One advantage of traveling in the spring or late fall is that roads are not crowded and reservations are not usually needed. But as with everything, there are also disadvantages. US 36 was not open through Rocky Mountain National Park in 2012 when we were there. Going to the Sun road through Glacier National Park will not be open until June 20 (estimated) this year, so only the western third of the park was available to us. Nonetheless, it was worth seeing.
We planned to drive more or less straight north from Missoula, but we noticed that by driving Montana 200 east for a bit, we could pick up Montana 83 north. 83 was marked as a scenic highway.
Only in Montana would 200 not be marked as scenic. Leaving Missoula, one passes through the narrow valley Hellgate, the site where Salish/Flathead Indians were frequently attacked and killed by the Blackfeet (The Indians killed each other over territory too.). French trappers named it when they saw the remains of so many bodies there.
We turned around on the road and drove back to get some pictures of Rocky Mountain sheep. They were so used to automobile traffic, we didn’t even startle them when we stopped.
Perhaps 83 gets the scenic designation because the entire road is along a narrower valley with spectacular mountains on each side and beautiful lakes up the middle.
Because it is close to a city, however, there were lots of vacation homes along the way, so it did not seem as isolated. But we did find an empty state park, Swan Lake, where we could stop for a picnic and walk.
Reaching Glacier National Park, we decided to stay at Lake McDonald Lodge which was celebrating its 100th anniversary. There have actually been lodges on the site since 1895 when homesteader George Snyder opened the Snyder Hotel. John Lewis, the builder of the 1914 Lodge, acquired the property and had many famous visitors including his painter buddy Charles Russell who maintained a studio on the property for several years.
Maintaining a historic old building must be expensive, and costs must be covered in a relatively short season; the lodge just opened Memorial Day weekend, a few days before we arrived. Therefore the prices are beyond the reach of most young families. But there are other lodges, cabins with kitchenettes and camping is available in the park too. I just wish the Park Service would build some modern (i.e., insulated) motels for people of lesser means (think Motel 6).
Meals, however, were no more expensive than in Ketchum (still not Ronald McDonalds prices) and were very good.
A ranger told us the best places to drive and showed Alie accessible places that she could walk. As we were early and our room wasn’t ready, we took one of those trails to McDonald Falls. We would not have found the trail without the ranger’s help. Another harder route was marked, but the relatively flat walk we had was not.
We then continued driving on a dirt road around the end of the lake. I was surprised to find private cabins along the lake, in-holdings surviving from the homesteaders who were there in the 19th century before the creation of the National Park. However,
owners have to pack in everything they need for a stay over that one-lane dirt road (with occasional narrow spots to pass on-coming cars), and I noticed they all had outhouses behind their cabins. They would also have to deal with the summer tourist traffic on that road going to a park trailhead. Their view was beautiful, but I wouldn’t choose that location.
As it was not late, we walked The Trail of The Cedars nature walk which was very peaceful until there was a sound like a rifle shot. When I looked up, I had the unusual experience of seeing a large tree falling in the forest. Fortunately, we were nowhere near it.
It rained that night, so I stopped at the visitor’s center just to make sure the dirt road we had chosen for the next day was still passable. The ranger said it was, and since we were going that direction anyway, suggested we drive to Bowman Lake.
Bowman Lake was beautiful even on a day when the mountain tops were hidden by clouds. Every now and then, the sun would peek through shining on a mountain and giving us a tantalizing hint of what it must be on a sunny day.
We met a couple who had just retired last year. They were working as campground hosts in the park and had a couple days off. They loaded up two kayaks and were about to set off for a night at the other end of the lake. Then, when we returned from a walk along a trail on one side of the lake, we met a couple young men from Missoula who were unloading their canoe.
They were amazed we had driven all the way from Florida. We were amazed their canoe had skies and ski boots in it. They had canoed to the end of the lake where they camped and climbed up to the snow fields to ski.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped in Polebridge at a RV park restaurant just recently purchased by a young couple from Texas. The restaurant still didn’t have a kitchen. She was cooking in her home kitchen and heating up the food as necessary on electric burners. But the conversation was good, and her fresh huckleberry pie was excellent.
We finished the day driving 17 miles from West Glacier to Columbia Falls to a car wash. Once again, the car was so dirty we couldn’t get in or out without risking mud all over our clothes. On our next trip out west, I will budget for frequent car washes.