Historic Red Bus Tours are a perfect way to see Glacier National Park
We were a little unsure what we would see on a foggy and rainy day in the mountains on our planned tour. But as soon as Jammer Karl greeted us for our Red Bus Tours in Glacier National Park, we knew we were in for a fabulous day. Our four-hour tour traveling the Going-to-the-Sun Road was full of history, adventure, and entertainment, all within the comfort of this historic small bus.
The vintage red buses are numbered, indicating the order in which they arrived in the park, and many are affectionately named by their drivers. Ours was “Rosemary, “named for Jammer Karl’s mother. Her dark brown leather interior shined from expert care. She was roomy and allowed four adults to slide in easily on the long bench seats. Her suspension creaked a little as she pulled up the hills, which seemed all a part of her charm.
Glacier National Park’s “Going-to-the-Sun-Road” is an iconic drive of 50 miles of mountain curves and sometimes cliff-hanging turns. Taking the Red Bus Tour allowed us time to see the spectacular scenery in a relaxing way.
The trans-mountain road was built between 1920 and 1933 and crosses over the Continental Divide at Logan’s Pass. Construction crews climbed along narrow ledges, hanging onto ropes over death-defying cliffs. Experts used small blasts of explosives to prevent significant damage to the landscape. At times, excavation of rock was done by hand.
Although the employee turnover rate was 300%, only three construction workers lost their lives during the lengthy construction period. The road was named for the nearby Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, a legendary mountain that reaches toward the sun.
How to book a Red Bus Tour
Book your Red Bus Tour while you’re planning your trip to Glacier National Park. The tours are very popular and tend to sell out on a daily basis. The typical open season is May-September. As examples, the 2019 Eastside tours operated from June 8 to September 22. The 2019 Westside tours operated from May 18 to October 20. Because of their original design, seating in the buses does not accommodate wheelchair accessibility.
Where to catch the Red Bus Tour
Red Bus Tours pick up passengers in five prominent locations in both the east and west sides of Glacier National Park: Glacier Park Lodge, Apgar Village Lodge, West Glacier Village, Motel Lake McDonald and St. Mary Village. All tours are round-trip and last from 2.5 – 9 hours, traversing the Going-to-the-Sun-Road.
Accessibility in Glacier National Park
If you’re driving into the park, be sure to check the current road status in the park for road closures due to weather and construction repairs. National Park Service shuttles are also an option if you prefer not to drive. Book shuttles in advance. Some shuttle routes offer wheelchair accessibility. Some walking trails and stops along the road are wheelchair accessible.
Two wheelchair accessible vehicles have been added to the Xanterra Parks and Resorts tours fleet. The accessible tours follow the same itinerary as the standard tours and depart on the west side from the Apgar Visitor Center and Lake McDonald Lodge, and St. Mary Visitor Center on the east side.
See Glacier Park in a Unique 1930’s Bus
The earliest transportation in Glacier National Park consisted of four-horse coaches. Today’s Red Bus Tours in Glacier National Park uses a fleet of 17-passenger buses built and put into service between 1936-1939. The White Motor Company designed the Model 706s specifically for use in the national parks in the U.S. In Yellowstone National Park tours use the same model buses, painted bright yellow.
Riding in the vintage bus enhances the experience and spurs the imagination of touring the national park in the 1930s. The bus interiors are preserved in their original craftsmanship with wood trim and a large steering wheel. Thankfully the motors are kept up to modern standards. Soon the fleet of buses will undergo further updating to a hybrid system for environmental effectiveness. The restoration will span several years with the work being done in the off-season.
Open-air tours provide wide-open views for photos
On beautiful days the drivers rollback convertible canvas tops. The open-air design lets passengers view the vertical grandeur of the mountains and deep valleys while looking over the cliffs.
With the top up on our bus and wool lap blankets, we stayed warm on our rainy day. Our driver often stopped at overlooks, timing the stops with the weather, so the two seemed to be in cooperation with each other.
History lessons are included
The Red Bus Tours, managed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, hire drivers who are like park docents with their knowledge of history. We were fortunate to have a driver who was witty and entertaining. The entire four-hour tour seemed like a moment because of our “Jammer” Karl.
The buses are painted bright red, like the Ripe Mountain Ash Berry of Glacier Park. They are nicknamed “The Rubies of the Rockies.” They originally cost $5000 each in 1936, and today’s worth is approximately $250,000 each. The fleet has been in use since 1936, with the exception of the years between 1943 and 1946, when fuel rationing during WWII was in place.
Karl explained that the drivers became known as “Jammers” because of the familiar sound of the gears as the drivers of the early manual transmissions double-clutched up and down the steep mountainous road. They were first called Gearjammers, later shortened to “Jammers.”
Women Were Discouraged from Riding in the Front
The early drivers were often college-aged men, and some of the stories Karl regaled were indicative of the antics of the age group. You can imagine what it was like in the 1930’s riding with courageous young men, dressed dapperly in riding boots, riding pants, and ties, full of confidence. There are stories of women distracting the young drivers from their important work and, therefore, discouraged from riding in the front.
Jammers like to ease the tension of some of the passengers as they view the steep drop-offs on the winding roads. Jammer Karl passed this one on to us as we approached a particularly steep incline. “If this makes you nervous, do what I do while I’m driving. Just close your eyes. I do! And it helps!”
Jammers Have An Important Job
Today the drivers range in age and experience. They all participate in on-going training, and during the season they live in a campus-like environment sharing rooms and camaraderie. Overall the drivers are ambassadors of the park service.
Jammers drive an average of 60,000 tourists through the park in one of the oldest touring fleet of vehicles in the world. They’ve also used the historic vehicles for evacuations during times of fire or flooding. Drivers remind guests to look out for the wildlife in the area and watch for moving black dots in the terrain.
Our driver embodied the spirit of someone who loves his job, although the hours are long, and the national park service does not boast high pay rates. Jammer Karl has been driving in the Red Bus Tour’s fleet for seven years, after careers in business, ministry, and acting in theatre groups. During the offseason, he enjoys camping, hiking, and biking in the outdoorsman’s paradise. Karl is also an avid traveler of the world.
Glacier National Park Lodging
The National Park Service website lists six lodges, cabins, and motels inside or just outside the park. All offer an ambiance of the history of the American West. There are majestic Swiss-style buildings with unique log designs and small log cabins, many built in the early 1900s. Several are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lake McDonald Lodge and Cabins
Lake McDonald Lodge overlooks the largest lake in the western part of the park. The original exterior of 1913 boasts the construction of large wooden beams, indicating a hearty survival of weather over the years.
The lobby area of Lake McDonald Lodge looks like a hunting lodge of huge proportions. Local wildlife trophies, western artwork, a wood-burning fireplace, and rocking chairs make it feel both rugged and comforting.
Rooms at Lake McDonald Lodge in the historic main building are on the second and third floors. In keeping with the era in which the lodge was built, air conditioning and elevators are not available. A warm and inviting restaurant and lounge serve guests delicious meals with local specialties of elk and bison.
Other National Park Service accommodations at Lake McDonald include cabins with one or two beds and private bathrooms. The Cobb House has three suites. Snyder Hall has eight hostel-style or dormitory-like amenities with a shared bathroom.
Apgar Village Lodge and Cabins
Other management companies (besides the official NPS) offer lodging within Glacier National Park. We had a great experience booking through Pursuit-The Glacier National Park Collection in Apgar Village. We stayed in a two-room cabin in Apgar Village Lodge and Cabins, with a full kitchen, and a separate bedroom and bathroom.
Apgar Village is like a small town with a restaurant, some shopping, and is a Red Bus Tours Pickup location.
The NPS lodging in this area is the Village Inn at Apgar. It offers some one-bedroom units with full kitchens and other one-bedroom and two-bedroom units that can accommodate six people.
Be sure and make your lodging reservations within and just outside Glacier National Park as early as possible. Most places are booked at least a year in advance. But you can always check with the NPS and booking companies for cancellations. We were lucky to stay in the park by checking a few months prior to our trip.
Glacier National Park is a dream location for outdoor enthusiasts, photographers, and anyone who enjoys nature. The scenery is incredible, the fresh air is clear and pristine, and the smells of Spruce and Fir trees smell like Christmas. You will love visiting the national parks of the U.S., and Glacier is an unforgettable experience.
If you would like to read other blogs with historical significance, take a look at blogs with information on St. Augustine, Cumberland Island, and Jekyll Island. If you are interested in traveling with the Grans, subscribe to our blog at Gransonthego.com.