Glacier Park

Glacier Park Plows Push Past the Loop

With a record-low snowpack in northwest Montana’s high country, plow crews have made fast progress since they started clearing the Going-to-the-Sun Road less than two weeks ago, affording hikers and bikers an opportunity to gain early access to Glacier’s high country

By Tristan Scott
Bulldozers clear snow from Going-to-the-Sun Road near Haystack Creek Falls in Glacier National Park on April 24, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

With a weekend weather window affording hikers and bikers an opportunity to enjoy warm springtime temperatures before the thermometer swings more than 20 degrees in the opposite direction and blasts Glacier National Park’s high country with up to a foot of snow next Tuesday, outdoor enthusiasts have begun wondering just how far up they can travel along the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, most of which remains closed to motor vehicles as road crews plow it clear of snow.

The answer came as a surprise even to park officials, who said it’s rare to see the sort of plowing progress that this spring’s record-low snowpack has afforded road crews. During a typical year, plow crews don’t advance past Avalanche Creek on the west side of the Continental Divide before April 15.

“They’re way ahead of schedule,” Glacier Park Public Information Officer Gina Icenoggle said Thursday afternoon, when crews reported plowing above The Loop, the alpine highway’s signature hairpin turn on the west side. According to the road crew’s reports, they’d spent the day working to clear a stretch of the Sun Road above The Loop, between two avalanche paths at Lower Granite Creek and BPR, before implementing a hard weekend closure to hikers and bikers at Swede Point, which is located more than a mile above The Loop.

On the east side of the Continental Divide, crews opted against setting a hard closure for hikers and bikers, but reported that explorers will hit snow between the vehicle closure and Jackson Glacier Overlook.

The plowing crews don’t work on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, which means the Sun Road is free of motorized distractions; however, Icenoggle said anyone exploring past the gate at Lake McDonald Lodge should be cautious of the potential for rockfall as vertical walls girding the Sun Road melt out and release debris. Visitors should also be bear aware as bruins have emerged from hibernation.

A map of the avalanche paths along the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Courtesy image

For more information about points of interest and named avalanche paths along Going-to-the-Sun Road, check out the park’s interactive story map here. For updates to plowing operations, road conditions and hiker/biker status, read more here.

Vehicles can only drive as far as Lake McDonald Lodge on the west side, but motorists traveling on the east side can follow the Sun Road all the way to its closure at Rising Sun

Last week, Glacier National Park road crews continued clean-up and removal of snow into the restrooms at Avalanche on the west side, and widened areas at Many Glacier Hotel and Swift Current on the east side. The crew is now at The Loop on Going-to-the-Sun Road and will hold there while cleaning up at lower elevations.

Starting April 8, crews continued clean-up in lower elevations including digging out apartments at Many Glacier, and mobilized equipment back to Two Medicine to finish clearing snow in the campground. On the west side, they swept the bike path and are in the process of removing large rock that fell just above the west tunnel.

Camas Road opened for the season last Friday.

An excavator clears snow from Going-to-the-Sun Road near Haystack Creek Falls in Glacier National Park on April 24, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last month, crews started plowing Chief Mountain Highway between U.S. Highway 89 and the U.S.-Canada border, but only turned their attention to the park’s main entrances at the beginning of April. Starting March 25, crews began clearing Two Medicine Road from Running Eagle Falls to Two Medicine Lake on the park’s east side. After that, they began work on the Many Glacier Road and Going-to-the-Sun Road, starting at the gate closure at St. Mary.

On the west side, the road crew has cleared Camas Road and Fish Creek Campground.

The annual rite of opening the park’s alpine thoroughfare, which includes installing safety barricades along the road’s upper stretches, takes roughly three months. The west side’s 12-person crew, which includes two U.S. Geological Survey avalanche technicians, utilizes excavators, front-end loaders and dump trucks that can move thousands of tons of snow an hour.

The most intensive part of the road to work through is the Big Drift, a colossal snowbank just east of Logan Pass that often towers 80 feet above the roadbed.

In addition, changing weather conditions can lead to avalanches and mud slides, especially throughout the upper stretches of the Sun Road, which can lead to additional days of work as road crews backtrack to clear new debris.

The full 50-mile length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road usually open to motorized traffic in late June. Last year’s June 13 opening date was the earliest since 2005.

“Every year people like to guess, but no one really knows when it’ll open,” Icenoggle said. “We have a long way to go before we can predict anything.”

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