LOGAN PASS – After weeks of moving snow along Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, plow crews are attacking the final obstacle before they can open the iconic trans-mountain highway: the Big Drift.
About a quarter mile long and 60 to 70 feet deep, the Big Drift just east of the Continental Divide at Logan Pass is the final snowy hurdle before the park opens the 50-mile road, which heralds the beginning of summer in Northwest Montana. Plow crews expect it will take at least a week to clear the final section of road.
“I don’t like to guess when the road will open, but I think we’re getting close,” said Stan Stahr, a 17-year National Park Service veteran who manages plow crews on the west side of Glacier.
Crews began to clear the road in early April, attacking mountains of snow from either side of the park. Last week, west side crews reached Logan Pass and began to clear the parking lot there before turning their attention to the Big Drift. While the landscape is marked by lush green meadows just a few hundred feet below, the wind-packed snowdrift near Logan Pass can last well into the summer.
Jake Hutchinson, a National Park Service avalanche expert, said plow drivers and excavator operators try to stay as close to the mountain as they can to avoid sinking or tumbling into unstable snow. In 1964, a bulldozer trigged an avalanche along the Sun Road that sent the machine and its operator crashing down the mountain. Miraculously, the driver survived.
“There is no room for mistakes up there, especially at the Big Drift,” Stahr said.
While crews cautiously move snow near Logan Pass, employees further below have been busy installing hundreds of sections of guardrail. It’s just one of dozens of tasks that need to be completed before park rangers can swing the gates open to vehicle traffic. The earliest the road has ever opened for the season was May 16, 1987. The latest opening was July 13, 2011.
As of June 9, the Sun Road was open to vehicles to Avalanche on the west side and Jackson Glacier Overlook on the east side. On the west side, hikers and bikers can go 9 miles farther to The Loop while plow crews are working. On weekends, when plow crews are not working, hikers and bikers can go as far as their legs will take them. For the latest information on the Sun Road, visit www.nps.gov/glac.