The Glacier National Park road crew clears avalanche debris in the upper reaches of the Going-to-the-Sun Road on June 21 after a long weekend of spring storms. Photo courtesy of USGS.
Glacier Park

Plows Reach Logan Pass in Glacier National Park

Due to late-season snowpack, Going-to-the-Sun Road won’t fully open before Fourth of July; hiker and biker access has opened to Big Bend

By Tristan Scott

Visitors to Glacier National Park lamenting a late projected opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass might take comfort knowing that, of the three factors to have ever delayed the iconic alpine highway’s opening later than the Fourth of July — World War II, a global pandemic, and a deep, lingering mountain snowpack — their holiday plans this summer are being hampered by the latter.

Having recently cleared five avalanche slides that buried the upper reaches of the Sun Road, snowplow crews are now making quick progress, but there’s still plenty of work to do before all 50 miles of the road can open to motorists between West Glacier and St. Mary.

On June 24, Glacier Park officials announced on social media that the Sun Road would not fully open before July 4, marking only the fifth time the opening to Logan Pass has occurred later than the Independence Day holiday.

In 1933, the year construction was completed on the Sun Road, it was officially dedicated at its opening to Logan Pass on July 15; in 1943, reduced staffing due to World War II led to a July 10 opening; in 2011, an exceptional snowpack and persistent winter weather through June led to a July 13 opening; and in 2020, the road opened from the west entrance to Rising Sun only due to the coronavirus pandemic, the first time in the park’s nearly 90-year history that a portion of the Sun Road remained closed for an entire season.

This year, the circumstances surrounding the delay are strictly weather-related.

“After evaluating Going-to-the-Sun Road this week, park officials have determined the road will not be open fully by the 4th of July holiday,” according to the park’s social media post. “Unprecedented winter snows and late spring snowstorms slowed plowing progress on Going-to-the-Sun Road this spring. Park officials are working to determine a new ‘no sooner than date’ to help visitors plan. Until the full length of Going-to-the-Sun Road is plowed and open to traffic, the west side vehicle closure will remain at Avalanche Creek and the east side at Jackson Glacier Overlook.”

According to Brandy Burke, a public affairs specialist at Glacier, even after the road is cleared of snow down to the asphalt and the danger of avalanches and rockslides subside, the road crews still must complete the labor-intensive work of installing more than 400 guardrails along the narrow and precipitous road. Although Burke said she can’t predict when the Sun Road will open to Logan Pass, she said administrators will provide the public with an update as soon as possible.

“Our leadership team is working to determine a new no-sooner-than date and again that date is not a guess as to when the road will open, but rather a best-case scenario to help visitors plan,” Burke said.

On June 27, the crews reached Logan Pass Visitor Center from the west side and began work clearing the Big Drift, a towering snowbank just east of the Continental Divide that often towers 80-feet above the roadbed. However, the crews encountered dry asphalt atop the divide, and laid down a lane of rubber tires to protect the blacktop from the heavy machinery’s blades and Caterpillar tracks, requiring additional time to move the equipment.

Late last week, the fleet of snowplows reached Oberlin Bend after punching through the Rim Rock section about two miles below Logan Pass, where snow depths are 25 feet. Since then, progress has been much smoother, Burke said.

However, due to an unseasonably cold and wet spring, plow crews working to clear the popular route over the Continental Divide are a full month behind where they were at this same time last year, their progress slowed in June by lingering snowpack, new snow accumulations and frequent avalanches and rockslides. Efforts to clear the Rim Rock section were especially slow going due to rockslides that occurred there last fall.

Although Big Drift constitutes the last major obstacle in the quest to clear the road for summer visitors, the crews will then begin guardrail installation along the precipitous alpine byway and continue with rock cleanup.

Last year, west-side plow crews reached Logan Pass on May 24 and had already started working to clear the Big Drift.

The avalanches that buried portions of the Sun Road just before summer solstice started at the chute above Triple Arches and ran across the upper slopes.

Plow crews working from the east side have cleared up to No Stump Point and pioneered the East Tunnel.

For the first time this season, Glacier Park officials on Friday moved the hiker/biker avalanche hazard closure up to Big Bend, a large turnout and scenic panorama featuring views of Cannon Mountain, Mount Oberlin, Heavens Peak, and Clements Mountain. The section of the Sun Road is located about 14 miles from the vehicle closure at Avalanche Creek, and about six miles above The Loop.

This summer, hiker/biker road crew closures have been in place Monday through Friday, usually from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. during plowing operations. For several weeks, that closure has been at The Loop. Outside those hours (evenings and weekends), visitors may advance on foot or bicycle to the Avalanche Hazard Closure when road crews are not working. Those progressive closures are in place at all times and are determined weekly on Thursdays based on a variety of factors, including recent weather and avalanche forecasts. Visitors are prohibited from going past the hiker/biker closures. Violators are putting their safety and the safety of our park rangers at risk and could face up to a $5,000 fine and up to 6 months in jail.

Plowing progress has been delayed this spring and summer due to low temperatures and record rain and snow accumulations. Last week, the gauge in West Glacier recorded 7.44 inches of rain, according to park officials. The week prior, about two feet of new snow accumulated on the Sun Road above 6,250 feet.

Visitors are now able to drive on 29 miles of the iconic highway: 15.5 miles from the West Entrance to Avalanche and 13.5 miles from the St. Mary Entrance to Jackson Glacier Overlook.

Since May 26, visitors who want to access the park via either entrance to the Sun Road or at the Polebridge Entrance Station must purchase a vehicle reservation through the online reservation system. For additional information on how to make a reservation under the new system, visit https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/gtsrticketedentry.htm.

According to Glacier Park Public Information Officer Gina Kerzman, park officials last week began implementing restrictions at the Two Medicine Entrance Station, which does not require a vehicle reservation but has begun filling up due to popular demand. Under the closures, park rangers admit one vehicle in for every vehicle out.

Important Travel Warnings:

There is a nightly closure (10 pm to 6 am) on Going-to-the-Sun Road 1.5 miles north of the West Entrance to Sprague Creek for construction work.

There are no fueling stations within Glacier’s boundaries.

Parking is limited. During summer, parking lots often fill by early morning.

During extreme congestion, access to whole areas may be temporarily restricted to allow for emergency vehicles.

Glacier’s entries and roads all have specific restrictions and season lengths. Please plan accordingly.

The Chief Mountain Border Crossing remains closed.

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