We-Who-Went-to-the-Sun (and-Weren’t-Eclipsed!)

“A national park highway should have not only fine natural scenery, but exhibitions of ingenious engineering skill. It should have at least a few tunnels, galleries, terraces, bridges, hairpin turns, and all that sort of thing– to produce the surprises, thrills and joys that tourists seek.”  –Professor Lyman Sperry, explorer, in a 1915 letter to the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and the Kalispell Bee, from the book Going-to-the-Sun Road by C.W. Guthrie (2006).


And this 50 mile-long highway through Montana’s Glacier National Park has it all, my friends. It’s got to be seen to be truly believed, especially for what it opens to the senses in all its jaw-dropping, mind-blowing magnificence. As author C.W. Guthrie states, “That this road exists and somehow seems to belong is a marvel of engineering and gritty determination to do it right.”

For the dedication of the road in July 1933, Horace Albright, the director of the National Park Service, wrote that Going-to-the-Sun should be the singular highway in the park for the motorist and the biker and that it should stand “supreme and alone,” as it does today.

Constructed over a 20-year period by engineers, landscape architects and innumerable laborers, Going-to-the-Sun Road blends in admirably with Glacier’s rushing streams, lakes, and towering alpine mountains. We who drove it (several times!), in the company of all too many other tourists, reveled in the wonders of this place and sadly said farewell to the remnant glaciers now receding into the embrace of climate change.

It’s been said that Glacier National Park (adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada) contains the most stunning scenery in America, and who am I to argue such opinion. Its narrow highway was the first national park road built to complement and harmonize with the beauties of a place while minimizing damage to the country it traverses.

on the rainbow road w/L.

The only times the road didn’t feel artfully constructed over a tortuous but seamless route (thought by some to be impossible when first designed) was when the traffic choked because some driver saw a bear or a mountain goat and couldn’t reach a pull-over spot.

At such a time you might be hanging over a thousand-foot drop-off while staring at the face of Bird Woman Falls or Heaven’s Peak and wondering who was crazier, the original designer or yourself for wanting to drive up here. It’s no place to be if the Earth suddenly quakes.

The significant architectural features of the 50-mile route from West Glacier to St. Mary, Montana are too many to list in detail but, for starters, I’ll note that the road’s 22-foot width narrows significantly along 10 miles of the “Garden Wall.” There’s a six percent road-grade from “The Loop” to Logan Pass, two tunnels, eight bridges plus culverts for the numerous streams, and 40,000 feet of native-stone guard walls to hold the tourists at the mountainsides (especially appealing in sites like the Triple Arches at the Garden Wall).

the road’s Triple Arches

Each year, the upkeep of the highway for its snow and rock removal and support systems is a monumental affair that almost staggers the imagination.

Well, the impossible takes a little longer, but the difficult we do immediately.”–Going-to-the-Sun Road engineer, 1925.

But darn it all, we didn’t come up here just to marvel at a man-made wonder. We came for an honest look at this “crown of the continent,” this place of rivertops whose waters flow to the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Hudson Bay. We scratched only the surface of this 16,000 square-mile wonderland that contains parts of two mountain ranges and over 130 named lakes. It’s a vast and pristine ecosystem that I’d love to see again.

We pitched our tent for several days at the Apgar Campground near the crystalline waters of Lake McDonald following a night spent at an interesting place called Tully Lake. Tully is a forested campground situated about 25 miles from Whitefish, MT and is one of the few locations in the state where common loons are nesting.

Middle Fork Flathead, outside of Glacier

We were lucky to get our Apgar site by arriving early on a Monday morning. Although Glacier is a hiking and a backcountry camping paradise, we found that a designated campground was our best bet for the limited amount of time we had available. From there our short hikes and fishing forays would help us get some insight into the park.

Most of the streams and rivers in the park are glacially fed and thus too clean and sterile, lacking in sufficient nutrients, for good trout fishing, but they certainly are attractive to a die-hard like myself. McDonald Creek was incredibly clear and cold and flowing over colorful stones and gravel. It didn’t matter that its insect life was nil and that its trout are few and far between. It just felt great to cast beneath the awesome peaks of Glacier.

chasm on Avalanche Creek

Avalanche Creek was a different story. There Leighanne and I walked a mile-long boardwalk, a circuit trail, that wound through a forest of magnificent trees (such as western cedar and black poplar). Grizzly bears are a major presence in the park but here are probably too well fed to sniff around for hikers. Anyway, I carried a small bamboo rod, wet-wading on this creek while catching and releasing lots of cutthroats up to nine or 10 inches long and apparently doing okay on a meager diet.

St. Mary’s Lake w/ Isle of Pines

To round out our discoveries in northwestern Montana, we left Glacier National Park occasionally for a quick visit to a brewery or a family-style restaurant or a fishing hole along the South Branch and (especially) the Middle Branch Flathead River where I could make a long cast and successfully land a west-slope cutthroat. It was fun.

[Thus ends my six-piece series called “Top of the Rockies” though a coda from the Dakotas (and eastern Montana) is forthcoming as a final piece to sum things up. Thanks and please stay tuned!]

Middle Fork Flathead, outside of Glacier



About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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17 Responses to We-Who-Went-to-the-Sun (and-Weren’t-Eclipsed!)

  1. Brent says:

    The language you used to describe even a road is the most telling sign of how much this experience inspired you! This is vaulting quickly up my bucket list, and hopefully I’ll get there before they change the name to “Here There Were Glaciers National Park.”

    • The whole place, road and all, is, well, inspirational! You will love it, and may we all see it, for the first time or as a repeat, before it’s called, as you say, Here-There-Were-Glaciers NP!

  2. Kenov says:

    Beautiful place, well described. My extended family shares an inholding next to the ranger station on Lake McDonald, and I spent a lot of time there growing up. As a kid, though, I was not too keen on driving that road.

    • What a place for an inholding, Kenov. You are very fortunate for that, and I envy the experience and knowledge of the place that you must have. As for not having been too keen on driving the road, I understand completely. My wife didn’t mind driving, and I just held on tight and refrained from looking directly over. Vertigo!

      • Kenov says:

        LOL. I takes some getting used to. Sadly, the cabins are evacuated right now and under threat of fire. They are pretty well protected, though, and I think they’ll be OK. Earlier this year, my father, as a result of a lifetime of bad decisions, sold our share in the place. Still, everyone there is family and it feels like home. Crazy year.

      • Kenov,
        Hopefully the fires will leave the cabins and traditional lodges alone. Crazy times, indeed. And now, big water events in the south. It all strikes home.

  3. plaidcamper says:

    What a wonderful post, Walt! It is mighty hard to capture the sense of scale and magnificence of this highway and park, but I think you did it here in words and pictures. You’re right in that it has to be seen and experienced to be believed, and your piece has me itching to return there. It’s only a matter of a morning in the car from here, and I’ve got some time this September…although the snow often flies early and heavy down there.
    If you’re ever back this way, I’ll see you in the Great Northern Brewery, Whitefish – they have a Going to the Sun IPA that is a pretty good reward for making it through the white knuckle ride. Cheers!

    • Plaid, We went to a brewery (and distillery) near Whitefish but I don’t think it was the Great Northern. I’m hoping to make another run to this area (maybe next summer) and if so, let’s meet up for a Going to the Sun IPA! That may help me get a better sense of the scale here at GNP (you’re right, it’s tough, especially for a neophyte). Anyway, till then, I hope you get the pleasure of another visit to the park in the near future, and maybe before the snow flies, but in that case, hurry! Thanks, my friend.

  4. Even though It wouldn’t be a terribly long drive, I’ve never been, I’m embarrassed to say. Thank you Walt for such a wonderful description of your trip. I’m envious. The photos are great!

    • Well, I’m glad you liked ’em, Howard and, if you ever get the chance to ramble up there, I know that you, as a bonafide Coloradoan, will enjoy and be impressed with the similarities and differences of this wonderful park.

  5. Bob Stanton says:

    Well brother, you certainly saved the best for last. What a way to cap off the trip, as well as the serial. Truly stunning narrative and pictures – the effect Glacier had on you is palpable. Best pic: L. and the rainbow!

  6. Ross says:

    Another wonderful post Walt, your telling paints a vivid picture. The Going to the Sun road is amazing; drove it & explored a bit of the park several years ago. Reading your descriptive post brought all back to me .. thank you.

    • Hey Ross, I’m pleased that you had a similar experience there and that I could bring it back into focus for you a little here. The place really leaves its mark for us, doesn’t it. Will see you at TU meet shortly, I hope.

  7. loydtruss says:

    I can’t imagine why anyone would want to leave the U.S to vacation when here in the states we have some of the most beautiful places on earth to visit. I have to say this last adventure is my favorite. I was all ready to take the 50 mile trip through the park when my wife and I will visit Montana for a guided float trip next year; BUT when I told her how narrow the road was and the drop offs in the park she no way!! So I guess we will have to view what can of the park from a distance. Thanks for sharing

    • Bill,
      Glad to hear that you and yours will get to the Glacier area next year. Tell your wife that there’s an easier way to see the road and the park than taking a fairly stressful drive. Here’s how: the park has a continuous bussing system. You take what they call a Jammer bus, which is open-aired and comfortable and the driver takes you to a lot of stop-offs. And if the drop-offs look scary, you don’t have to look at ’em (much). Go for it!

  8. loydtruss says:

    Thanks Walt for the alternative route, I will try to convince her, I know we will miss some spectacular scenery if we don’t make the route.

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