Plowing to the Sun

By Beacon Staff

Yellow bulldozers and rotary plows have been breaking trail on Glacier National Park’s Going to the Sun Road but an historic snowpack has delayed the road’s opening.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation website the earliest the road could have opened was June 17, but as of late last week, plow crews still had four miles of road to plow up and over Logan Pass. Ellen Blickhan, acting public affairs specialist for the park, said that until they finish plowing no date will be set for the road’s opening.

Blickhan said that the park never knows when the road will be cleared and said that its earliest opening was on May 16, 1987. The latest was July 2, 2008. As of Monday, the road is open to the public for 16 miles from West Glacier to Avalanche Creek on the west side of the park and 14 miles from St. Mary to Jackson Glacier Overlook on the east side.

“This spring has brought us above-average snowpack to way-above-average snowpack,” Blickhan said.

The struggle to open the road reflects a massive snowpack that has gripped the mountains of Montana this spring thanks to La Niña-type weather patterns that brought increased precipitation to the Northwest this winter.

Ray Nickless, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Missoula, said that 2011 has been a record-breaking year for snow amounts in Montana. One of the snowpack-measuring sites in the park is at Flattop Mountain and during a normal year the water content is at 25 inches. This year it’s nearly double that at 49.4 inches worth of water, which equates to almost 10 feet of snow.

“Some of that snow could sit up there all summer,” he said, adding that in some places it could even stay until winter.

That deep snow is what plow crews are running into as they inch closer and closer to Logan Pass, the highest point on the 50-mile long road. When the public will be able to drive to such heights at this time is unknown.

“That totally depends on what type of conditions they’re seeing (up there),” Blickhan said.

For up to date information about the plowing and when the road may open visit www.nps.gov/glac.

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