LOGAN PASS, Mont. — Sometimes you can’t beat the beaten path.
How else can you explain why of the nearly 2 million visitors to Glacier National Park each year, most flock to the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The road, an engineering marvel clinging to the Rocky Mountains, remains as wildly popular as ever as it provides the only driving route across the 1,583-square-mile park.
And while the narrow two-lane road won’t take you away from the crowds, it will lead you into the heart of one of America’s most picturesque parks.
“Even with all the people, there is still this element of wildness and a very rough, huge landscape,” said park spokeswoman Denise Germann.
Don’t let the crowds or traffic fool you, this corridor is wild. Step foot on the trails and you better be prepared for bears (“We recommend bear spray,” Germann said) and other wildlife such as mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Dive into the blue lakes or cross a stream and you better be ready for the paralyzing cold and swift currents (“Water is one of our biggest threats,” Germann said).
While at times touring the road, which was completed 80 years ago, feels like a Disneyland-meets-nature experience, there’s good reason the crowds still come.
“It’s beautiful and the road is a great way to see the park,” Germann said.
On a recent trip, my family and I arrived early, trying to beat the crowds, but we still found ourselves hiking behind a woman carrying a purse in one hand and a People magazine in the other.
“It (the road) makes the park accessible for so many people,” Germann said. “People always ask for a stop that’s not busy. I don’t even go there.”
But once you get past the fact that you probably won’t find solitude here, you’ll appreciate everything else you will find.
1. LAKE MCDONALD
Carved by glaciers, the Lake McDonald Valley offers a wide variety of recreational options ranging from swimming in the frigid waters, to camping, boat tours or guided horseback rides. Some popular photo opps include the massive fireplace inside Lake McDonald Lodge and McDonald Falls at the northeastern end of the 10-mile lake.
2. AVALANCHE LAKE
The two-mile hike to Avalanche Lake is relatively flat and easy and, Germann said, “the most popular hike in the park.” Visitors are rewarded with dramatic views that include waterfalls rushing down nearby peaks to fill the lake. When we visited, we watched a moose playing on the far side of the lake. Bighorn sheep and bears also can be seen in this area.
3. EMBRACE ROAD WORK
Until roadwork is completed in 2016, you’ll be hard-pressed to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road without stopping for a delay. Germann suggests making the most of these delays by soaking in the scenery without having to worry about keeping your eyes on the road. Stopped just below Logan Pass, I stepped out of the car long enough to grab a better camera from the back. I was outside the car for about a minute, but in that time a bighorn sheep charged along the edge of the road just missing my open door. Just one reason that the park asks visitors to stay in the car during delays.
4. LOGAN PASS
At 6,646 feet above sea level, scenic Logan Pass might be the most popular stop on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Germann suggests arriving early before the parking lot fills up, usually by 9:30 a.m. The visitor center is small and offers interpretive exhibits but the views of nearby Reynolds Mountain and the hike to the Hidden Lake Overlook are the real highlights here. “The view at Hidden Lake is absolutely spectacular,” Germann said.
5. GEOCACHE TOUR
Geocaching, a worldwide GPS treasure hunting game, is restricted in national parks, but a series of six virtual caches have been established along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Instead of looking for a hidden object, participants must take pictures at designated locations. The caches at Glacier National Park will take participants to various scenic locations, waterfalls and historic structures. One requests, but does not require, participants to pose for a picture holding an umbrella while standing under the Weeping Wall. “This is not recommended,” Germann said. She said it is not safe to stand along the narrow road. For more information, go to geocaching.com.
6. RIDE A BIKE
Biking Going-to-the-Sun Road over Logan Pass is a challenge and a bucket list ride for many cyclists. Get your ride in early however, because the park closes sections of the road to cyclists from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. from June 15-Labor Day. The park is currently warning cyclists to stay alert for unpaved sections of road.
7. TAKE A RED BUS
The canvas-topped red tour buses are nearly as iconic as the scenery at Glacier. The jammers, manufactured by Cleveland’s White Motor Company, were first used at Glacier in 1936. The buses were retired in 1999, but renovated by Ford and put back into service in 2002. More than a dozen red bus tours ($30-$90) are offered. For more information visit glacierparkinc.com.
8. BARING FALLS
There are various locations to view waterfalls along the road, some that don’t even require getting out of the car. Baring Falls near the west end of Saint Mary Lake is worth the stop. A short hike from the road puts visitors at the base of the 40-foot falls.
9. JACKSON GLACIER
A trip to the park wouldn’t be complete without viewing one of the park’s 25 glaciers. An overlook below Going-to-the-Sun Mountain allows visitors to view Jackson Glacier, one of the largest remaining glaciers in the park.
10. SAINT MARY LAKE
A short hike on the Sun Point Nature Trail puts visitors on a rocky overlook above Saint Mary Lake, a lake so strikingly beautiful it was used as scenery in the 1994 film “Forrest Gump.” The lake is popular place to go boating, Germann said, but boats must be inspected for aquatic invasive species before they’re allowed on the lake. Park officials are particularly concerned about freshwater mussels from eastern states. Motorized boats are inspected by rangers and human-powered boats must go through a self-certification process. The park classifies Washington as one of 15 “mussel free states.”Craig.firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8497 Blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure