Weeping Wall! Roll up the windows, Tom!
Shortly after is Logan Pass that sits on the Continental Divide at 6,646 feet. A stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Center relieves the tension of the drive as the worst was behind us and there are . . . “facilities!”
Once past the Logan Pass Visitor Center, we watched for the trail head to St. Mary’s Falls. The parking area was full and so our hike commenced ¼ mile down the road where we finally found a parking spot. A beautiful trail, it was packed with enough people to moderate our fear of hiking in grizzly bear country. We didn't have any bear spray, but Ella did strap on her stun gun!
It was a gentle, downward trail and not overly rocky or rutty, and 45 minutes of hiking led us to the falls. We ate lunch on the rocks, watching the 25-or-so other people that were there, and then headed back out – facing an uphill climb to get back to the car.
It goes without saying we completed all 50 miles, past Saint Mary Lake and to the east entrance where we enjoyed the restrooms and views of the Saint Mary Visitor Center. The deal was, however that we had to back-track the whole trip – same miles, same elevations – same drop-offs --- but different views!
Back at the camper at 4:00 we took showers , Tom put on his “I drove it" shirt, and we broke open a favorite bottle of wine. We even managed to sit and relax for an hour in our campsite, reflecting on the unparalleled day!
If you want to drive a virtual tour of Going-to-the-Sun road, just follow along on this link to Google maps – satellite view!
Tomorrow -- our last day at Glacier!
We don’t go camping any more . . . we go ‘streamin’ ! The “SIlvermine and His” is our 2016 23' Airstream, and ‘streamin’ is the name we use to describe our adventures. Stream along as we document everything from weekend trips to longer summer excursions and full-blown vacations. You know what they say: if you’re not in an Airstream – you’re just camping!
Tom & Ella Brown