Montana: Going-to-the-Sun on the Cusp of Winter

Montana: Going-to-the-Sun on the Cusp of Winter
The fuel tank of my Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited is topped off, my thermal liner is zipped in, I have on two pairs of socks, and the heated grips are cranked up all the way. I’m idling at the east entrance of the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTS) near St. Mary in Montana, and I can hear my mother’s voice in my head.

Mom knows this road well, and in a phone call last week she asked me to avoid it. She explained that it would probably be closed for the winter this time of year in late September, and even if it’s open, strong winds can kick up. And if the winds don’t get me, patches of snow and ice might, she worried.

I reassured her I will not ride the GTTS, but here I am bundled up like the kid in A Christmas Story on a sunny 80-degree day, prepared for the worst, about to break that promise. I twist the throttle, which is scalding hot at this point, and roll up to the entrance gate. The ranger in the booth explains that the road is undergoing repairs, but I can still go 18 miles in to Logan Pass before I will have to turn around. And it is September 24, National Public Lands Day, and the ranger informs me the U.S. National Park Service is waiving the usual entrance fee. I take it as a good omen and shrug off my mother’s concerns, unwilling to pass up my chance to see even a portion of this engineering feat that crosses the interior of the pristine wilderness of Glacier National Park (GNP). I enter the GTTS.

My first stop is at Wild Goose Island lookout, and I lean over a brick wall to peer deeper into the valley and across the turquoise blue St. Mary Lake. The sun seems brighter here, and the autumn air smells delicious, something like apple pie and sage.

Back in the saddle, I come around a bend and the road starts climbing; postcard-perfect scene after scene unfolds. The road hugs the side of the mountain, and I see trickles of water spidering down through cracks in the rusty brown rock wall on my right. Five more miles and I am at Jackson Glacier Overlook. This glacier in the distance, along with the other couple dozen in the park, is melting, and it is predicted they will be gone completely in 20 years. I am grateful I can still see one today.

I hop off the bike at every scenic overlook along the way, riding slowly and soaking in the views. I pass through a tunnel and reach Logan Pass, which sits on the Continental Divide and is the highest portion of the road at 6,640 feet. I try to imagine what it was like for the survey crews crawling along narrow ledges in the 1920s, or for the laborers excavating the tunnels out of the side of the mountain, and how awesome it must have been for the first driver to navigate all 51 miles of the finished road in the fall of 1932 before the road was opened to the public in 1933.