Going-to-the-Sun Road

St. Mary LakeTravel Montana/Donnie SextonSt. Mary Lake, with tiny Wild Goose Island seemingly adrift in its center.

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At the first signs of spring, workers begin to clear the snow — up to 80 feet deep in places — from Going-to-the-Sun Road, a job that takes two months to complete. The time and effort prove worthwhile, though, for when traffic finally begins to flow, visitors are treated to a nonstop show of stirring views. Most who make the trip will be inclined to agree with Glacier’s founding father, who dubbed the park the Crown of the Continent.

1. Lake McDonald
Before heading into the heart of the park, you might want to acquaint yourself with some of its plants and animals, which are featured in exhibits at the Agpar visitor center. Thus informed, you can be on the lookout for the real thing as you set out on Going-to-the-Sun Road. For 10 miles or so, the highway hugs the once wooded shore of Lake McDonald, the site of forest fires in 2003 that charred many of the trees on its opposite shore.

Leaving the lake, the drive tunnels through a forest of mountain hemlocks and red cedars as it begins its climb beside McDonald Creek. Along the way, it passes McDonald Falls, where a thunderous roar heralds a stunning view of the cascade. Just beyond lies a marshy area frequented by moose.

2. Trail of the Cedars
Thick stands of moss-draped hemlocks and fragrant cedars cast a cool shade across this half-mile elevated boardwalk that winds through an ancient forest. Myriad ferns and mosses, glistening with dew, flourish on the forest floor, and at the eastern end of the trail, the faint murmur of Avalanche Creek, slipping through a small gorge, lends a musical note.

Be on the alert along streams for a glimpse of the water ouzel, or dipper, a small slate-colored bird that walks underwater in its search for food. Listen, too, for the haunting calls of the varied thrush, especially in the moist forests along the two-mile trail leading to Avalanche Lake. At the path’s end half a dozen waterfalls, dancing down 2,000-foot cliffs, drain into the sparkling lake.

3. Garden Wall
As the road begins its steady ascent, the cedars and hemlocks give way to scattered stands of spruces and firs. Once past Red Rock Point, you may gasp as the Garden Wall first comes into view. A sheer ridge cresting thousands of feet above, its spine makes up part of the Continental Divide. Water falling to the west of the divide drains toward the Pacific; to the east it flows toward the Atlantic.

A fire in 1967, sparked by lightning, blazed through the woodlands in this area. Reduced to mere matchsticks, the charred skeletons of trees now punctuate the slopes, which are turning green again as shrubs and fledgling pines make a comeback, reclaiming this rugged, once-devastated landscape.

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