33.9 mi / 10.0 mph / 2266 ft. climbing
Home: Sprague Creek Campground hiker/biker site at Glacier National Park
Oh man, I’m so sorry Dennis!
Back in 2012, Amtrak’s Empire Builder brought my good friend and his bicycle from Chicago to East Glacier. The next morning, he left his East Glacier hotel, and rode north to St. Mary over a couple of major climbs, a route we essentially repeated on our 5th day in the park, when we rode from Two Medicine to St. Mary. Then, on the same afternoon of that first ride, he headed west along Going-to-the-Sun Road, six miles to Rising Sun. That’s what we did on our 15th day in the park. Then, still on the same day, he did the major climb over the Continental Divide, the same climb we waited until today to do, our 18th day in the park!
Dennis’s description of the grueling climb:
The…miles to Logan Pass were perhaps the most difficult miles I have ever done. Period….I was honestly questioning if I could do it. My legs and stomach were cramping a little and I had no appetite. I forced myself to eat and massaged the quads and calves. I got back on and made the final push. I was in the lowest gear possible, head down and constantly pedaling I kept telling myself “don’t let this mountain defeat you!” “I. will. make. this.” At about 3:45 PM as I approached the entrance of the visitor center a wave of emotions flowed through my brain. I was so relieved that I didn’t let my mind convince me that I couldn’t do it. I climbed to Logan Pass! Yessss!
What an incredible athletic feat, and a demonstration of his deep mental fortitude! In a single day’s ride he accomplished what we would do in stages over three widely-separated days. And he did it a day after getting of a train that brought him from the flatlands where he’d been living at 600 ft., and busy working a job, whereas we’ve been at altitude for weeks, and have well-adapted muscles from weeks of mountain-climbing. 2023 Neil wishes I would have asked him what the hell he was thinking attempting such an insane challenge, but it appears that Rett and I had a couple of stand-ins there 11 years ago asking the same question:
While at the visitor center looking for water I was immediately approached by a couple “Peter” and “Amy”. They started at St Mary and made the same climb. They thought I was crazy for starting in East Glacier (30 miles further out). I agreed!
We had done two bike tours together previously, and this was his first solo trip. But only when I re-read his journal in July 2023 did it hit home that this was the very first day of the first bike tour he had done on his own! So where did he get many of his ideas, for better or worse, of what “bike touring” is? From me, of course! And in 2012, I recognized his ride as a tough day, but also something that you just “had to do” (stopping to camp at St. Mary or Rising Sun would have been less than 40 miles, so what else would you do all day?!) After all, a month after him, I would be on my own solo tour where I would be riding through the Sierras in California regularly doing even-more-insane shit like 7500 ft. of climbing and/or 100 miles in a single day.
Hence my apology! In 2012 I already knew that other people approached bike-touring from a less-athletic mindset, and while I wouldn’t trade those feelings of pride that came from expanding my previously-assumed physical and mental limits (and I’m sure Dennis feels the same way), and I recognize that Rett and I are in a rare position to have near-unlimited time to explore places we’re interested in, I do wish I would have at least said “hey, maybe split that first day in two, that might give you a chance to smell the wildflowers and enjoy the view a bit more!”
At least I hoped it was the 3-days-in-1 that made the climb so tough for him, because if it’s not, and the nature of the climb on its own is still enough to nearly defeat 2012 Dennis, then 2023 Neil and Rett are totally fucked.
Partly in preparation for that risk, our alarm went off at 4am, our earliest start ever. We still burned precious minutes brewing up hot coffee, but we ate a rare cold breakfast in the tent to hurry things along. Luckily it was a dry morning, and a relatively-warm 50F, so that helped speed the packing process too. We turned right onto Going-to-the-Sun Road at 6am, just as the aforementioned sun was breaching the horizon behind us and already painting the mountains ahead of us in pink.
Unlike west-to-east riders, who are required by the park to be done with their climb by 11am (or start it after 4pm), the main reason for our early start was just to minimize the amount of traffic we would need to deal with on the narrow road. So the stunning color of the mountains we were able to witness for the ~20 minutes around sunrise was a completely unplanned bonus, and we literally would have done a worse job of timing it if we had tried.
Avoiding rising headwinds was another reason to be up early, so the gusts we felt along St. Mary Lake were an unwelcome surprise. I hoped that once we started up into the mountains they’d provide shelter rather than a funnel. For the whole day we had low clouds playing amongst the mountaintops, which likely obscured some of the background, but added a lot of drama to the foreground.
Traffic was no problem. Early on vehicles were nearly non-existent, and even when more appeared on the road, there were never so many that it became difficult for them to pass us, so there were no lines backing up behind us. Plus there are a lot of pull-outs along the road, many of which we utilized, sometimes just to take in the view and not because we really needed a break. The climb began in earnest 6 miles in, once the road left St. Mary Lake behind, and went up at a steady-and-manageable 5% grade for another 6 miles and “only” 1800 feet.
Sooner than we expected, we saw a shining building far ahead, and the only thing it could be was the Logan Pass Visitor Center! We continued on and up past a dark wall weeping water, toward an impossibly beautiful green wall bisected by falls, and through a wall that blocked the road (via a perfectly-constructed tunnel). But there were no walls that stopped us, and while the climb certainly wasn’t easy, we weren’t cramping up, didn’t need to massage our calves, and didn’t need to battle our minds to make it to the top. That’s definitely not because we’re stronger than Dennis was in 2012, or because they flattened out the road, so it really must just be because we have the opportunity and learned wisdom to move in smaller chunks.
We got our photo at the top (crossing back and forth on a high-altitude crosswalk, leading to the Highline Trail), and then bundled up in our jackets for the ride down. The road on the west side feels entirely different than the east side; on the east, even when it was climbing a mountain wall, it felt more like it was following natural paths in the landscape. On the west, it feels much more like a thin line of scaffolding bolted to the side of a cliff. A vertical rock wall rises inches from our right shoulders, and when the low stone parapet on the opposite side of the road would switch to a log fence, the increased transparency revealed nothing but sky and triggered a queasiness that made me glad we weren’t riding on that side!
The only comparable mountains I’ve been near are the Tetons, and while they’re technically much larger, they’re experienced like watching TV on a flat screen, whereas Glacier is like 3D immersive virtual reality. Except it’s real reality, and Going-to-the-Sun Road is the technology that puts you not just in the mountains, but also under them, over them, around them, and through them.
Traffic was heavier on the way down, but tended to come in chunks, so we still had periods where we were completely flying down the road alone for several minutes. For weeks we’d been talking with both drivers and cyclists about the road, and I’d become pretty convinced from their divergent concerns (correctly, it turns out) that it would be a road very much like Highway 1 in Baja: scarier for drivers than for cyclists. Because of its narrowness, no drivers even consider passing us unless they’re 100% sure there is no oncoming traffic, so we always have plenty of space. Whereas two vehicles passing each other nearly brush mirrors. And given how frequently cars coming up our way were driving on the yellow line, the dropoff to their right clearly made them queasy as well! Over the whole ride we saw one loaded cyclist going our way at the top, two climbing up in the other direction, and about 10 unloaded riders.
And how awesome it felt to be coming over the pass and discovering the other side for the first time, on our bicycles! Like, we brought ourselves up here (along with all we need to live) under our own human power! The 25mph speed limit is not only a gift to us, making the road safer to ride, it’s an equal gift to the drivers: it “forces” them nearly down to bicycle-speed, which we’ve learned is the ultimate speed to move at to be able to absorb your surroundings. If only they could also have the unobstructed view that comes with riding on top of your vehicle!
I don’t know who the maniacs are who decided they should (or even could) build a road through these mountains, what kind of magic mushrooms they had eaten, or how they then convinced the powers-that-be that they should actually spend money on such an off-the-wall fantasy. But man, I’m sure glad that all the sober adults who obviously should have killed this fantastical thing before it even got off the ground, were apparently asleep on the job. Because it enabled what was probably the most-incredible bike ride of my life.
And along with the apology to Dennis, I also send him our gratitude. Because even with the much tougher day he had on this road, its majesty was still able overwhelm him, to the point where his writing and photos communicated clearly that this was a place I someday needed to experience. So it put these mountains and this road on my radar in a way that they never had been previously. His evangelization led to him returning three years later, this time with his wife and another friend, and now, finally, my wife and I are here experiencing this place to a breadth and depth we probably never would have considered without Dennis’s inspiration. So thank you Dennis!
Eventually the road linked up with McDonald Creek and flattened out. This side of the mountains is much wetter and greener, and the ride along the bright blue water would have been world-class had we not just been through something ten times more-spectacular. Our final mile was on an under-construction gravel road (a preview of the 9 miles we would have to do on it tomorrow), and thankfully it was much better than the Many Glacier gravel, and better than the early reports we’d had about its dustiness. They have trucks regularly spraying it with water now, which is maybe something they weren’t doing initially until they realized what a problem the dust was?
We pulled off into the Lake McDonald Lodge area to get groceries at their store, and made lunch at a picnic table. The password from Rising Sun worked on the WiFi here, so I was able to book tomorrow’s campsite at Apgar.
Sprague Creek is a small campground, with no extra amenities around it, but as part of our moving-slow style, we wanted to check it out for at least a night (we would have stopped even earlier at Dennis’s Avalanche Campground, but it doesn’t open until a week from now). Plus, bicycles are prohibited in both directions between 11am and 4pm west of the campground, so we were essentially required to stop here anyway.
We walked down to Lake McDonald for our first full-on swim in Glacier. The water was cold, but not freezing like the other, much higher lakes we’ve been at previously (Lake McDonald is the west side’s mirror-image version of the east side’s St. Mary Lake, but it’s 1300 ft. lower). There was a family swimming nearby, and I overheard the dad say “this is the clearest water I’ve ever seen!” His 10-year-old son interjected, “except for water in a cup!” and that got an internal thumbs-up from me; smart kid! It was converted to two-thumbs-up when Grandma incorrectly said “no, this is clearer even than water from a faucet!” Sorry grandma, this is super-clear water, but the kid’s right. Except…then I saw the rocks under the water breathing in and out, making me think I must have somehow gotten a dose of those same magic mushrooms that the Going-to-the-Sun Road builders had eaten. After a minute I realized that it was caused by ripples on the surface of the water, but since the water was so clear, the ripples themselves were nearly-invisible, and only their effects could be seen. I’ve never seen anything like that before, so maybe Grandma is right after all?!
We dried off and then went to a separate, more isolated rock beach with our chairs to enjoy the afternoon. Some pre-dinner rain chased us back up to camp, and then it started again just before we were done eating, but Rett could catch some T-mobile signal down at the lakeshore so we were once again in a place where we could us technology (radar) to help us deal with rain. Not that a bit of rain could do much to bring down a day like this!