Riding off into the sun

Elspeth Callender drives high into the mountains of Montana's spectacular Glacier National Park.

The night before I travel the Going-to-the-Sun Road there's a Comanche moon over the town of Whitefish in north-west Montana. It's the same type of moonlight by which warriors galloped on horseback for miles across the great plains of the south to carry out surprise raids on European frontier settlements. It was on these moon-shadowy nights that the newcomers were most nervous. This evening I'm feeling like a bit of a nervous newcomer myself.

Going-to-the-Sun Road is an 85-kilometre historic highway that took 12 years to construct and was completed in 1932. Then, it cost $US3 million and is considered an engineering masterpiece even by today's standards. This narrow winding road dissects Glacier National Park east to west, crosses the Continental Divide at 2031 metres and passes through a landscape of glacial lakes, alpine plains and cedar forest.

At breakfast the local paper informs me that Glacier is the state's biggest tourist attraction. Which is why, it goes on to explain, repaving the road for the first time since it was built is a 10-year project that's currently under way; it would damage local tourism too much to close the highway down for a year and get the job done in one go. My last mouthful is hard to swallow at the thought of negotiating a high-altitude highway and road works.

Forty-five kilometres from Whitefish a huge electronic sign reports GOING-TO-THE-SUN ROAD IS OPEN at the turnoff to the western entrance of Glacier. There's no turning back now. The highway begins gently enough, but from Avalanche Creek it begins to twist and rise.

"I myself named Going-to-the-Sun Road ... there is no Indian legend in connection with its name," James Willard Schultz told the Georgian Board of Names in 1929. Other versions of the story exist, one of which says that, over a smoke, Schultz's friend Tail-Feathers-Coming-in-Sight-Over-the-Hill, of the Blackfeet People, mentioned that the mountain across the lake would be ideal for a vision quest and the two agreed on the name. Now Going-to-the-Sun is a mountain, a point and a road.

Although this region was deeply important to a number of tribes, it was the powerful Blackfeet who guarded the area from intruders when Europeans arrived in the early 1800s. These people considered the many peaks of Glacier "the backbone of the world" and a huge number of myths and stories from their time in the area have been recorded.

When I reach the Loop, which on the map looks more like the beaked head of a pterodactyl than a hairpin, motorbikes seem to magically materialise. I pull off the road where the highway overlooks itself and Heavens Peak oversees everything to meet riders who've travelled from Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Alberta for the express purpose of riding this highway through "god's country while the Indian summer lasts".

The wearing of helmets isn't enforced in Montana so everyone's sunburnt or tanned in places the bandana didn't reach. When I ask a local if they might tighten that law, he throws his head back and laughs: "No way, not in Montana. It'd be like asking us to give up our guns!"

A little further on I encounter road works; construction, they call it in these parts. There's some waiting but, with these sublime views, I couldn't care less. The traffic edges around the mountains with overhanging cliffs on one side and, for those of us on the ascent, nothing but low stone blocks between our wheels and what would be a hugely dramatic death. Cyclists chug up the long incline looking like they're dreaming of whizzing down the other side.

On a summery day such as today it's hard to imagine that, for most of the year, the grizzly bears, harlequin ducks, moose and mountain goats you may see along the way have this place to themselves. Over winter, Glacier National Park is such an avalanche-prone wilderness that there isn't any skiing except low-altitude back country for the brave. The road is impassable by regular vehicles for months. Then, on April 1 every year, the snowploughs come in to clear up to 25 metres of snow off the highway. The road doesn't open for at least another three months despite equipment being used that can move 4000 tonnes of snow an hour.

Logan Pass carpark is heaving. I get talking to a happy group of cyclists visiting from Germany. They explain to me that we're standing near one of only two places on the continent and the only place in the country where water flows into three different drainage systems: the Gulf of Mexico, Hudson Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Then it's all downhill from there and, before I know it, I'm out the other side of Glacier and eating raspberry and cherry pie at the Park Cafe. I recognise several people from the road and there's a sense of camaraderie in the room from the shared experience. No matter how we've travelled - whether by car, motorcycle or bicycle - the highway has challenged us and we've made it through. Everyone's also a bit smug because motor homes aren't permitted all the way.

I finish my pie and prepare for the return journey, though this time I'm not a nervous newcomer. The moon's almost on the rise again when I arrive back into Whitefish, park the Harley and sleep like a warrior.

Elspeth Callender was a guest of Montana Office of Tourism and Good Medicine Lodge, Whitefish.


Getting there United flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Glacier Park International Airport (situated near Kalispell, Montana) during Montana's summer months from about $1478 return, including tax; see united.com. Whitefish is 24 kilometres north of Kalispell and car rental is available at the airport with Hertz; see hertz.com. Alternatively, Flathead Glacier Transportation offers shuttle and taxi services between Kalispell and Whitefish; see glaciertransportation.com.

Staying there Good Medicine Lodge is a charming B&B with warm personal service from owners Betsy and Woody. Freshly baked cookies available daily. Rooms start from $US190 through June to September. 537 Wisconsin Avenue, Whitefish. Phone +1 406 862 5488; see goodmedicinelodge.com.

Eating there Park Cafe (near the eastern entrance to Glacier National Park), St Mary. Phone +1 406 732 4482; see parkcafe.us. Great pie can also be found in Whitefish at Loula's Cafe, 300 2nd Street East. Phone +1 406 862 5614; see loulaswhitefish.com.

More information visitmt.com


The highway opens when spring ploughing is complete, which is usually by the end of June, and it closes from mid-September. Check the park website for current information. See nps.gov/glac.

Fuel and food can be found at either end of Going-to-the-Sun Road, which runs between West Glacier, just off US Highway 2, and St Mary on US Highway 89.

Glacier National Park entrance fee is $US25 ($26) a car and $US12 a person when travelling on foot or by bicycle or motorcycle. Keep your receipt for re-entering the park.

Although far more people visit Glacier NP on the weekends, road delays due to road works can be significantly longer on weekdays.