The Going-To-The-Sun Road is really a highway to heaven.

Spectacular, phenomenal, marvelous, stunning, indescribable, astounding, unforgettable, amazing. Even these superlatives don't do justice to the vistas.Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon and Olympic National Park are awesome, but Glacier National Park -- with some 50 active glaciers -- is in a class by itself. Especially in early summer it seems more pristine than many of the other national parks.

The 52-mile road is the highlight of the park. Narrow, winding and steep, it crosses the Continental Divide and offers incredible views of the Rocky Mountains.

You can hike in Glacier -- snowpack permitting, if you have the time and energy -- but you must drive the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road to make your visit complete.

Waterfalls, trickling and thundering, plus snow-capped, Teton-like peaks, glacial lakes and wildlife are all found here.

The big limitation is that the road is open only for about four months of the year, usually becoming passible sometime in early June, thanks to persistent snowplows, and closing about mid-October.

This year it opened June 16. Snow can fall any time, including the dead of summer. (A foot of snow fell in August of 1992 in the park's northeast corner.) Visitors should be prepared for a variety of weather conditions.

The road's earliest-ever opening was May 16, 1987, and its latest was June 23 in both 1991 and 1995.

There are also vehicle size restrictions from the Avalanche Campground upward on the west side and from Sunrise Point upward on the east side. No vehicles longer than 21 feet or wider than eight feet (including mirrors) are allowed on the road because of its narrow width.

Guided tours are available for those not wanting to drive the narrow road or for those with oversize vehicles. Historic red buses that seat 15 passengers are used on these tours, operated by Glacier Park Inc. Prices range from $28-$54 per passenger, depending on the length of the tour.

Suntours Company also operates its own private tours along the road.

Going-to-the-Sun Road is receiving a face lift, and construction is expected to continue until at least 2001. Day closures of 30 minutes are not uncommon, and during evening and night hours the road might be closed. (After all, that four-month span is the only time work can be done.)

On paper, you might not be impressed with Glacier National Park. After all, the road only tops out at 6,646 feet and most Utahns along the Wasatch Front live at an elevation of 4,300.

However, the road climbs 3,500 feet on the west side from Lake McDonald because elevations around the park are some 2,000 feet lower than the Wasatch Front. The road splits the park in two, offering consistent, panoramic views from its strategic location.

Maps, again, are not the way to appreciate this park. Its tallest summit, Cleveland Peak, is only 10,466 feet above sea level. Compensate for the 2,300-foot lower elevation surrounding the park and the summit approaches 13,000 feet by Utah standards.

Driving the road is a cliff adventure that will get your heart pumping, even if the scenery doesn't excite you. Be sure you have good brakes, and you'll enjoy your ride more if you avoid engine-knocking, low-grade gas in your vehicle.

In some places, the highway, which opened in 1933, is carved out of solid rock. It has two tunnels, one on the west side and one on the east.

Lake McDonald, a nine-mile-long gem, offers some good scenic spots along the early portion of the drive from the west, and St. Mary Lake offers similar sights from the east side.

There are only occasional pullouts along the narrow road and it's wise to automatically take most of them. Once you pass one, it will be difficult, even dangerous, to turn around, so don't be in a hurry on this road.

According to David Eaker, public affairs assistant at Glacier National Park, the road is the park's most popular feature.

He said you could drive it in 90 minutes with no stops but recommends allowing three to four hours for a more satisfying visit. The road is open 24 hours a day, and the maximum speed limit in the park is 45 mph.

Eaker said late July and early August are the busiest times in the park. He suggests you begin your drive in the early morning to avoid the crowds. Some afternoons there isn't enough room to park at the summit's Logan Pass Visitor Center.

Glacier had more than 1.7 million visitors last year. The nearest big town is Kalispell, Mont., 25 miles west of West Glacier.

The road needs extensive repair.

The vast majority of visitors confine their visit to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. That means hikers can escape the crowds.

"Even though Glacier is a park, it's a wild area. Be careful around animals, swift streams and beware of rockslides," said Eaker.

One great short hike -- more of a walk -- is five miles east of Lake McDonald at Avalanche Creek. Called Trail of the Cedars, this 1/2-mile roundtrip is wheelchair-accessible and travels on a level boardwalk through a forest of lush ferns and 700-year-old cedar trees.

The first great summit to come into view from the west side is Heavens Peak (8,987 elevation) when the road takes "The Loop."

The Logan Pass visitor center is at the summit. This visitor center was still snowed in early June but is now open.

The Highline Trail begins at the Logan visitor center and provides great views of the upper Weeping Wall. It is 7.6 miles one way and climbs 200 feet.

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The contrast from the west to east side of the park is also decisive. There is less snow on the east side and it is much drier there, looking more like a plains area than a mountain one, though the east side elevation at St. Mary Lake is higher at 4,484 feet above sea level -- 2,000 feet higher than the west end.

But St. Mary Lake on the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun road is so perfectly dark blue that it rivals Crater Lake for apparent purity.

Glacier is a national park that bridges two nations. If one day isn't enough, the Canadian version of the park, Waterton, can be accessed from the east side. A special Canadian Visitor Center is also located in West Glacier.

A host of side activities are available near West Glacier. The Glacier Maze, a family fun center; a drive-through bear habitat park; and even waterslides are among some of these other possibilities. Having a satisfying visit to Glacier requires good planning and just plain luck. At some 750 miles away from Salt Lake City, West Glacier needs to be part of a week or longer trip.

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