WEST GLACIER – The steady stream of summertime visitors to Glacier National Park’s high country was stanched this week when mud and rock slides crashed down onto Going-to-the-Sun Road, forcing a two-day closure of the scenic byway on the park’s west side and serving up a reminder that traveling through the rugged terrain comes with risks.
Two people suffered minor injuries and their car sustained damage, and some 150 additional vehicles were in the area when the slides occurred Tuesday afternoon, trapping 10 vehicles along a five-mile stretch of the road between The Loop and Triple Arches.
The 12 slides were triggered by heavy rainfall that delivered 1.5 inches of rain in about 30 minutes, acting park spokeswoman Jennifer Lutman said Friday.
Park officials reopened all 50 miles of the road on Thursday, but the National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch in Lincoln and Flathead counties, as well as Glacier National Park, on Friday.
“There are several thunderstorms headed in that direction right now, and we have gotten reports that some storms have put down an inch of rain in less than an hour,” Luke Robinson, a Missoula-based meteorologist, said late Friday. “If any of these storms hit the Glacier National Park region, it is very likely that they could get more mud and rock slides. Right now we are in the wait-and-see scenario because they haven’t reached that area, but they are very close. It is just a matter of time.”
Robinson said the storms are comparable to Tuesday’s weather that triggered the slides, but said because the soil is water saturated and the rock has already been loosened by the slides, a smaller amount of rain could trigger additional slides.
“The ground is saturated, the rocks and soil have been dislodged, so really any additional rain and especially heavy rain could cause this area to slide again,” he said. “That is what we are worried about at this time. Since we had the rain, any more rain could cause problems.”
Forecasts call for mostly clear weather in West Glacier through the weekend, and Lutman said if Friday’s storms passed without incident the park staff will breathe a sigh of relief.
“It definitely could have been a lot worse, and we are lucky and grateful that no one was seriously injured,” Lutman said. “Once the flash flood watch is over, we are expecting clear skies and good weather for the rest of the weekend.”
The unforeseen mud and rock slides earlier this week mark the second accident at Glacier Park this month.
On July 3, a park employee was seriously injured in a fall while she was working to clear sections of the popular Highline Trail. The 31-year-old woman slipped on a snowfield and slid 200 feet before falling over a snow ledge and onto the Sun Road.
She was initially admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Kalispell Regional Medical Center; she has since been released and is recovering.
“Safety is a major concern for everyone at Glacier Park,” Lutman said. “We are always working to be safe and prepared, and all employees go through training annually. These risks are something we deal with and then we keep going.”
Although the Sun Road remained closed from Tuesday afternoon until Thursday afternoon – typically the busiest days in the West Glacier area – visitors who had intended to drive to Logan Pass kept busy with other activities.
At Glacier Outdoor Center, lead guide Ryan Thompson said Thursday proved to be the angling and rafting outfitter’s busiest day of the season.
“This time of year, Wednesdays are always our busiest day of the week because a lot of vacationers plan activities for the middle of the week. But Thursday ended up being our busiest day of the year so far,” he said. “I think there were several factors – good weather, good water and a lot of people visiting the area in general. But certainly having the road closed for the day steered folks to the river and the rafting. I’m just glad it opened quickly and that everyone was able to make it out safe.”