“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.