Roadtrip: Glacier National Park, Montana

Growing up in the Midwest, you learn all about glaciers and how they carved out the land, and were responsible for all the weird bumps (as well as the Great Lakes).  But it’s kind of hard to picture a “river” of ice–I always ended up imagining something like a giant line of toothpaste squeezing out.  So when I hit Montana, I put Glacier National Park on my to-see list, so I could clear things up.

Unfortunately, my timing was off.  The Going to the Sun road (excellent name) isn’t fully plowed of snow until mid-June, and the part that was clear when I showed up didn’t stretch that far.  I did, however, get to drive by the very beautiful, very cerulean Flathead Lake, and also to stop at a ridiculously pristine alpine lake in the park.  I’ve had Swarovski jewelry that was less clear.  Flip side, however, is that the lake is also kind of sterile, with very little aquatic life in it.  Bears weren’t around either, so no significant animals to report.

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Next stop was Coeur D’Alene and my GPS, unprompted, took me through the wonderfully-named Lolo National Forest, which looked just like the movie A River Runs Through It.  Wish I could post photos, but I did not get a good photo op since the turn-offs and scenic overlooks were all unpaved gravel, and my car was having a hard enough time with the inclines (spent much of the day driving in second gear).  I decided to save the tires; proof that the roads here are rough on them was that the car right, right in front of me blew out its back tire as I was driving into Coeur D’Alene.  I saw it go, and strips of the tire went flying right over my windshield.  Luckily, I was well back and the other driver steered the car smoothly onto the shoulder, so my car’s automatic brake alert–which kicks in if I get closer than a certain distance to another car–didn’t even go off.

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Roadtrip: Montana from Laurel to Missoula

Landscape hereabouts goes from mountains with snowy caps to flat riverlands, and I spent most of the day winding in and up and down and over foothills.  The grade on some of these roads is 15%, which my car did its best to handle, but a lot of people were passing me today.  Wildlife spotting also went down; for one, it’s no longer rattlesnake country:

Real rest area sign from SE Montana

Real rest area sign from SE Montana

But!  Dinosaurs!  I stopped for lunch in Bozeman, home of the top-notch Museum of the Rockies.  Its dinosaur displays were designed largely by Jack Horner, best known as the technical advisor for the Jurassic Park movies, and many of them focus on showing the progression from baby to juvenile to adult.  There’s a particularly mind-blowing display for Triceratops, which explains how the horns and the neck frill drastically change shape over time (which for a long time made people think there were multiple species).

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Bozeman also is an artistic/cultural center for Montana, and its main street had a lot of interesting little shops and art galleries.  I picked up some smooth, slightly fruity huckleberry vodka at Bozeman Spirits Distillery (free samples!).  Huckleberry (and chokecherry to a lesser extent) seems to be the Montana fruit, since it’s all over.  Back in Laurel the City Brew Coffee outpost was serving a huckleberry green tea granita thing, which was super-sweet and entropyenator would probably love it.

Huckleberry green tea granita, CityBrew, Laurel, MT

Huckleberry green tea granita, CityBrew, Laurel, MT

Next, I popped in for a half-hour at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, which is open to people who are not staying at the attached hotel, but which is very low-frills.  The hot springs pool looks like a regular swimming pool, albeit with warm and slightly cloudy water.  I didn’t really feel any “healing” properties, but a quick dip was nice for my calf muscles, still sore from the previous day’s hike.  I’ve been told it’s a bit pricy for Montana hot springs at $8.75 a person, but time is unlimited.

Stopping point for the night was Missoula, a university town with a strong artistic community.  Thursdays in the summer, they apparently have town parties down by the river with food trucks.  I got a pork and a chorizo-date-green chili tamale from one truck, which looked a lot better than it tasted, sadly; the fillings were dry, and the tamales had been boiled too long so the cornmeal was a bit tough.  Airbnb place was described as Victorian, but it’s had all sorts of customizations and art thrown onto it from all styles and folk/ethnic backgrounds, so now it’s this weirdly attractive, if eye-dizzying, bohemian retreat of indeterminate culture.

Pork and chorizo-date-green-chili tamales, Missoula, MT

Pork and chorizo-date-green-chili tamales, Missoula, MT

Roadtrip: Montana from ND border to Laurel

The Montana side of the badlands isn’t quite so eerie as North Dakota.  The spires and buttes are a bit more sedate, and the Yellowstone river (which I-94 and I-90 follow for several hours) flattens out a long stretch between the hills into a beautiful grasslands.  And again, dinosaurs!  Prehistoric stuff!

I started out in Glendive (no Airbnb but the Astoria hotel is quite nice and has a substantial AAA discount), which is right next to the Makoshika State Park.

Panorama of Makoshika State Park, Glendive, MT

Panorama of Makoshika State Park, Glendive, MT

Tons of dinosaur fossils have been dug up here, some of which can be found in the nearby Frontier Gateway Museum–free, not to be confused with the creationist museum next door, and with a very chatty docent–which also has a whole mini town of Old West stores in the backyard.  You can apparently still stumble across some; however, my sports car, which getting awesome mileage as a hybrid, was not built for the mostly dirt- and pebble, steep, scenic road.  I ended up parking it about a third of the way in, then hiking another mile in before running out of time.  Need to convince someone with a 4W/AWD vehicle to come back for me, since I believe I missed out on some of the best views.

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I will also say that Montana state parks have a pretty good deal.  You pay the day pass fee at one park ($6 for nonresident car) and get a permit, and it’s good for as many state parks as you can visit that day.  So I also managed to squeeze in the Pictograph Cave State Park.  Sadly, the main cave with most of the pictographs was closed due to a rockfall, but the whole area has a really lovely peaceful feel to it.  A ranger I ran into said that the ancient Native Americans considered it akin to a cathedral, and it does have that meditative feel to it.

It also has a lot of wildlife.  I spotted rabbits and birds, and the aforementioned ranger showed me a rattlesnake he had just removed from the trail (much smaller than it looks in the photo, maybe a couple feet long).  It was a good day for animal-spotting; I also saw some pronghorn next to the interstate.

And just before Pictograph State Park was the Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, where the Lewis & Clark expedition stopped and William Clark etched his name into a stone pillar (along with hundreds of others, including Native American predecessors).  The Pillar had a great view of the Yellowstone river.  It also seemed to be populated entirely by loud, chittering marmots, which are sort of furry sausages with a face.  Note: The federal government’s interagency annual pass ($80 covers all entrance fees to any federal area) is an awesome deal, too.

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Stopping point for the night was an Airbnb place in Laurel, an early 1900s Romantic house that has been restored with period fixtures by the owner (some being essentially “early whorehouse” in their words)  Host is amazingly knowledgeable about local history.  Also offered to take me fossil-hunting, but sadly, no time for that on this trip (all the cool spots in Montana seem to be hours and hours off the interstate, which I didn’t build in time for).  Next time.

P.S. What I dislike about roadtripping: having to constantly clean bug splats off the windshield.