It's an engineering wonder, one that not only delights, but also perplexes and confounds, both motorists and road crews. And today the 75th birthday of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park is being celebrated. It's a time to both reflect on the history of this 50-mile pathway across the park's interior and look as well at the effort to rebuild it.
If you've never driven the "Sun Road," it arguably is one of the top 10 national park experiences you should have in your lifetime. From pockets of thick, moist forest on the west side of Logan Pass near Avalanche Creek to the mountain-goat-crowded alpine high country at the pass and then back down to St. Mary on the park's eastern border the road offers a visual smorgasbord, an outdoor feast that surely will sate your hunger for the out-of-doors.
Hikers can have a tough time negotiating the entire road due to the many trail options. Should you stop at Avalanche Creek and hike the kid-friendly Trail of the Cedars Nature Trail and the companion Avalanche Lake Trail that leads to a perfect picnic spot? Perhaps the Hidden Lake Trail from Logan Pass is more intriguing, or maybe your plan is to hop onto the Highline Trail at the pass and head deeper into the backcountry.
Without the Sun Road, which initially was called quite simply the "Transmountain Highway," none of these options would be available. With it, you can quickly flee into the backcountry or simply follow its path and enjoy the outstanding vistas to be found here at the Crown of the Continent. Indeed, some find the road entertainment enough. It's narrow, and in places precipitous, and in a constant state of repair due to the ravages of the freeze-thaw cycle.
It wasn't always clear that the Sun Road would follow its current path. Early on there were debates over the best routing of a cross-park road. Some wanted it to run from Apgar to Many Glacier, others wanted it to run all the way to Waterton Lakes in British Columbia, and others were arguing for it to go by Gunsight Pass. In the end the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (the precursor to today's Federal Highway Administration) decided the current route made the most sense. Once that decision was made, National Park Service landscape architects worked with Bureau of Public Roads engineers to, as much as possible, blend the road into the mountain environment.
The road's construction was a massive undertaking. Planners insisted that the bridges, retaining walls, and guardrails be made of native materials. The engineers resorted to using small explosive blasts to cut the road's path as they feared larger blasts would be more destructive to the landscape.
It wasn't until the fall of 1932, some three decades after the road was first envisioned and after $2 million in construction costs, that the first auto drove the entire length of the Sun Road. Glacier officials formally opened the road in a special ceremony on July 15, 1933. At that event more than 4,000 folks gathered to celebrate the road. (The 75th birthday is being celebrated today to avoid congestion on the road during the height of the summer season in July.)
Even today, visitors to the park marvel at how such a road could have been built. The road is considered an engineering feat and is a National Historic Landmark. It is one of the most scenic roads in North America. The construction of the road forever changed the way visitors would experience Glacier, as it enabled visitors in one day to drive through sections of the park that previously had taken days of horseback riding to see.
Going-to-the-Sun Road Trivia
* The road is 50 miles long from end to end.
* The East Side Tunnel stretches 408 feet, while the West Side Tunnel is just 192 feet long. It took the contractor of the East Side Tunnel a full day to bore 5 feet into the mountainside. The West Side Tunnel had windows and viewing galleries cut into it for motorists to catch glimpses of Heaven's Peak.
* The grade going up from the Loop to Logan Pass is just 6 percent, which engineers determined was appropriate because in the 1930s a car had to shift down to second gear to climb a 7 percent grade.
* When crews were getting ready to blast a large cliff one mile east of the Loop they wore wool socks over their boots to prevent sparks.
* In 1931 a Caterpillar 30 tractor rolled 200 feet off the roadbed. Amazingly, the operator was able to drive his machine back up to the road.
* Up until the late 1930s the road's surface was crushed gravel. While asphalt pavement began to cover the road in 1938, it wasn't until 1952 -- due to the interruption of World War II -- that the entire road was paved.
* Three men died during the road's construction.
Logan Pass, the apex of the Sun Road, is pinched tightly between Clements Mountain and the southern tip of the Garden Wall, a massive rib of rock that carries the Continental Divide through the park’s interior. From this saddle the pass sends Reynolds Creek and Logan Creek in opposite directions as their waters cascade down massive U-shaped valleys scooped out during the park’s glaciated past. Farther north are the bulk of the park’s glaciers — thick sheets of ice named “Ipasha,” “Old Sun,” “Grinnell,” “Swiftcurrent,” “Thunderbird” and “Rainbow” — while to the south stands a maze of mountains, valleys, meadows and backcountry lakes that it would take a lifetime to know.
Many park visitors motor up to the pass aboard a Red Jammer, one of Glacier’s renowned fire engine-red, open-air touring buses that debuted in 1937 and quickly gained their nickname for the way drivers “jammed” their way through the gears. Along the way, the tourists struggle to digest this complex landscape that the Blackfoot Nation — the park’s original human inhabitants — calls the “Shining Mountains” and the “Backbone of the World.”
So where does the road stand today? It's undergoing a tremendous face-lift, one that actually started back in the 1980s with renovations completed near West Glacier. Officially, the current Sun Road rehabilitation project was launched in 2007 and is intended to be completed in about 13 construction phases. These costly phases aim to rehabilitate the entire road as well as make repairs to historic structures along the alpine sections. In the case of the road's bridges, 130 retaining walls, and arches the work entails "repointing" the mortar between the blocks of rock. In some cases, entire walls are being rebuilt.
This ambitious reconstruction project cannot be done overnight. In fact, the project could stretch to at least a decade, in part because of the relatively short construction season and in part due to the cost, which has been estimated as high as $170 million.
That said, the work is being coordinated so the road will remain open throughout the summers, although some short delays will occur from time to time.
Today's celebration is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Lake McDonald Lodge. Among the invited guests are Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Earl Old Person, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman James Steele, Jr., U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, Federal Highway Administration Associate Administrator John Baxter and National Park Service Intermountain Director Mike Snyder.