Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | July 15, 2011

The Best Bike Ride Ever: Glacier National Park (complete with grizzly bear)

So I had this idea. I’d go for a bike ride, all by myself, in Montana, on narrow mountain road with 3000+ feet of elevation gain, miles from civilization, with no cell service and a questionable weather forecast. On a bike with an iffy front tire and a wrong-sized spare. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: through an area frequented by grizzly bears and mountain lions. Why in the world would I want to do such a thing? Because it’s Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, that’s why.

I’ve been coming out to Montana during the summer for years now, and every year, we make at least one pilgrimage to Glacier and drive Going-to-the-Sun Road. We have other favorite parts of the Park (Many Glacier, the North Fork) but we always do Sun Road every year, because it’s an icon. It’s a tradition. And it’s amazing.

The road starts along the floor of the valley, running along the edge of Lake McDonald and adjacent to McDonald Creek. As you drive along, you can’t help but notice the wall of mountains in front of you. If you look very, very carefully, eventually you’ll see the tiny sliver of road, clinging to the side of the mountain near the top. “We’re going up there?” It’s a scary thought in a car, and even more so on a bike.

So why in the world would I want to bike it? I have no idea. Why do I want to do any of these crazy things? But riding Sun Road is something that has intrigued me for a couple of years now. However, it always seemed impossible. The biggest obstacle, of course, was the massive elevation gain. What’s more, even if I could manage to pedal my way up, there was the issue of plummeting to my death – the road is narrow and snakes along the edge of a mountain with a precipitous, deadly drop-off on one side. A slight tap from an RV’s side mirror and it would be all over.

However, in the beginning of the summer, the road is open for hikers and cyclists but closed to vehicles while they get the road plowed and ready for traffic. This year, thanks to the massive snowfall Glacier received over the winter, the opening of the road was delayed all the way until mid-July. Which meant I could bike the road without worrying about getting caught in a late-season snow storm.

The drawbacks? I’d have to do it all alone, because I don’t have a biking buddy out here in Montana. What’s more, since the road was closed to traffic, I couldn’t even have my husband provide SAG wagon support. And to top it all off, there’s no cell coverage in Glacier, so if I had a mishap, I’d wouldn’t be able to call anyone for help. Huh, those sounded like some pretty good reasons not to do it. But I wanted to try.

I decided to skip the portion of the road that was still open to traffic, seeing as I was reluctant to share the road with oversized SUVs and RVs. I parked at the Avalanche campground, got my bike out, and headed towards the “Road Closed” sign. It was a magical moment, finding myself alone on a road usually packed with cars and RVs. I savored the tranquility.

I took some time to admire the scenery, since, really, who cared about my pace?

I pedaled along in complete silence. Suddenly, however, the obvious fact dawned on me: I was alone in bear country – not a good idea. I kept an eye out for movement on the side of the road, but only saw the rushing water of McDonald Creek.

The Park Service was running a shuttle to The Loop, which is about halfway up the ascent, so I had occasional shuttle vans passing me, and they were a welcome sight. I knew if I got in trouble, eventually I’d be able to flag down the shuttle. At the very least, they’d find my mauled body in the middle of the road, my hands still clinging desperately to a useless can of bear spray.

The ascent was, believe it or not, rather easy (at least in comparison to the riding I did at VQ Camp in California). Before I knew it, I was up at The Loop.

Only a few miles further, I reached the farthest I could go, the Bird Woman Falls overlook.

Beyond that, crews were still clearing snow from the road, so it was impassable. As a result, I didn’t make it all the way to Logan Pass, but what’s a few hundred feet of elevation when you’ve already conquered 3000+? I wanted to go further, but I could see the crews working on the road ahead. Also, the posted signs seemed to mean business.

As I turned and headed back down, I came across a group of hikers (who’d taken the shuttle up to The Loop, but hey, who am I to judge?) who were admiring a young bear frolicking in the snow, just off the road. A grizzly bear, no less (at least, according to the hikers). I’ve never been that close to a grizzly before, but I felt safe, certain that I could pedal away faster than those hikers could run. Because when you encounter a grizzly, you don’t need to be faster than the bear, you just need to be faster than one other person. Preferably two, just in case.

I spent a moment watching him play before deciding to continue on my way – a fast curvy descent on a closed road. I felt like a breakaway rider in the Tour de France, heading to the valley floor far below.

Sadly, I was back at the bottom in no time and my ride was over. I’m already looking forward to doing it again next year.

babybearinsnow babybear2


Responses

  1. Just wanted to let you know I love reading your posts. Great topics and you crack me up!

  2. Love this, Sue! Sounds like a fantastic, unique ride – how many people can say they’ve encountered grizzlies while biking?

    One question, though: is “bear spray” a real thing?

    • Yes, there really is Bear Spray! It’s highly pressurized pepper spray. Never had to use it, but in Glacier I biked with it in my back pocket – where I usually carry a PowerBar. Better hungry than dead, right?

  3. Great post! Isn’t that why we ride bikes anyway?

  4. Sue! OMG you are crazy, but I admire you for it. The pics are stunning. What an experience! 🙂

  5. Wow! I am presently planning this exact bike ride for my husband and I in July 2012. I’m impressed, inspired and terrified all at the same time (but your sense of humor is just like mine so maybe it’s all good!!) Please tell me we can manage this. It’s a “bucket list” thing for me since having driven and hiked Glacier 17 years ago. We may be old farts (57 and 61) but we are also insane aka Ironman triathletes so how much crazier can this be? Because of other constraints, we will be up there around July 4th. Gasp . . . road might not even be open at all!! A chance we’ll just have to take. Guess I should pack tights eh??? Would love to hear from you.

    • Gail, You’ll love it! Great scenery, and the climbs aren’t that bad – slow and steady, never very steep, with lots of chances to rest. Nothing crazy. But, yes, pack lots of layers – the weather changes dramatically from the valley to the top. Snow in July is common. Personally, I think east to west is the best route, but I had to do the west approach up and back because the road wasn’t open all the way. I guess flexibility is the most important thing. I’d suggest making hotel reservations at both ends, and then play it by ear. Good luck, and don’t forget the camera!

  6. I am planning on being in Glacier/Waterton in late June, 2012. I was debating on whether to take a bike or not. Your post just decided it for me. Of course I want to ride “to the sun”.

    Now, my only question is which bike to take, a road bike or a hardtail 29er mountain bike. Maybe kind of split the difference and take the 29er with an extra set of road wheels? Is there any off-road riding in the park, anyway? Any thoughts?

    • Alas, there is no off-road biking in the park. Having said that, the Inside North Fork Road is barely a road – narrow, unpaved, lots of loose gravel and dirt – and would make for a great mountain bike ride. It’s lightly traveled, although when a car does come by you’ll get an unpleasant plume of dust. It runs from Apgar to Polebridge and then further north from there; it’s a spectacular chance to get away from car-driving tourists and into some of the most beautiful scenery in the park. Also, when riding GTS, you have to be off the road from 11-4, so the Inside North Fork would be a great ride on a day you don’t want to get up early. There’s also a lot of great road biking on both sides of the park, and in June hopefully there won’t be too many wide-load RVs taking up space. Of course, in June you run the risk that GTS won’t be fully plowed yet, but the road will be open for biking at least most of the way up. Have a great trip!

  7. Hi Sue – I am a Sue too and I found your blog looking for information about biking the Going to the Sun Road. I am going to bike that road next week and I am a little nervous about bears and whether to ride a compact or triple road bike. I was hoping not to run into any bears on the road but it seems you actually spotted one. You mentioned that the climb wasn’t too bad. Can you tell me what kind of bike were you riding? Thanks for a great blog!
    Sue

    • Hi Sue! Glad you found the post about riding Going to the Sun. You’re going to love it. As for bears, it’s possible to run into them anywhere in Glacier, so you should always be prepared by carrying (and knowing how to use) a can of bear spray. Having said that, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter one. I always ride GTS when it’s closed to cars (before they finish plowing Logan Pass) which is peaceful, but a little unnerving, since it increases the chances of surprising a bear. But if you go next week, you’ll have plenty of cars – and therefore other people – around you. If there is a bear, trust me, there will be a traffic jam of people stopping to take photos. So be prepared just in case, but don’t fret about it. As for the bike, I’ve done it with both a compact and a triple, and while the ascent is long, it’s not particularly steep. And you won’t want to go too fast, anyway, so you can take in the sights! If you are up for a slightly longer ride, I recommend the Camas Road that runs from Apgar up towards Polebridge for about 12 miles. Very scenic in a different way, a lot flatter, and it doesn’t have the time restrictions that GTS does. It’s a pleasant and relaxing post-GTS spin of the legs. Have a great ride!

      • Thanks Sue!! I am feeling much better about bears and gears on this trip! I read your blog about Criterium racing. I feel the same way! I have a friend who used to race them professionally. It’s not if you are going to crash it is just a matter of when. I have done an indoor time trial and I would like to try an outdoor time trial hopefully before the end of autumn. Thanks again and I’ll let you know about my Glacier Park experience!
        Sue

  8. Hi Sue, Enjoyed your GTS blog. I live in SC. In August, I plan to fly to Minneapolis with my bike, hop the Empire Builder (Amtrak) to West Glacier, and bike the park for a week. I would like bike as much to see as much of the park as possible. Any suggestions about routes campgrounds and places to see would be much appreciated.

    • Hi Lance, a week of biking in the park sounds like a great thing to do in August! I don’t have much in the way of recommendations for campgrounds, but there certainly are plenty from which to choose. Just be sure to reserve accommodations in advance – August is prime time. Assume you are planning to road bike? I’d suggest basing a few days on both the east and west sides of the parks. GTS is obviously a highlight, but inside the park on the west side, Camas Road is a scenic ride; alas, it’s also a short ride, as the pavement turns to gravel once you leave GNP. But it’s the quietest stretch of pavement you’ll find in GNP. In addition to the west side, I’d suggest setting up base on the east side (like St Mary’s) for a couple of days. You could spend one day biking to and hiking around Two Medicine and another day at Many Glacier (there may be a stretch of Many Glacier road that is gravel – you may want to check on that). If you want to be really adventurous, you could bring your passport and bike up to Waterton in Canada for a night; it’s a beautiful spot. If you go to Waterton, be sure to stop at the Prince of Wales hotel as you come into town and check out the view. Roads on the east side of the park are lightly traveled, but be warned, traffic moves fast (the opposite of GTS, where there are tons of cars, but everyone pokes along). And see my comments above about layers – you may very well ride into snow at the top of Logan Pass! Hope you have a great trip. Let me know if you need any more info!

  9. Sorry, but I am pretty darn sure that is not a grizzly in your photo, but instead a brown phase black bear which is a common color in western Montana. Notice the longer ears, muzzle shape, non-grizzly claws, etc.

    • You may very well be right that it was a black bear. The consensus among the crowd was grizzly, but most of them were from places like Nebraska, so what do they know? However, it looked to me like it had a concave muzzle and maybe had a hump on its back, but it was hard to tell from where I was standing, and my photos (two more of which I just posted) aren’t that great. However, you are quite correct that its ears are definitely too big. Then again, perhaps bear cubs are like St Bernard puppies: they need time to grow into their out-of-proportion appendages? As for the claws, I certainly wasn’t going to get close enough to look! In any case, the real question is whether or not it was still young enough to be hanging out with its mom and if so, where was she? Fortunately, I knew I could pedal faster than those Nebraskans could run.


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