At 1.6 billion years old, they’re oldest things in Montana’s Glacier National Park.
The swirls in the rock, fossilized blue green algae called straromatalites, look like something out of Picasso’s “Starry Night.” Our driver, Chris, pulls off the road so we can take a look. “Pulls off” is perhaps an overstatement. When you’re a 25-foot long bus, there’s no pulling off Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road. Make a mistake on its steep, six percent grades and you could plunge 3,000 feet straight down. Our bus, at eight feet one inch wide, takes up more than half the width of the curvy, 16 foot road. So Chris gently sidles the coach up against the ancient wall, leaving a narrow track for others to navigate around.
The engineering marvel that is the 52-mile-long Going to the Sun Road, the only road in Glacier National Park recently celebrated its 75th anniversary and is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The serpentine ribbon of asphalt traverses the heart of the park, crosses the Continental Divide and gives visitors jaw-dropping views of lakes, waterfalls, dense forests, hanging valleys, alpine tundra, and the soaring, glacier-studded peaks of the Lewis and Livingstone mountain ranges.
If you’ve got nerves of steel, it’s possible to drive the Sun Road yourself (though no RV’s are allowed). However, a more relaxing way to enjoy the scenery and learn about the park’s fascinating history, geology and its plants and animals is to take a Red Bus tour. Glacier’s red, open-air buses are pieces of rolling history. The buses, with their long chassis and leather bench seats, were constructed between 1936-39 by the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Before private cars were common, visitors to the national parks arrived by train and toured the parks by stagecoach or on horseback. In the mid-1930s, the National Park Service commissioned Count Alexis de Sakhoffsky, a famous industrial stylist of the time, to design a touring bus. Sakhoffsky’s creation featured a canvass rollback top, roll down windows and a door for every row of seats. Soon the elegant coaches were crisscrossing Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainer, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion National Park. Each fleet was painted a distinctive color for its park. In Yellowstone, for instance, the buses were yellow. In Glacier, they were painted brilliant red, in honor of the ripe ash berries that appear in the fall on nearby mountainsides.
As more people drove their own cars into national parks, the tour buses became less popular. After World War II, all the park buses—except for those in Glacier—were taken out of service. Today, with its fleet of 33, Glacier’s Reds comprise the largest and longest-running bus touring fleet in the world.
“We’re called Jammers,” explains Chris, who’s been making this harrowing drive for the past three summers, as he pulls out of the McDonald Lake Lodge parking lot. While we’ve picked up our bus on the western side of the park, visitors can catch a Red Bus at a number of hotels and other stops, including Glacier Meadows RV Park and the St. Mary KOA. “Before the buses were retrofitted with automatic transmissions, the drivers used to have to double clutch and jam the gears to shift. You could hear the grinding for miles. That’s why they call us Jammers.”
The Jammer name stuck, but today, the completely refurbished buses provide a smooth, comfortable ride for up to 17 passengers. The rollback canvas tops offer unparalleled views as we wend our way out of McDonald Valley. The open air also makes the ride under the shady canopy of pine, aspen, cottonwood, larch, tamarack and cedar a bit chilly, so we snuggle under nubby wool blankets Chris has provided.
“This area is contains the easternmost stands of rainforest on the continent,” says Chris, pointing out 300- to 400-year-old cedars and cottonwoods. The ancient bark is so chunky and crinkled it looks like folds of thick cardboard.
We pass into an area of low green and amber colored brush studded with the dead snags of evergreens. This is the site of the 2004 Trapper fire that consumed 137,000 acres. The handling of this big fire by park personnel sparked controversy, but unless structures or human lives are at risk, National Park fire policy dictates that wild fires burn themselves out naturally. Biologists say the fires have a cleansing and regenerative effect by clearing away weeds and underbrush that choke out trees and native species, keeping the meadows open for grazing wildlife and helping release seeds from certain species of trees.
We’ve moved from the shady valley into full sunshine. We abandon our wool blankets and take off our fleece jackets to enjoy the warmth of the fall sun. Even with sun, the air sports a crisp autumn snap, a harbinger of the bitter cold that will embrace this land in the upcoming months. A tapestry of yellow, gold, red and green trees dot sweeping hanging valleys and climb the jagged peaks, many perpetually capped with snow fields and glaciers.
The park, of course, is named after its many glaciers. A true glacier is more than a patch of ice and snow. To earn the glacier title, the ice/snow must cover at least 25 acres; the ice must be at least 100 feet thick; and it must be moving. In the 1850s, the Park boasted 150 glaciers. Today, due to warming conditions, there are only 25. Scientists predict by 2030 there will be no glaciers left in Glacier National Park.
Looming above us on the narrow road is the Garden Wall, a natural monolith formed millions of yeas ago by two competing glaciers that carved away at an ancient mountain. They left behind a thin blade of sedimentary rock that stands above the valley like a guardian sentinel.
As we climb higher and higher, cars slow to look at our bus. It’s like being a celebrity, only the star of the show is our bright red bus. One driver, in an effort to get the perfect photograph, careens straight toward us, yanking the wheel at the last minute and narrowly missing us. Our driver is unfazed by the attention and continues his lively travelogue as we navigate hairpin turns on our way to Logan Pass (elevation 6,646 feet).
We come around the 180 degree turn called the Loop and the walls above us grow higher and the drop off below plunges even steeper. We pass a large outcropping of wet, weeping rock that juts into the road. In the spring, water gushes from the Weeping Wall, making this section of the road particularly treacherous. During the hot summer months, visitors welcome the Wall’s cooling spray. Even in September, plenty of water courses down the Wall and wets our faces.
At one turn, two big horn sheep nimbly cling to the side of the wall, nibbling alpine plants, seemingly oblivious of our passing. Chris obligingly stops so we can capture the sheep and other sights with our cameras.
Finally, we crest a long hill and arrive at Logan Pass and the Continental Divide. The Pass straddles the mountain range like a saddle and provides wide views of the rim of peaks and the valley far below. The Logan Pass Visitor’s Center offers displays of the Park’s natural history, a bookstore and a ranger station. Visitors can hike a 1.5 mile trail that snakes up one of the hills, but we find the elevation makes us easily winded. We opt instead to enjoy the impressive views from where we are.
When we return to our Red Bus, it is surrounded by a crowd of admirers with cameras. Everyone it seems is intrigued by these historic vehicles. From May through September, you can book the MacDonald toLogan Pass tour or a variety of other routes throughout the park. Chris encourages us to stand on the seats and poke our heads out the top of the bus for a group photo.
The trip back down Going to the Sun Road, even with more stops for photographs, is relatively quick. As we pass the Picasso-like swirling straromatalites, Chris tells us that the fossilized algae provide evidence that this rugged park evolved from a lush and temperate landscape. It reminds us that everything eventually changes, but we hope Glacier’s Red Buses keep Going to the Sun for a very long time.
For more information about visiting Glacier National Park or other places in Montana , go to www.visitmt.com.
To book a Red Bus tour, go to www.glacierparkinc.com or call 406-892-2525 or 406-892-2525.
—by Bobbie Hasselbring