One sweet ride: The pure pleasure of Glacier’s Red Bus Tours

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Have you heard the bit about the rock and the moss, and how they’re “lichen” their relationship?

“Jammer” Carl has, and he rocked that joke (pardon the pun, but I think Carl would be proud) and a whole lot of others all the way over the Going to the Sun Road.

The jokes and puns were nonstop on my recent Red Bus Tour through Glacier National Park in Montana. I found it charming – just one sweet aspect of the Western Alpine tour I took from Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald Valley to Logan Pass, and back again.

First off, let’s talk about the buses themselves. The 17-seat vintage vehicles are a sight to behold. Built in the 1930s, the buses have since been completely refurbished, and offer a deluxe way to view the stunning glacier terrain.

Our driver Carl (one of the famed “Jammers” – so nicknamed because they once could be heard jamming the gears on the buses’ original standard transmissions) liked to point to the “paparazzi” taking photos of themselves in front our bus. It was true: I never had so many strangers point a camera my way before as I did while sitting in the red bus.

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And then there is the scenery. The striking red buses were eclipsed only by the views rolling past our windows. When I visited, in mid-July, the glacier-clad mountains were surely at their best. Wildflowers edged the roads; the mountainsides were a vivid green; and rivers and waterfalls were cascading through the valleys.

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Unlike many scenic bus tours, the Red Bus Tours don’t depend on just passenger-side windows for viewing. The buses are designed with rollback roofs, which allowed for a number of “groundhog” moments – when the passengers were allowed to stand up in our seats to get a better view and take photos. With the mountains soaring all around, it really did offer a unique perspective. Luckily, we had a beautiful sunny day, and the ride was open-air.

 

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And we weren’t left to guess the names, history, and folklore of the territory we were passing through. Carl’s running monologue wasn’t just jokes and puns; he also thoroughly explained how the Going to the Sun Road came to be, its beauties, and its challenges.

We made several stops at pretty spots along the road. During our 20-minute stop at Logan Pass, I headed down the nearby Highline Trail for a bit, and took in some of the stunning scenery heading into that iconic hike. We also stopped at the Lake McDonald Lodge – a truly lovely hotel right on the lake.

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Highline trail – Going to the Sun Road

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Lake McDonald Lodge

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The Red Bus Tours offer many different itineraries – starting from locations throughout the east and west sides of the park. The tour I chose left from the Lake McDonald area on the west side of the park and followed the Going to the Sun Road to the summit at Logan Pass, before returning to the Apgar Visitor Center. It turned out to be the perfect choice for an introduction on my first day in the park.

While planning my trip, I had read varying opinions about whether to take a Red Bus Tour, or simply drive the Glacier roads on your own. There were comments from people who were adamant that touring just wasn’t their style, and others who said the tours were the only way to go on the sometimes-scary mountain road.

What I learned from my experience in Glacier is that sometimes, it’s not a matter of “either/or,” but rather, “a little of each.”

After taking the four-hour Western Alpine tour that first day, I returned to the Going to the Sun Road the next day in my car, and drove to Logan Pass from the eastern side of the park. It’s true, I was able to stop when I wanted, and that offered a couple of leisurely photo opportunities.

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Wild Goose Island – Going to the Sun Road

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But I also loved the freedom of the previous day, when I could gaze at the passing scenery without worrying about traffic. For my part, I see a Red Bus Tour as an experience unique to Glacier. And by opting for a four-hour tour instead of a daylong excursion, I was able to get a taste of touring in style, but still have time for plenty of exploring and hiking on my own.

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A tip: I realize that only one person out of the 17 passengers can ride in the front seat with the driver, but if you can be that one person, jump at the chance! I was lucky to be a solo traveler among mostly family groups, so I was the logical one to sit up front. It was great having not only the side and roof views, but the front window as well.

 

The Red Bus Tours range in price from about $40 to $98, depending on duration and location (children are about half that price). My tour was somewhere in the middle – at $58. Well worth it for the views, the entertainment, and the insights.

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