Epic Drives in Every Direction
The most well-known feature of Glacier National Park isn’t a product of nature, but of human engineering and hard labor. For generations of park visitors, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is synonymous with the park itself — a breathtaking, perspective-shifting transect of a landscape renowned for those same qualities. As road trips go, there is no more epic drive anywhere in North America.
Constructed over an eleven-year period between 1921-1932, the Going-to-the-Sun Road remains a man-made wonder today. The 12-mile middle section across the face of the Garden Wall was literally hewn from hard rock, blasted and drilled over the course of years by crews that battled unpredictable weather and profound hardship. Three workers died and others suffered injury in the making of this short section of road, which clings to the face of near-vertical cliffs. In 1983, the Going-To-The-Sun Road was included in the National Register of Historic Places and, in 1985, was made a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Even for those who know nothing about the road’s history, driving it is an unforgettable experience. The Going-to-the-Sun Road passes through almost every type of terrain in the park, from large glacial lakes and cedar forests in the lower valleys to windswept alpine tundra atop the pass. Scenic vistas and pullouts line the road, so motorists can stop for photo opportunities or simply to revel in the magnificent views. While travelers can opt to loop back along the wild and scenic Middle Fork of the Flathead River via U.S. Highway 2, many wisely choose to simply retrace the Sun Road in reverse, as the view is much different in each direction.
Plowing the Going-to-the-Sun Road is a monumental challenge each year. Those interested in taking the trip should plan to arrive no earlier than late June — and even then, it’s a good idea to check Glacier National Park’s website for road information as well as vehicle size restrictions. If you’re more comfortable in the passenger seat, hop on a Red Bus from many of the park’s lodges. The historic open-air bus tours offer a fully guided and information-packed trek along the road. Due to extensive rehabilitation work under way, sections of the road will close beginning September 23 this year.
Remarkably, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is just one of several stunning drives in the region around Kalispell in Northwest Montana. For a leisurely and scenic day on the road, head south along Highway 93 for Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the lower 48 states west of the Mississippi. Visitors can spend a whole day exploring the colorfully cobbled shores of the lake as well as the quaint lakeside communities of Somers, Lakeside, Polson and Bigfork. For fans of fine potables, Flathead Lake serves as a veritable oasis of breweries, distilleries and wineries; visit www.DiscoverKalispell.com/wine-dine/ to download a free map. Fine dining and unique shopping also rim the lake. Whatever the stops along the way, make sure to wind up on the east side of the lake along Highway 35 for the spectacular evening sunset.
For a more rugged experience of Montana’s wild lands, head south from the town of Hungry Horse to Hungry Horse Reservoir. Created in 1954 by the damming of the South Fork of the Flathead River, this vast and scenic reservoir sprawls into the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Allow at least four hours to to travel the winding and mostly gravel road that encircles the reservoir, plus time to stop and marvel at the stunning views and perhaps, if the season is right, pick a few roadside huckleberries. Here again, one finds an engineering marvel — in this case, the 564-foot-tall Hungry Horse Dam, which at the time of its construction in 1953 was the second-tallest concrete dam in the world.
Whatever the road holds during daylight hours, the evenings will be full of hearty food and homey accommodations in Kalispell, the hub of the Flathead Valley, where visitors find a wide array of branded and independently owned properties to suit all tastes, needs and budgets. Located in the center of the Flathead Valley, Kalispell is the gateway to Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, Whitefish and all of the recreation, art, shopping and adventure that Northwest Montana has to offer.
Getting to Kalispell has never been easier thanks to direct air service from Seattle, Las Vegas, Oakland, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Atlanta — as well as twice-a-day Amtrak service to Chicago and Seattle.
Visit www.DiscoverKalispell.com to start planning your trip today.
Tags: Flathead Lake, Going-to-the-Sun Road, Hungry Horse