Biking the Going-to-the-Sun-Road

The seed was planted a few years ago when my dad and I rode our motorcycles into Glacier National Park. As we followed the two-lane highway through the narrows and I struggled to stay on the road, I wondered to myself what it would be like to pedal instead. Wouldn’t it be great to enjoy the view? Wouldn’t it be better to take our time? So, last summer when my wife suggested we camp at Glacier over Labor Day weekend, I immediately agreed. All I could think was, I’m taking my bike!

We set out bright and early to reach the West Glacier entrance in time to secure a camping spot within the park on one of the busiest holiday weekends in the U.S. We tried my first choice, Sprague Creek, but the site was full. Luckily, a bit further into the park, we found a cozy spot at Avalanche. The week leading up to our trip, I had checked the National Parks website for the rules of riding a bike on the road. Sections would be closed between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Glacier’s website suggested it would take three hours to ride to the top of Logan Pass, and I hoped their estimate was conservative – something appropriate for a weekend warrior on a comfort bike.

I rolled out of camp on Saturday morning a little after 8. There were blue skies, the sun was reflecting off the peaks, and I was finally on my bike. Air entered my lungs at a crisp 40 degrees, and the taste was sweet thanks to the rain that had fallen the night before. Thankfully no one was around to hear me talk to myself as I cruised, following the river through the valley. I actually giggled while swerving on and over the white line. It is also an easy thing to be mesmerized by the giant glowing walls of rock two thousand feet overhead. They seemed to coach me forward. I gained on three roadies and pulled by them with a “Good morning, isn’t this great!” It’s not every day we get to wake up and ride against a postcard backdrop. After they’d gone, I said aloud to myself, “Are you kidding me? This is so amazing!”

I kept a close eye on the GPS to track my altitude and distance. Camp was at 3,300 ft., and I had only gained a few hundred feet. Then I started to feel the incline. In the distance, I could see another cyclist. I felt a rush of adrenaline and had to remind myself to take my time. Corner after corner, I gained slowly. He grew. Finally, I passed him before a tunnel.

The only 90-degree turn called The Loop is a defining point on the climb. And it grants a deceptive view of where you’re headed. In front of me lay a clean, paved road angled slightly all the way up the mountain. No wonder it had cost $27 million to reconstruct and improve this road cut into the rocky cliff sides. Well worth it in my book.

Fear not. Conquering this epic climb isn’t as difficult as it may sound. I paced myself and safely cruised close to the short rock wall on my right. Periodically I would get a glimpse of the valley below and the altitude I had gained. Cars passed on my left but allowed enough room for me to maintain my cadence. With each corner I could see the summit more clearly. I was in the zone, balancing heart rate and leg burn. Every few minutes I would stand on the pedals to break up the rhythm and then sit again to continue the grind. A few motorists even voiced encouraging words. Because of the vast and beautiful landscape, I made myself pull over on the pull-outs. But I felt somehow I would be cheating myself of the pace I had established. So I made my stops quick. Soon I was only minutes from the last left turn, and I could see my wife and friends. I stood the last few hundred yards and pushed to the finish as if I were winning a stage in the tour.

I had made it. And quickly I found myself disappointed to be finished. I sincerely considered turning around to do it again. I scrolled through the GPS to see my time – I had made it in an hour and a half. And now I had to wait. As I sat by my bike soaking up the sun, another cyclist approached.

“Wow, you’re brave!” I asked her what she meant. “You rode your mountain bike?” she smirked. “Yeah! Took me an hour and a half. How long did it take you?” She smiled and backed away, “Let’s just say, longer.”

The next time you’re in Glacier, do yourself a favor. Take your bike and ride the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It is not a difficult ride, and, if you’re careful, it is perfectly safe. Trust me: the scenery will make it all worthwhile and numb any pain that comes from pedaling. //

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