The days approaching the Rockies were not, as you might think, spent gazing up at the soaring peaks blocking our path. Rather the approach wend its way through valley after valley, navigating the steep river ravines and valleys that cut their way down the western slope of the range. This was a bit of a letdown for Ian, who expected at least a week of stare down with our final climb.
After a restful and beautiful day in Whitefish, MT, we set out towards Glacier Waterton International Peace Park, whose name deserves repeating as much as possible. The park reaches from the Northern US Rockies into the Canadian Rockies, and includes one of the narrowest sections of the Rockies. This pinch in the mountain spine is where, in the 1930s, the Conservation Corps built Going to the Sun Road, a name swiped from a Native American tale of a messianic chief who, after generally fixing things up, walked up to Going to the Sun Mountain.
To prep for the climb we road a shorty day to the western side of the pass, at Avalanche Creek. We used the afternoon to sluggishly make our way up to a cirque (like an amphitheater in mountains), where despite our inability to walk well, we were rewarded with a cool lake to stand in, and an beautiful view. On the way down we enjoyed a more sedate boardwalk, accompanied by some VERY corny haiku, and some excellent improvised ones.
The road was based on one of many proposals of how to shellack and hack a road over a beautiful mountain pass, and was accepted because it worked into the natural topography as much as possible. It’s an interesting climb, designed to deviate from 6% climb as little as possible all the way up its 3,493 foot ascent from the west. The result is basically a small ledge climbing up the edge of the entire divide on either side of the pass, hacked out of the bedrock.
Christine and I left at a little before 6am in order to be on the pass with as little traffic as possible, and also to ensure we could be relaxed about getting to the top before 11am, after which cyclists are prohibited. We climbed up the long river valley that extends above glacial Lake McDonald, deep in the shadow of the mountain ridge. Peaks thousands of feet above us began to catch the sun as we wound through avenues of cool cedar and spruce, slowly feeling the road beneath our wheels tip steeper and steeper.
There is only one switch-back on the western side of Going to the Sun Road, about a 1/5 of the way up the climb, and happily we were accompanied by a very fit looking, serious rider up that first pitch, who kindly noodled along with us as we climbed, chatting away about his vacations to Glacier to hike and bike the mountains with his wife. He was scouting the climb that morning as a warmup- in just the first few miles of the climb, you can find yourself exposed to an enormous vista looking west to Angel Peak, north to the Continental Spine, and south to 500-ft Birdwoman Falls, perched in an orphaned glacier valley over a thousand feet above the main ravine. Our ascent climbs what is called the Garden Wall, where in the last ice age over 6,000 feet of ice hit the hard spine of the mountains, leaving a precipitous and unbroken slope from the peaks down to the enormous ‘U’ of the valley floor, where the majority of the glacier’s enormous weight ground away the bedrock.
We took our time as much as possible as we climbed this breathtaking road; stopping to stretch, read historical placards, and generally gawk back westward at the view. As we climbed upward, the morning light steadily climbed down the peaks on the other side of the road, but luckily not quick enough to blind or roast us as we climbed. The road was constantly interrupted by waterfalls and waterways that leaped down the fast- melting snows above. The water was so cold that as we passed each stream we were blasted by a gout of freezing air; nature’s air conditioning. Despite it being low 50s in the shade, we were hot and bothered on the road, and these frequent misty respites were quite welcome. At one point, the water simply fell in sheets onto the road from overhangs, and we passed some early-morning drivers simply sitting under the deluge; a child’s smile on the face of a 250 pound toughie in a Ford Monster-Class Pickup.
As we climbed we looked hopefully for signs of mountain goats or bighorn sheep, but while we were riding the wildest thing we encountered was a Hoary Marmot licking salt off the edge of the road; a fluffy pillow of an animal, akin to an enormous gerbil in two-tone fur.
Ian rediscovered his fear of heights as he kept us upright on our slow but steady way up. The road was mostly bordered by a low stone wall less than two feet high, and as we road on the cliff-side of the road, vertigo was a constant companion, looking between our small view of thighs, gears and rock and the vastly distant view of the mountains around us. The isolation of the morning and the exposure of the ancient, enormous view was a potent experience, and somewhere between exhilaration, exhaustion, and simple contentment we decided that this was the single most beautiful, enjoyable morning of riding we had ever experienced.
We reached the summit of 6,646 feet with hours to spare before the cut off, and more than ready for an early early lunch. We played in the snow, as I would expect of anyone with snow at the peak of summer, and while we ate a lunch at the pass ran into an old school friend, Izzy! We were determined to hike at least a little, despite our rubbery legs, and slipped an slid trough a comically difficult 3 mile hike to an alpine lake named, imaginatively, Hidden Lake. Along with dozens of stiff tourists, we made our way through snow fields and were rewarded with incredible views, and a family of goats, looking rather mangy as they shed their winter coats, and accompanied by a very very cute kid.
Our descent was AWESOME. 400 pounds of screaming steel, stinky clothes, and stinkier people goes FAST. We easily outstripped the cars, and ended up intercepting a pack of tricked-out day riders. We bombed through them Pee-Wee Herman style, sitting straight up and singing ‘hello there!’ as we rolled by. They got a kick out of it, and quickly tucked into our sizable draft. Our day ended, windswept, sunburned and happy on the banks of Saint Mary lake, ready for another day off the bike to explore the park.
Ian really really wanted to see a bear. Christine did too, but was more clear about the context (across a mountain valley, for instance). Turns out, part of our campsite was shut down because of a rather curious bear- he wasn’t eating anything or being aggressive, but he certainly wasn’t afraid of people. We were happy to set up a boat tour and go on some geology walks, and generally ignored the frantic rangers running back and forth. Reading an information sign outloud in silly voices, however, we heard the click of what sounded like dog claws on the pavement behind us. Turning around, we realized the bear was RIGHT THERE, about four feet away. He was a full grown black bear, 3-4 feet at the shoulder, and had easily sneaked up behind us without us hearing anything. Unconcerned, he sauntered off into the woods. We lacked the fast bear-spray-at-ready response we had imagined, and instead stood agog during the whole episode. So we got to see a bear!
So. Glacier Park. Breathtaking and worth a whole separate trip to explore. We enjoyed a day learning the fascinating geologic history of the area; looking at the remnants of fires that burnt trees, roots and all, and melted glass; and enjoyed Waterton’s mountains as we road north from Glacier into Canada and finally on eastward. We are quite sad to leave the mountains behind- it will be sometime before we get to see a place that epic again.
Christine and Ian, this is an amazing post on an amazing journey. Why is there a time limit for reaching the divide? Saw your wedding book this week…wow.
Hi Bonnie! Because of high traffic, you can’t climb the divide between 11am and 4pm. We left at 6 and saw almost no one; just an amazing sunrise.