Summer is just a few more miles away in Glacier National Park.
The National Park Service’s road crew is down to the final stretch of plowing Going-to-the-Sun Road, meaning Glacier’s iconic thoroughfare is that much closer to fully opening in 2017.
The west-side crew has ascended 31.2 miles from West Glacier into the park’s high country and is tackling the Rimrock area just around the bend from Logan Pass. The other crew has reached the East Side Tunnel, about 16.5 miles from St. Mary.
As the plow crews wrap up their monumental task, Glacier Park continues to offer expanded visitor amenities with the arrival of summer. Some campgrounds are already open for the season, including Apgar, the largest in the park. Limited campsites are open at Two Medicine due to snow. Specific information about each campground, including a map of the sites, operating dates and historic fill times, is available on the camping page of the park’s website.
Visitors can drive 15.5 miles from the west entrance to Avalanche Creek, and 13.5 miles from the St. Mary entrance to Jackson Glacier Overlook. During weekday plow operations, hikers and bikers can access as far as The Loop on the west side and Siyeh Bend on the east side. On the weekends, hikers and bikers can travel as far as they want.
Rangers have already responded to several car crashes this spring, and report a general uptick in distracted and dangerous driving behavior, according to the NPS. Visitors should minimize in-car distractions, prepare for narrow and winding roads, and stay alert for wildlife and cyclists, the agency said.
Visitors are advised to also be aware of rapidly changing weather conditions, such as spring storms. Rivers and streams are running very high, NPS officials say, and snow depths are higher than average this spring. The Quarter Circle Bridge is currently closed at the horse corral junction before the bridge due to high waters on Lower McDonald Creek.
Visitors are encouraged to carry bear spray and maintain 25 yards of distance from park wildlife. Maintain 100 yards of distance from black and grizzly bears. Hikers and bikers traveling to alpine terrain should visit the Flathead Avalanche Center website to learn about spring avalanche conditions.
Excluding the Sun Road, all other primary roads in Glacier — Camas, Chief Mountain, Cut Bank, Many Glacier and Two Medicine — are open except for the Inside North Fork Road, which is closed at Logging Creek and Fish Creek.
Visitor centers are open at Apgar and St. Mary, and interpretive rangers are available at these sites during operating hours.
The crew of plow specialists embarked on the annual task of uncovering the Sun Road on April 1 and is down to the final weeks of work. Last year the NPS opened the full 50 miles of road on June 16. An opening date has not been set for this year, and the plows still have a couple sizable tasks ahead.
The final push involves clearing Logan Pass and the so-called Big Drift, where the most snow typically piles up. Sometimes snowpack grows upwards of 80 feet and buries all but the roof of Logan Pass Visitor Center. Crews on the east and west sides converge at these two points and tackle them together due to the scope of work. This often requires using hand shovels near the visitor center.
Crews must also establish sections of side-walls and other infrastructure in preparation for the summer deluge of visitors who arrive in droves once the road fully opens.
The latest opening of the full length of Going-to-the-Sun Road was July 13 in 2011. That year, crews were hampered by a blustery spring that saw heavy snowpack and relentless snowstorms that erased plow progress on a regular basis. The earliest opening for the entire Sun Road was May 16 in 1987.
Sun Point has reopened this year after being closed for many years while serving as a staging area for Going-to-the-Sun Road construction materials. Sun Point is located along the Sun Road and can be accessed through the St. Mary park entrance.
The Trail of the Cedars at Avalanche Creek is fully reopened as a loop trail following foot bridge construction this winter. The footbridge will be opened later this year after once additional boardwalk is constructed.
Only hand-propelled watercraft, such as kayaks, are allowed on park waters this year. Waters on the west and east sides of the park are now open. Motorized watercraft and boat trailers are restricted this summer following the detection of aquatic invasive mussels within Montana last fall. Boaters on the west side of the park must stop at the boat inspection station located in Apgar Village to receive a free permit prior to launch.
Most campgrounds in Glacier are available on a first-come first-serve basis. Reservations are available for Fish Creek, St. Mary, and Many Glacier Campgrounds beginning June 1 (June 15 for Many Glacier), and may be made up to six months in advance through the National Recreation Reservation Service at http://www.recreation.gov/.