For the past seven years, my rite of spring is biking Glacier National Park’s Going-to–the-Sun Road. The famed road that bisects the park and crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass reopens each spring. Before the onslaught of summer visitors and vehicle traffic, there’s a narrow window for pedestrians to explore its length. Flathead Valley residents like me eagerly anticipate the road’s opening, checking the daily status of the plow crews and waiting for that perfect sunny day to take the two-wheeled approach to traveling the road.
This year, I invited my boyfriend and his parents to join me on my annual spring adventure and we took advantage of a surge in mid-May temperatures for a midweek ride. Human activity in and around the park is starting to emerge from a long winter and many of the hotels, restaurants and rafting companies are beginning to take the boards off their windows and prep for the summer slam. Passing through the entrance gate, cars were only allowed to drive 10 miles to Lake McDonald Lodge and pedestrian traffic was permitted another eight miles up the road to Logan Creek. Typically on weekends, there are no hiker or biker restrictions.
Free from the worry of traffic, with the exception of a few park vehicles, our 16-mile round trip ride was an incredibly intimate and private experience – pedaling through the dense cedar and hemlock canopy offered a closer glimpse into the forest and I hoped for the flash of wildlife against the green carpet of moss. As the four of us pedaled up the road, we paralleled the rush of Upper Lake McDonald Creek. With mountain runoff feeding the creek, the roar of its whitewater is deafening in places. Thanks to this year’s record snowpacks, the creek is sure to see a continued surge in water throughout the coming summer months. We wove our bikes across both lanes, pausing to watch the creek spill over massive red rocks and we duly noted the signs along the creek warning water-related accidents are the number cause of death in the park.
As we cruised past the Avalanche Lake/Trail of the Cedars trailhead, a park sign informed us we were about to travel through dangerous avalanche areas. A map provided us with information on where avalanches had previously occurred and identified the potential danger zones. I had packed my bear spray, but wondered if I should have also worn my avalanche beacon. We rode through a major slide path after the sign and the remnants of the avalanche were well over 8 feet tall; the path blasted across the water and landed in the tops of the trees.
The road is only open two miles past Avalanche Lake and, as the grade increased, we were treated to a stunning view of the Garden Wall. It took me a few minutes to locate the upper reaches of the Sun Road as it crosses underneath the Wall as much of the road and the mountain sides at that time were completely buried in snow. Bishops Cap, dressed in white, shimmered in the bright sunshine — clearly the crown of the continent. The flanks of Mt. Cannon had slid, as they usually do each year, and I regretted forgetting my binoculars as bears tend to frequent the slide paths, hoping to scavenge a well-refrigerated avalanche victim, and I was hoping to get a glimpse of dark fur loping across the snowfield.
Our journey ended just past Logan Creek with an official sign threatening prosecution if we continued past the closure. In the coming weeks, as the road crews continue to make headway to the pass and the avalanche danger subsides, pedestrians will be allowed to travel higher on the road. The return trip offered more of a coast than a grind, so we flew down the road, passing several other uphill bikers.
About four miles before we reached Lake McDonald Lodge, we took a water break at a pullout for the creek. We looked over the rock wall and spotted just below us a pair of Harlequin ducks, the original whitewater enthusiasts navigating the eddy lines and diving into the turquoise water. The colorful ducks, noted for their distinct markings, are a species of concern in Montana. The waterfowl are sea birds that travel hundreds of miles inland to breed and raise their young. The turbulent waters of Lake McDonald Creek are one of their main breeding grounds. Bears might get the majority of attention in Glacier, but we spent more than 10 minutes watching the pair work the rapids and calmer sections of the water with the deftness and athleticism of experienced kayakers.
As we neared the closure gate at Lake McDonald, we noticed that it was open. An official park vehicle blocked the entrance and as we rode past, we saw cars line up behind the ranger. The park was opening the road to Avalanche Lake to vehicles. Our timing was perfect as at a least a dozen bikers watched in awe and irritation as the cars drove past the gate and onto the road the cyclists believed would be all theirs for the rest of the day. The road conditions constantly change, so be sure to check the status on the park’s website and double-check the status at the entrance gate.
Now that I’ve got a few miles on the Going-to-the-Sun Road on my bicycle, it is officially spring in Montana.
Maggie Neal Doherty lives and plays in Whitefish, Montana, and blogs at loveandlongunderwear.wordpress.com.