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If you’re planning to visit Glacier National Park, be sure to put Going-to-the-Sun Road on your list of must-dos. We absolutely loved the area, and we can’t wait to return and explore more of the park. Though reservations to this part of the park can be a bit nerve-wracking, it’s worth the effort if you can snag one of these tickets.
One thing that makes the crowds converge at once–snow. The road isn’t fully open until summer, sometimes not fully opening until the first week of July. There’s only a window of a few months before snowfall closes the road again, usually in October.
Since traffic in the area has continued to increase, a reservation system separate from the park admission is now in place. If you’re lucky enough to get lodging reservations in the park or to reserve a tour, you won’t be required to get the $2 reservation ticket. If you just want to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road, a little persistence and planning can help you make this happen.
How to Reserve an Entry Ticket to Going-to-the-Sun Road
In 2021, the National Park Service implemented a reservation ticketed entry system for visitors to Going-to-the-Sun Road. Luckily, I discovered this information while I planned the trip quite a bit in advance; we also visited Yellowstone during this trip, and I knew I had to book Old Faithful Inn at least a year out if I wanted to stay there during July. To read more about that stay, click here. Because I was in planning-mode so early, I learned about the entry ticket well in advance.
We didn’t make reservations for lodging in the park for Glacier, but if I were to return, I would definitely plan a couple of nights at Many Glacier, and then maybe somewhere on the other side like Apgar Village Lodge or Lake McDonald Lodge since we are into historic national park lodges. We also didn’t book any tours for this visit. So this meant we needed a ticket.
At 60 days out, tickets for the day you’d like to visit are released on a rolling schedule. The tickets currently are good for three days. Here are my suggestions for your best odds at getting a ticket for the day you want. (All of my Walt Disney World training in the past for ADRs and FastPass+ pays off again!)
- Create an account at recreation.gov at least a day ahead of time so you’ll be all ready to go. You’ll have your payment information stored, and you won’t waste valuable time when it matters.
- Consider practice runs three days before the day you want to go. If you are successful, the ticket will be valid on the day you want to enter. If you want to go two consecutive days, you’ll need to adjust your plan by a day. I actually got my ticket for the day before we wanted to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road because I realized we may want to explore the area on our arrival night.
- Log into recreation.gov ten minutes before the tickets go on sale the day you’re trying to get them. Refresh as you get closer to the minute they go on sale.
- If you don’t get the tickets 60 days out, you can try again two days out. Use the same strategies as above.
- If you’re still not successful at 60 days out, consider watching national park lodging for cancellations so you can get a room reservation. It happens. Even if you only get one night, you’ll have your admission to Going-to-the-Sun Road.
- You may also be able to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road before the ticket booths are manned. For Going-to-the-Sun Road, tickets are required from 6:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. You may also be able to travel the road after 4:00 p.m. And let’s face it, you may need to arrive early anyway if you want to hike near Logan Pass. Things to consider.
It’s also worth pointing out–the Polebridge Ranger Station access currently requires a reservation ticket during peak season. Be sure to watch the website for updates.
Our Route on Going-to-the-Sun Road
As usual, we did things a little differently than a lot of people. After we left Yellowstone, we headed north towards Browning, Montana, for our first night in the area. We stayed east of the park in Browning at the Glacier Peaks Casino and Hotel. The hotel was nice, and Kristin got a swim in the indoor pool while I did a couple of loads of laundry. The next morning, we had complimentary to-go breakfasts that were perfect as we drove to the St. Mary entrance to Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Most people seem to stay on the west side of the park and drive in from that direction. The city of West Glacier had shops, restaurants, and tourist activities, so it’s a great choice for families. It’s worth noting that we stayed the next night at the West Glacier KOA in cabin that night, so we got to experience both sides.
On our first evening, we had a fun dinner at Two Sisters Café in Babb, and then we drove to Many Glacier. On a road across from the lodge at Many Glacier, we saw several bears, black and grizzly, on a hillside at dusk. The drive back to Browning was in the dark, but it wasn’t anything we weren’t used to as drivers from the Ozarks.
Some Going-to-the-Sun Road History
Glacier National Park was established by Congress in 1910. Early on, the only roads available in the park were bumpy roads accessed by wagons. Though the Great Northern Railroad could bring visitors to the park, there weren’t a lot of options to utilize areas within the park that didn’t involve horses or merely walking. In 1921, Congress approved the money to construct a transmountain route to provide access to more areas and bring in tourist revenue.
George Goodwin proposed a route in 1918, and in 1924, Frank A. Kittredge and a crew of men did the land survey. The Bureau of Public Roads and the National Park Service worked together on the project, making sure that local materials were used in the construction of bridges and retaining walls to preserve the look of the park. The project wasn’t without conflict. Originally, Goodwin’s route included several switchbacks. A man by the name of Tom Vint proposed a route with only one. Vint’s plan won in the end; today there is only a single switchback on the road.
Finally, in 1932, Going-to-the-Sun Road was complete. In July of 1933, the road was dedicated in a ceremony at Logan Pass. Fifty-one miles of road winding through the mountains at Glacier National Park connected the west side to the east side, making the park more accessible to visitors. Going-to-the-Sun Road is a wonderful example of engineering and problem-solving, especially when you consider the tools and technology available at the time,
Driving Going-to-the-Sun Road From the East
St. Mary Visitor Center and the Road Ahead
On our Going-to-the-Sun Road day, we checked out and headed to the park. After they checked our ticket and pass, we stopped at the St. Mary Visitor Center, and then we were off. Moments after we began the drive on the Road, we saw this black bear out for a morning stroll.
When the bear noticed our car, it took a left and headed into the woods.
You may also notice the smoky haze in the pictures. Wildfires had started earlier than usual, and there was a bit of smoke in the air. It wasn’t as bad as it was at Yellowstone and Grand Teton, but it was noticeable, especially when trying to see mountains and landscapes at a distance.
St. Mary Lake
The first area you’ll encounter is the St. Mary Lake area. It’s absolutely stunning in the morning, and as I glanced out over the water, I felt so peaceful.
Wild Goose Island
For my pictures, I stooped down to include the wildflowers in the shot. It wasn’t until later that I realized I didn’t have a great shot of Wild Goose Island. You can just see it to the right of the pointed tree in the center. I played with some editing on this one, trying to draw out the mountains in the distance.
If this area looks familiar, and you haven’t been to the park, you may recognize this lake from the opening shots of The Shining.
Before long, you’ll have a viewpoint for Jackson Glacier. It’s kind of sad to think that glaciers are disappearing, including this one, maybe even by 2030.
East Side Tunnel
While it’s amazing to think of the engineering that went into constructing Going-to-the-Sun Road, this feature is even more incredible because the digging and masonry here was done by hand.
Watch out for falling water!
Logan Pass and Logan Pass Visitor Center
This area is super popular in June and July, so if you want to go inside the visitor center or hike Hidden Lake or the Highland Trail, you’ll probably need to get to Logan Pass really early. Since we’d stopped at the St. Mary Visitor Center, and we weren’t planning on doing the hikes, we didn’t get up early to get to the area. By the time we arrived, the parking lot was packed. We just kept driving. Somehow, the only picture I have of the area is the mountain.
It’s also cool to note that Logan Pass is where the Continental Divide is. And since you’ve been steadily going up, you’ll have some great mountain views in this area. Simply gorgeous!
It was around this area that we started to finally see the iconic Glacier National Park Red Bus tour groups. This fleet of tour buses have been showing visitors the sights in the park since the 1930s. Some the current vehicles have been in use since 1936! Tours leave from both ends of the park, though we didn’t see any depart from from the east side when we drove in. We were about midway through our route when we saw them. They look like a lot of fun.
During our visit, water dripped down from the Weeping Wall and we could stick our hands out the window to get a splash. Apparently, sometimes the water is really pouring.
Looking Back at Haystack Falls
This waterfall is pretty cool because they built the road over it and the water is funneled through underneath. In the picture below, Going-to-the-Sun Road runs through on the ridge.
Bird Woman Falls
Bird Woman Falls is the tallest waterfall in the park at 492 feet. The waterfall is thought to have been named for Sacajawea which means “bird woman.” From Going-to-the-Sun Road, the waterfall is two miles away.
It doesn’t get much better than this. Once you’re at the apex of the road, it’s time to start the descent downward.
West Side Tunnel
Just like on the east side, a tunnel was needed at one point on the west side to continue the road onward.
Driving the Road…
Avalanche Creek and the Trail of Cedars
This is actually a great place to get out and walk among the cedars. The boarded paths make this area really accessible.
One of the most amazing aspects of this area is how clear the water is. Just gorgeous!
The rushing water here makes you feel alive.
We were also struck by the aqua color of the water. I’d never seen water that shade in nature before.
Lake McDonald Lodge
One thing I really love about national parks is checking out the classic lodges. Built in 1913, this lodge predates Going-to-Sun-Road. Originally called Lewis Glacier Hotel, Lake McDonald Lodge is a great example of Western architecture mixed with European chalet. Prior to the construction of this lodge, the Snyder Hotel was the lodging of the area, and it could only be accessed by steamboat! Travel is so much easier today.
In 1987, the lodge was recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
Like many national park lodges, Lake McDonald Lodge has a cozy fireplace in the lobby. Several languages from American Indian tribes are inscribed in the stone.
Though the bottom floor is constructed of stone, the upper levels include plenty of area timber. Below is a glance into the dining room.
The lodge, of course, is named for this beautiful lake. You can take boating excursions from the lodge, or you can rent kayaks and explore on your own.
The Lake McDonald area is known for these amazing colorful rocks.
We took the opportunity to get our feet wet while we explored the lake and lodge area. So relaxing!
And peaceful. Though we didn’t have the lakeshore to ourselves, it still was a relaxing, peaceful place.
I’m sure these kayakers would agree.
Surprisingly, when the lodge was constructed, the “front” of the lodge was considered to be the part facing the lake. Remember, the lodge was constructed before Going-to-the-Sun Road. Nowadays, most visitors enter from what was originally “the back.”
Of course, if you walk down to the lake, eventually, you’ll have to walk back up to the lodge and the parking lot.
The grounds, lake aside, are also gorgeous. The little bridge across the stream reminds me of something from a fairytale.
Going-to-the-Sun Road: The Wrap-Up
Glacier National Park is a gorgeous area that I hope to return to one day. I feel like we only had a taste of the area. I had no idea what I’d been missing all these years. I’d say this national park is definitely in my top five, and Jeff ranks it even higher. When we return, I hope to spend some time in Whitefish and Two Medicine, and we already have dreams of spending several days at the lodge in Many Glacier.
If you are planning a trip, putting in the legwork to get Going-to-the-Sun Road tickets is well-worth it. Again, if you aren’t successful at first, use my tips above to try to make it happen. And remember, as always when traveling, flexibility may be key. Sometimes things don’t go exactly as we’ve planned or dreamed, and sometimes, those times turn out to be the most amazing experiences.
I hope you can make it to Glacier National Park and Going-to-the-Sun Road soon!
Going-to-the-Sun Road – an Engineering Feat – NPS. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/news/upload/Going-to-the-Sun- Road-An-Engineering-Feat.pdf.
“Historic Hotels of America.” Historic Hotels Worldwide, https://www.historichotels.org/us/hotels-resorts/lake-mcdonald-lodge/history.php.
Stunning photos of a fabulous area. Glacier National Park is another treasure.
Excellent perspective for you to consider.
Glacier National Park has been on my bucket list for some time. It looks absolutely gorgeous! That red car tour looks like it would be a lot of fun too!
We love visiting Glacier National Park. Our favorite is hiking and viewing all the waterfalls.
An extraordinary drive through a gorgeous area. And I love those vintage red buses!
Okay, I’m sold…I need to drive the going to the sun road! I really do want to go to Glacier National Park!
Glacier National Park is beautiful! And Going-to-the-Sun Road sounds and looks like my kind of thing!
Your post brought back many happy memories. I worked in the ranger station at Lake McDonald one summer during college. We just loved driving over the Going To The Sun Road! The scenery was spectacular! It does sadden me, though, to see how much the glaciers have shrunk since then.
That would be so cool to work there! The scenery is spectacular. I can’t wait to go back someday!