There are a ton of amazing places to cycle throughout the Flathead Valley, but my hands down
favorite is Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park during the spring plowing season! This legburning jaunt is one of the best ways to see this amazing feat of engineering stretching from West Glacier on the southwest side of the park over to St. Mary on the east side. The entire 50 mile road is only open to vehicle traffic from mid-June through mid-September but therein lies the beauty of biking GTTSR.
During the spring, an army of snowplows tackles the monumental task of clearing snow up to 50+ feet deep at some points from the road as they work from Lake McDonald (elevation: 3,153ft) to the Logan Pass summit at 6,646ft of elevation. While plowing season is underway, the road is closed off to motorized traffic but they open it up to non-motorized traffic (bicycles and hikers generally) in the evening and on weekends
I had traveled GTTSR dozens of times by car before I had my first cycling experience on the road. Sure, friends had always mentioned making the journey on sunny spring Saturdays but I always thought it to be something more geared toward masochistic bike nuts than someone like myself. But after seeing the photographs and hearing a close friend giddily recount a recent trip up there, I just had to see it for myself.
Depending on snowpack, the starting point for this road is usually either Lake McDonald Lodge or the Avalanche picnic area and campground. Starting from Avalanche cuts out about 56 miles each way which, while not a big deal when you’re just starting your day, becomes a little grueling at the end of a long ride. From Avalanche, just head through the gates and follow the road. Make sure to pack your bear spray, a camera and some goodies for a picnic wherever you decide to turn around.
In addition to keeping your eyes peeled for grizzly and black bears, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wolverines, deer, elk and marmots, watch for some of the gorgeous wildflowers that grow throughout the park, painting the landscape like an artist’s brushstrokes with bright pops of color. Some of my personal favorites to watch for are are Indian paintbrush, fireweed, glacier lilies, beargrass and trillium.
For those doubting their physical prowess for a ride like this, the first few miles of road are relatively flat as it follows along McDonald Creek, which rushes unrelentingly as spring runoff makes its way from the mountain peaks down to the valley floor. Once the road starts climbing a bit more steeply, it’s only a few miles up to the famous West Side Tunnel. This spot makes for excellent photo opportunities and a good spot to rest before forging ahead to The Loop which is less than a mile farther along your journey.
I love to relax and take in the amazing views on all sides from The Loop, picking out mountain peaks on nearly every side. From The Loop, it’s another 7.5 miles and 2,335 vertical feet to reach Logan Pass, but the ride is well worth it. Seeing the amazing sights from GTTSR without the stresses of cars zooming by on the too narrow for comfort lanes turns a white knuckle drive into a relaxing trip, stopping whenever you need a rest or a snack. Keep an eye out for cyclists speeding down the mountain on their return trip and keep your bear spray handy for the chance that you encounter one of these beasts along your way.
Little else compares to the feeling of reaching the summit of Logan Pass and joining your friends for a cold beverage and snacks as you celebrate your monumental accomplishment. The hard part is over! Now it’s time to sit back and relax before preparing for one of the most exhilarating bicycle descents of your life! You earned it! Keep your eyes peeled on the way down for cyclists and the occasional wildlife wandering across the road. This is also a great time to stop and grab a few last photos before returning to the valley floor and following McDonald Creek back to your vehicle.
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