Glacier Trip: A Day on Going-to-the-Sun Road

Note: This is the 4th in a series of entries in my Glacier National Park travel photo journal. If this is new to you, please start with the first one for the full story of our adventures.

September 9th. Morning. We struck camp. A pattern we established without trying, due to the rhythms of exploring the park and the lack of open camp sites. Today we took Going-to-the-Sun Road east. We would spend the bulk of the day on this 52-mile highway.

Scenery along the Road.

We drove the full length of Going-to-the-Sun Road, from our camp site in Apgar in the west to the town of St. Mary in the east.

Going-to-the-Sun Road runs through the heart of Glacier, connecting West Glacier to the town of St. Mary, another park entrance on the eastern side. It’s been there since 1933, built under a New Deal program, and is a National Historic Landmark. When completed, it must have transformed access to the park; I understand it used to take several days to cross the park due to the rugged terrain. It’s somewhat difficult to drive–not so much because of the steepness and twists and turns, but because the natural beauty it presents you is so spectacular, it’s not easy to keep your eyes on the road.

A typical view from Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Parts of the road shut down in the off season, but it was still fully open. There was a lot of construction, mainly shoring up stone support walls and fixing bridges. There’s been a lot of damage over the years from avalanches and traffic. Traffic was pulsed by the construction crews. We pulled over several times for up to half an hour. People would kill their engines and walked around a little, take in the sights. I took those opportunities to take pictures and write terse proto-notes for this journal. It was very windy.

Stuck in construction traffic. I reckon it could be worse.

It is a two-lane highway, but only just. Vehicles were slower and smaller 80 years ago, and this road cuts it close even by the norms of the day. There are size restrictions, and if you’re oversize, do not attempt. Parts were narrow enough that I nosed the van through them carefully. That said, the road is quite drivable, even with the construction.

Snowpack on the mountainside.

We passed by people biking the road. Very impressive. This road cuts across the Continental Divide; it’s not exactly flat. Sometimes they passed us too, not ensnared by construction traffic. On this road we also saw our first jammers. More on that to come.

We stopped briefly at the very crowded Logan Pass visitor center, mainly for driving/bio break and to get out snacks for the rest of the drive. It was getting close to noon. Logan Pass the halfway point and summit of the road. There are some great trailheads here, but it wasn’t on the agenda. I checked it out anyway. Seeing the trailhead leading up into the mountain peaks got me itchy to see a glacier first hand. I went back into the visitor center and spoke to a ranger. She advised hiking up to Grinnell Glacier, which you can do pretty conveniently from the boat dock at Many Glacier Hotel. But we’re not there yet.

Saint Mary Lake, on the southern side of Going-to-the-Sun Road.

There is a dramatic change of scenery once you cross the Continental Divide. What had been dark green vegetation became golden and almost arid. I drove on to St. Mary, descending rapidly on the smooth, now traffic-free road. We had very late lunch at a nice little place in town.

Saint Mary Lake.

There’s a campsite near the town of St. Mary, also called St. Mary. I had wondered if our late arrival would be a problem–in Apgar, virtually all the spaces would have been taken by late afternoon–but it was almost empty. We had our choice of dozens of spots, and found a very nice one. We unloaded the van and set up camp. Then I took a nap in the van and Heather read in the treeshade. As evening approached we drove back into town. There was a motel with laundry and showers and took advantage of them. It had been almost a week since we left San Diego and the clothes were piling up.

We had plans for the night. There is an  astronomy group outing on a regular schedule, every Friday I think. It’s led by a professional astronomer associated with the park. We saw a posting for it in camp. Seeing the planets and the stars, out here in the wilderness, far away from any city lights: it sounded great. It was a 10-minute hike from our campsite, so I left the van behind.

We joined a small group of people. The astronomer got out a large, luggable reflecting telescope and pointed it into the night sky. Unfortunately, there was a problem. A wildfire was burning out in Montana somewhere, not in Glacier but upwind of it. It gave a smoky haze to the atmosphere, causing poor seeing. But we made the best of it. Jupiter was dramatic and beautiful nonetheless. It slid across the telescope in just seconds; the speed was impressive. It gives you a strong intuitive feel for the wild motion of the solar system.

The condition that evening were supposed to be good for seeing the aurora. The astronomer suggested relocating the group at a higher point, hoping for better seeing. He gave Heather and me a lift there, and most of the rest of the group went too. I can now say I’ve seen the aurora… technically.  Masked by the haze of the night sky was a faint whitish glow. The astronomer said that was the aurora, and took a photo of it with a camera that drew out its optical characteristics more than the naked eye can. I believed him, but I wouldn’t have noticed it unless he pointed it out. It was disappointing. I’ve always wanted to see the aurora, and when he said it was there, I’d imagined vivid, luminescent colors in the sky. But it wasn’t to be. Anyway I hadn’t expected to see it, so it wasn’t a great loss. And seeing the planets and constellations out in the mountains was really great. I would recommend it to anyone; it’s a very special way to experience the park, to know it’s natural beauty as park of the cosmos. Afterwards, the astronomer gave us a lift back to our camp site.

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