Friday, 18 December 2015

Montana aka 'Home on the Range'

Last year, our fall road trip took us into the northern edges of Montana.  It piqued our curiosity enough that we decided we needed to see a little more.  What began as a one week 2,760 km (1,714 mi) road trip encompassing about 31 hours of driving time, transformed itself into one week 3,200 km (1,988 mi) and 37 hours Montana self-guided tour AND we managed to sneak in the northern edges of Wyoming to boot.  While meandering off course was partially due to some navigation foibles on our part--we are only human, after all--there is also that naturally occurring phenomenon called weather.  Yes, people, even in September, it's possible to run into blizzard conditions and road closures, particularly at high elevations.  

We woke up bright and early on a beautiful Saturday September morning and hit the road. While my goal was to push it a little, Eric was determined to spend Night 1 in Hungry Horse, Montana.  Located near the western entrance to Glacier National Park and often used as a staging area for the Going to the Sun Highway, you can learn a little more about both destinations in

Chief Mountain
We chose the Peigan Port of Entry, at Babb, Montana, simply because it was the road less travelled.  If rolling hills, golden fields, and mixed forest presented on a mountain backdrop appeals to you, this route is worth considering.  If you're an outdoor enthusiast, fisherman or hunter, Montana is the place to be.    Located at the northeastern edge of Glacier National Park and the Blackfoot Indian Reservation, this prominent peak forms part of the Rocky Mountain Front, extending from southern Alberta into Central Montana. With a 1,524 metre (5,000') gain over the Great Plains, Chief Mountain is one of the most photographed mountains in the region due to its unique nature.   Sacred to many First Nations peoples who travel from all over North America to its base for sweet grass ceremonies, placing of prayer flags and other religious rites, many believe that near the end of days, a Great White God will appear at its top and the mountain would then crumble and be destroyed.

Breathtaking Scenery + Hairpin Curves
 = Maria's Pass
We continued our trek south; to Browning before continuing west to Columbia Falls, through Maria's Pass.  The lowest pass through the Continental Divide, and the only one open year-round, Maria's Pass offers some of the best scenic views in the US.  I'm told it's a favourite for railroad lovers who come here to see the trains making their way across the Continental Divide.

Again, we continued south, tracking the eastern edge of the Flathead Lake, through the picturesque communities of Big Fork and Ronan, to Missoula.  Located at the confluence of no less than five mountain ranges and three rivers, with a population in the vicinity of 70,000, Missoula is not only a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, it seems to sport a pretty healthy cultural community, not to mention, it's home to the University of Montana, the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, brewing companies too numerous to name, and hosts the River City Roots Music Festival every August.
Missoula Whimsical Street Art

As we strolled along the streets, we were approached by a community minded volunteer working to promote Missoula's downtown.  He was kind enough to provide us with a map and some directions to some of the City's unique features.  Sadly, we arrived in Missoula on a Sunday and one thing we learned about Montana is that Sunday is reserved for family; very few stores or venues were open.  While we may not have had the opportunity to enjoy all that Missoula has to offer, it seemed to be brimming with a kind of quirky sense of humour that we enjoyed immensely.  By midafternoon, we were on the road to Whitehall, where we overnighted so that we could ready for an early morning tour of Lewis &  Clarke Caverns.  

The Caverns.  If you haven't been you really should.  Originally introduced to them when I was 10, my brother and I were well into adulthood and still talking about them, they made that much of an impression on us.  One of my most vivid memories was the method that groups were transported to the mouth of the cave, something akin to train built of roller coaster cars dragged up the mountainside. Truth or not, in my mind, my dad and I sat in the very front car, facing into a very deep gorge.  Alas, due to erosion problems, the rollercoaster train has been replaced with a sturdy 20 minute uphill walk which is guaranteed to get your heartrate up but won't kill you.   From there, it's all downhill. . . literally. . . a  3 km (2 mile) walk descending about 7 stories through a labyrinth of stalactites and stalagmites that, while always interesting, are at times, a work of art courtesy of Mother Nature.
Lewis & Clark Caverns

Discovered long before by First Nations Peoples, tours began in the Caves as early as 1900.  Named after Meriweather Lewis and William Clark as about 50 miles of the trail of the Lewis & Clark Expedition can be seen from the mouth of the Cave, neither Lewis or Clark actually ever saw the Caverns.  Rated as one of the top 5 attractions in the US, it's well worth the $14 admission fee and the trek up.  It gets busy so you might want to plan on being there when the gates open.

Virginia City
Another highlight of my childhood visit to Montana was Virginia City, a gold mining town sporting a mix of authentic history alongside modern-day conveniences.  Self described as being frozen in time, with a population nearing 10,000 in 1864, at last census there was a mere 132 souls.  If truth be told, at 10, I fell in love with the candy shop.  Sadly, the candy shop no longer holds the same level of interest, though I admit I had to use some serious self constraint not to buy a whoopee cushion, a purchase from my last visit that my mother was anything but pleased about. . . and the, one day, it mysteriously disappeared. . . .  

Hebgen Lake
As we travelled along, we began to see  signs along the road pointing to an historic site dubbed 'the night of terror'.  In 1959, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck just west of Yellowstone National Park, causing a massive landslide that blocked the Madison River below Hebgen Lake, killing 28 people. The strongest earthquake in Montana's recorded history, some areas dropped by as much as 6m (20').  

Hibernation Station, West Yellowstone, MO
Upon arriving in West Yellowstone around midday, our plan was to stay the night in this lovely little resort community strategically located at the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  I admit, we got a little panicky when every motel seemed to be sporting a flashing NO VACANCY.  We were eventually referred to the local tourist information centre. Apparently, we were not the only ones flying by the seat of our pants when it came to accommodations.  While I had read that finding accommodation inside the Park should be booked well in advance, it hadn't occurred to us that we should be applying these same rules to areas just outside of the Park.  Silly us.  The practice of the tourist information centers keeping a list of available rooms was our saving grace as I do believe we just may have landed the very last room in town.  While it wasn't cheap, we found ourselves settling into a family suite at the Hibernation Station.  While the name sounds a wee bit hokey, the grounds and the number of large carved statuary was pretty darn impressive.  Fitted  with a full kitchen, 3 queen beds and a pullout couch, with a separate master bedroom adjoining a spacious bathroom with whirlpool we were thinking we were pretty special. . . until the roof leaked. . . considerably.  By morning there was a sizable puddle not only in the kitchen but smack dab in the middle of that lovely master bedroom bed.  When we reported this incident at checkout the following morning, there didn't seem to be any great surprise; that said, we received a decent discount on our credit card charge which was greatly appreciated. 
Free Roaming Bison
Fountain Paint Pots
Our visit to Yellowstone Park was somewhat dampened, literally speaking, by the copious amount of rain and fog but there are a few sites that are still pretty impressive.  In terms of wildlife, we saw three of the Big Five, being buffalo, bear, elk, mountain sheep and antelope.  Alas, no bear or sheep to be seen though I'm told one can almost always find the sheep near Mammoth Hotspings.   Watching herds of bison grazing is a pretty awesome spectacle.  We loved the wildlife, mudpots and fountains.  I remember my brother and I being slightly disappointed in Old Faithful as children, perhaps because of the long wait we had to endure.  As adults,  we suffered the same fate.  Due to poor weather, yes, it was actually snowing, we were unable to visit the Canyon, fondly dubbed, 'the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone', but we were told by other tourists that it is a magnificent sight.

Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
Beartooth  All American Road
Having learned a little something from our West Yellowstone experience, we spent some time making motel accommodations for Jackson, Wyoming, south of Yellowstone Park and Cody, Wyoming, near the east entrance, two very cool cities which I'll discuss in a later post.  Our plan was to cut across from Cody to the Beartooth All American Road via the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway.  The Bylaw is every bit as scenic as the name implies.  The hiccup in the plan was the ranging snow storm that caused the Beartooth to be closed.  I'm told the Beartooth is not for the feint of heart in a sports car in good weather; trust me when I tell you, the incidence of hair-raising is extensive in in-climate weather!

I like to think everything happens for a reason.  Had we not been forced to take another route, we would not have had the pleasure of experiencing Livingstone.  With a population of around 15,000, Livingston was originally a railway town.  When the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway moved its repair shop out of Livingston in the 1980s, the city had to overcome this major setback and today it  boasts a number of diverse industries and businesses.  In fact, Livingstone heads the national list as the most desirable place to live. Having been immediately seduced by its charm, we clearly understand why.  Located on the Yellowstone River, the longest free flowing river in the US, it is home to some of the best trout fishing in the world. Considered a sportsman's paradise the City boasts many experienced guides and outfitters. Livingston shows great pride in its rich history through its downtown, which harkens back to the days of Calamity Jane, with boutiques, cafes and art galleries featuring some very talented Western artists.    I have to tell you, as much as I am and always will be a Canadian, I could see myself fitting into this charming little community at least on a part-time basis.
Livingston, Montana

The last evening of our journey was spent in Havre, as we once again made our way toward the Alberta Border, this time crossing at the Port of Wild Horse. Originally named Bullhook Bottom, Havre is also a railway town of about 10,000 population. Home to Montana State University - Northern, there is also a strong agricultural economy. There is something a little different about Havre; there is an underground area of the City. Constructed at least one hundred years ago, what is now known as 'Havre Beneath the Streets'  has been a host to a brothel, Chinese laundromat, saloon, drugstore, at least three opium dens and rooms used for smuggling alcohol during Prohibition.

While our arrival and departure times didn't give us an opportunity to explore the City, I do believe a little bit of Texas may have somehow rubbed off on Havre, at least when it comes to the size of the drinks. After ordering a double bourban on the rocks, Eric was much surprised when the very congenial waitress presented him with a tumbler filled to the brim.  Born and raised in Havre, our waitress was a true hostess in every sense of the word, sharing her vast knowledge of her community.  And in case you're wondering, Eric drank the whole thing! Thankfully, our hotel was right across the street!

So, there's a little bit about Montana for you.  If you are a lover of the great outdoors, you will certainly find much to amuse yourself in this wonderful state.  While the scenery is what held our interest from beginning to end of our journey, so too did the friendliness of its residents.  Montana hangs out a welcome sign to all who wish to venture in.

A final note about Montana, we were somewhat surprised, upon entering back into Alberta at the Port of Wild Horse, to find there was no Duty Free. Apparently all border crossings do not have a Duty Free.  In fact, the crossing to the east, the Port of Willow Creek, and to the west, the Port of Whitlash also do not have Duty Free. Alas, we missed our opportunity to add to our stock of Baileys and Bourban, our traditional 'vacation' drink of choice.  Oh well, live and learn!