With the constantly increasing interest in Glacier National Park, the main question is not whether you should or shouldn’t visit its popular Going-to-the-Sun Road. The most urgent issue is how to travel along this scenic drive. The next important questions to ask are what is the best time to visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road and how and where to get your entry ticket.
What is Going-to-the-Sun Road?
So what is the Going-to-the-Sun Road and how to visit it? We’ll get to the second part of the question a little bit later. The first query has to be dissected right here and now. One of the popular sections of Glacier National Park, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is a 50-mile scenic corridor stretched from the West Glacier entrance to the St. Mary entrance.
This paved, two-lane highway connects the eastern and western sides of Glacier and presents almost every type of terrain that exists in the park. From lush alpine meadows to towering glaciers and cascading waterfalls, a visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor allows you to see some of the best places and natural wonders of Glacier National Park.
Visit Going-to-the-Sun Road: History in a Nutshell
The scenic route was completed in 1932. Its addition to Glacier National Park meant two things:
First, the untamed beauty of the park was put on display. Simultaneously, a larger number of panoramic trails, roadside waterfalls, and alpine lakes and valleys became available for the outdoor enthusiasts to explore.
Second, the construction of the scenic drive shifted perspectives. Although the Glacier’s guests favorited the Two Medicine area way before the thirties, they switched to the Going-to-the-Sun Road that has been the main and, for many travelers, the only section to visit in the park since 1932.
It was only a matter of time before a larger audience and eventually national historic societies noticed the panoramic route. In 1983, the Going-to-the-Sun Road was included in the National Register of Historic Places. Two years later, it was recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Today, millions of people visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road to admire and explore some of the Glacier’s most astonishing landscapes.
When to Visit Going-to-the-Sun Road
Apart from its pristine surroundings, the scenic drive alway comes to your rescue when you ponder what to do and see in one of the largest national parks in the country. While doing this, the Going-to-the-Sun Road redefines and makes the real reason of your visit clear. Whether you look for the most beautiful places to photograph in Glacier or crave solitude among the gorgeous scenery, the panoramic corridor provides all of these and more.
In the end, your doubts of whether you should visit or skip the Going-to-the-Sun Road fade away. The next issue to consider is when is the best time to visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road and make the most of your trip.
Some sections of the popular route welcome the visitors all year round, offering a plethora of things to do and places to see in summer and winter alike. The alpine portion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road usually waits until late June or early July to present its pristine wilderness. The exact time of the opening of the entire corridor depends on snowfall and plowing progress.
Normally, you can visit and drive along the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road until the third Monday of October. Yet again, in Glacier National Park, the humans must always comply with nature’s mood swings. Thus, if you wish to see the highest points of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, visit the area sooner than later. For road status updates, please refer to the official Glacier National Park’s website.
Visit Going-to-the-Sun Road in Summer
July and August are the most reliable times to visit the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road. On the other hand, the place gets overcrowded. Every enthusiastic outdoor adventurer seems to go to Glacier National Park at this time to see its coveted jewels before the snow buries them until the next summer.
How to Visit Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park
The increased visitation of the Going-to-the-Sun Road became such a serious issue that the park couldn’t ignore it any longer. The major change in how to visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road was first introduced before the summer season of 2021. As a result the visitors must have an entry reservation ticket along with a Glacier entrance pass to drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The introduction of the ticketing system has significantly improved the current situation, but hasn’t eliminated the problem altogether. The crowds and limited parking spaces are still a big issue to consider when planning your visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road in summer.
Note: The exact dates of the summer season and the opening the entire scenic route vary depending on the weather conditions. During the summer season of 2021, the entry ticket is required between 6:00 a.m and 5:00 p.m. from May 28 through September 6.
TIP: If you plan to visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road in summer, be sure to get your entry ticket in advance. The passes are hot items and get sold out in minutes after being released. No vehicles can enter the scenic corridor without the ticket even if you already have the Glacier entrance pass.
Good to Know: You don’t need to have the Going-to-the-Sun Road entry ticket to visit the other sections of Glacier National Park, such as Many Glacier, Two Medicine, the North Fork, and Goat Haunt.
Going-to-the Sun Road Entry Ticket
Since we have narrowed this blog post to a visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, let’s talk about this infamous entry ticket. The pass is available for purchase through recreation.gov. Be sure to have your printed or digital ticket before you approach the West Glacier or St. Mary entrances.
- The entry tickets are free. $2 fee is charged for processing the online transaction.
- As of 2021, the passes are available 60 days in advance on a rolling daily window for arrivals beginning on May 28. Starting May 28, you can purchase your ticket 2 days in advance at 8:00 a.m. MT.
- You need one entry ticket per car to visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The pass is valid for 7 consecutive days starting from the reserved day of arrival. The person whose name is printed on the ticket must be present in the car. The visitor has to provide his or her ID along with the Going-to-the-Sun entry ticket at the West Glacier or St. Mary entrances stations.
- The tickets are non-refundable.
Visit Going-to-the-Sun Road: Insider Tips on how to Get Entry Ticket
If you haven’t purchased the ticket 60 days prior to your visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, your chances of obtaining it decrease significantly. Although the park releases nearly 1,000 new tickets at 8:00 a.m. MT a day on a rolling two-day window, the passes are gone in the first few minutes.
At this point, getting a ticket to the Going-to-the-Sun Road is almost equivalent to winning the lottery. Don’t get discouraged, though. Here are a few tips to help you make your dream route come true.
- Glacier National Park requires the potential visitors of the Going-to-the-Sun Road to create their profiles on recreation.gov in advance.
- If you failed to reserve your entry ticket 60 days in advance, don’t wait until you have 2 days left before your preplanned visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road to purchase the ticket then. Start early and try to get the pass at least 5 days in advance. (You have 7 days from the reserved day of arrival to use the ticket after all.) This gives you a few extra days to try your luck and increase your probability of visiting the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
My Take on Reserving Going-to-the-Sun Entry Ticket
It took me two attempts to get my pass. (I was still lucky considering the amount of disheartening reviews left by those people that were unable to book their entry tickets.) What helped me may work for you as well.
- First, close all open browser windows to maximize Internet speed.
- Second, sigh into your recreation.gov account and locate the necessary page a few minutes before the tickets are released.
- Third, refresh the page as soon as the clock strikes 8:00 a.m. MT.
- Fourth, without loosing a single second, choose the quantity (It always gives 1 per vehicle. I’m not sure if it’s the case with motorcycles.). Then select the date and hit add to card. These specific steps helped me book the ticket and ultimately made our visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road possible.
TINY TRICK: It might sound silly, but the first time I tried to purchase the ticket, following any strategies like click this first, then that wasn’t my consideration at all. I did the most rational thing. I chose the date first, then moved the arrow on the screen a little bit up to select the quantity. Finally, I moved the arrow down again to add my selection to the card. Altogether, I lost no more than a couple of seconds trying to reserve the ticket this way. The result, however, was discouraging. The tickets were gone. Consequently, our visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road was in question.
The second time around, I had familiarized yourself with the system and played around with the buttons on the screen a few minutes before the tickets were released. Call it muscle memory, but it worked.
Who doesn’t Need Entry Ticket to Visit Going-to-the-Sun Road?
Travelers that stay or reserved some services along the scenic drive don’t need any entry tickets to visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road. These reservations serve as the required passes for the dates when the services are used. You must present proof of reservation upon arrival. No visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road is allowed without it.
Here are some specific examples of the services that allow you to skip most of the above tips and visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road without the entry ticket.
- Glacier National Park’s guests that have overnight reservations at Fish Creek Campground and Apgar Campground don’t need to worry about the Going-to-the-Sun entry tickets.
- This also applies to the visitors that have reservations at any lodges, motels, or chalets located within the scenic corridor. Thus, if you stay at Village Inn, Lake McDonald Lodge, Rising Sun Motor Inn, Granite Park and Sperry Chalets, and some in-park private lodging, consider your visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road a done deal.
Going-to-the-Sun Road on a Tour
- Similarly, you can have reservations for horseback rides, guided hikes, bikes, or boat tours in the Going-to-the-Sun Road area to visit this part of Glacier without the entry ticket.
- When it comes to the boat rides, reservations with Glacier Park Boat Company at either St. Mary Lake at Rising Sun and Lake McDonald at the Lake McDonald Lodge guarantee your entry to the corridor. You can visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road only on the day of your scheduled tour. The visitors must make an additional reservation or purchase the entry ticket to assess the area the following day.
TIP: Many park’s guests book the guided hikes or boat tours as an alternative to be able to visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road in case the entry tickets are unavailable. I did the same after my first failed attempt of getting the pass. Keep in mind, though, the boat passes get sold out very fast as well. Thus, if it’s your last resort, book your tour as soon as possible.
Visit Going-to-the-Sun Road with no Entry Ticket by Car, Shuttle, Bicycle, or on Foot
- Alternatively, you can reserve a shuttle ride. The busses operate along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, between the Apgar Visitor Center and the St. Mary Visitor Center. Go to recreation.gov to get your ticket. Again, the shuttle ride ensures your entry to the scenic route only on the day of the reserved service.
- Similarly, you can reserve a Red Bus tour that serves as your ticket to visit the Going-the-Sun Road corridor.
- Tribal members, private landowners, including their guests, business owners, and employees don’t need the entry tickets to visit the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
- Visitors arriving on foot or by bicycle are also exempt from obtaining the Going-to-the-Sun entry tickets. Yet there are some restrictions for the bicyclists from mid-June through Labor Day.
- The entry ticket is also not required when you access the Going-to-the-Sun Road before 6:00 a.m. or visit the area after 5:00 p.m.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road?
It takes 2 hours to drive along the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road from the West Glacier entrance to the St. Mary entrance. Plan to spend at least extra 3 to 4 hours to hike to the favorite waterfalls and alpine meadows and lakes, such as Virginia Falls, Avalanche Lake, and the Hidden Lake Overlook.
Can I see wildlife in the Going-to-the-Sun Road area?
The Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor abounds with the wild animals. From mountain goats to bighorn sheep, bears, marmots, pikas, and chipmunks, different species of big and tiny creatures and birds are found in the area.
When is the Going-to-the-Sun Road open?
You can visit some sections of the Going-to-the-Sun Road all year round. The alpine areas open only in the late June – early July and welcome the visitors until mid-October. The opening and closing dates, however, vary depending on the weather conditions.
- GUIDE: The Ultimate Glacier National Park Travel Guide: Visit 5 Main Sections
- GOING-TO-THE-SUN ROAD: The 21 Best Stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road
- PHOTOGRAPHY: 8 Iconic Photo Spots in Glacier National Park
- WILDLIFE: 5 Best Places to See and Photograph Wildlife in Glacier National Park
- HIKES: How to Hike to Avalanche Lake (+ The Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Gorge)
- MANY GLACIER: First-Timer’s Guide to Visiting Many Glacier
- WATERFALLS: The 14 Most Photographed Cascades and Waterfalls in Glacier National Park
- HIKES: The 9 Best Trails for Hiking with Small Kids (ages 4-6) in Glacier National Park
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