Touted as one of the most thrilling drives in the continental US, the drive on the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana did not disappoint. We started our drive in the afternoon and spent some time hiking the Hidden lake Trail where we ran into a grizzly bear which made our way back to the parking lot faster than it took us to get up to the Hidden Lake scenic viewpoint!
Driving the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park is considered one of the top 10 national park experiences you should have in your lifetime. If you didn’t make any stops (which is pretty hard to do) it takes at least 2 hours to drive the full 50 miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road. We, of course, took longer, stopped at many viewpoints and stayed to watch the sunset.
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Highlights and photos from Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park
An engineering marvel, the 50 mile Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in 1932. It is a paved two-lane highway that runs across the Glacier National Park from east to west. It spans the width of the park crossing the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass. Driving on the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park you can see almost every type of terrain, from glacial lakes and cedar forests in the lower valleys to alpine tundra in the higher elevations. This reminded me of our drive on the high alpine road in Austria on the Grossglockner Mountain Road.
We started our drive from the town of Whitefish on the west side of Glacier National Park and stopped at Lake McDonald before driving up to Logan Pass to embark on the Hidden Lake overlook trail. We ate our sandwiches that we had packed as we watched the sunset from a rocky outcrop, it was a little hazy and not one of the best but still was pretty awesome to see the sky and mountain in colors of blues and purple. We made our way back the trail and by the time we got back to the parking lot, we could see the stars that became visible in the night sky.
Glacier National Park was named for the many glaciers that spotted the mountainsides when the Great Northern Railway first set its sights on the beautiful area. While there are only 25 glaciers out of the 150 that used to be here several thousand years ago, what you can see are the features carved by natures – gorges, ridges, mountains and valleys. Glacier National Park is open, wild and just beyond stunning!
The Going-to-the-Sun Road was initially called the Transmountain Highway. The Sun Road that runs through the Glacier Park is said to have got the name from the nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. According to local legend, the mountain is said to have gotten its name from a Blackfoot Indian legend in which a deity, Sour Spirit, came down from the mountain to teach braves the rudiments of hunting. Backfoot Nation, the Glacier park’s original inhabitants called these “Shining Mountains” the “Backbone of the World.”
Top hikes in Glacier National Park
The best way to experience Glacier National Park is by getting off the car and going on hikes. Glacier has more than 700 miles of trails. There are day-long hikes that get you to some epic viewpoints or you can go on short hikes on boardwalks. We hiked to the Hidden Lake Overlook from Logan Pass. The Hidden Lake overlook trail is a relatively easy hike along meadows and glacial moraines to an overlook of the gorgeous Hidden Lake. It is about 1.5 miles on a boarded walk with some parts on a dirt trail. It is important to stay on the boardwalk to avoid damaging the fragile vegetation and landscape.
Once you reach the overlook you get an amazing view of the alpine lake tucked among jagged peaks and mountain ranges. If you are feeling up to it, you can continue the hike down to Hidden Lake which is additional 1.2 miles an extremely steep trail. The overlook is a perfect place to enjoy some snacks or sandwich, there are no tables thought, just sit on the rocks and enjoy the beauty of Glacier National Park.
Here are 5 other top hikes in Glacier National Park
St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls: This is an easy and family Friendly hike from a trailhead off of Going-to-the-Sun Road marked St. Mary Falls. Length: 3.1 miles
Avalanche Lake Trail: It is a half-day hike starting with the super easy Trail of the Cedars then along the Avalanche Creek gorge. Length: 4.6 miles
Iceberg Lake: One of the best hikes in Glacier according to me reseach :). Hike to a cobalt-blue lake tucked below jagged cliffs. Length: 9.6 miles
Grinnell Glacier: Is another epic hike in Glacier. It is a day long hike along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Then the trail gains elevation with views of Grinnell Falls, Angel Wing, Mt. Gould, the Continental Divide and Grinnell Lake. Length: 10.3 miles
Highline Trail: This is the hike to go on if you want to see the spectacular beauty of Glacier. It is not for everyone though, the hike gradually climbs up to the junction for Grinnell Glacier Overlook then continue to Granite Park Chalet. The remaining four miles are a steep 2,200 foot descent. Length: 11.4 miles
You might run into some wildlife along Going-to-the-Sun Road and when you go on hikes in Glacier National Park. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep can be seen near Logan Pass. We saw three mountain goats up on the rocks and a grizzly bear on the hidden lake trail.
Some Tips to remember in Bear Country: Make sure to check at the visitors center, sometime the trails could be closed because of bear activity. Always go in groups when hiking, never hike alone. Take bear spray if you are hiking by yourself and make noises with hiking poles or shoes. In the event that you have a close encounter with a bear, never run, bears can outrun you! If attacked protect your neck and curl yourself into a ball, hopefully, it never comes to that! See here for more bear safety information.
Coming from flat lat Texas, I was huffing and puffing as I made my way up the Hidden Lake Trail, but with a grizzly bear on our tail on the way back we, I made it back to the parking lot in half the time!
Scenic Viewpoints on Going to the Sun Road
There are many scenic viewpoints along the Going to the Sun road in Glacier National Park that you can’t miss. Pullouts can be found along the drive if you want to stop for views and photos. Here a few that I loved and a couple that we didn’t have time for this trip but will be stopping next time we are on the highway to the sun.
Located on the west side of Glacier National Park, Lake McDonald is the largest lake in Glacier National Park. Lake McDonald is approximately 10 miles long, and over a mile wide and 470 feet deep, The water of the lake is remarkably clear that you can see the rocks in the bottom, this is due to the year around low temperatures that prohibit the growth of planktons. The rocks range in color from red to maroon, and from green to blue and is a pretty sight to see, especially for someone used to the murky waters in the lakes of Texas. The lake sites in a spot that was a glacier many years ago. It was a hard spot to leave, the water was a little chilly but I just wanted to sit there with my toes in the water all day enjoying the mountain vistas!
Trail of Cedar
Where Avalanche Creek meets Going-to-the-Sun Road, is the Trail of the Cedars. It is a short (only half a mile) wheelchair-accessible path through the forest. Trail of the Cedars is an easy hike, rather a scenic walk through some of Glacier NP most impressive trees, like Western Red Cedar, Black Cottonwood, and Western Hemlock. Some of the trees here are 500 years old.
Bird Woman Falls
As Going to the Sun road starts to climb you can see the stunning views of snowcapped mountains. There a couple of small pullouts on the road that offer views of Cannon Mountain, Mount Oberlin and Clements Mountain. In the middle of these peaks sits a glacier, which in the spring and early summer feeds into a 500-foot waterfall known as Bird Woman Falls, a tall waterfall with a curious name.
Weeping Wall, is a patch of rock-wall with water cascading down like a waterfall. When vehicles pass within inches of a rock wall you might end up getting a free car wash, so keep the car windows closed when passing by this section of the road. The road is quite narrow along this stretch and there was no place to stop, just admire it from the car window.
There is a section of the road where the mountain was so steep that there was no flat ground on which to put a road. So the workers had to build a stone bridge with three arches to cross this tricky mountain gap. Another feature that you pause to admire how remarkable the Sun Road is!
Logan Pass at 6646 feet is the highest point on Going to The Sun Road and located on the Continental divide. The pass is the starting point for many hiking trips. The most popular trail is the Highline Trail which heads north along the west side of the continental divide, through an area known as the Garden Wall which had a lot of wildflowers. It is a pretty intense 11-mile trail.
Hidden Lake Overlook
The Hidden Lake overlook trail is a relatively easy hike(1.5 miles each way) along meadows and beautiful boulders on a boarded walk. This is the only hike in Glacier National Park we had time for. It took us about half-day but was totally worth it.
Jackson Glacier Overlook
On your way to the East side of Glacier, between Logan Pass and St. Mary you will see the Jackson Glacier lookout. It is worth taking a stop to see this one. The glacier itself is ways away but you can see it from the lookout. Bring a pair of binoculars to get a better view. Jackson Glacier Overlook is probably your best opportunity in Glacier National Park to see a glacier from the road. You can see the glacier in the distance on Mount Jackson, the fourth-highest peak in Glacier National Park at 10,052 feet.
Wild Goose Island
Further down the road, you will see Wild Goose Island lookout. If you follow the trail all the way down it will take you to a small beach with colorful rocks. Even if you don’t go down the trail, stop for an amazing photo with the tiny island in the middle of Saint Mary Lake surrounded by the mountains. Don’t miss this stop on the Going-to-the-Sun Road closer to St. Mary.
Tips for driving on the Going to the Sun Road
- There are three visitor centers located along Going-to-the-Sun Road: Apgar Visitor Center, Logan Pass Visitor Center, and St. Mary Visitor Center. All have restroom facilities, bookstores, drinking water, and exhibits. You can check road conditions and plan your trip here.
- Gas stations are not available anywhere in the park or on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
- It would be best to bring your food and some drinks. Lake McDonald Lodge, and Apgar Village has some options to pick up food.
- The speed limit is 45 miles per hour in the lower elevations of the road and 25 miles per hour in the alpine section.
- The roads are narrow so be careful around blind curves as animals and pedestrians do cross the road.
When does the Going-to-the-Sun Road Open?
Portions of Going-to-the-Sun Road remain open all year and you can access many locations and activities. The opening of the alpine portion varies, based on snowfall and plowing progress. Sometimes there is about 60 foot of snow on Logan Pass! Imagine having to plow through that! While there is no set date for the road to open, the road usually opens in late June or early July and closes the end of October. Closing portions of Going-to-the-Sun Road is also weather dependent. Typically the road is fully open until the third Monday of October, but that can change due to weather. See here for current conditions.
If you don’t want to drive yourself you can hop aboard a Red Jammer, one of Glacier’s renowned red open-air touring buses. It gained its nickname for the way drivers “jammed” their way through the gears to get to Logan Pass. The famous Red Buses serve as an ideal way to see and learn more about Glacier National Park and have tours from both the East and West side.
Where to stay near Glacier National Park
If you want to stay near Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park there are a few hotels, campgrounds, and lodges inside the park. We flew into the Kalispell airport and stayed in Whitefish, Montana and were able to get to the Glacier National Park in 30 to 40 minutes.
Many Glacier Hotel, Lake McDonald Lodge are places that come highly recommended. Many Glacier Hotel is situated on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and located at the base of Mt. Grinnell inside Glacier National Park is favored by many. Lake McDonald Lodge enjoys a picturesque location on the northern shore of beautiful Lake McDonald. Situated just outside Glacier National Park’s east entrance St Mary Lodge & Resort has great views and accommodations range from rustic to upscale, something to fit every taste level and budget. We stopped for lunch at Glacier Park Lodge, a historic hotel which is another great option for a stay near Glacier National Park.
See here for Glacier National Park Itinerary and tips for planning your trip.
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