Glacier National Park: Going to the Sun

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Mount Gould (left), Bishops Cap (center), and Pollock Mountain (right), along the Garden Wall

On July 31, a Tuesday, our journey to Montana began with a 5:20pm flight from O’Hare to…Seattle. Then we’d continue on to Great Falls. Sean and I both worked from home until it was time to head to the airport. And we both were stressed tying up some final things before the trip. Our stress continued on the way to the airport in a Lyft. Traffic was extremely heavy, and we’d left later than we’d wanted to because of work stuff.

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Once we finally arrived, we were too late to do our traditional Fronterra Tortas, so we opted for Publican To Go. It was the first adventure in many years that began without Fronterra.

Clouds in Chicago gave way to clear skies over the Great Plains as we crossed the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Over the western Dakotas, the sky became hazy with the smoke of the wildland fires that were now raging in California and throughout the far West. Only weeks after we’d been to Sequoia and Kings Canyon, fires in the Sierra Nevada were now threatening Yosemite.

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Badlands National Park

Despite the haziness, we were able to glimpse Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, and then the Cascades.

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Mount Rainier

As we descended into the Seattle area, we flew right past Mount Rainier. We had a spectacular view of the mountain, smoke or no.

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Mount Rainier

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Seattle

Being in Seattle again, if only on a layover, made us crave a proper visit. Thinking it through, we realized that we probably had more friends concentrated in Seattle than anywhere else in the country (save Chicago/Detroit).

We had a snack of artisanal mac and cheese while we waited for our next flight.

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That flight was Alaska Air regional service to Great Falls on the most romantically named airplane I have ever heard of. We were to rise out of the Pacifica Northwest twilight on a De Havilland-Bombardier. We wondered aloud if Olivia De Havilland herself inspired the design.

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The Olympics

The Olympics were visible from the tarmac. And the peaks of the northern Cascades were silhouetted once we were airborne. Then it became too dark to see. But still we had seen five National Parks from the air on our journey.

In front of us, a thirty-something veteran was chatting with the fifty-something woman next to him about his life as a trucker, growing up in Great Falls, and his time in the service. The flight attendants came by with complimentary wine and refills, even though it was a short flight.

We landed at the tiny Great Falls airport just before midnight. We crossed the tarmac, entered the terminal, and made our way down to baggage claim. I trotted over to the Enterprise desk while Sean waited for the bags. Keys in hand, I made it back to the bag belt just in time to grab my backpacking pack and discover that the strap had broken. Damn it. Well, it was a doubly good thing we had not planned a backpacking portion for the trip. I tied the strap together so I could shoulder the pack, and we headed out to the parking lot to our Ford Expedition. It was huge. Much more than we needed or wanted. But it was what they had for us.

We drove to the Hampton Inn, checked in, and were able to turn out the lights at 1:07am. Not too bad.

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We woke at 8:10 the following morning, Wednesday, August 1. We texted Dan to give the crew already in Glacier a sense of our timing. We were not going to rush since we’d had such a long travel day the day previous.

After showering, breakfasting at the hotel, and packing up the SUV, we were on the road by 10:30am. We listened to Anna Faris Unqualified as we drove across the flat plains of western Montana. Her guests were some CW DC actors, which was cute.

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In Browning, we could see the Rockies rising through a haze. Our route took us directly toward them through rolling foothills.

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As we got closer to the Park, we began to see tandem bikes along the road and even a motorcycle sidecar. Cars were pulling trailers with boats and RVs. Traffic had turned from ranching to recreational.

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Cut Bank

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East Flattop Mountain

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Image: Sean M. Santos

We descended into Saint Mary Valley and arrived at Park twenty-seven a touch after one.

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Angela, Dan, and Barbara had been in residence at Saint Mary’s Campground for over a week already. When we arrived at the site, they were hanging out under a canopy attached to Dan’s Subaru, Super-Roo.

We unloaded our tent and gear in the hot sun, and they watched us set up camp. It was like being on an outdoor reality TV show. And we gabbed the whole time.

It was too late for an afternoon hike. I felt badly, but Dan explained that the Park was so busy this time of year that often you had to get to a trailhead early in the day to get a parking spot, so they had assumed it would be a rest day anyway.

What we could do was go get food and beer at West Glacier, fifty-three miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road away. The road was constructed between 1921 and 1932 and officially opened in 1933. It is rightly an acclaimed marvel of engineering and design, due in no small part to young landscape architect Thomas Chalmers Vint, whose proposal for the upper portion of the road along the Continental Divide’s Garden Wall below Logan Pass eschews switchbacks for a long, harrowing run right along the wall.

I had long wondered if I’d be able to deal with this road, and now was the moment we’d find out. I brought up the idea of my driving, since I’m generally more comfortable behind the wheel in such situations, but as soon as Angela and Dan suggested that might be a bad idea, I agreed. Dan has driven the road many dozens of times, and I felt safe with him. Angela suggested that on the western drive, I should ride shotgun because I’d be agains the wall and not the drop off. Sean would ride behind Dan for the views. And she and Barbara would round out the backseat. It turned out to be a great suggestion.

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The section of the road up to Logan Pass wasn’t too bad. The first part was flat in the Saint Mary valley.

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Piegan Pass

Even as it began to climb, the road was nothing worse than other National Park roads we’d been on.

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Citadel Mountain and Jackson Glacier

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Clements Mountain

Not too far east of Logan Pass, Dan pulled over at a lookout so that we could take in the view of the mountains east of the Continental Divide.

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Heavy Runner Mountain

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Heavy Runner Mountain (left) and Reynolds Mountain

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Image: Angela Hayes

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The road here also wasn’t too frightening because there was a slope instead of a sheer drop, and we weren’t yet that high above the valley below, although in sheer altitude we were almost to the highest point of the road.

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Little Chief Mountain (left), Dusty Star Mountain (center), and Citadel Mountain (right)

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The sky was hazier than it had been, according to Dan, Angela, and Barbara. The smoke from the fires farther west had reached the park. Specifically, the smoke was visible in seemingly flat layers of high “clouds” that diffused the sunlight.

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We continued along the road. Just as it was getting a touch stomach-churning, we reached Logan Pass and its parking area and visitor center. At 6,646, Logan Pass is the high point of the road (a reminder that Glacier National Park is relatively low compared to Rocky Mountain or the Parks of the Sierra Nevada).

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Garden Wall

Remarkably, there was a parking spot available at a lookout just below Logan Pass. We decided to grab it, and we walked out to a deck perched high above Logan Creek.

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Mount Oberlin

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Across from us loomed the Garden Wall. The Going-to-the-Sun road was visible as a scar along the wall. A smaller, higher scar was the famous Highline Trail.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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The Garden Wall

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Going-To-The-Sun Road

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Logan Creek

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Yarrow

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Mountain Bog Gentian

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Cinquefoil (left) and others

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Mount Cannon

Back in the Super-Roo, we started the twelve most harrowing miles of the road. We were immediately behind a shuttle, which was taking its time. That made me feel a bit better despite my sweaty palms.

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Weeping Wall

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Jammer

We passed several “Jammers,” the Park’s famous old-timey red tour busses, nicknamed because of the ways their gears would jam in the past as they climbed steep grades. The entire fleet has been restored for a more reliable ride.

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We rounded The Loop, the only switchback on the Garden Wall, passed the shuttle stop, and saw a Black Bear cross the road in front of us, maybe thirty yards from the people waiting for the shuttle. As we passed, it was having a light supper of berries at the side of the road.

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American Black Bear

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We descended into the thickly forested section of Glacier west of the Continental Divide. The west side gets far more moisture than the east side.

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At West Glacier Bar, our luck with parking spots continued. We sat at the bar and ordered beer (Moose Drool) and food (elk burger). Dan and I were sitting next to each other and chatted about Parks and plans for Glacier. He asked if there were any particular hikes we wanted to do. I replied that anything would be great. I was looking forward to not being the planner on this trip and leaving us in the capable hands of the Glacier veterans.

Dan suggested the Highline for the next day. It would be a long hike: eight miles from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet, then a four mile descent to the Going-to-the-Sun Road where we could catch a shuttle back to the car. It sounded great to me.

After we ate, we headed back east on Going-to-the-Sun Road. This time, Sean was shotgun since we were on the outer side of the road. I had been sitting behind Sean, but shortly after The Loop, I had to switch with Angela.

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Mount Cannon. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Glacier Wall. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image Sean M. Santos

As we drove along, we discussed the two deaths in the Park that had happened since the others had been there: a motorcyclist who’d suffered a heart attack on the GTTS Road and a fifteen-year-old boy, who’d climbed down to a culvert beneath the road at a waterfall, lost his footing, and been swept down the cliff beneath the road.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Little Chief Mountain (left), Dusty Star Mountain (center), and Heavy Runner Mountain (right). Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

As we descended back into Saint Mary Valley, my right knee began to throb. It has been giving me trouble, not when I’m walking or hiking, but when I’m sitting in one position too long. Oof.

Before going back to camp, we stopped in Saint Mary and bought snacks and firewood.

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Then we returned to camp and built our evening’s campfire. We gabbed until it was dark and then, instead of going to the program at the visitor center, did some stargazing of our own. Above us, the Milky Way was smeared across the sky. We spotted Mars, Venus, and Saturn. And the International Space Station made an appearance too.

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Then it was time to turn in. We’d need to be up early next morning for a grand adventure on the Highline.

 

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