Going-to-the-Sun Road

A road trip worth the wait.

St. Mary Lake
St. 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.

4. Birdwoman Falls
Just beneath the Garden Wall’s great shadow, the drive meanders along a lengthy zigzag known as the Loop. Climbing ever higher into the thinning air, it arrives at a landscape of waterfalls, peaks, and plunging valleys. Perched above the timberline, this realm boasts many wonders, including Birdwoman Falls. Two miles farther along lies Weeping Wall, where several streams descend a craggy cliff.

5. Logan Pass
The drive’s pinnacle at 6,646 feet, Logan Pass is a high point in terms of scenery as well, with massive domes and spinelike ridges looming boldly above the alpine wilds. A stunted forest of contorted firs marks the timberline, but the open slopes and meadows beyond are awash in summer in a sea of wildflowers. Yellow glacier lilies pushing through the last patches of snow are among the showstoppers, along with shooting stars, Indian paintbrushes, and stately wands of beargrass topped with bold clusters of white flowers — airy snowballs that sway in the breeze.

Trails begin and end at the visitor center at Logan Pass, including a boardwalk that wends through a lovely area called the Hanging Gardens. Here as elsewhere at Glacier, remember to scan the surrounding slopes for glimpses of one of the park’s signature creatures, the shaggy mountain goat.

6. Jackson Glacier Overlook
This scenic viewpoint, one of many in the park, affords a splendid view of the frozen, gray-blue mass of Jackson Glacier. Jackson, like the 50 or so other glaciers in the park, is but a feeble reminder of the stupendous ice-age glaciers that shaped so much of this region’s stunning scenery many years ago.

7. St. Mary Lake
Aspens, alders, and birches, their leaves green in summer but golden in the fall, line the road as the drive descends toward St. Mary Valley and its namesake lake.

For one of the best roadside views of this mountain gem, pull over at the Wild Goose Island Overlook. Named for a pair of geese that once nested on its shores, the little island seems to float on the otherwise uninterrupted surface of St. Mary Lake. Cresting in the distance is another unusual sight — Triple Divide Peak, which forms part of the Continental Divide.

Up ahead the views open wide, and meadows of bunchgrass fan across the wilds. At Divide Creek the heart-stirring wonders of the park are left behind as you venture on to the vast plains lying to the east — unless, of course, you succumb to the urge to turn around and travel the drive through Glacier National Park again. 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/.

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