Going To The Sun

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Stupendous! Magnificent! Majestic! Fantastic! Awesome! These adjectives are feebly able to describe the sights and grandeur visible along perhaps the world’s most scenic stretch of road: The Going To The Sun Road. This highway, constructed during the depression is a marvel of engineering, even today, and takes one through the heart of the many heart-stopping vistas in Glacier NP.

Instead of doing the Grinnell Glacier hike as I had planned yesterday, I decided to do the Going To The Sun Road drive while the weather was (mostly) cooperative. The forecast that morning was mostly clear and warm, but was to become cloudy later in the day/evening, with a chance of showers developing that night or tomorrow. I wanted to, had to, drive the road and vainly try to capture with my camera the sights along it, and I wanted to do this with as much sunshine as possible. It’s the sun that really brings out the many wonderful colors in the park.

I got my usual late start and headed south towards the St Mary entrance. I entered the park and right away the scenery was overwhelming. The road initially follows St Mary’s Lake for it’s entire nine-mile length. The waters of this beautiful lake take on a cast of anywhere from a deep grayish-blue to a soft, green with a touch of blue thrown in; generally the latter. The color of the lake, and all bodies of water in the park, are best brought out by bright sunshine and a good elevated vantage point. The sun was very cooperative during this leg of the journey, and the road was cooperative by quickly gaining elevation and having many places to stop and view. I took a short (.5 mile) hike here to view a very pretty little falls, which emptied its flow into the lake below.

Leaving the lake behind the road starts to gain some real elevation and starts hugging the side of the mountain, and the vistas start to appear. You are able to see the many peaks marching off in the distance, their stony, sharp-edged peaks poking holes in the deep-blue sky above. Today the sky was enhanced with fantastically shaped clouds, which only added to the eye candy. As I went higher some of the many glaciers resident in the park appeared. Truly Glacier deserves it name! Curving around the side of the mountain it was cut into, I was presented with views of multiple, threads of water coursing and falling down the steep, deep-green sides of their source mountains. After a bit further I was able to look back to see the classic, u-shaped valley at the head of St Mary Lake, carved by the glaciers which not that long ago reigned supreme in this part of the world. Fantabulous!

I eventually arrived at Logan Pass, the high point of the Going To The Sun Road. There reality came screaming back. The visitor center’s parking lot was full and there were signs saying to expect 30-minute waits. Initially you couldn’t even enter; it was roped off. I went a ways, turned around, got into the parking lot, circled like a fool (some of you know how this never happens at home), then bailed back down the road about ¾ of a mile to a pullout and parked. Sheesh! I wanted to, needed to, take the Hidden Lake Trail; perhaps the best short hike anywhere (at least as I remembered it). So back up the hill to the visitor center I marched. Stupid Labor Day weekend!!!

At Logan Pass, not only are you presented with majestic views in all directions, you are able to view and hike among its expansive alpine meadows which at almost any time when the snow is gone has an impressive display of wildflowers. A boardwalk, built to protect the fragile meadows, allows one to hike up through the meadows gaining an even more impressive view of all that is around. I did just that. This late in the season the flowers were well past their peak, but nevertheless were present in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Unfortunately, the sun chose at this point to go behind some clouds, and the wind, which was already blowing like the dickens at times, picked up even more. I knew that Hidden Lake needed sunshine to show off it’s coat of colors and was a little discouraged - and getting colder - but I pressed on anyway. I made my way up over the crest, where you leave the boardwalk behind, and found my way to Hidden Lake after a 1.5-mile hike. It was a very rewarding sight, but I waited in vain for the sun to reappear so I could capture on film its true colors. After awhile I was freezing the old butt off so I turned back towards the visitor center. Not all was lost as the view on the way down was pretty, well… pretty! Just as I got back to the road and headed down towards my truck the sun broke free of its pearly captors and I was rewarded with a bright vista back down the valley towards St Mary. Awesome!

As I drove over the pass to the western side and the road started to drop down once again, it was immediately evident how much wetter this part of the park must be; the vegetation was noticeably lusher. The wildflowers which weren’t that profuse at the pass here were striking in their colors and numbers, growing right up to the road’s edge, swaying in the now gentle breezes as if to say, “Look at me! Look at me!” And look I did. Here also on display were the true engineering feats that went into the construction of the “Going-To-The-Sun-Road”. The road was literally cut out of the mountainside here; the right side at times was pure rock, straight up, with the cut marks still evident; the left side dropped precipitously down to the canyons below with only a short wall of native rock preventing an errant turn plunging one down to the bottom far, far below. Here also was why the vehicle size restrictions were in place as the road was narrower and sharper in it’s many twists and turns as it slowly wound itself down the side of the mountain.

Finally down to the bottom I soon came upon a creek on my left, McDonald’s Creek, as I would find out later. The color seemed a little different, but I couldn’t really tell through the trees, and, hey, I was still driving. I pulled off at the next “get-out-and-look” area, and lo! The water was green! I had happened to pull off at a spot where the creek became a series of small cascades and pools. Very pretty as the green-colored water bounced it’s way down past red-colored rocks. McDonald’s Creek emptied a short while later into Lake McDonald whose waters are of the same hue as it’s name-sake creek; only deeper and richer. When I got a chance to I stopped and walked down to the beach and noticed right away that the beach was composed mainly of cobbles and stones of every color found in the park, except they seemed more muted somehow, as if the rich patinas one sees at their origins had somehow had been pounded out of them as they were worked and tossed and tumbled to where they lay now.

I finally reached the Apgar Visitor Center near the west entrance and decided to check the latest weather forecast so I could decide what to do. Just as I got there it started to rain. Well, there you go! Still not willing to deal with wet weather in a camping environment I decide to head to Kalispell, about 40 miles away and bed down for the night in a motel. Guess what I found? A very nice room for $35! Woohoo!! Deal baby! Right now I plan to head down to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone NP tomorrow, taking the scenic route there. More to come!

Take care,