Glacier National Park: Going to the Sun by Bike

Photo by Dan Shryock

The Going to the Sun Road stretches in the distance like a thin, white line carved into the side of a mountain. The idea of pedaling a bicycle for miles up that line at first seems daunting. Then a realization sets in. This may be one of the most breathtaking rides a cyclist can find in the Northwest, if not the world.

It’s worth the effort. And, once at the top, relish the ride downhill.

The Going to the Sun Road, the route that reaches across Glacier National Park, is a narrow two-lane road that rises nearly 3,500 feet from the Apgar Visitor Center to Logan Pass. Cyclists often begin up the road at Avalanche campground, a point where the road starts a steady, surmountable incline. Some people choose to ride until they’ve had enough and then turn around for the glide back down. Others seek the summit.

“But we don’t measure success by getting all the way to Logan Pass,” says Courtney Stone of Glacier Guides and Montana Raft tour company.

Cyclists can bring their own bikes or rent from Glacier Guides and join a tour. Either way, there’s much to take in.

The 16-mile ride from Avalanche campground begins among trees before reaching a hairpin turn—The Loop—eight miles long. Sit, rest the legs and take in expansive views of the McDonald Valley and the Livingston Range, a stunning series of mountains highlighted by Heaven’s Peak.

“The views get bigger and bigger at The Loop,” Stone says. “You’re completely surrounded by mountains. You feel tiny in the best possible way. The road has never failed to make me pause and say ‘wow’.”

The climb then turns east up that thin white line on what locals call The Garden Wall. Once at the top, there’s time for recovery and nature watching before a brake-gripping descent. The road that was a challenge on the way up is now an exhilarating glide back down.

There are other sights along the way, many on four legs. Watch for deer and perhaps something even bigger. “It’s not uncommon to see a bear while riding or hiking on the Going to the Sun Road,” Stone says. “We encourage people to have bear spray. The more prepared you are, the better.”

BEST TIMES TO RIDE

Heavy snow closes the Going to the Sun Road each winter and there’s no cycling until the snow is cleared. Before cars, trucks and RVs return, hikers and bikers take advantage of a “no-vehicle” period when they have the road to themselves.

“Spring plowing operations begin in April from Lake McDonald Lodge and hiker/biker access is allowed generally by early May, first from Lake McDonald Lodge then Avalanche campground,” says National Park Service spokesperson Kirstan Andrews. “How far hikers and bikers are allowed beyond Avalanche campground depends on the location of the plows. As the plows get farther up the mountain so does the access.”

Public vehicles are prohibited beyond Avalanche campground until the snow is cleared across the entire road, generally by mid-June to early July, Andrews says. Until then, its exclusively hiker and biker season. But the dates vary every year, so officials recommend visitors call the Glacier National Park information line, (406) 888-7800.

“Some years it has opened in May and other years it stayed closed into mid-July,” Andrews says.

The road occasionally closes during the summer depending on conditions such as excessive fog, rock falls or freak summer snow.

E-BIKES MAKE IT EASY

A recent national park rule change makes electric bikes—e-bikes—a legal and viable way to ride all the way to Logan Pass. E-bikes have electric motors that assist as one peddles. That makes an uphill ride much easier. Prior to the 2019 rule change, an e-bike would have been considered a motor vehicle.

“Now they are viewed more consistently with traditional pedal bikes and are allowed for hiker/biker access,” Andrews says.

START IN KALISPELL

There are many more cycling opportunities in the region, and the city of Kalispell, 50 miles from Glacier National Park, provides a base of operations while exploring the national park and Montana’s Flathead Valley. Stop by Montana Coffee Traders downtown for locally roasted brews in the morning and SunRift Beer for a different, colder brew after the ride.

Wheaton’s Cycle is nearby for bicycle maintenance, local cycling information and support. Then take a stroll downtown and find the ice climber, the cowboy, the bank robber and more—all community art—climbing the walls.

WHEN YOU GO

Glacier National Park bicycling information: nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/bicycling.htm

Glacier National Park Going to the Sun Road: nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/gtsrinfo.htm

Going to the Sun Road Bicycle Tours: glacierguides.com/biking-in-glacier-national-park

Wheaton’s Cycle: wheatonscycle.com

Lodging, food and more in Kalispell: discoverkalispell.com