Views of Glacier National Park’s eastern mountains from the Looking Glass Road on May 12, 2024. Photo by Hunter D’Antuono
Glacier Park

Playing the Waiting Game on Going-to-the-Sun Road

The dicey spring weather is pushing back opening the road to vehicles in Glacier National Park

By Cathy Li

As the weather reaches warmer temperatures, tourists and locals alike are heavily anticipating the opening of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road in advance of peak season.

Currently, when the road crew is not working from Monday to Thursday until 4 p.m., Going-to-the-Sun Road is open all the way over Logan Pass to hikers and bicyclists. However, most of the alpine highway remains closed to motorists, who can drive as far as Avalanche Creek on the west side and Jackson Glacier Overlook on the east.

Last year, the road was open to vehicles on June 13 following a dry winter and relatively warm May; however, sandwiched between this year’s similarly dry winter and forecasted summer drought has been a spate of wintery weather, leaving the road’s opening date up in the air. 

The unpredictability of a Sun Road opening date was further heightened in June when the road crews issued avalanche-closure alerts due to a recent storm. On the evening of June 13, the road reopened to bikers and hikers after crews lifted the hard avalanche closure warning. On June 17, a snowstorm added 5 inches to higher elevations in Logan Pass. 

In spite of the inclement weather, Gina Icenoggle, the park’s public information officer, emphasized the significant progress made by the road crews, whose members have been diligently working to clear debris from the road and ditches, and install guard rails as weather permits. She also said crews have been working to dig out the Logan Pass Visitor Center, as well as restrooms and walkways. The facilities division is also working tirelessly to get restrooms and potable water operational, despite the challenges posed by freezing temperatures earlier in the week. She said she doesn’t know when the road will open. 

Since May 31, the wait for snow melt-off has delayed the 50-mile road’s full opening, which has historically fallen between Memorial Day and early- to mid- July. At the beginning of the month, crews were surprised to encounter an 80-foot-high accumulation of snow at the “Big Drift,” a snowbank located east of Logan Pass, the Sun Road’s 6,600-foot high point atop the Continental Divide. At that time, road crew officials said the snowpack in Glacier’s high country was the deepest it had been since 2011.

Joe Mesina, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Missoula, said the snowpack has been below average recently due to a relatively dry winter, but the wet and cloudy spring is preventing a speedier melt-off date. Past records can predict a median melt-off date sometime during the first week of July. 

“We’re hanging onto snow. The snowpack now for June is about 95 percent average. What that tells me is that even though we didn’t have a big winter, the weather pattern this spring has drawn out melting,” Mesina said. Furthermore, according to the Climate Prediction Center, there are predictions of higher temperatures and below average precipitation going into summer, which means there will be less streamflow and higher chances of a summer drought. 

Logan Pass on May 30, 2024. Courtesy Glacier National Park

This annual rite of opening is significant for local businesses, as they will need to prepare for increased tourist traffic in the coming months. For Carla Fisher, who owns Backslope Brewing in Columbia Falls, knowing when the road opens is imperative to preparing for increased business in the coming months. Over the past couple of years, Fisher said she has seen the shoulder season get busier as the region’s groundswell of tourism spreads into the off-seasons.

“In July, August, and September, our revenue triples to quadruples” compared to sales in January and February, she said. “We need to cut off our waitlist at 6 to 6:30 in the evening even if we are open until 8. We just can’t accommodate everyone.” 

More information on the current conditions in Glacier can be found on the park’s website. Visitors should be aware of bears in the area, and of the vehicle reservation system as they enter the park on the west side.

More details about the park’s vehicle reservation system are available here.

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