Historic Going-to-the-Sun Road is a testament to human ingenuity and nature’s wonders. Tunnels, switchbacks, arches, and a narrow two-lane highway cutting across precipitous slopes reveal the feats of engineering—marvels in themselves. Yet in the road’s 52 miles, an incomparable diversity unfolds, with surprises around each corner. Cedar rainforests give way to windblown subalpine firs, broad lake valleys lead into glacial corridors, 1,000-foot cliff walls abut wildflower gardens, and waterfalls spew from every pore. Defying gravity, ragged peaks rake the sky, crowning all.
This National Historic Landmark is a place to savor every nook and cranny. Oohs and aahs punctuate every sweep in the road as stunning scenery unfolds. Stopping at myriad pullouts along the road, many sightseers burn through their digital pixels only halfway up the alpine section. The sheer immensity of the glacier-chewed landscape leaves visitors gasping, “I can’t fit it all in my camera.”
To stretch your legs, well-signed short paths guide hikers through a dripping rainforest, along a glacial moraine, amid mountain goats, and beside a roaring waterfall. Those ready to put miles on their boots should tackle at least one of the longer high alpine trails, where you’ll feel you’ve reached the apex of the world, sending your spirit soaring.
The Sun Road, as locals call it, is one place you won’t want to miss. Its rugged beauty leaves a lasting impression.
History of Going-to-the-Sun-Road
By 1895, Lake McDonald boomed with tourism brought by the railroad’s arrival in West Glacier. Hauling a 40-foot steamboat up from Flathead Lake, George Snyder shuttled guests from Apgar to his 12-room hotel, where Lake McDonald Lodge currently sits. With Sperry Glacier’s discovery in 1896, Snyder’s guests had a popular horse trip destination above his lodge. Funded by the Great Northern Railway, Dr. Lyman Sperry and 15 of his students built the Gunsight Pass and Sperry spur trail to accommodate travel between St. Mary and Lake McDonald. While the west side surged with turn-of-the-20th-century tourism, on the east side, Roes Creek (Rose Creek at Rising Sun) boomed as a short-lived mining town that was vacated with the Alaska gold rush.
Lodges and Chalets
Under dubious circumstances—perhaps a poker game—ownership of Snyder’s hotel went to John and Olive Lewis in 1906, who moved the old hotel and built a cedar and stone lodge facing Lake McDonald. Opening in 1914, Lewis’s Glacier Hotel imitated the Swiss theme of the Great Northern Railway’s hotels and chalets springing up park-wide. Lewis promoted Going-to-the-Sun Road, spending his own money to cut part of the route along the lake, grade the road, and build bridges. From West Glacier, the road reached his hotel in 1922, increasing the number of hotel visitors with the growing popularity of the automobile.
Because of Lewis’s foothold in McDonald Valley, the Great Northern Railway ignored the area around the park’s largest lake, instead frenetically erecting chalets between 1912 and 1914 at Sun Point, Gunsight Lake, and Sperry and using Sperry’s trail over Gunsight Pass to link the three. A year later and quite behind schedule, Granite Park Chalet was finally completed as a destination from Many Glacier Hotel and Sun Point. With packed bunk-bed dorms and canvas tents outside, Granite and Sperry could house 144 and 152 guests, nearly four times the number that each can sleep today. Their popularity increased in the 1920s as wealthy Easterners spent an average of 21 days in the park touring on horseback with Park Saddle Company. However, Gunsight Chalet lasted only five years, wiped out by an avalanche.
In 1930 the Great Northern Railway purchased Lewis’s hotel, adding it to its lodge arsenal. When ownership changed, so did the name—to Lake McDonald Lodge. Two years later the lodge was sold to the National Park Service.
Ironically, along with the Great Depression and increased auto travel, Going-to-the-Sun Road, which was completed in 1932, hastened the demise of the chalets. Visitors who took horse trips dropped from 26 percent to 3 percent. Natty automobile drivers sought more affordable places to stay. In 1940 the railroad company built East Glacier Auto Cabins (now Rising Sun Motor Inn), where two people could rent a cabin without a shower for $1.75. Finally, World War II park closures, deteriorating buildings, and increased costs of supplying the chalets taxed the railroad company to the point where it razed Going-to-the-Sun Chalets and sold Sperry and Granite Park to the National Park Service for $1.
Building Going-to-the-Sun Road
Nearly 20 years of planning and construction went into building Going-to-the-Sun Road, fueled by burgeoning excitement over the automobile. While proponents proposed various passes for the “Transmountain Highway,” its original name, in 1918 Logan Pass was selected by the National Park Service. The plan called for 15 switchbacks up the west side, later replaced with one long switchback. Over several years, Congress appropriated $2 million for its construction.
Surveying the route required the tenacity to hang by ropes over cliffs and tiptoe along skinny ledges—perhaps causing the 300 percent crew turnover in three months. Over six seasons, three companies excavated rock using only small blast explosives and minimal power tools to create tunnels, bridges, the Triple Arches, and guard walls. With power equipment unable to reach the East Side Tunnel, crews cleared its 405-foot length by hand boring 5.33 feet per day.
In 1932, during late fall, the first automobile chugged over Logan Pass. The following July, over 4,000 people attended dedication ceremonies at the pass, celebrating the road’s completion and ending with a peace ceremony for the Blackfeet, Kootenai, and Flathead people.
Although guardrails, surfacing, and grading were not completed until 1935, nearly 40,000 visitors flocked to the road in its first year despite its rough tread and the Great Depression. Until the late 1930s, crushed rock covered its surface. Finally, in 1938, the National Park Service embarked on a 14-year project to pave the scenic highway—completed at last in 1952.