It’s Up There: Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road

July 19, 2014 — “Make sure you take hair spray.” The suggestion was made to me and my friend by a pleasant-looking woman in an apron who was adding thick, gray sausages to a metal canister for the continental breakfast bar at our hotel outside Glacier National Park in Montana.

“Hair spray?” I asked, thinking it was some local bit of wisdom for dealing with the rugged, expansive environment that is Montana, like Douglas Adams did with towels and outer space.

“No. Bear spray. You’ll need that.”

Later, at the entrance station for the park, we were given a pamphlet entitled, “Bears: Important Safety Information” before driving through and seeing a sign the color of tourist blood with an extremely peeved grizzly on it that read, “Bear Country. All wildlife is dangerous. Do not approach or feed.”

Awesome. We were going to see bears in the wild. It made sense. Glacier National Park is home to a couple hundred species of animals, including lynx, moose, wolverine, mountain goat, mountain lion, and bighorn sheep. And, of course, bear.

Actually, I’m going to stop teasing the bears. We didn’t see a single bear in that Montana wild. I don’t know about the sign and the pamphlet, but I can’t fault the woman at the hotel too much. She saw two young-ish, able-bodied-ish men-ish heading out into the wilderness to test their mettle. Little did she know we were barely getting out of our car.

That’s because we were taking the Going-to-the-Sun Road through the million acres of Rocky Mountain subranges and almost-Canada that is Glacier National Park. Going-to-the-Sun Road is named after Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and is the only vehicle route that travels the width of the park, about 50 miles, from its west border near the northern tip of Flathead Lake to its east border at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

It wends by pristine lakes the color of chlorinated pools and rapids so frothy and fast that drowning is the number one cause of death in the park—far, far above bear attacks. It then steadily climbs until you’re at the heady, snow-capped heights usually only populated by hooved, horned things and spiritual gurus.

And we weren't just driving into majesty, we were driving into madness. This is the road from the opening credit sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the one which Jack Torrance is heading up in his yellow Volkswagen Bug for his interview at the Outlook Hotel—itself played by a ski lodge two states to the southwest in Oregon. I guess now I’m officially collecting sites from The Shining.

We started at the west entrance, embarking on a road that had only been fully plowed for about a week or two, even though it was already mid-July. And, man, it was an amazing experience. Somehow, despite timing it right in the middle of tourist season, it wasn’t too crowded. There were plenty of people, sure, but at no time did I have my usual fantasies of mass murder.

Once we got to the higher climes, we were surrounded by snow that had melted into dirty, compacted textures that looked like concrete patches, as if somebody was trying to fix cracks in the mountains. There are places to pull off regularly, but the route isn’t really site-based, like its neighbor-to-the-south Yellowstone. It’s more vista-based, where you’re there to take in landscape beauty in general.

At one point, we stopped at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, the highest point of the trail accessible by car (6,640 feet) and right in the shadow of Clements Mountain. Here, we did find large crowds spilling through the facilities, having snowball fights, embarking on buses, dodging hoary marmots and ground squirrels, and taking off across the snowpack like a doomed cult to see the wonders of Hidden Lake three miles away on the other side of the peak. We thought about following them for a grand total of three seconds, and then jumped back into a car steering-wheel-deep in candy and Gatorade.

See those tiny dots in the snow at the bottom of this photo? Hikers heading to Hidden Lake.
God rest their poor souls.

And even though we didn’t see bears, we did have a great wildlife experience. As we pulled into one overlook, we saw a group of people excitedly aiming cameras and index fingers in the same direction—a surer sign of wildlife than fresh scat and tracks.

Above us, about 50 yards away, a pair of white mountain goats were hanging out, looking leisurely stuck on the side of a rocky cliff like those kind of things always do. Eventually, we filled up our SD cards and walked to another part of the overlook, where we came literally face to face with another mountain goat crossing our path, this one with a kid.

The kid stayed off the path. We stayed a safe distance away from the mother...despite her collar.

I mean, it was no Grizzly bear. But, of course, technically, you don’t really go to Glacier National Park to see bears. You go to see glaciers. Or so I thought.

Since we were taking the road east, one of the last places we stopped was the Jackson Glacier Overlook. The entire place was shaped by some 150 glaciers, most of them still around when the park was founded in 1910, but only 25 remain today. The easiest one to see for those car-bound like we were is Jackson Glacier. However, had there not been an informational placard, I’d have guessed it was just another mountain with your run-of-the-mill snow patches. So instead of what the NatGeo Channel told me a glacier looks like, this one looked more like the remnants of one. In fact, back in 1850, it was about 75% bigger than it is today.

This is the Jackson Glacier. Or the remnants of it.

On our way out, we saw tiny Wild Goose Island out in the middle of Saint Mary Lake, which holds the honor of being the subject of the very first shot of The Shining.

So no bears, no satisfying glaciers, no bouts of axe-handled psychoses, but one heck of an awe-inspiring, mountainous experience for extremely low effort on our part.

And that is always my goal in life.

And a hoary marmot. It's about the size of a groundhog.