LOGAN PASS - The youth-size L.L. Beans on Tiptin Tourville's tiny feet seemed to grow heavier with each resolute step Wednesday as he trudged along with a pair of skis lashed to his back, kicking boot steps into the firm snow atop Logan Pass.
Meanwhile, the parking lot below him filled with a sea of automobiles nearly as expansive as the snowfield the 3-year-old was attempting to cross.
"This could take a while," Brandy Tourville said, carrying a snowboard and a sled under one arm while leading her determined son with the other.
The Tourville family lives on the North Fork Flathead River near Columbia Falls and cherished this summer's prolonged preseason at Glacier National Park, a backyard play area to locals and a private haven before the busy season arrives in earnest.
On Wednesday, all 50 miles of the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road opened to the public and the crowds turned out in droves, heralding the official start to summer in this northern region.
"It's a slower pace without the crowds, but we still enjoy it up here," Tourville said.
The Sun Road's July 13 opening was highly anticipated. It marks the second-latest opening date in the scenic drive's 78-year history, and the latest it's ever opened due to winter weather, the evidence of which was superabundant Wednesday.
Throughout the morning and afternoon, park rangers delivered informational lectures to visitors curious about the status of Glacier National Park's glaciers, which are quickly disappearing due to the effects of global climate change. A snow-covered Mount Clements and a towering wall of snow provided the backdrop to those climate change talks, called "Goodbye to Glaciers."
"It's always a tough sell when you're standing beside a giant snowdrift like this," ranger Megan Chaisson said.
Scientific evidence of glacial recession has been well-documented through the years, and researchers believe the last of the glaciers will be gone by 2030. But the fast-melting July snowpack on Logan Pass is disappearing at a more rapid pace, and melt water flowed down the walkway to the visitor center.
"Two days ago, I couldn't reach the top of that drift," Chaisson said, pointing to a snowbank that is now at eye level. "It goes really fast."
Chaisson estimated the parking lot at Logan Pass Visitor Center was completely full by 9:30 a.m., and said a steady stream of visitors had been trundling up the Sun Road since it opened at 7:41 a.m.
Many out-of-state visitors timed their arrival fortuitously, with no clue that the famed highway had remained closed so late into the summer.
"This was just dumb luck," Neil Byrne said. "We drove out from Pennsylvania and had no idea it was still closed. Perfect timing."
The latest Logan Pass has ever opened to the public was its inaugural year in 1933, when Glacier National Park celebrated the Sun Road's completion on July 15. Typically the road is open in June.
Opening the uppermost reaches of the serpentine Sun Road is an annual challenge, but the chore was compounded this year by a heavy winter snowpack that continues to blanket the Northern Rockies high country. Avalanches and unseasonably cool spring weather presented added challenges.
Snow continued to fly at high elevations well into June, with snowpack more closely resembling April conditions than a typical summer.
"The opening of the Sun Road was extremely tough this year. We appreciate the hard work of our road crew, employees and the patience of the public," Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright stated in a news release announcing the opening. "We hope the visitors enjoy the snow, the scenery and the beauty the road has to offer."
The Logan Pass Visitor Center opened to the public as well Wednesday and will remain open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Water will not be available at Logan Pass for several weeks due to the restroom rehabilitation work, so visitors should be prepared to bring their own potable water.
The popular Highline Trail is closed from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet due to hazardous snow conditions and the opening date of the trail is not yet determined.
The Hidden Lake Nature Trail is open, however, and though the entire trail is buried in snow it proved a popular activity on opening day. A steady stream of hikers was visible crossing the snowfield below Mount Clements on their way to the Hidden Lake Overlook, a 1.5-mile hike, or Hidden Lake itself, a three-mile hike.
Chris Hanley and Laurie Turp wore snowshoes and spiked chains over their boots for the hike, and said they expected the crowds to dissipate after the first mile.
"It always starts to thin out after a short while," Hanley said.
Indeed, many visitors were leery of the snow as they set foot on the trail and turned around, while others marched resolutely onward, despite inappropriate footwear.
"Hidden Lake has been the most popular hike today, and I have seen some people attempt it in flip-flops," said Jeremy Wei, an interpretive park ranger. "I don't know how many were successful."
Bicycling restrictions are in effect on the Sun Road due to traffic congestion through Labor Day.
Bicycles are prohibited between Apgar Campground and Sprague Creek Campground from 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., and are also prohibited eastbound (uphill) between Logan Creek and Logan Pass from 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Construction work on the Sun Road continues during the day and some nights.
During the day, visitors can expect up to 40-minute delays on a one-way trip through the Sun Road. Night work continues on the Sun Road in the Big Bend to Logan Pass construction segment. Visitors should expect the Sun Road to close at the Loop and Logan Pass from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday night through Friday morning. There will be a brief window to travel through the night closure from 2 to 2:15 a.m. nightly. Logan Pass will be accessible from St. Mary without closures every night. Closures are not in effect Friday nights or on the weekends.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.