Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the world's most spectacular scenic drives, and is a marvel in itself. That it got built at all is a near-miracle. On few other 50-mile stretches anywhere can you see waterfalls, glaciers, deep gorges, wide vistas, and cross the Continental Divide, and do so from the comfort and safety of your own car.
Named for an ancient Native American legend, the road traverses Glacier National Park, one of America's most beautiful and pristine. It was built during Depression Years, and has held up since then, though it is in need of serious refurbishment in the very near future. It is not for trucks or heavy RV vehicles (see restrictions below), making it all the more enjoyable for ordinary motorists. The highway is open usually from early June through mid-October (so make your plans soon!), when snow begins to make it too hazardous. During the winter, however, you may drive from West Glacier to Lake McDonald, about ten miles, before you reach closure barriers. Call the park at 406/888-7800 to find out about road conditions.
The nearest US highways to the Road are 89 on the east, 2 on the south and 93 on the west.
The main points of interest on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, from west to east, with the mileage from West Glacier indicated in parentheses, are:
- Apgar Village (2.6), the visitor center and many facilities
- The Lake McDonald Historic District (10.8), centering on the Lake McDonald Lodge
- Johns Lake Pullout (12.8), where you can take a half-mile walk through a red cedar and hemlock forest to the marshy Johns Lake, looking for moose and waterfowl all the while.
- The Trail of the Cedars Avalanche Campground (16.2), a third-of-a-mile handicapped accessible trail.
- The Loop (24.6), where you get a scenic view of Heaven's Peak
- The Bird Woman Falls Overlook (26.8), which you see across the valley
- Weeping Wall (28.7), where water cascades down the wall next to your car, unless it's fall, when there's hardly a trickle
- Logan Pass (32), visitor center sitting atop the Continental Divide
- Jackson Glacier Overlook (36.1), best view of a glacier from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
- Next is the Sunrift Gorge (39.4), where you can take a 75-foot walk to get a spectacular view of the water-carved gorge
- Sun Point (40), where you can take a 1.2-mile hike on the Sun Point Nature Trail or just look around at the rest of the magnificent view
- Rising Sun (43.8), boat dock and campground
- Two Dog Flats (48), native grassland community where small mammals live, as do songbirds and in winter, a large elk population
- St. Mary Visitor Center (49.3), exhibits and brochures available
- St. Mary itself (50.1), a thriving community just outside the park.
The "Great Outdoors" issues an imperative call here, and you would be foolish to ignore it. In summer, hiking, biking, trailblazing and water activities predominate. In winter, of course, it's all skiing. (Thankfully, noisy snowmobiles are banned.)
Among the least difficult of all ways to see the park is on scenic boat trips from the Glacier Park Boat Company. In addition to tours, they rent out small boats (kayaks, canoes, rowboats and motorboats), or even take you on guided walks. All fares, they say, are $11 or less, children 4 to 12 half price, those under 4 ride free. Phone the company at 406/257-2426, fax 406/756-1437, e-mail email@example.com, Web site www.montanaweb.com/gpboats.
Wild River Adventures in West Glacier will take you on rougher waters, as well as let you go fishing or horseback riding with them. A half-day whitewater event runs $40 for adults, $30 for young people. Catch them at 800/700-7056 or 406/387-9453, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Web at www.riverwild.com.
A full day hike and raft trip can be had for just $78 adult, $68 child, from Glacier Wilderness Guides & Montana Raft Company, phone 800/521-RAFT, Web site www.glacierguides.com.
Cycling can be fun in summer, and at $29 a day for adults (half price for kids) isn't too pricey. The Sun Road Cycles people in West Glacier offer multi-day discounts, too. Phone for information at 406/888-9034.
For the more rugged at heart (and bottom), horseback riding may be the thing. You can participate in trail rides with scenic views of the park from $20 an hour or $85 a full day including lunch. Contact Rawhide Trail Rides in West Glacier, phone 800/388-5727, Web site rawhidetradingpost.com.
In winter, you can join in Glacier Park Ski Tours, from about $60 per day (for groups of five or more), meals included. For $20 more, you can go on an igloo tour, building your own igloo or snow cave in which to sleep! Phone them at 800/646-6043 ext. 3724 or 406/862-2790 and ask for Rusty Wells, a professional ski instructor and watercolor artist.
If you want to learn about this part of the country, you couldn't do better than to sign up for a course with the Glacier Institute, which has an Education Center and a Field Camp in the park. They teach the "Crown of the Continent" ecosystem in all its glory, through courses that run from as little as $30 for a day of snowshoeing. They have programs for both adults and youth. Write the Institute at 137 Main Street or PO Box 7457, Kalispell MT 59901, phone 406/755-1211, e- mail email@example.com, Web site www.glacierinstitute.org.
If entertaining the kids is your mandate for the day, consider one of these spots near the park: Big Sky Waterslide, 7211 Highway 2 East (or PO Box 2311), Columbia Falls MT 59912, phone 406/892-5025, Web site www.bigskywaterslide.com. They also have miniature greens and adventure golf.
Amazing Fun Center, seven miles south of West Glacier, has a maze, bumper boats, bankshot basketball or minigolf. You can find them in Coram MT at 406/387-5902.
Several of the best hotels in and around the park are operated by Glacier Park, Inc., a concessionaire authorized by the National Park Service. For all, reservations can be made by phoning 406/756-2444, e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, Web site www.glacierparkinc.com. Its street address is 106 Cooperative Way (104), Kalispell MT 59901.
Here are its lower-priced lodgings:
The Village Inn with 36 rooms starting at $95 per night for two persons. Located in Apgar Village, this inn is right next to the general store, boat docks and other amenities at the south end of Lake McDonald. If you like to be where the action is, this is the place. Open from May 11 to October 1.
Lake McDonald Lodge, with small cottage rooms going from just $86 a night for two persons, rooms in the Motor Inn at $92. There is also a Handicap Cottage costing $92. A traditional, old- fashioned place, the Lodge is situated right on the shore of Glacier National Park's largest lake, and is a center for all sorts of aquatic activity. You can rent your own boat by the day or hour here, from $8 to $75, depending on type of craft and length of rental. Open May 21 through October 1.
At the Rising Sun, with 72 units, motel rooms go for just $82, a cottage for $86 and rooms in the Motor Inn from $92. Bad news: The place has all the ambiance of the Bates Motel (Psycho, remember). In addition to the blah motel, there's a service station, gift shop and camp store. The good news: St.Mary Lake is just across the road. Open from June 8 through September 5.
At SwiftCurrent, with 88 units, you can stay in a one-bedroom cottage without bath for as little as $41 a night, in a two-bedroom cottage without bath for $51. Rooms with bath start at $70 in a cottage, $82 at Pine Top and $92 in the Motor Inn. A Handicap Motor Inn room goes for $92. Don't expect anything but rustic decor, barebones at best. You're in a spectacular mountain setting at the foot of two mountains, and there will be plenty of deer, elk and moose wandering around. There is an Italian restaurant on the site, too (see details below). Open from June 7 to September 4.
The same concessionaire operates more expensive hotels, some of which you may want to visit just to see their beautiful surroundings and their old-fashioned rustic elegance. They include the Glacier Park Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel and The Prince of Wales.
Not part of the concession is the well-run Apgar Village Lodge, also in Apgar Village, with rooms starting as low as $70 for two persons. There are 48 rustic cabin and motel units, each with shower, electric heat, and fully carpeted. Run by the Lundgren family. Open from May 1 through October 14. Write PO Box 410, West Glacier MT 59936, phone 406/888-5484, fax 406/888-5273, Web site www.westglacier.com.
Just outside St. Mary's is the venerable Park Café, where you are guaranteed good eating, whether it is breakfast from $3.50 (1 egg with hash brown potatoes and your choice of toasts), or lunches from $4.70 (hamburger with tortilla chips). Dinner runs from $8 (a fully loaded baked potato and a scoop of ice cream later), with most main meals costing $11.30 (huge burger) to $13.25 (pork chops). Each dinner comes with soup or salad, baked potato or fries, veggies and a scoop of ice cream. What it is really famous for are homemade pies (which have their own menu), big slices costing only $3. They are on Highway 89 in St. Mary's, phone 406/732-4458.
Serrano's in East Glacier is another institution hereabouts. They serve the best Mexican- Californian-Southwest food in Montana, including very good seafood dishes. Main courses run from $9 to $15. Contact it at 29 Dawson Avenue, East Glacier, phone October through April. There's a fine branch in Whitefish (on the other side of the park), open all year. The phone is 406/226- 9392.
The Ristorante Italiano, in the SwiftCurrent Motel (see above), lets you make your own pizzas from just $5.50 (for small cheese pizza) and has stromboli for dinner from $7.50, pasta from $8.50. At lunchtime, you can get sandwiches for as little as $6.50 (hot Italian sub). There's a kid's menu with breakfasts, lunches, dinners starting as low as $2.50.
For further information on Glacier, phone 406/888-7800 or visit this Web site: www.nps.gov/glac.
Be sure to be careful near bears, which can be dangerous. During my last visit, vacationers had to be evacuated from their camping grounds when bears got too near and too rambunctious. Above all, never feed them, never approach them and never keep food out in the open if you're picnicking or camping out.
A note on vehicle sizes and restrictions: Vehicles and combinations longer than 21 feet (including bumpers) and wider than 8 feet (including mirrors) are prohibited on the section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road between Avalanche Campground and Sun Point.