Montana, July 30-31, 2018
We drove 1600 miles cross-country to Helena, Montana, ostensibly for a convention, but once we realized what wonders were in the area, we went rogue and skipped out entirely, setting out to explore the mountains instead.
A bit of housekeeping before we get started on the post: due to some scheduling changes, new content will now be available on Wednesdays instead of Mondays. Also, if I have not clarified the posting schedule in regards to free content versus the subscription content on Patreon, these will alternate weekly. For example- this is the second of three posts regarding our Montana trip. The first, Martian Turbines and Monumental Middle Fingers, appeared on Patreon last week, and next week the third installment will be posted there. The following week, we return here with a different adventure. If you have not yet looked into the Patreon page, it’s only $2 a month to gain access to the exclusives; that said, though, the rest will remain right here. And now, to the road.
We’d spent the last few days sightseeing through the Great Plains on our way out, and once we reached western Montana we were enthused to see the multitude of peaks towering around us, though we were painfully sick of driving.
A friend of mine who lived in Montana for several years commented once about how going anywhere required at least an hour or two of driving. There were things to do in town, I suppose, at least where we were- his location was more rural, but our home base for the week was right in the state capitol of Helena. Hanging out in town isn’t our idea of fun, though; if that were all there was to do, we wouldn’t have skipped the convention. Regardless, his words ring true. After three days of driving, tantrums from both of the kids (and perhaps the adults), and vehement insistence that we want nowhere near the Jeep ever again, we found ourselves back on the road, two hours out from town, exploring the aptly nicknamed Big Sky Country.
We had a lucky encounter from a perspective point of view at one of our hotels on the way out- namely, in Rapid City, we headed downstairs in the morning to take advantage of the included breakfast before hitting the road. We walked into a much more crowded dining room than I had expected, and the reason soon became clear. Carl privately nicknamed them the Silver Fox Tour Group- we were sharing breakfast with a busload of elderly people trying to check items off their bucket lists in the twilight of their lives. Away from the bustling hotel dining room, I tried to explain to the kids the reason I consider this to have been significant: maybe it could help them understand why we would make this frantic trip West, clocking a total of over five thousand miles in the course of a week, instead of letting time ambush us before we could get it accomplished.
Of course, after breakfast, we headed to the Jeep.
We had rested Sunday night and when we set out on Monday morning, we planned to spend the day at Mt. Helena City Park. It seemed to fulfill our requirements well enough: good hiking close to town was what we hoped for, but that plan quickly got scrapped due to a road closure and frustration with GPS issues and Helena’s awkwardly situated roads. After a few irritating laps around town, we headed out on Highway 15 North instead and soon came across a sign for The Gates of the Mountains- it was too intriguing to not turn off. When we arrived, it was a sparkling lake in a valley, stretching out into the mountains, complete with boat tours; the boat had just left when we pulled into the lot, though, so instead we hiked up a nearby ridge to look out over the area. The view was stunning, worth every uphill step, although for the kids it was also an uphill battle.
After we finished up at the lake, we continued north to see what else we could find. We explored by road for a while, and eventually saw signs for Great Falls, where the the Falls of the Missouri are found. The river seemed to have followed us ever since we first crossed it in South Dakota- we decided to follow it right back.
The Ryan Dam is a hydroelectric dam perched atop the falls- rather than detracting from the site, though, its consistent (and constant) flow tames the wild river, as it pours out its burden. Near the parking area is a suspension bridge that leads to a small island, where maybe Lewis and Clark themselves stopped for lunch alongside the gorgeous falls.
On the following day, we headed north again, this time aiming nearly for the Canadian border. The mountains around Glacier National Park dwarfed us and made us feel perfectly insignificant. The park was already packed when we got there around noon, after making the four hour drive up. It surprised me that there were so many people there on a Tuesday, although summer was still in full swing. Whatever the case, we entered by the St. Mary gate, whose visitor center was full to overflowing; Logan Pass was the same way. Unable to find parking, we followed Going to the Sun Road for its 50 mile length through the park, and exited via West Glacier. We lunched at West Glacier Restaurant which we found right outside the park gates, then re-entered and headed toward Apgar, now our nearest possibility for parking, to see what kind of hiking we could find there. We found a trailhead down a gravel road, said to lead to an old ranger station about four miles out, and we hit the trail.
It was about ninety degrees at that point, and the skeletal pines offered little shade, still decimated from wildfires as long ago as 2006. The kids, initially excited about escaping the Jeep and going on a hike, started dragging their feet pretty quickly, complaining that they were bored and hot. By this point, Carl and I were feeling pretty jaded as well, and having to defend every location we chose to stop from relentless criticism didn’t help our own perceptions much. Nonetheless, we dragged the kids along for about two hours before saying “to hell with it” and turning back. By this point, they were nearing mutiny and it took promises of Slushies after the hike to keep them moving- of course, with that motivation, the return trip only took us about an hour. With a dead battery on my Garmin watch that day, I had only a faint idea of how far we had gone before turning around; the pessimist in me likes to think that we were just right around the corner from the old ranger station, but that will remain a mystery. With some of the tension relieved, the trail seemed prettier on the way back: Indian Paintbrush nodded all around us, punctuated by ancient exposed rock, the same kind that loomed all around us, obscuring the horizon. Afterwards, I found very little information online on this trail, and although it remains in decent shape, it seems to no longer be maintained.
We delivered on the promised Slushies, established a tentative truce with the children, and headed back toward Helena for the night. We planned to go to Yellowstone the next day and had no desire to get caught in the same traffic, so we would be retiring early and waking up at 4am to be there at open. Attitudes ended up cutting that one short as well, as Alison discovered a sudden crippling phobia of horseflies- but the day after, we would end up back at Glacier, and finally get a chance to take that perfect hike.
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