Millions of people drive the 52 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road every year and many of them are likely too awestruck by the surrounding scenery to truly appreciate the wonder below their tires. Although the road is not as old as those glacier-carved peaks in the distance, it is no less spectacular.
As soon as Glacier National Park was created, people wanted a trans-mountain road to access its scenic wonders. In 1918, the National Park Service’s first engineer drafted a route through the park and in 1921 Congress appropriated $100,000 to begin construction. The route followed much the same path the road does today, with one major exception – instead of a long, steady climb from The Loop to Logan Pass, engineer George Goodwin proposed 15 switchbacks to clear the western slope of Logan Pass. Goodwin was overruled and today, there is only one switchback at The Loop, where the road begins to climb at a grade of 6 percent to Logan Pass. The precise percentage was selected because that was the maximum recommended grade for an automobile of that time before it had to shift into second gear.
Construction continued through the 1920s and was completed in the fall of 1932. The final price tag was more than $2 million, which today is equivalent to more than $32 million. The road included two tunnels, one near The Loop and another just east of Logan Pass. In order to blend the road into the landscape, designers and engineers used rock that was excavated nearby to build retaining walls.
But the construction came at a high cost. Three people were killed while building the road.
The result of that blood, sweat and tears was the birth of one of America’s most iconic highways. In the years since its construction, the road has been designated a National Historic Landmark and Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Esquire Magazine included driving the road on the list of things every person should do before they die.
While building the road was a heroic effort, maintaining it is no small feat either. Every winter, the National Park Service dispatches bulldozers and rotary plows to clear the way to Logan Pass. The effort to clear the road can take weeks and some years it doesn’t open until July. The snowpack at Logan Pass is sometimes 80 feet deep, although that pales in comparison to the snowfield just east of there, called “the Big Drift.” Besides plow drivers, the Park Service employs an avalanche expert to keep an eye on the slopes above the road to make sure its workers are safe. In 1964, an avalanche caught one of the Sun Road plows and swept it more than 350 feet down the mountain. Amazingly, the driver lived to tell the tale and a photo of him made the front page of the local newspaper.
But the herculean effort to clear the road is well worth it come summer when the alpine highway becomes a gateway to one of America’s most beloved parks.