Western Montana

Glacier_NPMontana is a state of two halves. The eastern (much larger) part of the state is dominated by the vast rolling landscapes of the great plains, more similar to the Dakotas or Kansas than to any of the states to the west. The western part is dominated by massive mountain chains, including the mighty Rockies.

As much as I like the open sky of the great plains during our visit we were largely confined to the mountainous west of the state.

We entered Montana driving the I-90 from Spokane. Here this major freeway at times resembles more of a roller-coaster than the major road artery it is. There are none of the long tunnels or sweeping bridges of the Alpine roads in Europe, just lots and lots of tight curves. That makes driving it quite fun. But it is still a multi-lane motorway so we left it as soon as it was feasible and took some really minor local roads (in places controlled by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation) and headed north towards the Flathead Lake.

On our way we encountered the unique landscape of Camas Prairie. This distinct geographical region is a treeless and open area in an otherwise heavily forested and mountainous region. Its name comes from the Camassia plant which was once widely used by the Native Americans and the first white settlers as a food source. But now it is a place dominated by ranching. The landscape is somehow similar to the Great Plains with the exception of mountains visible in all directions and it all looks spectacular, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is getting lower. Late in the day is also the best time to examine the giant ripple marks visible from the Montana Hwy 382. These marks are essentially the same forms as the ripple marks you can see on a sandy bottom of a typical stream, or on a beach. The difference is the size as rather then mere inches here they measure 25 to 50 feet (7.6 to 15.2 m) high and 300 feet (91m) long. These rare geomorphological features were created during periodic cataclysmic floods in the last ice age, the same floods which carved the Grand Coulee in Washington state. Camas_Prairie

From the Camas Prairie Valley we headed towards the Rocky Mountains, passing along the picturesque Flathead Lake shore as well as through the suburban sprawling mess of Kalispell, which is the largest town in this part of the state. Then we finally stopped for the night in a small town right at the foothills of the Rockies. At the first motel we checked we were slightly put off by a skeleton, albeit plastic, hanging on the front porch. Sure, Halloween was just around the corner but the proprietor just didn’t fill us with confidence either.

The following day we started early as we really wanted to explore the Glacier National Park. Upon arrival at the gates of the park we learned that admission was free as it was National Public Lands Day. It was second time it happened to us, a couple of years ago we got in for free to the Grand Canyon National Park, both times it was an absolutely unplanned bonus saving.

Lake_McDonald_Lodge_1Our first stop inside the park was a loo stop in the beautiful Lake McDonald Lodge which, as the names suggests, is located on the banks of the namesake lake. It is a great example of the grand hotels built in a rustic resort style by the railway companies at the beginning of the 20th century to promote tourism in the American West. It might be not as grand as the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone but it is still an impressive building with its heavy timber frame (made of crudely finished logs), three-storey high lobby (where the timber frame is purposely exposed) and large stone fireplaces. It opened in 1914 and guests initially arrived there by boat. That explains why its current main entrance (from the parking lots) is somehow subdued in comparison as the road only reached it in 1921. The interior decoration, with skins and taxidermy mounts of native species might not be to everyone’s taste but overall the building is quite fun place for a short stop.Lake_McDonald_Lodge_Lobby

The best way to see the dramatic scenery of the park (without hiking for days) is to drive the spectacular, and aptly named Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is an absolute engineering marvel, a 50 miles long road, climbing all the way to the elevation of 6,646 feet (2,026 m) at Logan Pass where it crosses the Continental Divide. The road is narrow and winding, with tight hairpin turns, resembling narrow mountain roads in Italy or Spain more than anything in the US. However, built between 1921 and 1932 it is one of the first National Park Service projects specifically intended to accommodate the automobile-borne tourists which is as American an idea as it gets.Going_to_the_Sun_Road

We drove slowly uphill, stopping multiple times to admire the views and to take photos until we finally reached the top of Logan Pass.

Rocky_MountainsHere we decided to stretch our legs. First we chose to take the Highline Trail. It is about 18 miles long so we decided to follow it a bit and then backtrack. Luckily the most spectacular section stretches right from the Logan Pass. Here the trail follows a narrow ledge along the so called Garden Wall area, one of the most scenic areas in any national park in the US. In most places the ledge, hanging like a shelf, is only three to six feet wide, and has drop-offs of roughly a hundred feet or so down to the Going-to-the-Sun Road below. It is not a place for those who are scared of heights but it offers amazing vistas with no climbing involved as the trail is almost level. A perfect combination if you ask me; beautiful wild scenery and a bit of thrill but no sweat (unlike for example the also spectacular but extremely tiring Angel’s Landing trail in Zion NP). We walked for a while until we got stuck behind a group of hikers who got stuck behind a pair of mountain goats. As we passed the most spectacular part of the trail, rather than continuing slowly along we decided to head back to the main visitor centre at Logan Pass and try another trail from there.Highline_Trail_1

This time we chose the Hidden Lake Trail which, as the name suggests, leads to a lake. It slowly climbs via a series of boardwalks (to protect the fragile plants on the meadows) for 1.5 miles until it reaches an overlook offering a fine view of the lake and the surrounding amazing alpine scenery. The lake itself is a further 1.5 miles away but as the weather was threatening rain we decided to go back from the overlook.Hidden_Lake

Once we reached our car and were on our way out of the parking lot we got caught in one of the “bear jams”. As there was a bear, just a few hundred feet from the road, everyone was slowing down to see it and snap some shots. Of course we did the same. Luckily a park ranger was organizing the traffic to avoid a total standstill. It was a perfect end to our time in the highest part of the park. We saw a bear but from the safety of our car rather than on a trail (there were warnings about bear activity along the Highline Trail).

From Logan Pass the road heads east, dropping in elevation relentlessly until it reaches the end of the Rockies and the beginning of the prairies. It is amazing how sudden the change is. In well under an hour we had left the alpine scenery and threatening moody weather and entered the sunny countryside of eastern Montana, with its vast blue sky and open landscape (a landscape that stretches across several states as far as the Great Lakes, 1500 miles away). The eastern side of the Rockies is much drier and more sunny than their western slopes and it was clearly visible. Pure geography in action.

Overall the Glacier National Park is one of the most spectacular parks I have ever visited. The weather was a bit gloomy and moody, not unlike during our exploration of the Canadian Rockies a few days before, but it actually enhanced the majesty of the mountains. No, we don’t have the postcard-perfect sunny shots but on the other hand the lighting and shadows were constantly changing with every passing cloud, making things more interesting. Also, the dark skies and snow on the mountaintops were a constant reminder that we were in a wild territory. Logan_Pass

Now we only had a short drive north to enter the last region on our itinerary, the Canadian province of Alberta. We crossed the border at one of the small local crossings. No queues, no waiting, just a quick stop and we were back in Canada. More about it next time.

Mount St. Helens

Mount_St_HelensIt was my second attempt to see Mount St Helens. First time, more than a decade ago, the weather was so bad that we only managed to reach the first visitor centre located at Silver Lake, 30 miles from the mountain itself. There we were told that there was no point of going any further as due to dense fog and heavy rain the visibility was near zero and even from the furthest viewpoint up the road you couldn’t see the mountain.

This time things just couldn’t be different. We approached Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument on a glorious warm and sunny day, driving east from the main I-5 highway linking Seattle with Portland (and Canada with Mexico). Initially the state highway 504 looked like fairly scenic but an ordinary mountain road but after a few miles the landscape changed and we could see the first signs of the 1980 eruption and then the mountain itself.

Our first stop was the Mt. St. Helens Forest Learning Center located just inside the blast zone of the 1980 eruption. It is an establishment run by a slightly questionable partnership of Washington State Department of Transportation and companies cutting the forests in Washington State, namely the Weyerhaeuser giant. But hey, this is America, here even Disney rides are sponsored by big corporations. Still, the parking lot offered a great view of Mount St Helens and the river valley filled by debris and giant landslides produced by the (in)famous explosion. Postexplosion landslides

From then on the highway gets really spectacular, climbing the slopes of the valley and offering absolutely stunning views. It was built higher up after the explosion and avalanches caused by it wiped out the old road on the valley bottom. Because of that the current road is one of the most scenic I have ever driven. Especially on a beautiful crispy and sunny day and with very little traffic. There are no commercial services along the road so there is a pleasant lack of the usual clatter of advertising boards etc. Hwy_504

As the road nears the crater the landscape gets more and more barren with every turn and twist. Further from the blast the destroyed forests were quickly replanted and every year less and less scars in the landscape are visible. But here, as the highway climbs towards the final viewing point, the land is preserved as a part of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Scientists and the public can see how natural processes bring landscapes back to life after such huge destruction.

Here let me remind you that the 1980 explosion was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the last 100 years. On May 18, an earthquake, of magnitude 5.1, triggered a massive collapse of the north face of the mountain. It was the largest known debris avalanche in recorded history. The magma in St. Helens burst forth into a large-scale pyroclastic flow that flattened vegetation over 230 square miles (600 km2). The explosion could be heard 700 miles away (over 1000km) and the height of the mountain was reduced by by about 1,300 feet (400m). By any standards it was a big “boom”. Luckily it is a sparsely populated region so only 57 people died.

Johnston_Ridge_Observatory_1Finally, 52 miles from the I-5, we reached the end of the Hwy 504. Here, at the top of the ridge (and 4200 feet above sea level), overlooking the heart of the blast zone and the crater itself is located Johnston Ridge Observatory. It hosts exhibits focusing on the geological history of the volcano, eyewitness accounts of the explosion, and the science of monitoring volcanic activity. There is also a short movie about the explosion. But on a such great day we didn’t linger inside and headed straight back outside. There, on a little plaza with magnificent views of the volcano, one of the park rangers was giving talk about Mount St. Helens’ activity since the big explosion. Don’t forget it is still an active volcano. In fact there is a new volcanic dome growing inside the caldera. Such talks and ranger-led walks are great features of American national parks and I would recommend them to anyone interested in natural science (or in some parks, like for example Mesa Verde, history).

Boundary_TrailFrom the observatory we followed the paved trail full of day trippers before taking the Boundary Trail #1 east along the ridge. Here crowds quickly thinned out and we could admire nature in peace. To the south, in the distance, Mount St Helens was looming over us while below we saw the landscape of destruction of the 1980 explosion and subsequent lahars and mudflows. Even on the quite high ridge which the trail was following the trees were wiped out by the blast. In places we could see remains of large trunks broken like matches. But apart from destruction one can also see how life is coming back to this landscape. Where after the explosion was only barren rock and debris now we could see grasses, wild flowers and even shrubs and small trees (in more protected and less windswept locations). There was even a cheeky chipmunk feasting on flowers. It is definitely one of the most interesting and spectacular hikes I have ever done.Trunks

After backtracking to the observatory we drove down to Coldwater Lake. It was created when the landslides slid into the North Fork Toutle River valley and blocked the flow of Coldwater Creek. Water backed up behind the landslide deposit, gradually forming a lake. It was initially larger but there were concerns about stability of the debris dam and part of the lake was drained by the engineers. Now it is a peaceful spot but there are still remains of trees destroyed during the explosion visible, some of them standing in shallow water by the banks of the lake. It is a clear reminder of the unusual circumstances in which the lake was born. After a short walk along the shore we decided to have a late lunch consisting our usual diet of bagels, ham, cheese and canned iced tea. Here I have to mention that I find the provision of picnic facilities excellent in the national parks as well as various state parks across the United States. You Coldwater_Lake_2are never far from a picnic table. In fact they are plentiful even on rest areas along the major interstates (motorways) and even there they are often nicely arranged between the trees and far from the road. Unfortunately after the lunch it was time to head back to civilization as Portland was awaiting us.

I’m really glad I finally managed to visit Mount St Helens. It is one of the most interesting and most spectacular parks I have visited on the North American continent so far. Up there with the Grand Canyon, canyons of Utah (Zion, Bryce, Arches), the rugged Canadian Rockies in Banff and Jasper and the unique historic dwellings of Mesa Verde in Colorado. Highly, highly recommended.Landscape_of_destruction


Downtown VancouverMany organizations publish regular lists of cities ranking them by liveability or, in other words, the quality of life. Some of the lists are more respectable than others but most of them put Vancouver very high or even on top. There must be something in it. This year I finally had a chance to visit this famous city and compare it to the nearby (by North American standards) favourites of mine, Seattle and Portland.

Before entering the city proper we drove to its satellite community of Horseshoe Bay which is one of the main terminals for the BC Ferries. They link mainland British Columbia with Vancouver Island and other smaller islands. Also here, the Trans-Canada Highway meets the Pacific Ocean. I always like visiting ferry terminals because they offer a great feel of anticipation, travel and adventure. Horseshoe_Bay_1Also, I really like big boats (in fact I like most big machines) so I couldn’t skip Horseshoe Bay. It was a small and pleasant community with a busy harbour. Apart from the giant and colourful BC Ferries there were numerous pleasure boats as well as water taxis taking commuters to their homes along the coast. Add a few fish & chips joints, a café or two and you end up with a nice place indeed.

But we didn’t linger as it was time to head to Vancouver itself. On the way from Horseshoe Bay we crossed the iconic Lion’s Gate Bridge which is Vancouver’s equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Yes, it is smaller and green rather than striking red but it is still a gracious and well proportioned suspension bridge. Also, like in San Fran, it connects the city with its very affluent suburbs to the north.Lions_Gate_1

Immediately south of the bridge we stopped in Stanley Park which is a huge piece of a near wilderness on the doorsteps of Vancouver’s downtown. It covers 1001 acres and is almost completely surrounded by the waters of Vancouver Harbour and English Bay. There is a convenient parking lot right next to the bridge which allowed us to quickly get on it to admire a fantastic panorama of the city.

From the bridge we headed down to a path which circumnavigates the park along the coast. It is normally bustling with walkers, cyclist and rollerbladers but we were there on an early evening of a grey and cloudy day and found the path pleasantly deserted. We walked quite far west of the bridge, well past the spectacular outcrop of Siwash Rock. By that time it was getting seriously dark so we decided to head back to the car and drive to the motel we booked well south of downtown. We got a bit lost on our way (as I don’t use satnavs and it was a busy Friday evening traffic) but got there eventually. Our motel was located in a heavily Vietnamese neighbourhood so we could end our day with some great Asian food.

BC_Anthropology_Museum_1The next day started miserably. It was raining. No, it was actually pouring. Unfortunately the forecast predicted rain for most of the day so we couldn’t simply wait for an improvement. Luckily there is the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and that’s where we decided to spend some rainy time. It turned out to be an excellent decision as it is one of the best museums I have ever visited. It displays a great collection of totem poles and other art created by the First Nation of the Canadian Pacific Northwest. These were some of the most sophisticated societies in the pre-Columbian North America and it is clearly visible in their amazing wood carvings. I also liked the museum building itself. Designed in 1976 by Arthur Erickson it is inspired by the post-and-beam architecture of the northern Northwest Coast and made primarily of barren structural concrete which contrasts well with the mostly wooden artefacts displayed inside.BC_Anthropology_Museum_2

After lunch in the museum’s cafe there was no escaping the fact that we had no choice but to battle the rain. After a short drive to the downtown we left the underground car park and walked towards the nearby waterfront and the spectacular buildings of the Canada Place. After just a few blocks I was swearing profusely as we were wet, my camera was wet and there was no sign of any break in the rain.

Vancouver_GastownAfter buying an umbrella (to protect my camera) and after rain eased off a bit we continued our walk through the historic Gastown district which was named after “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a Yorkshire seaman, steamboat captain and barkeeper who arrived in 1867 to open the area’s first saloon. It is somehow ironic that the district’s landmark, the world famous Gastown Steam Clock, was actually only build in 1977. Lots of people think that it is as historic as the whole neighbourhood but the clock is actually “only” my age.

Pacific_Central_StationBy the time we got to Chinatown it was raining properly again. We quickly passed it and hid inside the grand-looking Pacific Central Station. This grey, imposing, stony building is the western terminus of the cross-country train to Toronto, aptly named The Canadian.

Then it stopped raining again so we decided to head back to downtown and try to see at least a bit of it before dusk. Initially we walked along the shore of False Creek which is a short inlet of English Bay that offers great panoramic views of Vancouver’s many skyscrapers. Even on a cloudy, misty and grey day they looked quite impressive. I can only imagine how great it might all look on a sunny day. Anyway, soon we entered the narrow canyons of the downtown streets and after some wandering ended up back on the waterfront by Canada Place. By now it was really getting dark but there were some final rays of the sunset, just visible in the narrow space between the horizon and the low clouds. It created some great lighting effects on the glass facades of all the condo towers which nowadays dominate the waterfront.Downtown_3

One of the waterfront buildings has a roof garden which offers a great view of the seaplanes taking off and landing at Vancouver Harbor Flight Centre, a water aerodrome located just a few feet from the waterfront. It is a great spectacle and immediately brings to mind all the iconic images of bush pilots and the Canadian wilderness, even here among all the modern towers of downtown Vancouver. After plane spotting for a while it was time to go. It was already dark and we still had to retrieve our car from the parking garage and drive to the motel we booked in a distant suburb of Vancouver, well on the way to the US border. Vancouver_Harbor_Flight_Centre

So, how was Vancouver? First, I have to say that weather definitely didn’t let us enjoy it as much as we wanted. But the city definitely seems to have a good vibe. Its downtown is dense and walkable, the location and scenery are simply fantastic, there are a lot of striking new buildings and the population is multicultural and open-minded. Is it better than Seattle or, especially, my beloved Portland? I don’t think so. At least that’s the judgement until I visit Vancouver during some spell of good weather.