The stretch of gravel road that goes from Columbia Falls north to the border of Canada provides access to Kintla Lake and West Glacier. The problem is, the road has never been paved or well constructed. This may soon change; park officials are now looking for long-term solutions, spokeswoman Denise Germann said. There is no timetable yet, and a plan of action will require an environmental review with public input. Future temporary repairs to the road will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The unimproved road, also known as Glacier Route 7, was constructed as a wagon road in 1901 by the Butte Oil Co., running from the foot of Lake McDonald to the company’s oil well at the foot of Kintla Lake.
It barely deserved being called a road. At Anaconda Hill, it “just came straight up the hill and then straight down,” according to a narrative in the National Register of Historic Places. The road was placed on the register in 1996.
Heavily loaded cars and wagons were let down Anaconda Hill by cable, and they proceeded across Christensen and Sullivan meadows on log corduroy. Stumps remained in the right of way, and spring rains created a 40-mile stretch of quicksand. Oil company vehicles shared the rough road with homesteaders with land at what are now Sullivan, Howe and Christensen meadows.
Maintaining the Inside North Fork Road has always been a thorn in the side for Park officials. Between 1918 and 1940, despite seasonal repairs, Park superintendents repeated variations of the claim that the road was “practically impossible for automobiles to get over … and difficult even for team travel.”
The road was steadily improved and realigned through the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the gravel road is still a rough and tumble place. It’s in good shape from Polebridge to Kintla Lake, but there are a myriad of problems from Polebridge to Fish Creek.
Near Quartz Creek, the North Fork of the Flathead River is undercutting a steep bank at the edge of the road that drops more than 100 feet down to the river. Logging and Anaconda creeks have jumped their channels. The resulting braids have run through the road and around culverts, causing annual repair work.
Despite its problems, the Inside North Fork Road is a popular route for Park visitors. It accesses several trailheads and provides an alternative, albeit slow, way to get from West Glacier to Polebridge and Kintla Lake.
Because it’s an historic landmark, the Park will need to consult with Montana’s State Historical Preservation Office about design plans, according to John Boughton, Montana’s national register coordinator.
Boughton said the Park is under no obligation to fix the road because of its historical status. It could even abandon the road if it chose to, he said.