Sheer cliffs. Six-foot-deep snowdrifts. A short construction season. High altitudes. Tons of rock.
What might sound like mountains of problems were viewed as mere molehills by engineers filled with the can-do spirit prevalent in early 20th century America.
So, you want to build a road through some of North America's most rugged terrain? No problem well, maybe some problems, but nothing that couldn't be overcome.
It's been 75 years since Going-to-the-Sun Road opened in Montana's Glacier National Park, and it is still considered an engineering marvel. That landmark achievement will be celebrated at the park this summer, with official ceremonies on June 27 featuring performers, dignitaries, tribal leaders, elected officials and more.
The date Going-to-the-Sun Road was officially dedicated was July 15,1933, but "we will celebrate a few weeks early to reduce congestion and minimize impacts to park visitors," says Amy Vanderbilt, event coordinator at Glacier.
The ceremony will be held at Logan Pass, one of the most popular stops along the road. Visitors will be brought in by the park's new shuttle buses.
The shuttles, which were used in the park for the first time last summer, will begin normal summer operation on July 3.
Visitors to the park will notice another change: The past 75 years have taken their toll on the Sun Road, as it is often abbreviated, and a comprehensive "rehabilitation" has begun to ensure that it lasts well into the future. Many of the most urgent repairs have already been finished, but the complete work is projected to last 10 years and cost some $250 million.
The project is one of the largest road rehabilitation projects in National Park Service history, but as previous Glacier Superintendent Mick Holm wrote, "a trip across the Sun Road does provide an iconic experience for a vast number of Glacier's visitors. The scope and magnitude of the project is clearly unprecedented and daunting. But I believe we can and must do nothing short of completing this rehabilitation in a timely manner, thereby preserving this phenomenal mountain byway experience for generations to come."
During Glacier's peak season June to October some 475,000 vehicles travel the road, an average of about 3,500 a day. Surveys show that approximately 80 percent of all the park's visitors travel the road.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is essentially a two-lane highway that winds from Apgar Village at West Glacier through the heart of the park, up the steep slopes of the Continental Divide and over the 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass and on to Saint Mary on the eastern side of the park. It's a distance of 50 miles.
It offers spectacular views of clear lakes, pristine forests, craggy mountains and alpine valleys. It provides textbook visuals of the work of nature and how it changes landscape. It was called, at the time of its completion, "the most beautiful piece of mountain road in the world," and nothing has changed that assessment in the hearts and minds of visitors in the past three-quarters of a century.
"Many people call these the Alps of America," says Vanderbilt. "They are more like the Matterhorn and Eiger than like other sections of the Rocky Mountains. They are unique in that respect."
They've tried to minimize the impact of the rehab project; but delays of 15-30 minutes may occur in some places and at some times, she says. The shuttle buses have also helped.
"Last summer we hoped that 800 to 1,600 people a day might ride the buses. But ridership exceeded 2,000 people a day. That many people leaving their cars behind was great."
In some ways, the park has come full circle. National parks came along before automobiles. In their early years, railroads brought the visitors.
The area that is now Glacier National Park began to attract visitors in the 1890s. They came by train, arriving at the Great Northern Railway's Belton Station in present-day West Glacier. They took a three-mile stagecoach ride to Lake McDonald, then traveled across the lake by boat to the Lewis Glacier Hotel.
More intrepid visitors could also go by horseback to backcountry lodges and chalets.
But the rise of the automobile began to change all that. Congress designated Glacier a national park in 1910, and increased numbers of visitors began to arrive by car. They had to drive over old wagon trails and dirt roads, but the views were worth it, and the trip more affordable.
It wasn't long, however, before the cry for better roads was heard and answered. Beginning in the early 1920s, Congress began providing $100,000 annually for a "Transmountain Highway." That got things started at the flatter ends of the road. But it got tougher as the elevation rose and rugged mountains stood in the way.
The first proposed route included a climb over Logan Pass that called for 15 switchbacks and numerous hairpin turns. It was scenic, followed the shortest route and was typical of engineering planning of the day.
But it also came at a time when National Park Service policy "stressed the importance of harmonizing park improvements with the landscape." Park officials asked a landscape engineer named Thomas Vint to review the proposal. Vint thought the switchbacks looked too much like "the miners had been in there." Instead, he put forth a plan that only featured one switchback, today known as "The Loop," and a three-mile section carved into the nearly vertical cliffs of the Garden Wall.
Congress came up with the money, and the road was built. "That was the first collaboration between road engineers and landscape engineers," says Vanderbilt. "It also ushered in an era of partnerships between federal agencies. The Sun Road continues to serve as a national model for context-sensitive road design."
Whether you consider the engineering, the history, the scenery or all of these and more driving the highway is a unique experience, and one that will stay with you long after you've left the park.
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