Karen rides through the clouds on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Spring Cycling in Montana’s Glacier National Park
Clouds cling to the mountaintops, shielding the summits from view. I inhale the cool, moist air as I cycle down two empty lanes of asphalt and scan the forest on either side of the road for wildlife. Glacier National Park’s two million annual visitors, most of whom drive the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, are yet to arrive. The narrow, rugged road, blasted from the steep mountainside in 1933, is not yet open to vehicles. Snow blocks Logan Pass at 6,646 feet and the seasonal road closure at Avalanche Creek is still in effect for vehicles.
That means 15 miles and 3,200 feet of car-less climbing to Logan Pass. Huffing breath and shifting gears are all that break the silence. And without the risk of becoming road-kill, you can take in the views. Precipitous drop-offs grip your attention. Wisps of cloud lick giant rock faces and briefly reveal tooth-like peaks before engulfing them again.
Water is everywhere. Aquamarine rivers course through valleys. Melting snowfields drench the landscape. Little torrents tumble into ditches and road-dousing cascades tumble off the blocky cliffs above.
The lower flats that follow McDonald Creek cruise through subalpine forest along the water’s edge. My wheels carry me silently along the road, giving me better opportunities to spot wildlife. This is grizzly, bald eagle and wolverine country, and I am alert. I spot two Harlequin ducks bobbing in the water, swimming upstream. Higher on the road I see a Dusky Grouse that puffs its chest at me as I pass.
Smooth pavement aids my struggling legs as I climb higher into the clouds. A low rock wall prevents rubberneckers admiring the landscape from a catastrophic mixed turn. At the road closure at Haystack Creek another waterfall bounces down horizontal bands of rock and under the road. A hoary marmot saunters toward my friend, Karen, and I, trying to convince us that he needs our food more than we do. A cloud crowds around us. All we can see is white.
On the screaming descent, I really appreciate the absence of cars. The road is steep and fast, and loaded with sharp, blind turns. Without cars, you can really let loose and fly around corners, letting the adrenaline pump. Water sails off the tarmac into the air, and by the time we reach the bottom, we are soaked from tire spray, rain and sweat. And stoked to have had one of the most coveted drives in the country to ourselves and our two wheels.
More Spring Riding in Glacier Park
1. Tack on another 14 miles one-way by starting at Apgar Village on the southern shore of Lake McDonald. This wildflower-rich, rolling stretch takes you along Lake McDonald and follows McDonald Creek past roaring falls and shallow canyons. It’s open to cars but sees very little traffic this time of year.
2. Alternatively, head west on the Camas Road, a 22 mile out-and-back with a relaxed grade that takes you through the charred burn areas of the 2001 Moose Fire and the 2003 Robert Fire. The low-lying, bright green vegetation and smoke-gray trunks allow for clear views of the ranges surrounding Lake McDonald.
3. The eastern stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road hugs the north shore of Saint Mary Lake under a serrated skyline. Start at the less-visited east side of Glacier Park at the Saint Mary Visitor Center and grind out the 13 miles and 700 feet to the Jackson Glacier Overlook. This is one of the earliest sections of road to open up in the park each spring (usually by mid-May) and the only place on the GTS Road that you can see a glacier. If snowplows don’t block your way, push the final 5 miles and 1,300 feet to Logan Pass.
Note: From the middle of June until Labor Day, cycling is restricted on the western section of the GTS Road. From 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., no cycling is permitted. The eastern part has no summer restrictions, just a lot of vehicle traffic. Check the National Park Service website for current road conditions.
Need a bike? Stop by Great Northern Cycles in Whitefish. The friendly staff will outfit you with top-of-the-line gear and a shot of espresso to stoke your engine.