American Road Trip: Magnificent Montana

I don’t know about other people but I always get stressed when I’m asked where my favorite place in the world is.  There are so many variables that it is impossible to answer accurately and I don’t want to give a half-assed answer to such an important question.  For example, the Lake District is one of my favorite parts of the UK for scenary, but I hate it when it is crowded with tourists.  Morocco is my favorite exotic country but I hate shopping there as I get harassed so much on the streets.  London is my favorite place for shopping but not on weekends and only for clothes.  And so it goes on.

In any case, I’m fairly confident that after this trip many people will ask what my favorite US state is and I’ll once again start getting all anxious about my reply.  I’d truly hate to have to pick only one when each state has something special to offer.  However, if it was a life or death situation and I absolutely had to make a choice I have a feeling I’d say Montana.  It might not offer the best transport connections or the highest rate of jobs in the US and I’m sure the winters can get pretty intense, but it left a huge impression on me and I hope I end up spending a lot more time there.

One of the more common nicknames for Montana is ‘Big Sky Country’ and whilst I’d argue that there are states whose skies feel a lot bigger, Montana just feels big in general.  And funnily enough, compared to other states like Texas and Alaska it really isn’t all that big yet something about the landscape makes it feel absolutely huge.

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I first experienced Montana when I traversed the Beartooth Highway on a day trip from Wyoming that you can click here to read about.  Since then I’d been to Yellowstone National Park and was now making my way to the far north of Montana so that I could drive through Glacier National Park.  I was going to base myself in the town of Kalispell that was quite a drive away, so on this first day that I was heading to Great Falls, Montana where I’d break the journey for the night.   The route took me north out of Wyoming onto the same high desert plain I passed through on my way to the Beartooth.  I eventually hooked up with Interstate 90, making the most of the 80mph speed limit as I headed east for a little while before picking up a state highway that took me northwest on a remote road through glorious grassland that seemed to be home to a number of ranches.

For a good two hours I shared the road with nothing more than the odd pick-up truck and any traffic I did see eventually turned off onto ranch land.  For the first time on this trip, (perhaps even the first time on any trip in America) I saw sheep grazing and was pleased to see they were eating green pasture as opposed to grain feed.  I also saw Bison that were being farmed along with the odd herd of cows.

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It was different to the grassland I’d seen in the Dakotas just because it was much hillier but also because of the huge snow-capped mountain ranges traversing the state.  I passed through some of the tiniest towns I’ve seen including Judith Gap (population 126) where the whole town was celebrating something outside the only restaurant with live music and dancing.  Later I passed through a settlement called Moccasin that was full of abandoned and decaying buildings, basically a living ghost town.  I looked it up later as it seemed like a place that would attract photographers and historians but there wasn’t much online about it so it remains a bit of a mystery.  Montana and the west in general is full of places like that which is what makes this part of America so exciting to drive through if you get off the beaten path.

After an uneventful night in Great Falls I kept traveling northwest to Kalispell on yet another stunning drive.  First I drove west through more open grassland to Seeley Lake, a beautiful little lake surrounded by steep forested hills.  From there the road largely hugged a narrow valley floor, snaking between two steep tree-covered mountainsides through Flathead National Forest.

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Shortly before Kalispell the road returns to flat open land with little forest but not before revealing the beautiful mountains of Glacier National Park in the distance.  Kalispell seemed like a fairly non-descript commercial center serving northern Montana.  The Canadian border is not too far away and the town serves as a main gateway to Glacier National Park as well as being one of the few bigger centers on that stretch of trans-continental US 2.  That made for an interesting mix of tourists, cross country travellers, adventurers and ranchers.

The next morning I made for Glacier National Park and was primarily focused on traversing the Going to the Sun Road, another hair raising ride that precariously clings to the huge mountains of the park.  It had only opened a week before I got there as it took that long to clear the winter snow and only stays open for a few months in summer, even then being prone to the odd closure due to summer snowfall.  It is possible to drive a loop through the National Park by doing the Going to the Sun Road in one direction, then connecting back to US 2, the road I had been on from Maine through Vermont and had left somewhere in New York.  After my diversion through the Great Lakes when US 2 heads into Canada for a while, I picked it up again for a few days through Minnesota and North Dakota.  So far it had been a beautiful route on all the parts I had driven so I was looking forward to being on it again in Montana.

I made my way from Kalispell to West Glacier where I would pick up the western end of the Going to the Sun Road.  After about an hour I entered the National Park and was surprised to find fairly light traffic.  The road instantly became enchanting as it wound its way around a beautiful lake that had the mountains perfectly reflected on its surface.  Unfortunately, from the narrow road it was often obscured by trees and there were limited turnouts with no warnings that they were coming up, so I was unable to get any photos.  I did however manage to snap a few of the majestic mountains through the forest.

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I was now in a convoy of about 5 cars and a motorbike and we quickly found ourselves climbing a steep and increasingly narrow road up the side of the first mountain.  In some ways it was reminiscent of the Beartooth Highway  but I felt it was slightly more tamed.  For example, a low stone wall had been constructed as a barrier along the entire mountain route so there was no feeling that a momentary lapse of concentration or a strong wind gust could topple me off the side.  The mountain was also largely covered in forest that somehow seemed more forgiving than the steep shingled drops that characterised my climb up the Beartooth.  But it was still slow going on a very steep gradient with lots of hairpin bends and switchbacks.

There were plenty of places to pull over to enjoy the incredible vistas.  Whilst the Beartooth seemed wild and forbidden, this was majestic and beautiful with many stunning peaks and snowmelt waterfalls.  I’d been told that Glacier National Park was the most likely place for me to spot bears so I kept my eyes peeled yet saw no animals at all other than the odd bird or squirrel.

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Before long I was at Logan Pass, the highest point on the road where there was a large turnout and I loved this spot.  It was essentially a snowfield that sloped steeply up to rocky mountain ridges with pines poking out here and there.  The deep blue sky, virgin white snow, dark green pines and bracing mountain air made this an unforgettable experience.

I spent longer than usual there just taking it all in and listening to lone birds occasionally interrupt the mountain silence.  Then a family parked up, unloaded and proceeded to yell a lot before starting a snow fight.  They missed each other but managed to hit myself and several other people who up until that point were also enjoying the silence.   Well it was nice whilst it lasted and I can’t have the world to myself I guess.  Sometimes when this kind of thing happens I remember a story I once read about Michael Jackson paying Harrods in London to open at night so he could shop alone.  At the time I thought that was extravagant and stupid but now I totally get it and would do the same thing if I had the cash.

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I drove down the other side of the pass and reached a valley floor much sooner than I expected.  There was another beautiful vast lake that I managed to get some more photos of and for once I was glad to be stuck in some road construction as it meant I could turn off the engine and just soak up the view without anybody throwing snowballs at me.

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The Going to the Sun Road was much shorter than I expected and my GPS took me on another shortcut to hook me up with US 2.  This road was virtually empty and in terrible condition but stunningly beautiful.  I remember crawling along around narrow turns on an uneven surface with a big smile on my face because this was the kind of mountain driving I liked.  The road was basically taking me through foothills but they were still steep, mostly covered in forest and gave me occasional peaks at various mountain vistas in the distance.   I eventually hit East Glacier Village, a cute little town where I decided to pick up some lunch at a tiny deli and ended up having the best clam chowder of the whole trip.  Who’d have thought that would happen so far from the ocean?

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The part of US 2 that heads west back to Kalispell goes right through Flathead National Forest and briefly through Glacier National Park again.  It is a wide road with sweeping bends and a few gentle yet high hills. Thick dark green forest grows right to the sides of the road for most of the way and it was also surprisingly quiet.  Various signs continued to warn of bear activity but I didn’t see any.  Still when I pulled over to eat a sandwich I’d bought from the same deli, I wasn’t quite ready to go and sit on my own by a nearby waterfall to eat it so I enjoyed the view from the car just in case.

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I was surprised that this  whole loop drive was so fast.  I think I left Kalispell at about 9am and was back by 2pm. The end of my road trip was near and I still had a lot of ground to cover, so the next morning I struck out on a long run to the West Coast that would eventually take me through Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California, but not before driving through more of Montana’s incredible landscape as I took a southwest course to hook up with Interstate 90 again.  It was a drab cloudy day with the occasional rain shower but that only added to the moodiness of the incredibly vast and remote grassy region I was driving through.  Towns were few and far between with only the odd farm building and occasional abandoned mine to break up the landscape.  It was yet another face of this wonderfully varied state and a fitting end to my journey through the American west.

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Highlights:  Glacier National Park & The Going to the Sun Road  |  The Beartooth Highway  |  Basically any driving in Montana

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