Total Day: 174.3 km (108.3 mi)
Total Trip: 1698.6 km
Today was the day! Today was a day that I had planned for and dreamed about for nearly 7 months. It was the day that we were riding the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The name is a pain to type, but the road itself is nothing short of glorious. My notes say this:
There was something odd about the campsite when we woke up. It was quiet. There wasn’t the constant rushing, or rustling, of the wind, which had finally died down overnight. It was a beautiful morning, clear and sunny, and help the promise of a great day. We had several Roufous hummingbirds buzzing us (they’re so tiny, but sound like B-29 bombers!), and also heard a bald eagle call out repeatedly, clearly nesting nearby. It was a spectacular morning, and a lovely way to slowly wake up.
We got up early, and as usual made coffee. Then, I noticed another interesting thing – we weren’t frustrated or exhausted anymore. Truth be told, that early wake-up and slow start was what we needed. We had both slept decently, despite the constant repositioning due to the sliding on the slope we were sleeping on, and were refreshed. Perhaps we were just excited to be Going to the Sun.
We had learned thanks to the interwebs that if you were thinking of using your slot for the Going-to-the-Sun Road, you were better to wait a little bit – let all the anxious eager beavers get into the park for the rush to find day hiking, etc., and then go in later in the day. The recommendation was oddly to go in sometime at noon or later, even closer to 3:00 pm, given that in July (when we were there) the sun was up until at least 9:00 pm. We would encounter less traffic and have a more enjoyable time. Given that we were staying at the St. Mary KOA for two nights, we didn’t have to break camp. So, we spent some time charging up our GoPro batteries and generally puttering around. We were going to go for breakfast at the restaurant in town, right before the East Gate, so we thought we had lots of time.
When we got to the little knot of buildings that is St. Mary, MT, we found that all the restaurants were closed. Some opened at 4:00 pm, some opened at noon, but none were open now – and that included the restaurant in the hotel. We decided that we would hang out for the 40 minutes or so until the restaurant opened at noon. RRP had some futzing to do with his helmet, so he took care of that while I was chatting with some other bikers who were also waiting for the restaurant. Someone was on a beautiful current-generation matte blue Honda Goldwing, which I took a few minutes to admire. Then, it became apparent that an entire busload of tourist, about to do the Going-to-the-Sun road in a touring coach, were also waiting on the restaurant. They were seated first, in a separate area, so I encouraged RRP to decide on food quickly so we could order right away and get it in before the busload got theirs in – which we fortunately did, along with another table of 3 bikers. The food was good, and we were soon on our way.
It was a short ride to the East Gate. Once we got there, we first had to go through the National Park Gate – a charge, normally, but we had ordered an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass, which allowed me (and a second person and bike) in for free. Let me tell you, ordering this pass was a bit of a challenge, as non-US Residents can’t order online. So, I dutifully sent my request in by fax (of all things, is this 1991???), and got the pass a few weeks later, and a few weeks before we left. Amazing that I remembered it in my packing haze. From there, we went on a few miles, and were stopped again – this time to check for our reservation to ride this much-hyped road. A quick flaunt of the pass on our phone, and we were off.
Whoever built this road clearly did it to make it an amazing riding and driving experience. The Wikipedia page even states that it was specifically designed for automobile tourists. Well, they certainly did this right. The road was tight, narrow, and had numerous switchbacks and sheer drop-offs. There are shuttles between the two park gates that let people take a guided ride if they aren’t comfortable driving the road, and compared to most North American roads, I can see why some would be trepidatious about this one. I’m constantly stuck behind drivers on the Sea to Sky Highway who think that road is dangerous, and it’s a big, wide, flowing beauty that got “improved” (aka: straightened and made a lot less fun) for the 2010 Winter Olympics. This road would give those slowpokes seizures.
The first few miles are lovely, but something we had seen already – relatively flat, little incline, and lots of pine and mountain scrub. And then it changed. The switchbacks started, and we started to climb into the glory of the Rocky Mountains. This road was nothing but visual candy, with amazing views of rugged mountains, and some snow-capped peaks. We were up close, we were riding right in the rocks. This was some of the most amazing riding I have ever done, and that includes some incredible riding on the Icefields Parkway – but here, you are so much closer to the mountains. Put it this way: this should be on every rider’s bucket list, whether they are in Western North America, or they are riding to and through it. You just have to detour to this road.
As we rode out of the splendor of the high mountain pass, and into the long run-out, we caught up with what we knew was going to be there – some traffic. There was road work, and dust and gravel, for the last 10 miles to West Gate, along with that thing that traffic always collects: jerks. However, at the end of that hot, dusty trail, we went to the West Gate visitors center, where I got a souvenir water bottle – the only way I could get a drink there, which was odd. Not even a pop machine. We turned around, and noted that the West Glacier KOA Resort was a much nicer looking KOA with more amenities, and possibly would have been a better choice. Live and learn.
There was much less traffic on the way back to the east, and we cleared the construction quickly with few stops. With about 1/3 of the way left to go, we pulled over to take some more photos, and who pulled in behind us but the fellows from Tenessee that we met yesterday. After chatting a bit, we continued on, and the other Africa Twin had a 360° camera mounted on it. That made for some fun as the road opened back up towards the exit, and was nearly empty the other way – we played the game of passing each other for the camera. Hopefully, he will get me the footage.
As we got close to the exit, we were stopped, for no reason we could comprehend. Then, we saw the telltale signs of wildlife – people getting out of their cars, parked in the middle of the lane, standing together in knots and pointing. We could see that traffic was stopped in the other lane too, and not only had the lead cars in each lane stopped, but they had left their doors open – completely blocking the ability to ride up the middle. I was conscripted by our knot of about 7 bikes to go see what the fuss was. It was a barely visible brown bear that had everyone excited. Fine, but I dare you to find it in the photo below – I’ve since named that bear Waldo. There was some shouting and some horn blowing, and finally they moved off, probably because we on the bikes began to move.
The day was finally done. We rode back into St. Mary and visited the small grocery store, where we bought some lovely sausages for dinner, and relaxed with some great beer and cider. Our spirits were, compared to yesterday, through the roof – we were now laughing about how we would slide to the end of the tent tonight, rather than complaining about it. Everything had changed, and the excitement of our trip returned. It was a hard slog to get here, and today we had taken about four hours to ride 170 km or so, but it was all absolutely worth it. Now, we were going to retire for the evening, and tomorrow we would pack up, and continue on for the next big destination – Sturgis, SD, two days from now. We were very excited, considering that the promise of the Going-to-the-Sun road was delivered, and we still had so much more to come!