Going-to-the-Sun Road Trip: Tour Glacier National Park in Montana

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

Route Details

Length: About 50 miles.

When to go: Going-to-the-Sun Road is
usually open from June through mid-October.

Nearby attraction: Waterton Lakes
National Park, contiguous to Glacier, lies
north of the U.S.-Canada border. The two
together are known as Waterton-Glacier
International Peace Park.

Words to the wise: Bring sunscreen
and warm clothing, such as sweaters and
rain gear.

Further information: Glacier National
Park, West Glacier, MT 59936; tel. 406-888-5441, www.nps.gov/glac/.

Print a map of this route

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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