Road Trip to Glacier Day 5: Going to the Sun Road Eastbound

Travel: Date: July 13, 2021

As I have mentioned many times about this trip, my hope was to find a lot of trains to photograph. That hadn’t worked out as planned but we did see some beautiful sites. This day’s trip was to go through Glacier National Park and spend two nights in East Glacier.

Kalispell, Montana to East Glacier Park Village via Going to the Sun Road.

We picked this spot because of our stop there in July 2013 when we had a longish stop at the east side of the national park.

East Glacier National Park – July 2013

Staying in that lodge would be perfect; um until we checked the prices. So, I looked around for some alternatives and found the Whistling Swan Motel, just across the street from the lodge – and the railroad tracks. It turned out to be a stroke of luck for us. When I called and talked with the owner Mark Howser I told him I had a special request that he probably hadn’t heard before: can we please have a room with a good view of the railroad tracks? He set us up with the perfect room – more on that later. Mark is a nice guy and we chatted for a while; he filled me in on a special requirement for travelling the Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park. The road sounded like fun so we got a pass.

Important Information about the Going to the Sun Road

I did not realize that the Going to the Sun Road is the only road through the park: Driving through any other national park, all we’ve had to do is pay the entry fee (or in the last few years flash our Senior Pass). But for Glacier you need both your pass PLUS a ticket reservation or a reservation for lodging, camping, etc.

Only a limited number of entry tickets are provided for each day. Thank goodness Mark filled us in; otherwise, we would have got to the park gate only to be turned away. I went to the website linked in the image above and learned when the entry ticket reservations would be given out. Early on the appointed day in May when tickets were available for purchase we snatched one up. They are very inexpensive; it is just a way to limit crowds in the park.

We left Kalispell, Montana early in the morning; and, after getting lost for a bit we approached the park gate around 9:30AM. There was a checkpoint and some people had to turn around because they didn’t know what we did – thanks to Mark.

We were able to enter and started site seeing.

Glacier National Park

While we were delighted to be at Glacier National Park, we were disappointed by the heavy smoke and haze from the wildfires throughout the west. We made our first stop on Lake McDonald close to the western edge. Here is a picture right out of the camera – with only a minor adjustment to exposure – which shows how smokey the day was.

Smokey, hazy day at Lake McDonald – Glacier National Park

After doing some edits in LightRoom I got a serviceable picture but nothing to show that Big Sky of Montana.

Lake McDonald after some LightRoom edits

By the time we got to the lodge at Lake McDonald we were hungry, so we had a bite to eat on a bench overlooking the lake. After lunch we walked across a stream and down to the lake.

Stream emptying into Lake McDonald near the lodge.

Someone had stacked a lot of cairns along the lake shore.

Decorative cairns near Lake McDonald Lodge

Let’s get going. As we headed back to our car, we saw this line up of reconditioned old Ford busses used for site-seeing.

Reconditioned and converted Ford busses for touring Glacier National Park.

These have been converted to natural gas and provide a hop-on/hop-off service throughout the park. Neat looking, but I was happier driving.

We stopped for an extended walk at the Trail of the Cedars. It is a very short – 1 mile – walk that is wheelchair accessible. So perfect for a little stroll; but there are plenty of people there so you aren’t really in the outback. Nevertheless, Avalanche Creek is beautiful.

Avalanche Creek along the Trail of the Cedars. Glacier National Park.

We continued along the Going to the Sun Road stopping at every available turnout for pictures. Here is another out-of-the-camera picture showing the smoke and haze.

Smoky and hazy.

And here it is adjusted in Lightroom. The river at the bottom of the valley is much more apparent.

Same picture – cleaned up but still hazy

While enjoying the view I heard a rustling sound and looked down off the side of the road and saw a deer grazing. I’m sure glad it wasn’t a bear!

Grazing deer in Glacier National Park

After going all the way up to The Loop near Crystal Point we continued east toward Logan Pass in the park. Looking southeast we had a great view of Haystack Creek waterfall.

Haystack Creek. Glacier National Park

I zoomed in. A few minutes later we drove over that culvert.

Zoom of Haystack Creek as it falls down the mountain and under the Going to the Sun Road

I thought this was Bird Woman Falls, but looking at the GPS of the photo, a map of the park, and reading about it, I realized my mistake. Doing some research I found it’s a common – but avoidable – mistake based on the signage. There is a Bird Woman Falls sign at the turnout but it is directing our view more directly south across a deep valley.

This U-shaped valley is clearly the result of glaciation that lasted for hundreds of thousands of years and ended over 12,000 years ago. This was the same glacier that carved out Lake McDonald – which we saw earlier. Unfortunately, due to my error, I didn’t catch Bird Woman Falls in the photo. By this time, the smoke was getting worse and washing out everything and the best way to capture the image was in black and white.

Glacier-created valley at Glacier National Park.

Here is a link to a short YouTube video describing both the waterfall mistake and glaciation.

We passed by St. Mary Lake on our way to the park exit on the east side. Once again, I’ve opted for black and white to combat the smoke and haze and capture some of the drama of the scene.

St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park.

As we watched the smoke increasing throughout the day – and finding we were almost an hour from the park – we realized we had to make some changes to our plans. Our first look at our motel, reinforced those thoughts. The building was thoroughly weathered and in place of a person at the desk was a sign directing us a couple of blocks down the street to the Glacier Park Trading Company. Mark Howser owns both establishments and has his office at the store since it is more active.

Whistling Swan Motel. East Glacier Park, Montana

After picking up our room key we parked and went into our room – one of nine. Mark was good to his word and reserved us the room with the best view of the train tracks across the street.

That’s our green Subaru Outback in front of our room.

Our worries were put to rest: the bed was comfortable and the easy chair was the best chair of our trip. We walked downtown for some great Mexican Food at Serranos. After dinner we heard a train rolling to a stop and we walked out to the street. Finally! I think this is my first train picture of almost a week looking for them. It is the westbound Empire Builder.

Westbound Empire Builder making a stop at East Glacier Lodge,

Somehow I tweaked my back on the day’s journey. I woke up around 2:00AM and was unable to get back to sleep; but sitting in that comfy chair with the door open allowed me to see and hear a few freight trains rumble through.

So what were we to do. We had planned on two nights at the Whistling Swan, but it is almost an hour’s drive away from the park entrance. Our plan after Glacier National Park was to head south on US Hwy 2 and cut over to Lolo Pass to spend the night at Lolo Hot Springs. But there was a fire there with warnings of evacuation. So we decided to travel through Glacier east to west the next day and stay in Whitefish, Montana before picking up our originally planned trip.

The motel was full overnight but by the time we woke up at 6:30 our car was the only one in the parking lot. Mark told us, most of the people left to get to the park entrance before 7:00 so they could bypass the ticketed entry requirement.

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