Going to the Sun Road – a tribute to early road builders

First published in the Globe and Mail Drive Section.

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Fifty miles of cliff hugging roads takes you to the sun and back

You don’t “have to” take The Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana. There are plenty of roads around the park. But, during the summer months when it is open for travel, it’s the route millions of enthusiastic travellers go out of the way to do. Built over the span of twenty years nearly a century ago, the 50-mile (80 km) road climbs to 6646 feet (2026 m) at Logan Pass on a long and narrow six percent grade that is rarely wider than 22 feet (6.7m). Winding and twisting under overhanging rocks, it takes a hairpin corner and goes through tunnels and inches upward ever too close to precarious cliffs making travel with most trailers or in larger motor homes forbidden. Cyclists, motorcycles, enviable convertibles, minivans and tourists in the brilliant red topless buses flock to the spectacular mountain route in record numbers every year. Without stopping it takes 2 hours. But, you are going to want to stop.

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The Western Entrance at the Belton Station

Even though I live in Alberta, I still like to enter the park from the southwest side and follow the route as it was constructed. When the Great Northern Railway was completed in 1893, destinations in the national parks were created to bring the tourists. Big beautiful brochures distributed in the eastern states enticed rich folks to enjoy this new wilderness. To accommodate the tourists, the two box cars that served as the Great Northern Railways depot at the parks western entrance were replaced by small Swiss style buildings and renamed the Belton Station. Today, many of those buildings are still there and house cafes and shops. Stop in for lunch, fuel, trinkets, great T-shirts or information.

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Lake McDonald and the lodge

Lake McDonald is the largest lake in Glacier National Park and the road follows it from tip to toe. Its ten miles long, 1.6 miles (2.6 km) across at the widest spot and the deepest it gets is 472 feet (144 m). Halfway up the lake is Lake McDonald Lodge. First built in 1895 by John Lewis and cleverly called the Lewis Glacier Hotel, it was accessed by a steamboat from the village of Apgar. The great western artist Charles M Russell, was a frequent guest during the 1920’s and was said to have etched pictographs into the dining rooms original fireplace hearth. Stop in and see the historic hotel. Better yet, I suggest you book months in advance for a stay in a lakeside cabin. (www.glaciernationalparklodges.com)

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Going to the Sun – Legend or just a darn good name?

The road officially received its name, “The Going-to-the-Sun Road,” during the 1933 dedication at Logan Pass. The road borrowed its name from nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. Local legend and a 1933 press release issued by the Department of the Interior, told the story of the deity, Sour Spirit, who came down from the sun to teach Blackfeet braves the rudiments of the hunt. On his way back to the sun, Sour Spirit had his image reproduced on the top of the mountain for inspiration to the Blackfeet. An alternate story suggests a local hunter and his companion from the Pikuni Nation created the name after successful hunt in the late 1880’s. No matter which version is accurate, the road named Going-to-the-Sun still inspires all who travel it.

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Watch for the Jammers

The vintage buses with the roll-back toppers roaming the road are from the 1930’s and were the first authorised motor transportation utility allowed in the parks. The first tour buses were horse carriages hauling 11 people up the road. The brilliant red colour was chosen to match a ripe Mountain Ash berry. The drivers are called “Jammers” because they used to be heard jamming the gears of the buses as they grinded up the steep inclines. Back in the days of jamming gears – women were not allowed to sit in the front rows. They were thought to distract the drivers. The fleet of 33 buses in Glacier are considered to be the oldest touring fleet in the world.

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Slow and steady and costly or zig-zag?

In 1924, Stephen Tyng Mather took on the task of being the first National Parks Service Director and was in charge of designing a route over the continental divide that would bring visitors but do it responsibly. Mather along with a pack of key engineers and architects on horseback rode into the valley, up over the continental divide and stood staring out at the view. George Goodwin, an authority on mountain road construction stood there and waved his arms back and forth – envisioning switchbacks like in Europe. There would be 15 switchbacks on this side of the valley and another 3 on the eastern side of the divide. As a car zigged one way, they would see the cars below them zag the other way on an 8 percent grade. Goodwin thought that was a spectacular engineering feat and an attraction.

In the party however was a landscape architect, Thomas Vint. He boldly stated that maybe Goodwin’s roads would look like logging or mining roads and cause huge scars on the pristine environment that they were all working to protect. He suggested one long slow road benched into the sedimentary rock of the Garden Wall. It would be longer and far more expensive but would leave the landscape preserved.

Mather took the ideas to other engineers and architects and even though the switchbacks were cheaper and the longer route would empty the bank, the scenic aesthetically pleasing route was picked because it “performs its work more silently.”

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The Tripe Arches

This road wasn’t easy to build with most of the materials and equipment brought in by horse. To blast the rock, workers were lowered on ropes to hand drill holes in the rock face. Instead of leaving the blasted rock along the route as unsightly debris, it was used as fill under this road and in the retaining walls that hold the road in place. A crew of Russian stonemasons built retaining walls and the famous Triple Arches. Usually the rock was those that they could lift on their own but at the corner a derrick was used to place the larger rocks. Workers were paid 50 cents to $1.15/hour. In the 1920’s and 30’s men were desperate for work and eagerly took the wage. At the peak of construction over 300 men were scattered through the valley.

 

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Almost at the top of Logan Pass

At 6646 feet (2026 m) Logan Pass is the lowest pass across the Continental Divide. As you reach the top of the pass there is a small parking lot to pull in and take a break. Walk along the raised boardwalk to see how the road hides in the stratigraphy. It’s a lovely spot to watch for wildlife including big, white mountain goats.

Try to stop at the information centre at the top of the pass, the parking lot gets busy but it’s worth the effort. You can refuel your souvenir hamper, water bottle or coffee cup and give your legs a stretch. There are over 700 miles (1126 km) of hiking trails in Glacier National Park with a few leaving from the Logan Pass Visitor Center. The easiest is the interpretive trail. The interactive story boards along the way explain the topography, the flora and fauna and history. Actually if you want to hear anything on the interpretive walk you have to crank the hand generator. Another great trail from Logan Pass is the Highline Trail hike above the Garden Wall. Five words of advice: You are in bear country.

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Expect waterfalls, walks and wide open spaces as you head to the east

Getting to the top from the west was the great push of the 1920’s. But it would be two years before the east side of the road would be started because cash was hard to find. Not only that, the landowners knew they held the cards and inflated the price for their land. By 1931 the last 10.5 miles (17 km) to St Mary was open for bids. This side of the pass is not as technical but there were still challenges to overcome. Watch for parking areas leading to hikes along the refreshing Virginia Falls.

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Rock work is a masterpiece for over eight miles

Setting a good example for the rest of the national parks was important to Mather. The guard rails and arches are made from native stone mainly limestone and red and green argillite salvaged from blasts and excavations. Mortar sand was dredged from McDonald Creek. Put it all together and there is over 8 miles (13 km) of the stone rail lining the Going to the Sun Road. The sturdy walls were such a hit with the National Park dignitaries that they became the predominant standard for the guard walls in all the US national parks.

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Stop and see the glaciers before they disappear

“Only about 25 glaciers remain from the 150 that were here in 1850,” says one of the signs at the numerous roadside vista parking spots. Citing everything from global warming to natural progression the sign warns us that in as little as a few decades, the view will undoubtedly change. The view from the lookout for Jackson Glacier is perfect for that last opportunity.

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St. Mary’s Lake

St. Mary’s Lake is the eastern most portion of the Going to the Sun Road. The Golden Stairs retaining wall along the shore is the last of the major engineering feats accomplished along the route. When the road was deemed complete in 1934, the construction bill was $2.4 million. A keen eye will notice this is the famous opening scene from the 1980 Stanley Kubrick movie, “The Shining.” The scene shot from a helicopter starts at Wild Goose Island and sweeps to the west along the highway. Cue the eerie music.

St. Mary’s has a few shops to stop at and gas stations to refuel.

If you go:

From Alberta head south on highway 2 or highway 4 across the border into Montana. From south of the park enter from either the West Entrance at Apgar or from the east at the St. Mary entrance. A park pass has to be purchased to do the route. Without stopping it takes 2 hours. But, you are going to want to stop.

Plan to take this journey between the months of June and September. The snow that accumulates in drifts across the roads can exceed 80 feet deep (24 m) making it impossible to maintain the road year-round. More information about road closures, bike access and vehicle size restrictions can be found at http://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/goingtothesunroad.htm

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