Road crews clear avalanche debris along a section of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy of USGS
Glacier Park

Sun Road On Pace for Historic Late Opening

Glacier National Park officials announced the iconic alpine byway will open to Logan Pass “no earlier than” July 13, matching — and likely surpassing — the latest opening on record

By Tristan Scott

Glacier National Park officials have announced that the full opening of the Going-to-the-Sun Road will occur “no earlier than” July 13, portending the latest date on record that the 50-mile long alpine thoroughfare has opened over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass in its 90-year history.

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.

“Unprecedented winter snows and late spring snowstorms slowed plowing progress on Going-to-the-Sun Road this spring,” according to Glacier’s social media post. “Going-to-the-Sun Road will open through Logan Pass ‘no earlier than’ July 13, 2022. This date is not a prediction of when the road will open — it is to help with trip planning purposes. Visitors may access Going-to-the-Sun Road via the St. Mary entrance on the east side without a vehicle reservation until the road is open to Logan Pass.”

The prolonged delay means a sluggish start for gateway businesses who depend on the tourism traffic the Sun Road generates when it opens across the Continental Divide, spanning the park’s interior from West Glacier to St. Mary. A new report by the National Park Service (NPS) analyzing the economic impact to communities girding national parks reported that last year visitors to NPS sites spent $20.5 billion in local gateway regions.

In northwest Montana, Glacier National Park drew an estimated 3,081,656 people last year, translating to $383,738,000 in spending, according to the report.

Additionally, the delayed opening disrupts a slate of scheduled hikes through the nonprofit Glacier Institute, which relies on access to Glacier to promote its mission of environmental education and outreach to scores of youths and adults every year.

“With the snowpack and progress with plowing, it is likely to be much later than July 13,” according to a Glacier Institute announcement. “As much as we would love to be on the scheduled trails, this is completely beyond our control. With this, several of our programs will be resorting to alternate trails during this time. We’ve done our best to match mileage, elevation gain, and terrain based on what areas of the Park that are open currently.”

Still, the delayed opening also provides visitors with some unique opportunities. For example, visitors may access Going-to-the-Sun Road to Jackson Glacier Overlook via the St. Mary entrance on the east side without a vehicle reservation until the road is fully open to Logan Pass. And starting July 1, the park’s free shuttle service began running to accommodate the late opening, running daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the west side, with stops between Apgar and Avalanche Campground, and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the east side, with stops between St. Mary and Sun Point. A shuttle with a bike trailer will also begin running on a daily basis, allowing visitors to experience the Sun Road al fresco.

As of July 1, plow crews working from both the west and east sides of the Continental Divide had converged near the Big Drift, a towering snowbank just east of the Divide that often towers 80-feet above the roadbed. Plow crews encountered a snow-free parking lot at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, employing makeshift tracks of rubber tires to protect the asphalt from the heavy machinery.

But much work remains to be done.

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.

For more information about road conditions, visit the park’s website at https://home.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/directions.htm.