Tag Archives: Montana

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.

How a trip is born

Some people may wonder how I decide to visit the places I do. Let’s face it, apart from obvious destinations like Southern California, Florida or NYC I have also gone to places like Ozark Hills in Arkansas, Bismarck in North Dakota and Upper Peninsula of Michigan too. Why? How did I choose these random locations? Well, it is a bit difficult to explain, but let me try.

It all usually starts about this time of year, in the miserable London winter months. It is cold, it is dark and commuting is a real pain. On such days any random distraction can be an inspiration. It could be an advert online, an article in some newspaper or a TV programme. But most often it is just me simply daydreaming in front of my bookcase or my trusted collection of maps.

Let’s take this winter. In the last few weeks I started seriously thinking about going to Wyoming and Montana at some point in 2015. Why?

In fact I have already visited parts of Wyoming and Montana in 2009, mostly around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. In case of Wyoming I traversed the whole western part of the state from south to north. But in Montana’s case I only crossed the narrow wedge squeezed between Yellowstone and Idaho, no more than 12 miles in total. Now, as I already mentioned before, I’m trying to visit all the US states and my count is currently at 47, including Montana. I do include it because I stopped for a few hours in the town of West Yellowstone, where I had an interesting chat about employing Eastern European students for summer jobs with a lady who runs the Subway franchise and used to employ lots of Slovaks. It was one of those slightly weird encounters you can have in small town America, particularly when you travel off season.West Yellowstone

Anyway, claiming that a 12 mile drive across a state which is about the size of Britain, Ireland, Netherlands and Belgium put together is a proper visit, is a bit of a cheat, or at least stretching it.

So, that was the starting point which drew my attention to Montana and Wyoming. I began looking at maps and atlases and slowly the idea of a trip started materializing. I realised that I could fly to Denver and start my adventure there. Denver sounds like a nice place and at the same time is probably the largest US city I haven’t visited yet. Conveniently it also has a large hub airport (which means cheaper flights and easier connection with Europe). Of course the region I had in mind is a huge place so I started thinking which way and where to go. Should I explore the Rocky Mountains in depth or rather venture into the Great Plains? What should be the focal point of my trip? Every trip needs some special destination.

At the moment I’m inclined to head to the Great Plains as it is one of my favourite regions in America. I have visited the Northern Plains (both Dakotas and Nebraska) in 2010 and the Southern Plains (Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas panhandle) in 2011 and immensely enjoyed both trips. I absolutely love the open spaces and the long drives which any trip to this part of the world involves.

I have also chosen Glacier National Park as the ultimate destination for this trip. Being located almost a thousand miles from Denver it offers a long enough journey to allow me to enjoy the vastness of the region. It also seems to be a damn spectacular park, at least judging by the photos.

Now, knowing the starting point as well as the ultimate destination I started plotting some routes using online maps. This is an activity which I always find a real fun thing to do. I guess it might be my geographer’s spirit but I really enjoy to plot and replot different routes trying to think how much time will I have, how much time will I need, what attractions can I include along the way and what the most scenic route can be. The end result is something like this:Montana and Wyoming anticipated trip map

Don’t worry, having such plans don’t really take the fun out of exploring as I never actually stick to them too rigidly. It is more of an inspiration than a strict set of directions. I usually find other interesting places along the way, and change my route accordingly. In fact the closer I get to the later parts of my planned route the more I deviate from the original plans. In the past it happened that I went to completely different states than I had initially planned. Sometimes it is due to the weather, sometimes due to my mood, sometimes I just spot something on a map or a road sign; the bottom line is that what for some might look like a precise route prescription for me is only a suggestion.

After the map is drawn I usually try to learn more about the region I’m planning to visit. I want to know more about its geography, history, people and politics. Some information I find online, some in the guidebooks but I also try to find interesting non fiction books which offer good background reading introducing me to local history and other aspects of the place.

For example I have just finished two interesting books about Montana and the Great Plains in general.

The first one, Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban, describes the process of settling the plains of eastern Montana in early 1900s. It was an era of optimism and faith in science and development of new agricultural techniques. Thousands of migrants from eastern states but also from Germany, Scandinavia and Britain were encouraged by railway companies as well as by the government agencies to settle the marginal lands of Montana and the Dakotas. In countless books, brochures and posters they were promised practically the second garden of Eden. However, after a few promising, but also unusually wet, years the real climate and environment of the region revealed itself to the hapless homesteaders who left in droves in 1920s and 1930s.

Raban’s book cleverly combines descriptive chapters telling the stories of the past with the travelogue of his journeys around the region in the 1990s when he interviewed descendants of the original settlers. Basically he tells the story of the region by personal stories of particular families. One of them is about a young English lady who lived a few streets from my south London home and who moved with her husband to Montana where she eventually, after many misadventures, become a photographer recording the life on the plains. Stories like that make this book a very enjoyable read.

The other book I just finished, Great Plains by Ian Frazier, is sometimes described as a reportage but I’m not so sure about it. However one defines it, it is yet another great read about this huge and fascinating region. The author drove over 25000 miles across the region and lived in Montana for a while but the book doesn’t really follow any specific route or order. It is a rather random description of important facts and unimportant trivia in colourful language which makes it an immensely enjoyable book. Frazier travelled across the plains in the 1980s but during my much more recent visits I found the region no less fascinating or more tame. It is still empty and open country with an unpredictable wild weather, long distances and some weird and wonderful sites (for example an intercontinental ballistic missile silo you can visit). I guess one of the reasons why I enjoyed this book so much is the fact that it describes the Great Plains the way as I see the region myself. An absolutely fascinating place, one of the most interesting and iconic bits of America which I would prefer anytime over the picturesque New England or sunny California. I just wish I could write as well as Frazier to share my experiences.

After all this early planning and reading it seems that I’ll go to Montana and Wyoming in a few months. But then, you never know. Just 2 or 3 months ago I was seriously considering visiting Florida Panhandle and Alabama to add state number 48 to my list. Then Canada briefly popped in on my radar too.

I guess as long as I don’t book my flights there is still a chance of a total change of plans. So stay tuned.Western Kansas, driving towards Dodge City

Alabama Problem


Crossing MississippiI went to America again and had lots of fun there. I guess there is no surprise here. It was quite a few weeks ago but since then I’m still battling my laziness to come up with more blog posts. But don’t you worry, some of them might be coming quite soon.

In the meantime, in a rare moment of mobilisation, I decided to create a map of my American experiences up to date. The results of my effort is this awesome map showing all the places I have visited during my travels since 2001. And it was quite an effort as I had to place more than 200 markers indicating cities, towns and villages as well as natural and man made attractions which I got under my belt. Being a geek I even marked all the airports I used during my trips, including their IATA (International Air Transport Association) codes. I’m actually quite proud of my map.

However as a side effect of this whole mapmaking exercise I realised that I might be a bit of a cheat. Let me explain.

Do you remember how some time ago, after stopping in Rhode Island, I claimed that I have visited all the lower 48 states? Well, there is a bit of a problem. If you look at my map you might realize that Montana and Alabama look devoid of the markers. I can probably get away with Montana as if you look closely you can spot lonely marker in West Yellowstone, a small town just outside of Yellowstone National Park, located in a small bit of Montana wedged between Wyoming and Idaho. I definitely stopped there for a few hours and I even remember chatting with a Subway franchise owner about his experiences with employing Eastern European students during the summers.West Yellowstone

If my claim of visiting Montana is a bit of a stretch then Alabama is a huge problem. I definitely drove across its gulf panhandle during my first transcontinental journey in 2001 as we followed the I-10 back then. But I don’t really think we stopped there. Well, we might have briefly stopped for a loo but even that is dubious. Besides, stopping for a gas or a toilet break doesn’t really count according to my own rules. It seems that if I want to be honest with myself I have to remove Alabama from my list of visited states.

Am I disappointed? Maybe a bit, but on the other hand I now have an excuse to visit the Southern USA again. I even started peeking at maps looking for ideas about driving around Alabama. There is a slight problem however with finding guidebooks as it seems that there is very little written about the Yellowhammer State (as it is sometimes called). In fact I had the same problem before going to Mississippi. Both states are not really well covered by guidebooks. Neither of them gets more than a few pages in guidebooks covering the whole USA. I understand that it is a big country and that it is difficult to cover all the 50 states in detail in one book (especially if we don’t want the book to be the size of Titanic) but I struggle to understand the lack of specific guidebooks. Maybe not necessarily for Alabama alone but at least for the whole Deep South. I know from my professional experience that there is an interest (at least among the Brits) but somehow all the big publishers ignore the region. I’m not sure if Lonely Planet will really sell more guidebooks to Vanuatu, Rarotonga or East Timor or Bradt for Sierra Leone or Sudan, than they would for the Deep South.

But all this will only make planning my future trip to Alabama more interesting. Maybe when I come back I should offer a helping hand to LP or Rough Guide?

2014 Southern RouteAnyway, my next US trip will not be any time soon as I promised my girlfriend that for our next holiday we’ll go somewhere else. And honestly I have to agree that I can’t drag her there all the time. As we know life is all full of compromises. But Alabama is definitely hanging out there as a possible option when I have some spare holiday to use.

In the meantime I promise stories from my latest trip which was of course full of big destinations and popular attractions as well as some lesser, or even absolute niche sites.