Glacier National Park's ticketed entry: How to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road this summer

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Montana — From almost every other car making the ascent of Going-to-the-Sun Road, an arm dangles out a window, cellphone clutched firmly in hand by someone trying to photograph a view whose majesty will never fully be expressed in an Instagram post.

  • Slide 1 of 10: The 51-mile drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana offers visitors spectacular views. There are several exhibits along the road where you can stop, take pictures and learn about the park.

  • Slide 2 of 10: Cars stop to take pictures along Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun road on June 26, 2021.

  • Slide 3 of 10: A road crew vehicle sits along the side of Going-to-the-Sun road in Glacier National Park. The road reopened for the 2021 season on June 25, 2021.

  • Slide 4 of 10: A passenger uses a cell phone to capture the scenery while driving along Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road.

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  • Slide 5 of 10: A mountain goat walks the cliff along Going-to-the-Sun Road on June 26, 2021.

  • Slide 6 of 10: Passengers snap pictures of the view from Going-to-the-Sun Road on June 26, 2021.

  • Slide 7 of 10: Going-to-the-Sun Road offers visitors spectacular views as it winds through 51 miles of Glacier National Park in Montana.

  • Slide 8 of 10: Going-to-the-Sun Road offers visitors spectacular views as it winds through 51 miles of Glacier National Park in Montana.

  • Slide 9 of 10: Though portions of the road are open year round, Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park is only fully open a few months each year, typically from late June to October. It offers visitors spectacular views as it winds through 51 miles of Glacier National Park in Montana.

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  • Slide 10 of 10: Like many national parks, Glacier National Park has seen an uptick in visitors. To ease congestion along the iconic Going-to-the-Sun road, the park instituted a reservation system for the 2021 season.

Going-to-the-Sun Road snakes 51 miles through the heart of Glacier National Park, passing idyllic views of mountains and streams. Its rock and masonry guardrails and tunnels lend ambiance as waterfalls of melting snow and the occasional wild animal wandering nearby add wonder to the drive. 

Tourists have a limited window of opportunity to experience the road, which was an engineering marvel when it opened in 1933 and still is today. It’s fully open just a few months of the year, typically between late June and October.

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This year, because of the large number of visitors to the park, you’ll need to make a reservation and have a ticket to drive the road. 

How Going-to-the-Sun Road got its name

According to the park’s website, a 1933 press release about the opening of the road said it took the name “Going-to-the-Sun” from a nearby mountain of that name. It was reportedly plucked from a legend of a deity called Sour Spirit who taught the Blackfeet people how to hunt and “on his way back to the sun, Sour Spirit had his image reproduced on the top of the mountain for inspiration to the Blackfeet.”

The authenticity of that legend has been questioned, with the park reporting one account suggesting it was a story made up by a white explorer in the 1880s. 

The experience of driving the road delivers on its name. Travelers feel as if they are journeying toward the sun as their cars climb the steady 6% grade to Logan Pass.

Though the name implies warmth, starting in late October parts of Going-to-the-Sun Road hibernate under a blanket of snow, closed to car traffic until the spring.

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Preparing Going-to-the-Sun Road to open for summer

The process of awakening the road begins on April 1. 

Going-to-the-Sun Road Supervisor Brian Paul sends crews to undertake the Herculean task of clearing large snowdrifts from the road’s higher elevations and repairing damage the winter has inflicted, all in preparation to open the road for summer visitors unaware of the work that made their scenic drive possible. 

Two highly skilled crews of nine people each, one coming from East Glacier and one coming from West Glacier, clear snow, remove boulders and repair road damage.  

“Our biggest hazards out there are avalanches, rockfall and icefall,” Paul said. 

Paul said snow on the road’s lower elevations usually melts quickly. At the higher elevations, temperatures stay freezing for longer. As the snow melts, water runs through the snowpack, creating avalanches and slides. 

“There’s a few areas where we had to clear avalanches like five, six times. You’d go up in the morning, work on the top and then you’d come back and it went in behind you,” Paul said. 

The work isn’t finished when the snow is cleared. A masonry crew works behind the snow clearers, repairing damage to the rock guardrails. Then, crews place almost 500 guard logs, each bolted by hand, along the narrow road.

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When is Going-to-the-Sun Road open?

Eager visitors follow the progress of the snowplows on the park’s website. But even as crews prepare the road for vehicle traffic, parts of it remain accessible to those willing to expend a little energy. 

For a few weeks, dedicated cyclists — or those wise enough to rent eBikes — can pedal the parts of the route that have been cleared. Companies like Glacier Guides and Montana Rafts offer guided tours to help cyclists navigate the road and avoid potential hazards like avalanches and bears. 

Then one day, typically in June and always without warning, crews finish their work and open the road fully to cars. 

“It’s nice to turn something over to the public that everybody really enjoys and it is excited about. It’s a good feeling for the whole crew,” Paul said. 

How the Glacier ticketed entry system works

As travelers look to escape to open spaces, Glacier — like many national parks — has experienced a crush of visitors. 

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“Parks are busy all over. The national parks are having a large amount of visitation. We’re excited to welcome America back to our national parks,” said Gina Kerzman, spokesperson for Glacier National Park. “But along with preparing for your trip, pack your patience. There will be crowds and lines.”

In 2021, Glacier instituted a ticketed entry system to enter the park from West Glacier or St. Mary. Visitors must have reservations and tickets to use those entrances between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

A ticket costs $2 and is in addition to the park admission fee. It allows the holder to use the West Glacier and St. Mary entrances for seven days. Visitors can reserve tickets at https://www.recreation.gov. 

Those who are unable to secure a ticket can use those entrances between 5 p.m. and 6 a.m. but still need a park admission pass. 

Park admission costs $35 per vehicle and is good for seven days. You can buy a pass online in advance or in person at the gate.

  • Slide 1 of 5: The National Park Service has released its annual visitation report for 2020. As you might expect, COVID-19 closures resulted in a significant drop, falling 28% from 327.5 million visitors to national parks in 2019 to 237 million in 2020. Scroll through to see the top 10 most-visited national parks for 2020, starting with No. 10,  Joshua Tree National Park in California, which received 2.4 million visitors.

  • Slide 2 of 5: 9. Olympic National Park, Washington State (2.5 million visitors)

  • Slide 3 of 5: 8. Acadia National Park, Maine (2.7 million visitors)

  • Slide 4 of 5: 5. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (3.3 million visitors)

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  • Slide 5 of 5: 4. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. (3.3 million visitors)

How many Going-to-the-Sun Road tickets are available?

The number of tickets available daily has varied as the park balances capacity with the number of roads and other services open. On days Going-to-the-Sun Road is fully open, an estimated 4,600 vehicles will be admitted daily.

The park makes three-quarters of those tickets available 60 days in advance. The rest are available 48 hours in advance. For visitors with reservations for lodging, camping, transportation or a service like a guided hike or horseback ride in the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor, admission to the road is included with their reservation. 

Kerzman said the ticketed entry system has helped park officials avoid closing the West Glacier entrance to control traffic on the road, which is how they regulated traffic in previous summers.

She said that in 2020, the park had to temporarily restrict traffic at the west entrance 25 times in 18 days because Going-to-the-Sun Road grew so congested.

Of the traffic in 2021, Kerzman said: “Data suggests that congestion and gridlock would have required the West Entrance to temporarily close at least 15 times from Memorial Day weekend through the end of June in the absence of the ticketed entry system.” 

Slow down, enjoy the beauty

Going-to-the-Sun Road fully opened for the 2021 season on June 25. The park reported a 41% increase in the number of vehicles on the road that day compared to opening day in 2019.

“Overall, since the Going-to-the Sun Road opened on June 25, we have seen a 22% increase in the number of vehicles on the road over 2019 numbers,” Kerzman said. 

So while the ticketed entry system has helped mitigated some traffic pressure, visitors should still expect it to be busy.

Going-to-the-Sun Road Supervisor Paul has spent years preparing the road for visitors’ arrival. He has some advice for people who get a reservation to drive the road: Slow down and enjoy the ride. 

“It’s such a short window to enjoy that road. Take your time and enjoy it,” Paul said.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager through email at melissa.yeager@azcentral.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram. 

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Glacier National Park’s ticketed entry: How to drive Going-to-the-Sun Road this summer

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