Cycling Going-to-the-Sun Road

Spring in Montana. I’m sure there’s nothing quite like it. As if in an instant, the landscape changes from black and white to brown to every shade of green. The days are incredibly long.

In mid-April, the plows start on the road snaking through Glacier National Park. They follow the tall wooden markers along the road to Logan pass. Some plows start on the east side while others start on the west. Both have their work cut out for them, especially this year. The snow is deeper than it has been in years. Some of these drifts are dozens and dozens of feet high, levels you have to see to believe. So we set out to see for ourselves.

On weekends, hikers and bikers are privy to the progress the plows have made. Progress depends on many variables, so opening dates vary widely year to year. This past weekend, when we got wind that we could make it sixteen or so miles up, Luke made the plan for us to camp at Apgar Campground (open this time of year, first come, first serve) and venture out on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The campground is peaceful this time of year, with only two of the five loops open. The first night before our ride I was restless, helped none by the “big cat” growling in the distance prompting my refusal to leave the tent. Finally dawn, we hurried over to the dock at Apgar village to watch the sun rise.

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Saturday morning we drove to Lake McDonald Lodge, bikes in tow, and set off from there. The first several miles are leisurely, rolling through the towering pines and hearing the rush of the creek before you’re even near. The whole experience is particularly fun when you’ve driven it many times before. Seeing it at this speed is such a gift. The clouds darkened and spit a bit, but we continued on of course. The trees thinned and the mountain views opened up and soon we were surrounded. The views are surreal to say the least and the best distraction for the steady ascent. While a challenge for a new cyclist, I never felt it impossible to continue on.

When we hit the tunnel, I knew we were getting close. Waterfalls spewed off the mountain, and rockfall littered the roadway. As we continued on, the conditions seemed to get more and more hairy. During a break I heard a sound akin to the rumbling of a jet. I looked across the valley and saw an avalanche moving steadily down the side of the mountain.

Soon we spotted the yellow sign indicating the sharp turn indicating the “Loop,” the turn off that was what we thought to be the end of the plowed road and the end of our trip. But when we arrived, though there was a reception of people relaxing and snacking, the plowed stretch continued. And so we, one of us a little reluctantly, kept on.

We passed rockfall and trees broken up into tiny bits from the all-powerful snow. In the distance I saw what I thought was the end of the plowed road… that is until the two cyclists before us picked up their bikes and walked over what turned out to be the remnants of an avalanche. We followed, though I’ll admit my nerves were building as the walls of snow got higher. And after the fact, I thought us fools for doing so. But just when my legs began to give up, we rounded a curve and saw the collection of bulldozers and snow plows marking the end of our journey.

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Moments later the sun came out in full blaze, reflecting off the snow to create a wonderland. The view can never be taken for granted, and it’s special to see it snow covered when my memories are of a scene far greener. In just a couple months from now, if that, this road will be teeming with people from all over the world. But for now, it belongs to those of us who call this place home.

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