Going-to-the-Sun-Road

Slow travelers have time to see stalactites hanging from the ceiling of Heaven’s Peak Tunnel. Water seeping through the passage has left numerous cracks for Glacier National Park workers to seal.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — Less than a mile up the road from Avalanche Campground, the roar of a real avalanche overrode the burble of McDonald Creek.

No animals were visible, but the scat of three major predator species spotted the asphalt. Now and again, the rain-washed breeze brought a musky whiff of something furry.

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Dozens of shades of green color Going-to-the-Sun Road’s lower portions along McDonald Creek. The McDonald Creek Valley has the easternmost extent of the Pacific Northwest Rainforest. It lies about 3,300 vertical feet below the Sun Road’s zenith at Logan Pass.

With no car around you, the Going-to-the-Sun Road offers much more than a postcard view of Glacier’s interior. The “secret season” in spring and fall when most of the 32-mile westside highway is closed to motorized traffic turns the park’s most popular passage into a trail.

“I’m used to mountain-biking in places like the Rattlesnake (recreation area),” Missoula cyclist James Jendro said during a break from the rain on the lower stretch of the road. “This is easier. Yesterday, we rode past a bear. You can hear and see the avalanches when they rumble. They just come ripping down.”

Jendro and companions Calvin Haines and Mark Randolph were the only people on the entire west half of Going-to-the-Sun Road on that May evening. The park snowplowing crew checked out at 3 p.m., as the avalanche danger near Logan Pass got too risky. That left at least 12 miles of roadway snow-free and relatively safe.

Compare that to the height of summer, when bumper-to-bumper traffic turtles up and down the Continental Divide. The two-lane road clings to cliffsides, giving little shoulder for bikers to co-exist with cars.

But only bikers realize how much of a marvel the Going-to-the-Sun Road really is. Without a roof over your head, you can see the rock overhangs that extend across entire lanes of traffic. You can also see the tiny stalactites that grow out of the ceiling of the Heaven’s Peak Tunnel. You can notice the three-finger-wide grooves left by rock drills where construction workers placed the explosives that blasted the road into existence in the 1920s.

Once snowplow crews start clearing the road above Avalanche Campground, a hiker-biker shuttle service with a 16-bike trailer will begin free operations on weekends. It runs between Apgar, Lake McDonald Lodge and Avalanche. 

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Mount Cannon’s western face bears scars of dozens of spring avalanches. The bright green slopes are regularly shorn of larger trees and become popular feeding areas for bears.

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A chance to ride the Going-to-the-Sun Road without competing with automobiles attracts hundreds of bicyclists during Glacier National Park's late spring "secret season'' in this file photo

The service starts May 14 (think Mother's Day outing) and continues until the road opens to car traffic. That date remains at the mercy of the snowpack, although routine daily shuttle service is set to begin July 1. Those passenger buses will have racks to carry a couple of bikes, but won't haul the big trailer.

“When this parking lot fills, it fills fast,” shuttle driver Sunni Phillips said during a turn-around at Avalanche. The Huckwagon trailer allows visitors to leave their cars and bike racks at the much larger Lake McDonald lots but still start their rides at the preferred beginning above Avalanche Creek. It should also lower competition for parking space with those who want to picnic or hike at the frontcountry site.

Glacier Park spokeswoman Margie Steigerwald said the bike shuttle idea was so popular at the Glacier Conservancy Backpacker’s Ball in 2015, someone volunteered to fund it on the spot. That dovetails with the growth in bicycle and bike rack rentals at Apgar, West Glacier and other nearby commercial areas.

Biking the Going-to-the-Sun Road means gaining about 3,300 vertical feet over 10 miles, mostly at a 5.7 percent grade. While that ranks it among the top 20 toughest climbs on the Tour de France, it’s not as steep as Lincoln Hills Drive in Missoula’s Rattlesnake neighborhood.

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James Jendro of Missoula mounts up for a ride on Going-to-the-Sun Road as a rain storm moves over Mount Cannon. Fast-changing weather conditions are part of the challenge to exploring Glacier National Park in spring.

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Missoula riders Calvin Haines, James Jendro and Mark Randolph take a break from the rain as the road begins its climb to the Loop. The trio was spending two days riding on the west side of Glacier National Park.

The first few miles along McDonald Creek climb gently through a glacial canyon flanked by dozens of waterfalls and several massive avalanche chutes. One off the side of Mount Cannon has mounds of still-freshly shattered trees and tipped-over aspen groves.

Glacier lilies and Indian paintbrush provide yellow and red highlights to the extensive palate of greens in the forest and creekbed. Even the Garden Wall’s rock face gets into the spirit, with bands of blue, green, red and yellow sedimentary stone offsetting veins of bright white marble.

Road signs warning travelers not to pass and reducing the speed limit from 35 mph to 25 seem ridiculously aspirational as you grind up toward the Loop. On the way down, they’re ridiculously inadequate. The only sound louder than the avalanches is the rush of the wind in your ears as you make your own gravity-driven descent.

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Shuttle driver Sunni Phillips secures a bicycle to a new trailer Glacier National Park has put in service this spring. Up to 16 bikes and a few trailers can fit on the trailer, which allows cyclists to begin pedaling at Avalanche Campground while leaving their automobiles at Lake McDonald Lodge’s much larger parking lots.

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