Driving The Going to the Sun Road – Glacier National Park
Going to the Sun Road is the bloodline of Glacier National Park, is 50 miles long and runs from the West Glacier entrance to the St Mary entrance with some significant elevation climbing, peaking at Logan’s Pass two-lane, narrow road, reaching an elevation of 6,646 ft. It takes about two hours to drive from one end to the other without stopping but trust me, you are gong to want make stops. Along this road is where a majority of the trailheads are accessed as well as many overlooks and waterfalls. This drive reminded us greatly of the Road to Hana in Hawaii so if you are familiar, you can think about planning your drive in a similar manner.
When to Visit
The window of opportunity for visiting is extremely small – much smaller than other parks. Glacier is very close to the Canadian border so the season without ice and snow is limited. The park is “open” from the middle of June until the end of September but most people recommend going from late July until the beginning of September to increase the odds of good weather and trail condition days. This is due to the road through the park – Going to the Sun Road – requires quite a production for snow removal. Because of this, expect to pay more to experience these optimal conditions – from flights, to car rentals, to accommodations. Additionally, expect it to be crowded. Accommodations and car rentals book up very quickly even at a year out. Those that live close enough to drive had a significant advantage! While you can visit outside of the June to September period, know that the Going to the Sun Road will not be available.
Driving the Going to the Sun Road is an epic drive that gives fantastic views the entire ride. Even if you are not a hiker, you will benefit from simply driving this road, pulling off at the many parking areas, and enjoying the stunning views. Now, the scenic drive can also mean distracted driving so please be mindful. There are steep drop offs and rock formations that make driving a bit scarier than normal but there are always two lanes and enough room for the shuttles to safely drive so the average car has plenty of room. From the National Park website: ” the road, visitors experience breathtaking views of valleys and mountains, and at times the drop off from the road is steep. The road has a stone wall or guard rail on the outside lane, but for those with issues with heights, the east to west route will keep you on the inside lane.” Another option is to drive very early when it is very dark out which takes the distraction of the views and scariness of the drop offs out of the equation.
There are three main options to exploring the Going to the Sun Road: 1) Driving a car 2) Taking the shuttle 3) The Red Bus
Driving a car: (+) This is the most popular, most flexible, and most convenient option that allows you to do exactly as you please any time you want or need (-) unless you are able to drive from home, you will have to pay for a rental, and parking is very intense, vehicles cannot be longer than 21 feet
Taking the shuttle: (+) free in-park transportation, no parking stress required, no need to worry about driving (-) limited operating hours, limited space on the shuttle, can have long lines, at the mercy of the shuttle to get you places in a timely manner, less flexibility on ability to stop where you want (option required advanced booking and reservation)
We did take the shuttle once when we completed the Highline Trail as a through hike. We had reservations for the shuttle in the afternoon of the hike but in order to use it, the reservation needed to be validated (get a colored wristband), starting at 7AM that day. Since we would be tackling an incredibly long hike, we would be starting the hike by 6AM so we would miss the validation in the morning and therefore not be able to ride the shuttle. I read that you can validate your reservation up to 72 hours ahead for this reason. There was a gentleman sitting by the bus stop clearly with the validation/wristband power. I explained the situation – that we would not be at this bust stop at 7AM but instead an hour into the Highline Trail, he nodded and hooked us up with red wristbands for tomorrow. I mention all of this because it is essential that you plan ahead and read what the requirements are. When we completed the trail, we made our way to the bus station and waited in the sun for the bus to pick us up. As we got our wristbands on, groups of people indicated being unaware of the reservation system – even though it is plastered everywhere – on signs, the website, the visitor centers – everywhere. The shuttle comes every 15 – 30 minutes and lucky for us, a bus arrived after 15 minutes with only two open spots.
The Red Bus: (+) more exclusive, great for sightseeing in an open top vehicle, guided tour (-) expensive, cannot get off for trails / hiking, not flexible (option requires advanced ticket purchase)
Each option gives a different trip through Going to the Glacier Road so depending on what you are looking to do will determine how you want to get around. If you are nervous about driving, the in-park shuttle is a great option but if you want to be in the park at 6AM, you will need a car. If you are not interested in hiking at all and want to be chauffeured, go for the Red Bus.
Stops on Going to the Sun Road
- Apgar Visitor Center / Apgar Village
- Lake McDonald
- McDonald Falls
- John’s Lake Trail
- Sacred Dancing Cascade
- Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake
- The Loop and Overlook
- Weeping Wall / Triple Arches / Oberlin Falls
- Logan Pass Visitor Center ( access to Hidden Lake Trail and Highline Trail)
- Siyeh Bend
- Jackson Glacier Overlook
- St Mary Falls Trail (3 miles, easy) / Sun Point Nature Trail (6 miles, easy)
- Wild Goose Island Lookout
- St Mary Visitor Center
This is a lot to do in one day but it certainly can be done, especially if the trails are not a priority. That being said, since parking is a nightmare in the park, make sure to have a must see list to ensure you do not waste too much time circling for a parking spot.
Since we tackled some of these areas in the previous two days, here was our day:
Views of Lake McDonald from one of the many pull off locations
Visited the Sacred Dancing Cascade
Stopped at pulls offs near the Weeping Wall
Tried to park at Logan Pass Visitor Center around 9AM but it was already bonkers – literally watched people get out of their car to find someone coming off of the trail and walked with them to their car to secure the parking spot
Quick photo near Jackson Glacier Overlook
Completed a 3 mile easy St Mary Falls Trail
Spotted Wild Goose Island – it is very tiny!
Turned around of Going to the Sun Road and headed back
Found a parking spot near Logan Visitor Center which was a reasonable walking distance to the visitor center
Only to find out that Hidden Lake Trail we intended on hiking was closed due to near activity
Sat at the Visitor Center and ate our lunch, checked out the park store
Walked about half a mile on the Highline Trail again to see the beginning in the day time – we were also surprised to see the Grinnell Glacier Overlook portion of the trail was closed today even though we just completed it yesterday
And that concludes our drive on the Going to the Sun Road! We spent a lot more time at Lake McDonald on our first day as well as hiking the Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake but I think those two items could have definitely been included as a part of this drive. Longer trails like the Highline (and potentially the Hidden Lake Trail depending on hiking ability) is better suited as a dedicated day.
What I loved about Glacier National Park and the Going to the Sun Road is that everyone is able to enjoy the beauty of the park and it is not inaccessible for those that cannot or chose not to hike distances to see the iconic park views – these views exist along the entire drive!
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