Going-to-the-Sun Road Trip: Tour Glacier National Park in Montana

At the first signs of spring, workers
begin to clear the snow — up
to 80 feet deep in places — from
Going-to-the-Sun Road, a job that
takes two months to complete

St. Mary Lake
St. Mary Lake, with tiny Wild Goose Island seemingly adrift in its center.

Route Details

Length: About 50 miles.

When to go: Going-to-the-Sun Road is
usually open from June through mid-October.

Nearby attraction: Waterton Lakes
National Park, contiguous to Glacier, lies
north of the U.S.-Canada border. The two
together are known as Waterton-Glacier
International Peace Park.

Words to the wise: Bring sunscreen
and warm clothing, such as sweaters and
rain gear.

Further information: Glacier National
Park, West Glacier, MT 59936; tel. 406-888-5441, www.nps.gov/glac/.

At the first signs of spring, workers
begin to clear the snow — up
to 80 feet deep in places — from
Going-to-the-Sun Road, a job that
takes two months to complete. The
time and effort prove worthwhile,
though, for when traffic finally begins
to flow, visitors are treated to a
nonstop show of stirring views. Most
who make the trip will be inclined to
agree with Glacier’s founding father,
who dubbed the park the Crown of
the Continent.

1. Lake McDonald
Before heading into the heart of
the park, you might want to acquaint
yourself with some of its
plants and animals, which are
featured in exhibits at the Agpar
visitor center. Thus informed, you
can be on the lookout for the real
thing as you set out on Going-to-the-Sun Road. For 10 miles
or so, the highway hugs the once
wooded shore of Lake McDonald,
the site of forest fires in 2003
that charred many of the trees on
its opposite shore.

Leaving the lake, the drive tunnels
through a forest of mountain
hemlocks and red cedars as it begins
its climb beside McDonald
Creek. Along the way, it passes
McDonald Falls, where a thunderous roar heralds a stunning view
of the cascade. Just beyond lies a
marshy area frequented by moose.

2. Trail of the Cedars
Thick stands of moss-draped hemlocks
and fragrant cedars cast a
cool shade across this half-mile
elevated boardwalk that winds
through an ancient forest. Myriad
ferns and mosses, glistening with
dew, flourish on the forest floor,
and at the eastern end of the trail,
the faint murmur of Avalanche
Creek, slipping through a small
gorge, lends a musical note.

Be on the alert along streams
for a glimpse of the water ouzel,
or dipper, a small slate-colored
bird that walks underwater in its
search for food. Listen, too, for
the haunting calls of the varied
thrush, especially in the moist
forests along the two-mile trail
leading to Avalanche Lake. At the
path’s end half a dozen waterfalls,
dancing down 2,000-foot cliffs,
drain into the sparkling lake.

3. Garden Wall
As the road begins its steady ascent,
the cedars and hemlocks give way
to scattered stands of spruces and
firs. Once past Red Rock Point,
you may gasp as the Garden Wall
first comes into view. A sheer ridge
cresting thousands of feet above,
its spine makes up part of the
Continental Divide. Water falling
to the west of the divide drains
toward the Pacific; to the east it
flows toward the Atlantic.

A fire in 1967, sparked by lightning, blazed through the woodlands
in this area. Reduced to mere
matchsticks, the charred skeletons
of trees now punctuate the slopes,
which are turning green again as
shrubs and fledgling pines make a
comeback, reclaiming this rugged,
once-devastated landscape.

4. Birdwoman Falls
Just beneath the Garden Wall’s
great shadow, the drive meanders
along a lengthy zigzag known as
the Loop. Climbing ever higher
into the thinning air, it arrives at
a landscape of waterfalls, peaks,
and plunging valleys. Perched
above the timberline, this realm
boasts many wonders, including
Birdwoman Falls. Two miles farther along lies
Weeping Wall, where several
streams descend a craggy cliff.

5. Logan Pass
The drive’s pinnacle at 6,646 feet,
Logan Pass is a high point in terms
of scenery as well, with massive
domes and spinelike ridges looming
boldly above the alpine wilds.
A stunted forest of contorted firs
marks the timberline, but the open
slopes and meadows beyond are
awash in summer in a sea of wildflowers.
Yellow glacier lilies pushing
through the last patches of
snow are among the showstoppers,
along with shooting stars, Indian
paintbrushes, and stately wands
of beargrass topped with bold
clusters of white flowers — airy
snowballs that sway in the breeze.

Trails begin and end at the visitor
center at Logan Pass, including
a boardwalk that wends through a lovely
area called the Hanging
Gardens. Here as
elsewhere at Glacier, remember
to scan the surrounding
slopes for glimpses of
one of the park’s signature
creatures, the
shaggy mountain goat.

6. Jackson Glacier

This scenic viewpoint,
one of many in the
park, affords a splendid
view of the frozen,
gray-blue mass of
Jackson Glacier. Jackson,
like the 50 or so
other glaciers in the
park, is but a feeble
reminder of the stupendous
ice-age glaciers
that shaped so
much of this region’s
stunning scenery many
years ago.

7. St. Mary Lake
Aspens, alders, and birches, their
leaves green in summer but golden
in the fall, line the road as the
drive descends toward St. Mary
Valley and its namesake lake.

For one of the best roadside
views of this mountain gem, pull
over at the Wild Goose Island
Overlook. Named for a pair of
geese that once nested on its
shores, the little island seems to
float on the otherwise uninterrupted
surface of St. Mary Lake. Cresting in the distance is another
unusual sight — Triple Divide
Peak, which forms part of
the Continental Divide.

Up ahead the views open wide,
and meadows of bunchgrass fan
across the wilds. At Divide Creek
the heart-stirring wonders of the
park are left behind as you venture on to the vast plains lying
to the east — unless, of course,
you succumb to the urge to turn
around and travel the drive through
Glacier National Park again.

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