It’s the summer of 2008; I’m sixteen years old and have somehow convinced my parents to sign me up for Teen Treks’ maiden bicycle trip across America from Seattle to New York. Our group has made it nearly 600 miles to Montana: ‘Big Sky Country’. Almost instantly, it’s my new favorite state. In Glacier National Park (Lands of the Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai Tribes), I’m partially relieved but mostly let down when we hear that the iconic, cliff-hugging, jaw-dropping Going-to-the-Sun Road, which ascends 6,646-foot Logan Pass, is currently closed to bicycles due to construction. This means that to see it, we’ll have to take a shuttle bus up during a rest day instead.
I don’t remember that rest day in the same sort of vivid detail that I surprisingly remember most days of that 4,000-mile, life-changing trip. I remember how beautiful the scenery was but more in the way that you would recall watching a movie or getting a postcard. I saw it through a window but I struggle to say I was really there.
Photos from Annalisa’s 2008 visit to Glacier, including the view out the shuttle bus window (far right). First two images by Kelley Diamond.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021. I’m now twenty-nine and experiencing my first-ever bout of depression following a rough year. After hearing and dreaming of a magical period in June when Sun Road is only open to bikes and pedestrians while snow plows clear the pass, I follow my gut by booking a two-month sublet in neighboring Whitefish and make it my goal to ride up it as many times as I can. That will solve all my problems, right?
It’s Memorial Day Weekend and at last, I take my brand new Kona Sutra on a thirty-minute Amtrak train ride from Whitefish to West Glacier where I meet up with my friend David. He drove five hours from Spokane to get here and we are absolutely psyched to start pedaling.
Vague flashbacks from 2008 fill my head as we ride the first dozen flat miles along the coast of sparkling Lake McDonald. Sixteen miles in at Avalanche Creek, a barrier gate marks the point at which the road is closed to cars and essentially becomes a bike path. We slow down enough to squeeze through the opening and it feels like we’re entering the backstage of an exclusive film premier –– one in which all you actually need to get in are two wheels.
We shed layers, lather on sunscreen, and talk about life as we pedal down the winding valley floor. It takes me a little while to get used to the fact that I no longer need to check my rearview mirror for cars. I take it off my sunglasses completely and revel in the freedom of no longer being at the mercy of a stream of vehicles, oohing and awing.
As we begin to climb, David keeps pace with me through my low blood sugar stops and insulin pump malfunctions. We reach a dark tunnel and yell into its echoing chambers. Its dripping windows frame nearby mountains and a waterfall’s splash cools us off as we cycle back into the daylight. Before we know it, we’ve reached mile twenty-four –– the one and only switchback of Sun Road.
Once you round that 180° turn at The Loop, you’re on top of the world.
Second image by David Sheppard
Turns out, cycling Glacier is like nothing I could have ever imagined or seen through that shuttle bus window in 2008. Sweat drips from my forehead and I laugh out loud in disbelief of the ridiculous, unreal, and truly awesome scenery that engulfs me on the Garden Wall. Lush, snow-covered peaks surround us and I can faintly make out the continuation of this road’s path as an indent that squiggles around countless cliffs and disappears up Logan Pass in the distance. Now, I am not holding a postcard anymore, I am in it.
I breathe heavily and channel Thomas the Tank Engine as cyclists regularly pass us. But Glacier’s beauty makes the grade manageable. David zig-zags behind me and yells,
“How crazy is it that they built this road a hundred years ago?!”
I squeeze out a few words: “It is insane.”
After pedaling past walls of snow, we reach another barrier at mile thirty that this time, unfortunately, marks the makeshift summit of the road while snow plows continue clearing further up the pass. We high five and an energetic National Parks volunteer snaps our photo.
We layer up, hop back on our saddles, and let gravity do its business. The descent is a glorious whirlwind of the senses that’s about ten times faster than what we just experienced. Speechless on the way up, I’m sobbing joyful tears on the way down. For thirteen years, I’ve been dreaming about this road and here it is under my wheels.
I cycle Sun Road for a second time the next day with my trail parents who just happen to be in Glacier when I am. Then again for a third time on my own a few weeks later, during which I’m finally able to reach Logan Pass –– and to my shock, am crowned on Strava as a ‘Local Legend’.
But perhaps the most memorable are the fourth and fifth times. When in late-June, I receive a text from David who is passing through again but this time on a bike tour from Spokane to central Montana, suggesting we ride Sun Road under the upcoming full moon. This idea is appealing but combines two of my biggest fears: cycling at night and,… bears.
Needless to say, it’s a plan and one that turns into a four-day bike trip.
Thirty miles pedaled from Whitefish, we roll up to the Glacier entrance gate at 10:00 pm as the sun is setting and I yell back to David, “It’s like we’re regulars now.”
Ten more miles in, we set up our tents at Sprague Creek Campground on Lake McDonald and get back on our lighter bikes at midnight. Our headlights’ combined shine is so strong, I keep thinking it’s coming from a car behind us. While ringing my cow bell to alert bears of our presence, I keep an eye on the lit-up horizon for any sign of movement. The worst thing you can do is surprise a bear out of nowhere.
Riding the valley floor, the moon is still behind the mountains and we wager guesses as to which direction it will pop up out of. I continue ringing my bell. Its ding is obnoxious but the noise, for me, brings a comfort in knowing that I’m taking all the precautions. Every once in a while and especially when rounding bends, we yell into the night: “HEY, BEAR! HO, BEAR! WHAT UP, BEAR?!”
We start ascending and I stop to treat a low blood sugar with a banana and some trail mix. I turn around and scream with glee when I see a perfectly full moon shining between the clouds. Once my blood sugar straightens out, we start climbing as quickly as we can, in an attempt to catch the moon again at elevation before it sets. Now I’m panting while ringing while yelling “HEY, BEAR!”
It’s 1:30 am and David’s hitting a wall after having cycled a few back-to-back near-centuries in the days prior. We agree to turn around at The Loop. Once we round that bend and ride a bit past it, we have a clear view of the moon perched above the peaks. It’s lighting everything up.
We turn off our bike lights and lay on the asphalt under the stars. This view I’ve come to know like the back of my hand is somehow more crisp at night. There are no e-bikes whizzing by; no families chattering in the distance; no speakers playing music. The view beyond the guardrails is a quiet, still expanse like I’ve never seen; a real, live diorama. Snow glistens on mountains across the valley and the sea of trees we came from is clear as day. I didn’t know the moon could be this bright.
The sun has risen by the time we get back to camp and we go to bed as our neighbors wake up. In the afternoon, we roam around the park and, to my dismay, learn from our campground host that Sun Road has now opened to cars. This means that in order to avoid too much congestion when biking over the pass into the other side of the park tomorrow, we’ll have to get up super early.
With just two hours of sleep, adrenaline wakes us up the next day at 3:00 am. We pack our bikes at record speed and pedal out of the campground and back into the darkness. At dawn on the valley floor, I point out a curious drone-like red hovering speck way up in the distance. It takes us a while to realize that it’s actually the backlights of a car that has ascended five or ten miles up this road. It seems impossible that we have and will bike up to and beyond that red speck. But before we know it, we’re back on the Garden Wall, looking down at the tiny McDonald Creek and the paralleling road on which we began. How’s that for a life metaphor?
The once quiet Logan Pass is now bustling with tourists, cars, and vans. We take a photo in front of the sign and start descending into the just-opened jagged-peaked east side of the park. Finally able to ride this road in its entirety, it feels like we’ve unlocked the final level of Super Mario Bros. Glacier in our rearview mirrors, we pedal east into the contrasting vast expanse of the Great Planes where I say goodbye to David and reluctantly board a train back to Whitefish.
This was the first time I’ve cycled Sun Road when it was opened to cars and it actually wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it would be. It’s certainly a zoo though: a never-ending stream of vehicles (with the most diverse array of license plates!) and a plethora of hands sticking out of windows, snapping photos. I can’t help but compare it to just a week earlier, when I was able to ride this road sans cars. How much more peaceful it was to share it only with those who were getting up the pass under their own power.
I know it’s not possible for everyone but I wish more people would realize how much more freeing it is when you use your own energy instead of gas. When there’s no need to secure a parking spot at the top. When you have a constant panoramic, unobstructed view of one of the most beautiful places on earth. And when your own capabilities and strength astound you every time.
All images by Annalisa Van Den Bergh unless otherwise noted.