Friday, July 11, 2014

The South End of North: Going to Going-to-the-Sun Road

Not the best night's sleep on our first night in Waterton; we were a bit restless from our long drive, there seemed to be an inordinate number of loud diesel engines leaving or entering the campground after dark, and some individual thought this would also be a good time to test out their trumpet. I'm not proud of it, but this artistry very nearly moved me to murder, and only the knowledge that I would have even greater difficulty getting to sleep after such a violent act and the beguiling comfort of my sleeping bag prevented a positively Dostoyevskian tragedy from transpiring.

I arose early and got the hot water going for coffee so that when the ladies arose we could get under way as quickly as possible, as today we planned to cross the 49th parallel and traverse the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The only road that crosses Glacier National Park in Montana, GTSR is one of the most scenic drives in North America, and a marvel of engineering. Its 50 miles cling tenaciously to mountainsides, passing glaciers and cliffside waterfalls as it ascends to Logan Pass, where it crosses the Continental Divide. The Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Banff presents comparable scenic vistas, but much of that drive is on the relatively flat areas and valleys alongside the river, punctuated by ascents and descents around places like Bow and Sunwapta Summit, with ample shoulders and opportunities to pass if needed. Going-to-the-Sun Road, on the other hand, is two lanes of winding,twisting road that very quickly prompts the driver to tighten their grip on the wheel and try not to think about the precipitous drop directly beside their vehicle.

We crossed the border uneventually, and about an hour and a half after we left the campsite, we were In St. Mary, MT, and the park gate. It's $25 for a 7 day pass that covers everyone in the vehicle, which is a bit of a bargain compared to Parks Canada's $20 a day. Just past the gate, the road construction begins, as the winters here are very tough on the road surface and necessitates an almost constant recovery effort. Since GTSR is strictly a two-lane affair, there are many spots along the first 15 miles where we need to sit and wait for oncoming traffic to pass through before the flagman waves us on. On a 29 degree day, the dusty road is hardly ideal vacation fodder, but the waits were never too long, and the scenery never stopped being breathtaking.

To be clear: this is never a road speedsters will be happy with. The circuitous twists and turns, precarious drops, narrow lanes, and wayward sightseers drifting across the centerline on a blind corner are all reasons for even a wary driver to keep their wits about them. This was part of the reason Audrey and I agreed to share the driving duties, with me taking the westward leg, and her taking the wheel for the eastward return. We would also let Fenya take shotgun for the trip in, and Glory on the way out.

Glory has recently displayed a bit of a knack for photography, and since we had no real deadlines, it was nice to be able to stop and let her frame up the shots she wanted.

When the road you are on is your destination, it is quite a bit easier to get your zen on, I found. Not having an appointment to keep, a reservation to meet, or some other constraint, it was easier than normal to get out and explore sights like Avalanche Creek, where we saw artists painting and sketching from the shade of the trees.

The road is quite a feat of engineering as well, with various bridges, tunnels, and switchbacks designed to scale the heights and manage the descents, as well as clearing numerous creeks and waterfalls.

The physical highlight was probably the Weeping Wall, about 20 yards of roadway drenched by torrents of water seeping off the rock overhang looming overhead. It's difficult to capture how cool it is in a photo, but I may update the post with Glory's video when we return home.

UPDATED: And here it is:

UPDATE II:  A little clearer and less squealy on the return trip:
There was also quite bit of wildlife to be seen at relatively close ranges; a herd of bighorn sheep was resting in the snow on the mountainside above the Logan's Pass Visitor Centre, until they got bored with that and trotted down across the road and into the parking lot.

A mother mountain goat and her kid showed up there as well.
At the end of the road (as it were), we stopped in West Glacier for some American style snacks (Hostess Fruit Pie for Glory, Payday bars for Fenya and Audrey, and a Leinenkugel Shandy for me), before swapping drivers for the return leg. And not to glorify being a scofflaw or anything, but sitting in the backseat of a vehicle with ample legroom on a hot day while twisting and turning through the mountain passes and sipping on an ice cold wheat beer with lemonade while admiring some of the continent's best scenery with my family? Pretty close to perfect, in my books.

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