Glacier National Park plow crews had Going-to-the-Sun Road nearly snow free as of Wednesday afternoon, but tourists will still have to wait a few more weeks before the road is open to motorists.
A slightly below-normal snowpack this winter helped crews clear the road on nearly the same schedule as last year, but they have still had to battle the usual small avalanches and rockslides.
“It’s been a pretty typical year. We have to deal with the occasional problems, but we get to have this area all to ourselves for a while,” Road Supervisor for the West Side of the park, Stan Stahr, said. “It’s been a pretty normal year, but it is always a challenge.”
Stahr, who started plowing the road in 1993, is finishing up his final season on the job in 2019 and says his plow crews have nerves of steel.
“The people who do this job have a lot of nerve. They have to. We just have to be careful and do everyone one step at a time.”
The final step for the plow crews, as usual, was the Big Drift.
The Big Drift is a massive drift of snow that covers the highway just east of Logan Pass. Last year, it was about 40-45 feet deep. It usually takes about a week to get through it and is the last big obstacle in clearing the highway each spring, but the warm temperatures and low precipitation levels sped things up this season. It has been known on occasion to grow as deep as 90-100 feet, or more.
While the road may be cleared of snow, it will not open to motorists any earlier than June 22 this year, as the federal Highway Administration and Inter-Mountain Slurry Seal complete the first phase of a pavement preservation project.
The project has already been causing delays along the road between Apgar and McDonald Lodge as Inter-Mountain Slurry Seal’s two crews have been putting in a number of 12-hour days resurfacing and smoothing the road. The crew will continue to work their way east along the Going-to-the-Sun Road over the next few weeks, hoping to refinish as much as 90 miles of roadway before their June 21 deadline.
While there are some delays for motorists and cyclists, Senior Project Coordinator Chris Rossmiller says the crews are keeping the delays to a maximum of 30 minutes.
According to Rossmiller, the new microsurfacing should be especially beneficial to cyclists.
“It’s a little bit smoother and should provide a better surface for cyclists that use this road,” he said. “It’s a lot easier on the bikes and it is also a quieter surface when vehicles travel over it.”
Crews are also busy putting up removable guardrails. The Park has gone to the rails in more and more alpine sections of the road. They have an advantage because they can unbolt them in the fall, store them in a location safe from avalanches and then put them back up in the spring. It helps save the road from harm, but it’s also a labor-intensive process. Stahr, estimates his crews are about a third of the way done installing the barriers.
While work crews will be done with the road June 21, park spokeswoman Lauren Alley stressed that it is always weather that determines the final date when the road will open to motorists.
“We could always have a late-season snow event, avalanche or rock slide that could keep us from opening the road as soon as the work crews are done,” she said. “Visitors should check the road status section of our webpage when planning their trip.”
That information is available at https://www.nps.gov/applications/glac/roadstatus/roadstatus.cfm.