It’s difficult to classify a road piercing a busy national park as a backroad or byway, but no book about spectacular drives in Montana is complete without the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. It is matched only by the Beartooth All-American Highway between Red Lodge and Cooke City for sheer jaw-dropping magnificence. This dramatic, cliff-hugging ribbon of pavement surely leads the state in photo-ops per mile, whether it’s the grandeur of its serrated mountain peaks, the sweeping views of U-shaped valleys, a distant melting glacier shimmering under a bright sun, or the people-tolerant mountain goats nibbling on grasses peeking through snows.
Railroad Magnate Made Blackfeet Part of Glacier Vision Great Northern Railway president James J. Hill had a unique idea when he schemed to create a new national park in 1910.
As part of Hill’s grand vision for what would be called Glacier National Park, he wouldn’t banish the Blackfeet Indians who lived on the nearby plains. No, he would welcome them In what the New York Times labeled Tourism of Doom, Hill’s brilliant see-it-before-it’s-gone marketing plan included luring nostalgic tourists west on his railroad by touting a vanishing wilderness most notably the last place to see real Indians living much as they had before the western migration changed their lives forever. The Blackfeet hunted wild animals, rode their ponies, slipped into teepees at night, and moved in and out of the park’s shadows.
In addition to moving freely across the eastern flanks of the park as they had for centuries, the Blackfeet also served as greeters at the train station in Midvale (now East Glacier), at the massive Swiss-style lodges, and at other key tourist spots. At many places, they sang, danced, and told Blackfeet stories for eastern tourists who couldn’t get enough of this faux frontier.
This exotic marriage between the Anglo culture and Indians lasted about two decades, until the stock-market crash of 1929. Short of funds for advertising and marketing, the railroad no longer could afford the Blackfeet, who were sent back to their neighboring reservation on the prairie. By the time the economy rebounded during World War II, the Going-to-the-Sun Road had been completed, and more tourists were entering the park from the west.
Historians concede that the railroad’s use of the Blackfeet was blatant exploitation, but they note it did have one benefit: By singing, dancing, and telling stories, the tribe retained an oral history at a time when fellow tribes’ traditions were disappearing. Today, the Blackfeet have a bittersweet relationship with Glacier, partly because they feel disenfranchised, partly because what few park jobs they have are largely menial, and partly because they still struggle with the concept of political boundaries drawn across sacred earth on which they have lived for centuries.
Here, slightly south of the Canadian border, the Rockies are squeezed into a 50-mile-wide spine, forced skyward by the prairie on the east and Flathead Valley on the west. The Blackfeet who roamed this sacred country called it The Backbone of the World. Early conservationist George Bird Grinnell labeled it The Crown of the Continent.
Slightly more than a century ago, the park was envisioned by both the naturalist Grinnell and a railroad tycoon named James J. Hill, albeit for polar opposite reasons. Grinnell saw a national park as a way to preserve unparalleled beauty and a precious source of water spilling off the Crown toward the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans; for Hill, it was a marketing tool to lure passengers west on his Great Northern Railway. See America first was Hill’s rallying cry in coaxing Easterners to explore a last vestige of untamed wilderness. Hill envisioned an American Swiss Alps without livestock and villages, and dreamed of building magnificent chalet-style hotels in the wilderness. Today, those chalets are as much a part of Glacier’s persona as pointy mountains and ice fields.
In 1910, less than a decade after a park was first seriously proposed, Glacier joined the National Park System See it before it’s gone, the Great Northern implored in its advertisements, referring to the wilderness and the choreographed routines of the Blackfeet that Hill placed in the park (see Sidebar). Today, the same mantra applies to the park’s namesake feature the glacier. Over millions of years, glaciers have come and gone, and they have been melting since about 1850. But global warming has accelerated the pace to such a degree that climate models show the remaining twenty-three glaciers disappearing within a decade. Now is indeed the time to see them before they’re gone though even without glaciers, this region will retain its grandeur.
Going-to-the-Sun is the only road bisecting the park, and it’s an experience not to be missed. As you’ll soon understand, the 48.7-mile road was an engineering marvel when completed in 1932 after 11 years of construction. It was conceived in 1917, the result of a mandate to make parks accessible to a newfangled contraption called the automobile. To this day, the road ranks at or near the top of the most challenging road-building projects in American history. Though one might guess that the name comes from the seeming rise to the sun at Logan Pass, it’s actually a nod to a nearby mountain named for a Blackfeet legend about a celestial being called Sour Spirit, who would come down from the sky to assist the tribe in dire times and go back to the sun when his mission was accomplished.
The miracle we see today is how the road over 6,646-foot Logan Pass is kept open. Plowing snow that can get as deep as 80 feet requires up to 10 weeks of work.
The grandeur doesn’t end when the Going-to-the-Sun Road drops into St. Mary. The stretch through aspen and foothills to East Glacier on the eastern fringes of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is also spectacular, and US 2 between East Glacier and West Glacier offers peeks at mountaintops while splitting Glacier and the Great Bear Wilderness Area.