One man’s motorcycle adventure through Glacier National Park.
With stunning views of jagged mountains, glacial lakes, and frozen waterfalls, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the most impressive drives in the U.S. For 80 kilometers through Glacier National Park, the road cuts into the side of the mountain, eventually rising to an elevation of over 2,000 meters. Along the way, it’s interrupted by tunnels, waterfalls, and the occasional bear that’s just trying to cross the road.
Unlike many other national parks in America, Glacier is nearly roadless. Going-to-the-Sun is the only road that runs through the entirety of this pristine wilderness. Most people visit the park and drive the road in a car, but there’s nothing quite like making the trip on a motorcycle. This is the story of our motorcycle ride through Glacier, plus everything you need to know to do it yourself (you can even rent a bike near the park if you don’t have your own!).
In the three years we’d been dating at the time, my now-wife Jen had never been home to enjoy a Montana summer. Her summers were spent in Rwanda, where she was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer – and surprisingly, riding as a passenger on a lot of motorcycles (though for transportation purposes rather than leisure). Maybe that’s why she was so comfortable getting on the back of mine.
Despite having grown up in Montana, we’d both spent very little time exploring Glacier Park, which is pretty sad. Living just a couple hours from the park left us feeling like it would always be there and made it seem like just one of many amazing wildernesses available to us. It wasn’t until we moved to Boston that we started to understand just how special national parks like Glacier really are.
We were familiar with the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, but you can feel detached from its beauty when it’s viewed from the confines of a car. A motorcycle trip seemed like the perfect way to see the park; we could easily stop wherever we liked, feel the wind blowing through our hair, and smell the wonderfully clean mountain air. Riding a motorcycle really lets you feel the wilderness, even on a road that carries hundreds of cars and RVs every day.
This route, which connects the towns of West Glacier and Saint Mary on either edge of the park, is incredibly straightforward; for the most part, there is only one road to take. Going-to-the-Sun is just 80 kilometers long, so even with bumper-to-bumper traffic, it won’t take more than three hours to complete. That means there’s plenty of time to linger, stop for photographs, and get off the bike and explore nature.
With the exception of the restaurant at Lake MacDonald Lodge and some snacks available at Logan Pass Visitor’s Center, there are no services along the route. So be sure to top up the gas tank and pick up whatever you’ll need before leaving West Glacier.
For the first third of the ride, the road skirts the shores of Lake MacDonald. The lake’s azure waters aren’t always visible, though, as the road makes its way through a canyon of cedar and hemlock trees. Lake MacDonald Lodge is located towards the northeast corner of the lake, and while you might not need a rest yet, it’s definitely worth a stop.
Its exterior was designed to look like a Swiss chalet, but the lobby leaves no doubt that you’re in the heart of Montana, with massive timber pillars, a stone fireplace, and multiple taxidermy mounts on the walls. It’s a great place to relax for a little while or have a meal in one of the adjoining restaurants. The rooms are a bit less impressive and cost over $200/night, so sleep elsewhere and just come in to enjoy the lobby.
While you’re here, make sure you wander down to the lake to look around – the shoreline is covered in colorful pebbles. Lake MacDonald is also a great place to start a hike, with popular trails like Arrow Lake and the Johns Lake Loop departing from near its shores.
Past Lake MacDonald, Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs up to the top of the pass. Stop at the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center to take in some exhibits and learn about the park’s history and understand its fragile ecosystem; you might also be able to join a ranger-led educational hike or catch one of their lectures.
There’s a lot to learn about here: climate change has been wreaking havoc on Glacier Park, as evidenced by the shrinking glaciers and the early snow melts that cause droughts later in the year. This puts the plants and animals living near the pass at risk, and forces some of the wildlife to move to unnatural habitats at lower elevations.
In the Visitor’s Center parking lot, you can also probably catch a glimpse of a mountain goat, the park’s official mascot. For decades, they congregated here and had become habituated to humans, which was great for tourists wanting an Instagram-worthy shot – but not so great for the goats that were eating unhealthy garbage left in the parking lot. Rangers now employ canine security guards to keep some distance between the tourists and wildlife.
When you’re done here and start descending the eastern slope of Logan Pass, the flora changes completely, due to the rain shadow effect of the mountains. Sadly, in recent years, large swaths of forest in this area have been decimated by an infestation of pine-bark beetles. Left behind are the dry, skeletal remains of once-beautiful trees, which are now at an increased risk of igniting a forest fire.
Saint Mary Lake
Because it’s smaller, Saint Mary Lake doesn’t get the same attention as Lake MacDonald, though the area is no less impressive. The mountains on this side of the park have a much more aggressive feel to them, with razor sharp peaks bursting from the ground.
The road skirts the edge of the lake for 16 kilometers, with magnificent views of the water throughout most of it. The lake’s most notable feature is Wild Goose Island, a tiny patch of land in the middle that’s occupied by a single stand of trees. The opening scene of The Shining was shot at Saint Mary Lake, and the island is a dead giveaway to anyone who’s visited the park (even though the story is set in Colorado).
If you want to get out on the water, Glacier Park Boat Company runs two-hour tours on the lake, which include a guided walk to Saint Mary Falls and Baring Falls. The tour gives a totally different perspective of the mountains than you’ll get riding along the road.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road ends at the eastern tip of Saint Mary Lake, where you’ll have decide where to go next. It’s definitely worth riding the route in reverse, as the landscapes look completely different traveling east to west.
However, if your backside is ready to be done, head south to the town of East Glacier and then west via Highway 2. You’ll be back in West Glacier in less than two hours, and you’ll get to see the stunning Rocky Mountain Front along the way.
Or if you’re ready for an even longer adventure, ride half an hour north to Many Glacier, home of one of the park’s three Swiss-style lodges. The trailhead for the famed Ptarmigan Tunnel hike is also here. The hike is 18 kilometers long and involves a jaw-drooping cliffside traverse before entering the 75-meter-long pedestrian tunnel that connects the Many Glacier and Belly River valleys.
More Than Just The Road
While riding the Going-to-the-Sun Road is certainly the focal point of this trip, an adventure in Glacier Park wouldn’t be complete if you didn’t spend some time on your own two feet, hiking some of the most spectacular trails the National Parks System has to offer.
Hidden Lake Overlook
If you just need to stretch your legs, this hike around the halfway point of the Going-to-the-Sun Road is perfect. It’s only a few kilometers long and gains just over 150 meters in elevation. Its location above treeline at the top of Logan Pass makes for some awesome vistas.
The trail begins behind the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center, with a short climb up a staircase before heading off on the Hidden Lake Nature Trail. The first kilometer of the hike is along a wooden boardwalk, which prevents erosion in this sensitive area.
After two and a half kilometers, you’ll come upon the glorious view of Hidden Lake, with the massive Bearhat Mountain behind it. This is one of the best views in the park, and it comes with relatively minimal time and effort – a must for anyone riding the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Want something more challenging? The Highline Trail snakes its way through the jagged peaks adjacent to Logan Pass. The hike makes a nearly 19-kilometer tour from the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center through a region known as the Garden Wall, getting its name from the carpet of wildflowers that grows alongside its cliff face in the summer.
This is an incredibly strenuous hike, with over 600 meters of elevation gain along some very narrow paths. At one point, you’ll be faced with a rock wall on your right and a 30-meter drop on your left, with only two meters of trail in between. A cable has been strung up to act as a handhold if you get scared. Adventure favors the bold, though, right? The views from the trail are breathtaking, and you’ll get to enjoy them for several kilometers as you hike.
The hike ends at one of the tightest turns in the Going-to-the-Sun Road, known as The Loop. Since the trail goes right to the road, you can avoid having to hike back out in the other direction. A free shuttle plies the road to pick up passengers at least once an hour hour, and will take you back to your motorcycle.
Renting a motorcycle in the U.S. is a much more complicated affair than in many parts of the world, and motorcycle rental companies can be hard to come by. Maybe it’s the insurance risk or the fact that riders actually need a motorcycle endorsement, but rental options are few and far between.
Fortunately, for skilled motorcycle riders who just don’t have their bike with them (damn checked bag limits!), there are a couple rental shops relatively close to the park.
Crown of the Continent Discovery Center in West Glacier, immediately outside the park, rents mopeds for $225/day plus insurance. About two hours away in Missoula, a variety of dual-sport bikes between 650 and 1200cc are available from Maverick Motorsports for around $150/day plus insurance.
There’s also Grizzly Harley-Davidson in Missoula, which has rentals for $150/day plus insurance, but a Harley probably isn’t the best for touring the park.
If you want to stay overnight in the park before and after your ride, options range from campsites to luxury lodges, or you can head out to a nearby town. While Kalispell is the largest town near the park, Whitefish, just 40 minutes away, is the most interesting, and worth a stop even if you don’t stay overnight.
During the winter, it’s a mecca for skiers visiting Whitefish Mountain Resort, one of the premier skiing destinations in the country. In the summer, it remains an outdoor recreation hotspot with dozens of mountain bike trails and a zipline course.
Whitefish is really compact and walkable, with tons of boutique shopping and gourmet restaurants concentrated in the six blocks around Baker Street. You’ll definitely want to stop at the Great Northern Brewery (you can’t miss it, it’s the tallest building in town) and have some of the tastiest brews in the state.
There are a variety of places in town to spend the night, from budget chain hotels to luxury ski lodges and all sorts of unique Airbnbs. Whitefish makes the perfect place to relax a little bit and get a taste of the local flavour before or after your ride through Glacier.