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Biking in Glacier Park

NOTE: You can click on any of the small pictures below to see a larger version of that picture. The links in the text will open additional photos as well.

In August 2002 we spent a week in Glacier Park, Montana on an "epic" bike trip with Backroads. The "epic" means that it was a pretty tough trip, and for the most part it was. But usually the astounding beauty of the scenery took our minds off the pain. Usually...

Glacier Park is located in northwestern Montana, along the Canadian border, and as part of our trip we also crossed the border to Waterton Park in Canada; the two parks together are Glacier-Waterton Park, the first international "Peace Park." For a brief history of the park (cribbed from the National Park Service web site), click here.

Here's where we were and the general map of the bike trip in the parks:
Location of Glacier Park Glacier biking route

Day 1 -- Across Three States and into Glacier Park to Lake McDonald Lodge

We landed late at night in Spokane, in western Washington, and spent the night (in the Presidential Suite, no less)(for $69) in the airport motel. Early the next morning we drove from Washington, across the Idaho panhandle (spectacular scenery north of Coeur d'Alene on Interstate 90), into Montana. A roadside stand selling amazing fresh cherries was a welcome break. The road signs directed us to "Paradise" Montana.
Middle of Nowhere - Flathead Indian Reservation
Middle of nowhere.
Flathead Lake appears
Flathead Lake appears
Far from it, the road took us across the incredibly bleak Flathead Indian Reservation -- miles and miles of nothing. But cresting a steep hill, suddenly we arrived at Flathead Lake, which DID look like paradise (and of course was not part of the reservation). From there we turned north, drove through Kalispell to the south entrance to the park at West Glacier, where we met up with our bike trip group.

Lake McDonald
Lake McDonald
There were 20 of us in all, plus Jenn and Carrie, our leaders. Bikes were fitted, we were given a general introduction to the trip, and then we set off on our warm-up ride (11 miles) into the Park to Lake McDonald Lodge. It was an easy ride on a flat road, with a few glimpses into the magnificent scenery of the park. We rolled by Lake McDonald in the late afternoon sun, and arrived at Lake McDonald Lodge, our accomodations for the night. (Click here for the map of the first day's route.)

Lake McDonald Lodge
Lake McDonald Lodge
Lake McDonald Lodge is one of the four classic park lodges that we would be staying in during the course of the trip. All are famously beautiful buildings in famously beautiful settings, and have famously beautiful lobbies. What the glossy brochures never show you is what the rooms look like. The lodges were all built in the early part of the 20th century, and it felt like the rooms were barely renovated since then. To be frank, Motel 6 would be a VAST improvement. Awful. Small, uncomfortable, pathetic bathrooms, little water pressure in the shower, you get the picture. But somehow everyone wants to stay at these places, and it's very difficult (and expensive) to get a room in them. As they say in real estate, there are three reasons for this: location, location, location. So, Lake McDonald Lodge was no exception. The building was great looking and the lobby fantastic. As pictured here: Lobby photo 1 | Lobby photo 2 | Lobby photo 3

The other thing about the lodges is that the food in the restaurants tends to be as awful as the rooms. Backroads took us to restaurants outside the park whenever possible (which was possible for all but one night) to avoid eating at them. However, the lodges all did a great all-American full-cholesterol breakfast (eggs, bacon, etc.) each morning, which provided great energy for each day's ride.

Day 2 -- Lake McDonald Lodge to Many Glacier Lodge --Up Going to the Sun Road, Being Left Behind, and then Rescued

Day 2 route map -- 60 miles

We were up at the crack of dawn to begin our epic climb up Glacier's famous Going to the Sun Road, 11 miles of relentless, non-stop uphill pedaling to Logan Pass, at the Continental Divide. A climb of over 3500 vertical feet. Bicycles were not allowed on the section of the road between Lake McDonald and Logan Pass after 11 a.m., hence our sunrise start.
Logan Pass - at the top
Logan Pass - we reached the top!
We had to be at the top by 11. There was ten miles of flat in the semi-darkness, then the climb started. The first three miles were slightly steeper until you reach what is called "The Loop," the only hairpin turn in the climb to the top. From the Loop, the road skirts the edge of the mountainside all the way to Logan Pass. The spectacular scenery was distracting most of the way up, until the last few miles when you could actually see the end, but it never felt like it was getting any closer.

Click here for a Going to the Sun Road Slide Show Click here for a slide show of the ride up Going to the Sun Road.

We reached Logan Pass just after 10 a.m. The van arrived shortly after, and we exchanged our bike shoes (that clip into the pedals) for our hiking shoes that we had put into the van in the morning. We left our shoes and helmets with Carrie, who was waiting with the van, and who assured us that she would not leave until the last person was back.
Hidden Lake
Hidden Lake
The goal was to take a short mile and a half walk to Hidden Lake from the back of tbe Logan Pass Visitor's Center and exercise a few different muscles for a while. It was a gorgeous day, and the walk was beautiful (and very easy). Beautiful wildflowers, magnificent mountains, and the view of Hidden Lake itself (which was very aptly named) was astounding. Nice looking mountain goats were roaming around -- the were sparkling white, and Mark had some other tourists convinced that they were taken out and washed in the evening.
Click here for a Slide Show of the walk to Hidden Lake Click here for a slide show of the walk to Hidden Lake.

When we returned to the Logan Pass visitor's center, things got interesting. The van was gone, as were our shoes and helmets, although the bikes were still there. We assumed that they were shuttling someone somewhere and would be back, so we had our lunch (which we had packed in the morning) and hung out in the parking lot in the sunshine, waiting.... After about an hour, we thought there might be a problem; the cell phone didn't work (no coverage up there) and then we discovered that the visitor center had no phones (or electricity), so there was no easy way to reach the next hotel, or our leaders to let them know we were still there. We finally asked one of the Park Rangers to notify the park headquarters by sattelite radio that we were stranded, and the headquarters rangers phoned ahead to our next hotel.

The message didn't reach Jenn and Carrie until about 3 p.m. when they got to Many Glacier Hotel -- they had thought
Flying down the other side ... finally.
that we were ahead of the group, and it seemed that some "helpful" other members of the group had mistakenly loaded our shoes and helmets in the van at the top. It still took about an hour for Jenn to drive back up to Logan Pass, and by then it was 4 p.m. As pissed off as we were at the screw up, the look of sheer despair on Jenn's face when she arrived at the Pass was enough to dispell our feelings. We had been up there for five hours. She said we could do whatever we wanted, and we opted to bike down the hill -- damn it, we had biked up it, we wanted the pleasure of the seven mile downhill. She followed us closely in the van. In fact, the rest of the trip one of the leaders was never far away from us, it seemed -- they weren't going to lose us a second time! (As a footnote, I should add that the leaders more than made this all up to us by offering us a free dinner at the best restaurant in town (that really was excellent) the night we were to be on our own in Waterton, as well as massages at a spa in Waterton (which we didn't have time to take them up on), so all is forgiven.)

After we reached the bottom, there was still about 30 miles to go until Many Glacier Lodge. We decided to keep riding for a while as we had lots of energy after the long rest we had at Logan Pass. Also, this is where our being stranded at the top ended up being a positive thing. Earlier in the day there had been a wicked headwind on this portion of the ride,
Along St. Mary's Lake Along St. Mary's Lake
Along St. Mary's Lake
forcing almost everyone in the group to bail out and ride in the van the rest of the route. By the time we were on this road the wind had shifted, and we had a strong tailwind, such that we were cruising along almost effortlessly at 25 mph on the flats! (Jenn almost lost us again when we passed her unexpectedly when she stopped to make a phone call.) The ride was beautiful here along St. Mary's Lake. We then went out of Glacier Park proper, until Babb, MT, where we turned left to the last 12 mile leg to the hotel. For the sake of getting to dinner at a reasonable time, we got a lift in the van here for the rest of the day's ride, as we would be riding out the same road the next morning.

Total miles we actually rode for the day: 48 (not too shabby)

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