Big Sky Country (Montana)
Glacier National Park - This national park was the main tourist attraction for our journey this past year and trust me, it did not disappoint. We spent an entire week exploring this place and could have done a few more days of hiking. For sure, this is definitely one place to which we will return. We met someone who told us that the glaciers will be gone in less than 50 years so if you are thinking about visiting this park, now is the time. In the meantime, Steve took a ton of pictures that try to capture the awesomeness of this park, so please enjoy them.
Our first adventure was to drive the "Going to the Sun" road which takes you from the western part of the park to the very eastern section. Since we have driven Pikes Peak a couple of times and hated that, Steve watched a YouTube video to see if he could get a feel for whether or not the BAT would survive the trip, and thank God that he did. There are sections of this road that are very narrow for a two-lane highway (actually it was more like a lane and one-half) and considering the BAT takes up all available space in the lane as it is, we decided to rent a vehicle for one day just to make this drive.
We had heard that the parking lots fill up pretty early so we arrived at the park at 6:30 am. The park at morning light is breathtaking. The sounds of nature are at their peak and it was blissful to drive the roads and just "be" there. Our goal was to hike to Hidden Lake so we drove to Logan Pass Visitor Center to embark on our journey. As we were pulling up to the parking lot, a bellbottom goat crossed the street right in front of us and stopped and posed for Steve. What a hoot and what a major gift that was for me as the bellbottom goat (aka mountain goat) is the one animal that I haven't seen in the wild and have longed to see since we went to Yellowstone some 15 years ago with Bev and Larry Miller.
Anyway, we arrived at the parking lot at 8:00 am and it was just about full already - maybe 5 spots left for parking. We thanked God that we did our homework and beat the crowds and then headed up the mountain to Hidden Lake. This is a 3-mile hike up some 700 feet, so a good bit of exercise on a good day. Unfortunately for us, about half of the route was snow-covered making for slow going and slippery steps. What should have taken about an hour to hike took more like 3, but it was totally worth it. About 3/4 of the way up there is a flat spot that was cleared of snow and there we saw rock sheep (aka big horn sheep) and more bellbottom goats. COOLNESS!!!! Both were losing their winter coats so not the most beautiful site, but it was awesome nonetheless. When we arrived at the first overlook, we were informed that the additional 4-mile hike down to the lake was closed because of bear sightings in the area. Regardless, the view from the top of the mountain to the lake below was spectacular. After lunch and viewing many waterfalls, we continued eastward to St. Mary’s Visitor Center to complete the "Going to the Sun" drive.
In addition to that hike, we also took the trail that led us out to Avalanche Lake. That was another wonderful hike of about 6 miles roundtrip. Again, it had about a gain of 700 feet in elevation but most of that was in a shady forested area, so the heat (it was close to 100 degrees every day) wasn't really an issue. Anyway, we had no idea what to expect but were told that this was the most beautiful place in the park, and it was not over-sold at all. When we arrived at the lake, it was a beautiful site for sure. But what took our breath way was the mountains that lined the lake had 7 waterfalls coming down them and running into that lake. WOW! How cool was that? Three of them were major falls whose water was rushing so hard you could clearly hear it. We sat and had our lunch and just took in God's awesomeness. What a great day!
We did some other shorter hikes throughout the park, visited other park locations like Many Glacier and Polebridge, and just enjoyed ourselves immensely. We didn't hesitate to avail ourselves of the local delicacies made from huckleberry - - world famous huckleberry bear claws from the Polebridge market, and a huckleberry shake from a local hamburger joint (no hamburgers, however, as we are still vegetarians). Our last trip was to visit the Hungry Horse Dam and lake. We kept passing the sign for this facility every time we went to the park so we decided to check it out and WOW, what a surprise. It's so well-hidden and back off the road that we had no idea of the size of the dam or the lake at all. Both were fairly sizable and it was a nice surprise to see. For some reason we have developed an interest in hydro power because we continue to visit these dam locations. HA HA!!!
From Glacier we ventured southeast to Great Falls. What an adorable little town. We spent time exploring the Missouri River here for various reasons - - 1) because of our new found interest in hydro power and the fact that there are 5 dams within a 20 mile stretch along this river; and 2) because we are both intrigued by Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery journey and Great Falls happens to be a critical location along their path. In 1805, Merriweather Lewis went ahead of the rest of the Corp to scout out the route for the team to take when he happened upon the 80-foot waterfall from which Great Falls gets its name. He ventured further down the river to find four more waterfalls and determined that the best way for the Corps of Discovery to move forward was to portage on land passed all of these waterfalls - - some 18 miles. If you think that it's a simple "pick up your canoe and walk" kind of journey, this picture of portaging should dispel that notion. I know that I have mentioned this book in the past, but I urge you to pick up "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose. It's a great story.
Since the weather was so hot, we decided to take a little boat trip down the Missouri and see the "Gates of the Mountains" pass that Merriweather Lewis wrote about in his journal. On our ride, we were blessed with the opportunity to see many bald eagles and osprey and even saw an osprey taunting an eagle over a nesting location. The limestone walls of this canyon are about 1000 feet high and were very imposing but lent themselves to cool rock formations that made the journey downriver interesting. We also learned about a significant wildfire that happened back in 1949 called the Mann Gulch Fire. Interesting, but sad, story.
A couple of other things we did in Great Falls was visiting the Buffalo Jump National Monument where we learned just how important the buffalo was to the native Americans. When we arrived in Great Falls, we noticed a considerable haze over the whole city and learned from the park ranger here that it was smoke from all the wildfires in the area. She told us that Great Falls is actually a beautiful place to live because it is surrounded by mountains, but because of the haze, we could not see any of those mountains. The biggest of the wildfires was caused by a lightning strike that hit about 30 miles south of where we were and was still not completely contained when we left a week later.
Additionally, we visited Fort Benton which is about 40 miles north of Great Falls. What an absolutely adorable little town that was built in the late 1880's and was the first settlement in Montana. We visited two great museums there that tell about life along the Upper Missouri River - - Museum of the Upper Missouri and the Museum of the Northern Great Plains. After lunch, we did some geocaching and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. Later that day, we stopped to see the Great Spring State Park. This was such a beautiful little park along the Missouri that was accidentally stumbled upon by Captain William Clark as they Corps of Discovery was portaging upriver. The water was absolutely crystal clear but very cold.
The last exciting thing we did in Great Falls was to go to the Air Show at the local "international" airport (which probably means they fly into Canada from there because the airport was not huge). Anyway, the AIr Force Thunderbirds were flying that day and since we had never seen them perform, we thought we would brave the 95 degree heat and go to the show. Despite the fact that the show managers had no idea how to manage traffic flow, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The Thunderbirds were awesome and the sound of those roaring enginFort Peckes was the coolest.
From Great Falls, we ventured east to a little place called Fort Peck. We decided to stop here because of the huge lake but were pleasantly surprised by the unique, art-deco dam (yes, once again we visited a dam). We toured the dam and met a lovely young lady named Katie who has lived in the area her entire life. When we asked her what there was to do in the area, she told us "you don't have to go far from here to be in the middle of nowhere" which meant, enjoy the lake and be happy with that!!!! We went into the town of Fort Peck and what a shocker that was. We drove around the entire town and saw not a single person - - I mean neighborhoods and downtown area were completely dead. It was like an episode of The Walking Dead and I was waiting for the zombies to appear at any moment. Cute town with a great theater, but apparently the people go into their homes and stay there. I saw some evidence of life because a sprinkler was running, but outside of that, nothing.
Well, that's it for Montana. We loved it and will definitely be back. It's a rather diverse state with the beauty of the mountains and lush forests at one end, high desert in some areas and then miles and miles of prairie in the east. All through it, though, the small-town charm of the people came through. I highly recommend a visit to experience "Big Sky" country. You can see for miles and miles and the night sky is breathtaking.
Alrighty then, folks. Our next blog will encompass North Dakota and Minnesota and our journey through Iowa and Indiana to get back to Michigan/Ohio where our families (with the exception of two of our children) reside. Until then, God bless each of you and stay cool!!!!
Love, Lauren and Steve