Have you cycled up Going-To-The-Sun Road (in Glacier NP)?
June 29, 2015 11:14 AM   Subscribe

Our family is vacationing in Montana next week, and I have rented a road bike for a couple of days. I intend to ride west to east up a part of Going-To-The-Sun Road, and wonder if anyone else has experience. I am SUPER excited about it, but also nervous.

The plan is to start at Avalanche Creek Campground at first light and head up the mountain to Logan Pass, then turn around and cruise back down the hill. It's 32 miles round trip. I am a pretty okay cyclist and can handle 32 miles of flat riding without too much issue. But 16 miles at 5% grade, with cars full of tourists passing me on a narrow road, has me freaked out.

Cyclists of AskMe: have you ridden this road? Or if not, have you taken a similar climb? What can you tell me about it? Can I do it? Any strategies for a long climb like that?
posted by AgentRocket to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to cycling it (I took a motorcycle) but I recall pluses and minuses traffic-wise. Because it's so busy, cars are travelling really, really slowly and will have lots of opportunity to see you and drive accordingly. But the road is quite narrow and with very little shoulders, meaning that (especially when you're cliffside), you'll need to be OK riding in the lane and not letting people pass until you have some space.
posted by Kurichina at 11:47 AM on June 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've also only done this on a motorcycle, but I would highly, highly suggest trying to go when traffic is light- maybe right at dawn? I've ridden and loved everywhere in the Rockies on a motorcycle but that was the single most miserable ride I've ever been on. I'm not sure if it's possible to get carbon monoxide poisoning while stuck in traffic on a motorcycle, but I felt very sick during the ride and only recovered after napping in the lawn at a tourist shop at the end of the road for half an hour. However, if you're excited about doing it then you totally should; the scenery is unquestionably amazing. Just don't underestimate the traffic.

As far as cycling goes, I've done several big climbs in Colorado with minimal training. Just pace yourself, stop for water breaks frequently, and pack some snacks to see you through. Totally do-able.
posted by shornco at 12:30 PM on June 29, 2015

My husband is an avid cyclist and has done similar trips (steep grade, national park RV traffic). I've driven some of the roads with him and cringed that he did it on a bike. I wanted to emphasize what Kurichina says above - my husband's number one response/piece of advice to OMG traffic on a narrow road is to say that you have to be confident in riding in the lane, and that the burden to pass is on the motorist behind you. That is to say, it's on them to find a time to SAFELY pass you, so don't try to squeeze yourself off the road to encourage them to get by. You need to be defensive and keep yourself safe.
posted by handful of rain at 12:33 PM on June 29, 2015

Best answer: I ride it most years (leaving from Avalanche) but generally before they open it to cars. I drive through the park a lot in the summer (I live nearby) so see cyclists all the time. First, you won't be alone. If you leave early, you'll meet up with plenty of other folks churning butter up to the top - possibly even an organized bike touring group. EVERYONE is super encouraging and non-judgey. Most people leave Avalanche at or by 7.

Leaving as early as you can is a great plan. Most traffic will head West to East so it won't be too hard for cars, shuttles, and jammers (the red tour busses) to pass you. Car drivers see it all the time... and frankly, no one drives GttS to get anywhere fast. You go to enjoy the scenery. That said, there is a rule about not allowing bikers to head up west to east past a certain time during the summer... maybe 11? I'm not sure. You should be fine if you're leaving at 6 or 7 from Avalanche because it should take you 2-3 hours to get the 16 miles to the top.

Other safety: You will want to be carrying bear spray. I generally bike with a camelbak and hook the spray case to one of the various straps. My buddy rigged it up so it's on one of the supports on his bike. I've seen a bear on the road the last two times I did it including a mama griz with two cubs. Also, I've seen moose below the loop a couple of times. Big horn sheep and mountain goats will be visible past the Loop, start really looking for them once you get by Bird Woman Falls Overlook. They generally get out of your way if you are on the road but keep an eye out... especially as you zoom back down.

Wear a helmet and bring a windbreaker and possibly gloves for the ride down. Don't listen to music.

Now... the grind. I'm not terribly in shape and will do the ride without having biked all winter so I'm sure you can do this. Like I said, count on it taking 2-3 hours to get up 16 miles and like 20-30 min to get down (wheeeee!!!!... ride your brakes and stop for pics until the Loop then enjoy the extreme speeds you can hit past the Loop on the way down). It's very common for people to be biking at 5-6 mph. Don't feel bad. I go to my lowest gear early and that's fine. I'm not racing... I'm enjoying.

I think the climb to the Loop is harder than Loop to Logan Pass so my suggestion is no rest breaks until you get to the Loop. Once there, it's a great place to snap a pic, rehydrate, pee (there's a restroom), and get feeling back in your buttcheeks before you push on. You'll hit a tunnel prior to the Loop and you'll say, "That adorap0621 told me to push on but I need a picture of this!". Just try to hold off - it's the worst part of that stretch to get re-started on.

Once you rest at the Loop, just. keep. going... the incline won't be as great but it's steady... and it'll hurt. So just keep going as best you can. Try to do 2 mile chunks before resting so you feel like you're making progress (you may not need to rest). There are plenty of nice bends in the road to stop at for pics but if you can keep pushing, stop on your way down so you don't have to fight the hill for momentum. Plus those higher elevation miles are harder to zoom down and your hands may hurt from braking so you'll enjoy the stops more. Not to mention, it's easier to not be in the way of cars on the way down.

This ride will be the highlight of your trip. You'll enjoy some good conversations with bikers and tourists cheering you on and you'll get to see GttS in a different way than most folks. This really is a bucket list ride. If you head into Whitefish after riding, you can go to Glacier Cyclery and buy a GttS jersey. :)

tl;dr: Leave early, watch out for man-eating critters, don't stop... but then stop a lot, you can do it, you won't regret it.
posted by adorap0621 at 1:04 PM on June 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Holy cow. What a terrific answer. Thanks a lot, adorap0621. We are staying in Whitefish for the week and are so excited.
posted by AgentRocket at 1:39 PM on June 29, 2015

Best answer: I thought I'd post one more response in case someone stumbles here looking for info for biking during one of the full moon rides. I just did it the other day:

It appears MOST people start at the Loop and most folks are there by 7:30 (carpool - it's not a big lot). I drove by around 8:15 and the lot was full. I didn't even go up past it to the nearby pullouts, I just turned around and went to the large pullout just below the tunnel. That added a half a mile of some of the steepest road but my legs were new so it was fine.

When I biked by the loop around 9, no one was there - they were all on their way. It was plenty light until maybe 10. I turned on my back light early so I'd be visible to the few cars going by (not many at all) and didn't really need my front light until 15-20 min later. Not many folks passed me but I passed plenty who were taking breaks. Everyone was happy and encouraging. I was surprised with how many folks were biking down - in the twilight - as I was biking up. Like isn't it the goal to do this under the moon at some point? At the top, I waited with some friends for the final daylight to go away and to just sit under the moon. I put on a windbreaker and others had some long sleeves but it wasn't too bad up there to just sit, rehydrate, and get food.

Now the way back down was kinda scary. I rode by breaks much more than I do during the day because I'm on a road bike and hitting a rock wouldn't be pleasant. Plus the few cars on the road were way more annoying. Folks who dropped people off at the Loop so their peeps could just bike down (cheaters!) were kinda useful: they let me see the twists and turns, but folks heading up destroyed my night vision. I'd come to a near complete stop. Thankfully, there weren't a ton of them but more than expected. And there were tons of people still biking up when I was biking down around 12/12:30. Tons. And I'm sure they were able to park at the Loop. :)

I had bear spray with me, easily accessible, but wasn't worried about them as much as big horn sheep (who are far more common on the upper portion of the road when there aren't cars around). I saw no critters at all, though. If I had been biking down from the Loop to Avalanche I would have been a bit more wary - it's far darker and the more level land by the river draws more critters. I did this bike ride alone but I wouldn't have biked to Avalanche during the middle of the night by myself. Then again, I'm a chicken.

My final opinion on the ride: I'm not sure I'll push anyone to do this again. I love biking it... but because of the views. You don't get the views at night, just bragging rights. I'm glad I did it once but if I had a friend itching to do it, I'd get him/her to bike up while it's light (from Avalanche - starting maybe around 7) then we'd have a leisurely dinner of granola bars and fruit at Logan Pass while waiting for the moon. Maybe we'd walk along the Hidden Lake overview trail. I don't know. But we'd take in the views on the way up and then wait for the dark to head down.

So internet strangers hoping to bike GttS during the day or night: go do it. It's great. If you do it at night for a full moon ride, you can do it by yourself if you do Loop to Logan Pass and feel pretty safe b/c others will be there. It's a nifty experience but if I had to choose day or night, I'd do day (and I'd do early June day to avoid cars).
posted by adorap0621 at 12:11 PM on August 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am coming back to this 6 months later for the benefit of Googlers who might see this. adorap0621's advice was 100% spot-on and the ride was freaking great. We rode from Avalanche to Logan Pass, starting very early in the morning (I think 7:00 or so). The first few miles are great fun and go fast because it's pretty flat. Then the climb starts and you get down to your lowest gear pretty quickly. We rode non-stop to the Loop, and then stopped about every mile and a half from the Loop to Logan Pass.

It feels a little bit defeating when you drop all the way down to that gear and your legs still kill you and you keep trying to shift down and realize there's nowhere else to go. But remind yourself that you are climbing stairs. Just keep a nice, even, slow pace and you will eventually get to the top.

One other piece of advice that I would offer is to be ready for changing conditions. It was 50-55 degrees and clear at the bottom where we started and about 35 degrees and cloudy and rainy when we got to the top. So watch the weather carefully and either pick the best day (if you have that luxury - we rented our bikes so we had to go on a certain day) or bring a jacket/gloves.

And if you are looking for a shop to rent a bike, Glacier Cyclery in Whitefish was amazingly good. They put us on Giant Defy 1s, which were great bikes. And they put different pedals on for each of us (toe cages for my friend and clips for me), took the time to fit them to us when we picked them up, and gave us good advice and encouragement about the ride. They are exactly what a bike shop should be.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:38 AM on January 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

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