In Glacier’s early days, most visitors arrived via rail at East Glacier (pop. 396). Today the busiest entrance is West Glacier. Tourists still come by train on both sides, but air access to Kalispell, access from I-90, and the generally more aesthetically pleasing landscapes to the west have turned the blue-collar communities of Kalispell (pop. 19,927) and Columbia Falls (pop. 4,688) into working towns catering to tourists. Kalispell was the fastest growing city in Montana in 2015. Also alluring is Whitefish (pop. 6,649), a destination village not unlike Sun Valley or Vail that has a year-round economy due to the Whitefish Mountain Resort at Big Mountain ski area.
As you come toward West Glacier (pop. 227) from Kalispell or Columbia Falls, explore the canyon area or, as the locals call it, “up the line” a reference to the string of one-time trapping communities between Columbia Falls and the park. Hungry Horse (pop. 826), Coram (pop. 539), and Martin City (pop. 424) are home to a once-reclusive and sometimes-lawless collection of folks who came to help build the Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork of the Flathead River and never left. Today, these towns have mellowed with an influx of new blood, and are more inviting to tourists.
As you approach the loop’s beginnings in West Glacier, you’ll know you’re in a national park gateway community. Motels, campgrounds, lodges, helicopter tours, rafting companies, trading posts, and an assortment of Coney Island-esque activities are dead giveaways. That doesn’t mean some aren’t redeeming. For a mountain state, Montana is surprisingly shy of whitewater rafting thrills, but the Middle Fork of the Flathead River provides some of the best Class III splash-and-giggle runs in the state; no fewer than three outfitters in West Glacier offer day trips.
West Glacier itself has retained a pre-World War II feel with its throwback shops, restaurant, bar, motel, and cabins. In fact, the company that owns the businesses in West Glacier and Apgar, Glacier Park Inc., is responsible for avoiding the cheap T-shirt and cheesy-photograph environments that plague so many national park gateway towns.
On US 2 at West Glacier, once called Belton, cross the Middle Fork to the village of Apgar (pop. 426), which sits at the southern end of picturesque, glacier-carved Lake McDonald and is home to the park’s headquarters. Before starting the Going-to-the-Sun Road into the park’s interior, consider a detour on the 23-mile paved and gravel Inside Road along the astonishingly wild North Fork of the Flathead River. It leads to the commune-ish village of Polebridge (pop. 90) and its rustic century-old mercantile, home of the best fresh-baked bread and bear claws in the region. Polebridge doesn’t have electricity, so the mercantile and neighboring Northern Lights Saloon are powered by generators and solar panels. The only public bathroom is a one-holer behind the mercantile, but it adds to the charm. Don’t debate whether to take this 7-mile Side Track. Just go.
Apgar Village signals the beginning of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which hugs the forested shores of 470-foot-deep Lake McDonald before beginning its precipitous rise to the sun and then making a less-dramatic descent to the aspen, pine, and prairie at St. Mary.
The road is so spectacular you might want to leave the driving to someone else. The park offers free shuttles between West Glacier and St. Mary that run every 15 to 30 minutes, with strategically located stops along the way. For an informative guided trip, consider Red Bus Tours (855-7334522, U.S., 303-265-7010 outside the U.S.), a concessionaire under the name Glacier Park Inc. that runs half-day and full-day tours in the historic, open-topped red “jammer” buses so named because the buses once had standard transmissions and drivers could be heard “jamming” the gears starting at $30 per person and capping at $95 in 2015, depending on your choice of tours that originate on both the east and west sides of the park. Different dates are assigned to each tour, but basically the jammers run from June through mid-September, with the exception of the Huckleberry Mountain Tour, which begins in late May or early June and ends in September. These environmentally friendly buses run on 93 percent propane.
From Apgar, the road is mostly straight as it rises gently along the lake’s shore to the chalet-style Lake McDonald Lodge (May-Sept.) and past Avalanche Creek for about 25 miles until you reach The Loop. To fully appreciate the park’s forested lower-elevation areas, stop after the Avalanche Creek Campground and hike the Trail of the Cedars, a boardwalk amid an ancient grove of western red cedars, hemlocks, and yews Montana’s version of a rain forest. Shortly after Avalanche Creek, the road makes a sharp left turn and begins emerging from the pines, cedars, and firs toward the pass. Every break in the trees offers one breathtaking view after another as the glacier-carved Lake McDonald Valley grows ever deeper.
As you continue to elevate, look for many of the glacial landforms that give the park its character. Straight ahead you’ll see the Garden Wall, a vertical rock face called an arete that was created as glaciers on both sides of the Continental Divide scraped away at the mountains. Look also for high-elevation meadows called hanging gardens, the result of little glaciers being unable to keep up with the work of larger glaciers below. Also prominent are the bowls at the head of glaciers, called cirques. After navigating the road’s lone substantial switchback at The Loop, the road opens to a sweeping view of 492-foot Bird Woman Falls across the valley, eases under the Weeping Wall where a waterfall lands on the road, its volume dependent upon the season and Big Bend, perhaps the most popular viewpoint on the west side of Logan Pass. Just past Big Bend is Triple Arches, the best stone-and-mortar example of the massive challenge faced by Depression-era road builders.