Going slowly on Going-to-the-Sun Road

Photos and regular updates make it possible to follow the ploughing of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park each year. It’s a massive undertaking.  Having visited the place in 2000 I remember marvelling not only the scenery but also that the road was built at all.  It allows access into the heart of the park, crossing the Continental Divide over Logan Pass at 6646ft/2025m.  The image below is from Google Earth. It is dated 23rd June 2009. Note the paucity of snow.

Logan Pass - Image from Google Earth

[Update – slight puzzlement on my part re the date of the image above. Although it says “Imagery Date Jun 23 2009” and you can very clearly see the car park free of snow, here is what Logan Pass looked like on the ground on June 12th 2009. Something’s amiss.

Update 2 (20th June) Looking at the satellite history in Google Earth for this area shows a date in September 2009 and as composites are used it is probably ‘from 23 June..’]

This year it is somewhat different.

“The snow we are seeing at this time of year rivals or exceeds anything current staff have seen in their careers.” Comment from “jforsterpe” (here)

Going-to-the-Sun Road Helicopter Fly-Over - June 4, 2011 Big Drift. Photo: Jim Foster, NPS

The Big Drift (above) is located high on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the east of Logan Pass (where the words “Park, MT” are in the Google Earth image above) in the lee of the high mountain marking the continental divide.  Snow can accumulate here to depths in excess of 100 feet (30 m).

“Usually in early April, crews begin removing snow working from both ends of the 53 mile road. The Big Drift is typically reached sometime in late May, and it can take a month to clear that one mile stretch of road.  The crews use explosives and front-end loaders to remove the snow by pushing it over the cliff or hauling it away in dump trucks.  Plowing the entire stretch of road takes about ten weeks.  Logan Pass can usually be accessed by passenger vehicles in early to mid June.  In 2006, the road was not open to traffic until June 23rd.” Bold mine. http://www.glaciernationalpark.name/big_drift.html

Now compare that photo above with one taken on 23rd March 2006.  This year they started the ploughing early on 25th March, but with the huge snowpack, progress in clearing the road is very slow. As of 10th June, it looks as though the plough crew on the East side are still only approaching The Big Drift.

Location of ploughs on 10th June 2011. Click for source and most recent update

From the park website:  Information Updated at 10:13AM on June 10, 2011

West Side Plowing Activity
Yesterday, the crew continued plowing efforts in the Big Bend area. They encountered snow depths of 10-20 feet. Today, crews will continue clearing snow in Big Bend.

East Side Plowing Activity
Yesterday, crews continued to clear snow in the No Stump area (approx. 2 miles from vehicle closure). Snow depths are above average and in some areas, the snow is 30 feet deep. Today crews will continue removing snow from the No Stump area up to the East Tunnel.

Going-to-the-Sun Road Helicopter Fly-Over – June 4, 2011 Logan Pass and the Logan Pass Visitor Center. Photo: Jim Foster, NPS

The photo above shows the Logan Pass Visitor Centre as of 4th June.  There’s a closer shot here.  Crews were working around the Centre clearing big drifts on 15th June 2010. In 2008 the opening was 27th June.  There was a lot of snow that year and the road’s 75th anniversary celebrations were moved from Logan Pass visitor Centre to Lake McDonald Lodge due to the late clearing of the pass.

Due to smaller crews during WWII, Sun Road was not opened until July 10th in 1943.  In later years, the latest opening of Sun Road occurred on June 28, 2002, as a result of deep snows that fell through May and early June. In 2006, the road was not open to traffic until June 23rd. The earliest opening ever was in 1987, when the road was opened on May 16. http://www.glaciernationalpark.name/big_drift.html

USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center (NOROCK) page Natural Hazards of Spring Opening of Going to the Sun Road looks at the water (Snow Water Equivalent) in the snowpack at the nearby Flattop Mountain SNOTEL site as a statistical predictor of opening day.

Source: USGS

SWE is currently (11th June) sitting at about 51 inches and I suspect their comment

“Every year presents unique challenges in opening the GTTS Road that are impossible to predict.”

will be more useful than the statistical relationship this year. Predictions for opening the road posted at Glacier National Park Chat are anything from June 26th to 9th July with one guess of 1st August.

Yes it could be a ‘latest ever’ opening, but let’s just wish the park staff a safe remainder to the ploughing season, however much longer it takes. [Updates 20th June – 1st July & current progress: GTTS Road “a month behind schedule”].

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9 Responses to Going slowly on Going-to-the-Sun Road

  1. E.M.Smith says:

    Golly… Wonder if we will start seeing any reports of “new Glacier growth at Glacier Park”? Naw… just weather… 😉

    If it can take a month to clear the Big Drift, and they are not at the drift yet, and it is already Mid-June… I make that end of July opening. So… August / September it’s open. About then, do not the snows return? Is there a set of data for “road closed on” date? Or do they just keep ploughing it open (as it is kept from geting too deep to plough) until an adminstrative date based on number of tourists?….

    At any rate, if the road will only be open a couple of months, and only after intense ploughing, doesn’t that imply the other areas will STAY covered in snow?

  2. John F. Hultquist says:

    They maybe need a different solution: snow sheds

    • Verity Jones says:

      @E.M
      That was exactly what I was thinking too.

      @John F. Hultquist
      Very impressive. And there was I thinking – ah but snow sheds would spoil the view. Of course the way the wind whips around the Garden Wall might mean sheds like that one would just fill up anyway.

  3. E.M.Smith says:

    @John F. Hultquist:

    It would make more sense… Maybe the ploughing is a jobs and stimulus program …

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  5. Thanks for posting these photos — One of our contributors reported that the rangers were reporting 80 feet of snow on the pass on June 1st and most of us assumed that it was supposed to be 80 inches…. But now we’re thinking hmmmmmmmm.

    • Verity Jones says:

      Yes – difficult to imagine isn’t it? Just think back in 1992 (a notable previous ‘big snow’) the web and digital images were in their infancy.

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