Western roadtrip part 3: Montana and Glacier National Park

In between the national parks, we’d decided to spend a couple of days driving through Montana. That is to say, given that we had to drive across more-or-less the entire state anyway, we opted to do this in a more leisurely fashion in order to break up the driving. This turned out to be a really good decision, as we visited several attractive little towns en route, and were able to enjoy the journey.

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First stop was Bozeman, mainly because they have a dinosaur museum. Tom had read online about a free concert and fireworks display (we arrived there in the afternoon of July 4th), so after an early dinner we spent a very pleasant evening outdoors enjoying the excellent Bozeman Symphony Orchestra accompanying a spectacular sunset. My only complaint was that the fireworks were set off whilst recorded music played, which would have been fine except that the DJ’s taste was limited to slow-tempo patriotic songs and Christian pop, and they cut between each execrable example with all the delicacy of a triceratops fending off an aggressor.

Next morning it was off to see those dinosaurs at the Museum of the Rockies. In addition to several interesting exhibits illustrating Indian and settler life, and a ‘living history’ style house and garden outside, the main attraction is the paleontology collection – it takes up most of their space, and the museum is closely affiliated with the University of Montana.

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I absolutely loved this museum. As well as the usual labels describing the specimens on display, there were descriptions of where and how they were discovered and collected, details about scientific papers written about them, and a number of the skeletons were still in the plaster-jacketed chunks of rock in which they were excavated. Most of the specimens had actually been discovered in Montana, too, and it was fascinating to learn about the whole process.

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Back on the road, we headed to Missoula via Butte (pronounced “beaut”), an old copper-mining town. Thanks to a load of hotel points we were staying in the relative luxury of Holiday Inns, rather than our usual roadside motels – a treat indeed! The next morning took us to Polson for a diner breakfast and the quite remarkable Miracle of America museum. Founded in 1981, this is a wide-ranging and eclectic collection of American stuff – armaments, clothing, household objects, aeroplanes, farming equipment, small buildings, and pretty much anything else you can think of – displayed in an immersive and somewhat chaotic fashion throughout the building and grounds.

The next stop was our hotel on the outskirts of Kalispell, although other than driving through the town centre we didn’t really see much of the town, choosing instead to head on to nearby Whitefish. Drawn there by the promise of gluten free doughnuts (which were excellent!), we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Whitefish’s cute touristy shopping centre, dodging the rainshowers as we went.

Back on the road bright and early on July 7th, we drove into Glacier National Park and headed straight for the visitor centre. To Tom’s great disappointment this particular entrance did not offer the usual introductory video, so it was down to the lakeside to sit in the sun with a conciliatory coffee instead.

The rest of the day was spent meandering around the park. Unlike the loops of road around Yellowstone, Glacier has just one main road across the park, the famed Going To The Sun road, which skirts the edge of the lake before taking you up the mountain along a narrow and twisty ascent to its apex at Logan Pass. On a busy summer day, therefore, you find yourself driving in convoy with many other vehicles, which rather takes away from the impression of scenic mountain solitude, but at least there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the views from roadside turnouts.

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The next morning we returned to Logan Pass first thing (a cold and rainy morning with much less traffic) to use the facilities before joining a 6 hour ranger-led hike up to Piegan Pass. We were in a group of just seven people this time, perhaps unsurprising given the weather, not to mention the classification of this walk as “strenuous” in the park guide. Winding up through the forest, stopping every now and then to clap loudly and shout “hey bear” (seriously, this is apparently the best way to alert any nearby bears to your presence and allow them to withdraw into the woods before you get any closer), we admired the different sorts of trees and undergrowth at various altitudes, before emerging from the treeline to cross a couple of small snowfields before reaching the pass.

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It was still cold, windy and raining lightly, so lunch at the top was a hurried affair, then we turned round to retrace our steps to the trailhead. The ascent took three hours but we were quicker on the way down, getting back to the car some five and a half hours after setting out. It had been an enjoyable day out – and hiking in the wilderness felt like the perfect thing to do in Glacier, much more appropriate than the car touring we’d done the previous day – but it was very nice indeed to get to our cabin for the night and warm up with a hot shower and a cooked dinner.

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In a last-ditch attempt to see another moose we got up before dawn on our last morning and drove around to the Many Glacier area of the park. We saw no wildlife whatsoever, but the light was amazing, and it was lovely to see the mountains at that time of day.

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A three hour drive across high and empty plains (in part through the Blackfeet reservation) took us to Great Falls, where we had a leg-stretching walk by the Missouri River and an early lunch before the flight home. Having been in sight of mountains for the entire trip it was very odd to see flat land stretching out all around us, and Great Falls felt far too large and busy.

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We were both sad to leave after a really excellent holiday (despite my initial assertion that it felt wrong to be in the mountains outside ski season!), and I would love to go back one day.

As always we took far too many photos, and the album for the trip  can be viewed at this link if you would like to see more. (This also includes some of our Montana wildlife sightings – Glacier wasn’t nearly as good for animal-spotting as Yellowstone, but we did see various marmots and ground squirrels and some distant mountain goats.)

Food and drink
We ate ridiculously well in Montana. This part of the trip was largely inspired by a post on one of my favourite gluten free blogs, and we tried out a number of the places they recommended. Particular favourites included:
MacKenzie River Pizza – we actually ate in three of their locations, in Bozeman, Kalispell and Great Falls. Delicious df/gf pizzas with lots of topping choices, and apparently the regular ones were good too!
Betty’s Diner, Polson – a cute roadside diner with a full gf menu in addition to the regular diner favourites.
Three Forks Grille, Columbia Falls – a 35 mile round trip from our accommodation in West Glacier, but completely worth it. A separate menu detailed the dietary options, the staff were wonderful, and the kitchen modified one of the specials (a spectacular piece of fresh river salmon) for me. The best restaurant meal we’ve had in ages.

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One thought on “Western roadtrip part 3: Montana and Glacier National Park

  1. Pingback: Fun on the 4th | Leaves from the big apple

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