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Montana Border on Highway 200

Last month I posted about plans to ride through Glacier National Park.

I started making plans a couple of months prior to the ride looking for the slowest, curving roads with mountains and throwback motel stopping points to minimize pandemic exposure.

The reopening of Montana’s tourism amenities and services started in early June, which meant they were open a couple months prior to our arrival, with the exception of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation which was closed “until further notice.”  Canada also blocked all non-essential travel into the country so any mini-tour loop into BC or Alberta was off limits this trip.

It turns out that 2020 was a record-breaking year for the fact that there were NO forest fires during the days we visited the park to disrupt the spectacular views. There has been a fire in Glacier National Park almost every year of its existence with the exception of 1964 as the only year with no fires on record. Fires are a naturally recurring part of the forest lifecycle, but seeing Glacier with pristine clear air was an exceptional gift this time.

We traveled northeast crabwise across Washington state and spent a night in Sandpoint, on the northern tip of Idaho. It’s located on the magnificent 43-mile-long Lake Pend Oreille, surrounded by the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains. The next morning we traveled east on Highway 200 alongside the lake, then alongside the Clark Fork River.  We made a breakfast stop at a terrific family owned bakery in Clark Fork, called The Pantry.

Once we crossed over into Montana, we took a short detour to the remote end of Sanders County and traveled over the new $13.5 millon Heron Bridge.  It replaced a 95-year-old, one-lane bridge connecting Montana Highway 200 to the community of Heron. The original bridge had the ribbon cut on Nov. 23, 1952, but was originally fabricated in California and was already 32 years old when first installed across the river.  It had been deemed insufficient for growing traffic across the Pend Oreille River near Metaline Falls, Washington when it was moved and re-constructed at Heron.

“Sun Road” Glacier NP

After the bridge tour we rode north on Highway 56, Bull Lake Road, which is about 36 miles long and dead ends at Highway 2 just west of Libby. The landscape in the area is very diverse from low elevation timber and lakes to the outstanding peaks in the Cabinet Mountains and Scotchman Peak area.  We rode along the Kootenay River on Highway 2 to Kalispell then north on Highway 93.  We overnighted in Whitefish, MT a gateway to Glacier and a nice resort town. With a mixed array of shops, coffee houses and restaurants it reminded me of Jackson, WY charm.  There are plenty of places to enjoy a Going-to-the-Sun IPA with a great view of the mountains.

Glacier National Park, MT

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation closure created an impediment to traveling the Going-to-the-Sun road through the park and then looping back on Highway 2.

The road/gate entrance to the park was closed at St Mary. An optional route from Glacier north across the Canadian border to visit the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was a barrier as well since the Canadian border was closed.

At any rate, we began at West Glacier for a slow out-and-back ride on the 50-mile-long road.  There were incredible views of glacial-carved valleys, jagged peaks and pristine wilderness. A benefit of the pandemic was those famous red busses which departed from Lake McDonald Lodge were shut down and not running on the roads this year.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road was the National Park Service’s first to cross the trans-continental divide. It’s a landscape impossible to adequately describe in words or capture in photos when riding into that ‘big sky’ that Montana is famous for.

The west tunnel–a 197-foot long tunnel features two arched openings that let you look out to Heaven’s Peak and the Upper McDonald Creek valley while behind the handlebars. The Alpine section–is a six percent climb between the Loop and 6,646-foot high Logan Pass. There’s a section of the road called The Weeping Wall. A waterfall cascades 100 feet down, over the rocks and onto part of the road and down the other side of a 4500 foot cliff drop-off.

The Posse

The views! The curves! It’s like a real life painting.

For all its scenic wonders, the “Sun Road” is not without a few negatives: overall, the roads were in good shape and well-maintained, but there were a couple of rehabilitation projects and construction delays can be a major buzz-kill with all the crowds. The speed limit is slow-to-stop with much of the ride quality depending on the crowds and RVs.

The end of our round trip ride took us back into touristy West Glacier, town. Afterward we headed back to a Whitefish pub (via a motel shuttle) to try out a flight of their whiskeys and celebrate the completion of a beautiful ride.

Glacier is a place to be savored and a place to come back to again and again. It was great to get a break from the relentless protest, COVID-19 media drum beat and to reconnect with the land by motorcycle.

Photos taken by the author. 

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