By David Nickelson ~
Among the fastest growing activities in the adaptive sports world is the use of handcycles. As more and more riders join the ranks of handcyclists however, one challenge remains. Where to ride safely? Roads can take us almost anywhere, but sitting eye-level with a vehicle bumper presents an obvious danger, especially in a world where drivers are becoming increasingly more distracted by smartphones and other devices that take their attention away from the road. Bike trails provide a safe and high quality riding experience where they are available, but not everyone has a bike trail within easy reach.
The question remains, where to go? For me, I’ve found the perfect location… Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park! It’s a smooth paved road with no vehicle traffic and some of the most outstanding scenery in the world.
For those who have driven Sun Road through the heart of Glacier conjure images of soaring peaks, deep valleys and maybe, some white knuckle driving for people with a fear of heights. The road traverses approximately 50 miles between the towns of West Glacier and St. Mary, hugging steep cliff-faces and reaching its highest point at Logan Pass.
During the summer months, this beautiful road becomes a crowded drive, with parking lots that are often filled to capacity as lines of vehicles snake their way up and down its route. From late spring to early summer however, the road is the greatest bike trail in the world. Deep winter snows mean it can take two to three months to fully plow the road and this creates a window for cycling. Vehicles are not allowed, hikers and cyclists are.
Plowing begins in early April, but the primetime for biking is when the plows begin to reach higher elevations, typically mid April through mid to late June. This affords a cyclist access to the views for which Going to the Sun Road is famous. As the weather warms and the plows get closer to the pass however, the chance increases that the road will open to vehicles, and the (safe) biking season will come to an end. For most of the spring biking season, vehicles are stopped at the Avalanche Campground area along Going to the Sun Road. This is where my biking journey will begin.
I like to start my days early, so when I pull into the Avalanche parking lot the sun has yet to reach the valley floor but its rays are lighting up the peaks above me. Pit toilets and portable water are available here. From this point it will be 16 miles and 3,000 vertical feet to reach Logan Pass. I know that I’ll be on my own for any personal care or equipment issues so I double check that I’ve packed everything I need for the ride up and back down. While park personnel do sometimes patrol the road, they will be few and far between.
There are often a few other early morning cyclists getting ready as well who can’t help but take a second or third glance to be sure they’re seeing things right. Many have never seen a handcycle before, so the curious looks and questions are common.
Camera and bear-spray in easy reach, I push back from my truck and begin cranking my Lasher Sport Handcycle, swinging around the heavy gates blocking vehicles from venturing further up the road. At this time of the year, early morning temperatures can be in the 20s or 30s, so I’m glad I’ve dressed warm.
Leaving the Avalanche area, the road bends to the right with McDonald creek crashing over unseen cascades in a deep gorge to the left. Within the first mile the creek comes into sight and will remain my companion for the first five miles of the ride. Here in the valley floor, leaves have returned to trees and grasses and bushes grow a vibrant early season green. As I ride along I see a dark line running left to right across the road. Getting closer I see that some animal must have waded the creek before continuing on, leaving a trail from its wet footprints and dripping fur… probably a bear.
Through a few small climbs the road continues to follow McDonald Creek, until about five miles in when it leaves the creek and begins the start of a non-stop 11-mile climb. To this point I’ve been comfortable in a light jacket, but the extra exertion quickly has me down to a t-shirt, even though temps have barely cracked 40 degrees.
The added climbing is not without rewards however, as the road quickly reveals openings through and above the trees, showcasing the snow covered mountains and cascading waterfalls for which Glacier is so famous. The west-side tunnel comes into view, water from melting snow seeping through the rock and falling from overhead.
About a mile past the tunnel is an area known as ‘The Loop’, a sharp hairpin turn in the road that coincides with the halfway point of the ride up. Pit toilets here offer a break, and I scarf down a bite to eat along with some fluids.
For the next eight miles the going will be slow, the climb steady and unrelenting. With amazing views at every point, there are countless places and reasons to stop briefly, catch my breath and smile at this opportunity to ride without the constant stream of vehicles.
The first major milestone I look for above The Loop is Haystack Falls. Here Haystack Creek falls over a series of sedimentary layers before passing beneath the road and plunging to the valley floor below. Above Haystack Falls the road enters a series of twists and turns, reducing visibility to the next bend. Rock-fall and branches litter portions of the road, having fallen down in the previous few days.
As I come around another bend in the road I see a large black figure and quickly identify it as a black bear walking along the road. I position myself to have a distant view of him and watch him for a good 15 minutes. He alternates grazing for roots with licking exposed rock surfaces along the road. Eventually he wanders off the roadway and into thick brush, leaving me to continue.
Shortly after, I come to an area known as Big Bend, a wide sweeping curve in the road. The Weeping Wall sends showers of water onto the left lane of the road while a major avalanche chute hints at the power and size of winter avalanches. From here I know it’s just about three miles to the top of the road at Logan Pass.
Passing Triple Arches, a portion of the road supported by magnificent arch-work, it’s hard to imagine the skill and challenges that builders faced when constructing this road from 1921-1932. It’s also here that my arms begin to feel the fatigue of the past two and a half hours of cycling. My stops become more frequent, the buildup of lactic acid tougher to shake out.
A cyclist approaches from behind and we chat, she’s seen me before doing this same ride so we introduce ourselves. There’s a camaraderie that forms between anyone crazy or determined enough to ride up this far, commiserating nods as we each struggle to make it to the top. My pace is slower than hers so I wish her a nice ride and say I’ll see her on the way down.
Over the last two miles Logan Pass appears tantalizingly close, yet the snail-like pace of going uphill keeps it from arriving. Winter continues to hang on here, and though the plow crews have cleared the roadway, drifts rise 10 to 30 feet high on each side. As often happens this time of year, clouds build in and the mountains begin to disappear behind their gray haze.
The road makes one last turn at Oberlin bend before the final quarter mile climb to Logan Pass. I know I’m close, but adrenaline can only do so much this far into the climb, and so I maintain my slow steady pace, reaching, waiting for, and finally finding that spot in the road where the grade turns to flat.
I swing my bike into the parking lot and it’s nearly deserted, save for two more cyclists who are getting ready to make their trip back down. We say hello and they’re on their way, leaving me at the pass by myself.
I quickly throw on my extra gear, sweatshirt, windbreaker, winter hat and gloves. Since I’m no longer cranking uphill I know it won’t be long before my body starts to cool down. I break out the rest of my food and drink, sticking a celebratory can of beer in a snow bank and enjoying a peanut butter & jelly sandwich along with a Gatorade.
I enjoy this slice of solitude that I know is just weeks away from disappearing for the summer. Once the road opens this parking lot will look like a mall on black Friday with drivers anxiously, and often angrily, driving up and down rows waiting for someone to pull out.
For now though it’s just the clouds, the solitude, and me. Then it begins to snow. At first it’s just a few flakes, but as the cloud moves through they increase in size and frequency. Before I know it the air is full of huge, wet snowflakes falling almost straight down in the silence of calm winds. I catch a few and smile again at an opportunity to experience something so magical.
On warm sunny days I will soak in this experience for hours, however today the cold starts to seep into my body and I know it’s time to go. I pack up my gear once again, double check to make sure I’ve packed out my trash and turn back west.
As I reach the downhill part of the crest my mouth turns to a grin. From here it’s 11 miles downhill with no need to do anything but brake to control my speed and enjoy the views. My tires pick up speed, throwing the water from melting snow behind me. (Fortunately my front wheel has a fender or I’d be receiving a shower from the 32-degree water.) As I descend, the snow briefly turns to rain before I’m out of the clouds again… I’m glad my pants and jacket are waterproof.
On some straightaways I reach speeds of 35-40 mph, but the constant turns keep me to a much lower rate most of the time. I’m glad my Lasher has disk brakes. In years past I’ve ridden this road with Quickie Mach 2 and Invacare XLT type handcycles, but the Lasher is the most comfortable, if heavy, bike I’ve ridden up this road.
I make a stop at The Loop, taking off some layers and clearing water from my glasses. Shortly below The Loop I see the west side tunnel approaching. On the way up I’m too out of breath from cranking to do this, but going downhill I let out a big ‘whoooooooooo!!!’ as I pass through the tunnel.
The road continues to wind, entering the trees now. Eventually the road reaches McDonald Creek and levels out. I haven’t had to crank with my arms in over two hours, so they’re stiff as I begin to pedal again but soon they warm up and I’m making my way back to my truck. The temperatures have warmed and I enjoy a leisurely ride along the last 5 miles.
Although I’ve done this ride over 30 times it never gets old, and if it weren’t for the physical exhaustion in my arms I’d turn back uphill and do it all over again.
When to Go
Plowing of the road typically begins around April 1st and lasts until sometime in June. Check Glacier’s plowing status page for updates:
What to Bring
Because the road is closed to vehicle traffic, there are no support vehicles or the ability to have someone drive your vehicle up if you get into trouble. While park personnel do sometimes patrol the road with trucks, you must travel with the idea that you need to be able to handle any situations that arise, whether they are personal cares or handcycle and equipment issues. Maintaining your equipment in good working order is an important first step before you ever begin to crank up the road.
Here is a suggested list:
*Spare bike tubes (know how to change them if they get a flat)
*Moisture wicking clothing (dress with layers)
If you have any questions or would like to handcycle the road with me some spring, please get in touch with me by email at email@example.com. Happy cranking!