We went to renew our passports in July and answered the inevitable question of where we were going – “Montana!” It was amusing to say it with excitement – Montana is not a place that drums up a lot of enthusiasm. The name literally means “mountainous”, though, and we’d get to leave the country on a vacation – reason enough for us to make a day of it!
I took to the Goog for recommendations, and found that Going-to-the-Sun Road was nearby. It’s the only road that crosses Glacier National Park, taking 11 years to build and opening in 1933 at a cost of $2.5 million ($45 million in 2014 dollars). It’s about 50 miles (80 km) long, and open from early June (or as soon as the tonnes of snow can be cleared) to October. The road is a National Historic Landmark and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and it’s named after Going-to-the-Sun Mountain on the east side of the park.
The night before we headed to the states, we opened the trunk of the car and remembered the half-case of mead we’d brought back from Fallentimber that we left in there – whoops, best not to try to cross the border with that! Needless to say, it stayed behind in the hotel.
We had planned to take the free shuttle to cut down on vehicle traffic, however we realized that we wouldn’t be able to see the entire road and made a hasty decision to drive it instead. That may seem like an easy decision, but what you might not realize is that the road is very narrow and literally cut into the side of the mountains. The limit is 25 mph (40 kph) in the alpine sections, and with good reason; on a switchback two-lane undivided road even this was too fast sometimes! This is not a drive for the faint of heart – but we drove the entire road westbound in one go, planning to make stops on the way back.
Apgar Village is just off the west side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, on the banks of beautiful Lake McDonald – it is entirely a resort community with a popular campground, a couple of hotels and gift shops, and Eddie’s Cafe.
We shared a couple of sandwiches: a chipotle chicken which was good, and a battered northern whitefish which was amazing. Both sandwiches were toasted – the crunch of the bread and the soft interior followed by the crunch of the breading and the flaky fish filet… Again, I’m salivating just thinking about it!
Everywhere we went huckleberries were prominent, so we couldn’t pass up huckleberry cobbler with huckleberry ice cream. Scientists have not been able to domesticate this plant, it seems, so all the jams and desserts and candy would have been made with wild huckleberries. We were unimpressed at first – “aren’t they the same as saskatoons?” Huckleberries and saskatoons are unrelated, as it turns out, with similar flavours and huckleberries being larger and sweeter. Ironically, we only ever saw wild huckleberries in Alberta…
The gift shops at Apgar are also interesting – one of them is literally built around large cedars. We shopped at Montana House, which offered lots of locally-crafted products. We have a few September birthdays in our family so we like to go gift shopping on vacation!
Our next stop was Logan Pass, which is the highest elevation reachable by car in the park and an extremely popular site. There’s great hiking in the meadows, and this would be the habitat of the pika, but we made do with chipmunks and ground squirrels, and we went chasing waterfalls.
St, Mary Falls is just west of St. Mary Lake and a short hike off the highway. There are three separate tiers – we ended at the second due to time constraints, and it was very rewarding!
Virginia Falls can be reached from this trail as well, which is said to be even more impressive.
I made one last gift shop run on the way out for more huckleberry jam – I can’t remember the last time I got pennies in my change! The clerk was quite nonplussed at my reaction. We got a few gallons of gas and headed to Johnson’s of St. Mary for dinner, on a hill overlooking the highway.
This place was a real blast from the past – the farm antiques and antlers decorating the dining room were very likely new when they arrived! We had a huge family-style dinner of beef and barley soup, fresh baked bread, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and roast beef, and took some huckleberry lemon trifle to go. I am determined to recreate the trifle with saskatoons!
We made our way back to Waterton. Did I mention that the highway out leaves the national parks on both sides of the border and enters reserve territory? This wasn’t noticeable in Canada, but on the American side the land is free-range for cattle to graze. We encountered several of them right on the highway driving home – most weren’t too in the way, but half a dozen of them were blocking both directions at one point with another vehicle trying to herd them southbound. Back in Canada, we had a scare as a fox ran across the highway right in front of the car – it froze for a split second right in front of us but disappeared just in time. We were almost as shaken as it was, I’m sure. We saw a second fox in the alley behind our hotel – fortunately we were going much slower at that point.
Going-to-the-Sun Road was the consummate white-knuckle drive and I thought I was crazy for undertaking it in a couple of spots. There were so many places we couldn’t stop at that I’d love to go back for a longer stay, though – perhaps we’ll explore more small-town America on our next trip out!