Thursday, June 26, 2008

Western Montana in a whirlwind trip

My favorite flower, the Camas, in East Glacier Park field

Katie at Many Glacier's Apikuni Falls

A grizzly treats us with an appearance at Many Glacier

Katie and I at Kootenai Falls near Libby

Skalkaho Falls

Near Lost Trail Pass, a band of bighorns
We just got back Wednesday from a six-day whirlwind tour of western Montana, and a small part of British Columbia and Alberta.
It was a mini-vacation that replaced a family trip to California, which we canceled at the last minute.
We stopped at Two Medicine and Many Glacier in Glacier Park, Waterton Park in Canada, the Frank Slide at Crowsnest Pass between Alberta and British Columbia, had a wonderful tour down the Elk River country south of Fernie, B.C., stayed in Eureka before heading for Libby via Lake Koocanusa. Then it was on to Missoula by way of Kootenai Falls, the Cabinet Mountains, and the Flathead River. From there we headed south with a stay at the “ghost” town of Philipsburg in the Broadway Hotel. We looked for agates in the Gem Mine on the Skalkaho Road, taking the road to Hamilton with a stop at Skalkaho Falls along the way, and then headed for the Big Hole via Lost Trail Pass. At the Big Hole we toured the Big Hole Battlefield, part of the Nez Perce National Park system, and stayed the night at the Jackson Springs Lodge. We hunted for crystals at Crystal Park on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway and ate lunch at the Hummingbird (vegetarian) cafĂ© in Butte before driving I-15 home to Great Falls.
Some quick observations about the trip:

--- Gas prices were $3.96 most of the way, although we paid $4.09 in Butte.
--- In Canada the price of gas is $1.30 per litre and it takes four of those for a gallon ---- making the price $5.20 a gallon.
--- We saw much more tourist traffic in Canada, particularly in Waterton and along the Crowsnest Highway 3, than in Montana.
--- Prices are higher in Canada than Montana, making us think twice about staying there.
--- Our bags in the trunk of our car were searched by Canadians coming into Canada and by the U.S. folks coming back to the states.
--- The cost of a decent motel runs between $70 and $85 per night, although we found a $55 cabin at Many Glacier.
--- We had made no reservations or travel plans before leaving and had no difficulty finding a place to stay --- at East Glacier Park, Many Glacier, Eureka, Philipsburg or Jackson Hot Springs.
--- Had we decided to camp, Glacier on the East side, would have been wonderful. On Saturday night Rising Sun Campground on St. Mary’s Lake filled only 35 of the 84 campsites. That same night, Many Glacier, which normally fills by noon during the summer, was half empty. Rangers said the number of campers is way down.
--- We observed empty roads on the East side. We think it is because Going to the Sun Pass is not open yet, and there is no definitive forecast. On Friday night we had no trouble walking into Serrano’s at East Glacier, which is usually a mad house. The place was only half-full.
--- There is considerable snow in the high country that made visits to waterfalls particularly fun. The falls are just roaring. We visited Apikuni Falls at Many Glacier, Kootenai Falls near Libby, Skalkaho Falls between Philispburg and Hamilton.
--- The camas, a historic staple of the Native American diet, was in plenteous bloom. I’ve never seen so much of this blue flower. It was in every wet, low place.
--- The wildflowers were as pretty and the grass as green as any time I’ve traveled in Montana over the past 36 summers.
--- I was struck by the beauty of the Fernie, B.C., and Libby, MT areas. The peaks are high, the waters a translucent emerald, and the forested areas gorgeous. I would like to return to ski at Fernie and to hike in the Cabinet Wilderness Area near Libby.
--- Philipsburg has a good thing going. It has preserved its architecture and highlighted it with startling painted colors. It is hard to imagine the place as a county seat because it is so quiet. I recommend the Broadway Hotel as a nice place to stay. We plan to return this winter to stay and ski at Discovery Basin, which you can see from town. We loved the shops, the buildings, and the residential community. The lilacs, which normally bloom elsewhere in Montana in May, were in full color.
--- If you’re in the southwest, the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is a must-see. It is 49 miles long and winds through the heart of this granite range of 10,000 feet-plus peaks. The open, green parks give the area a Yellowstone Park feel.
--- I liked the Kootenai Falls/Cabinet Mountains to Flathead River part of the trip as much as anything I saw. There is a cable swing bridge across the Kootenai River near the falls that shouldn’t be missed.
--- I’m always amazed at the Frank Slide, where a mountain at Crowsnest crashed down and buried a community there more than 100 years ago. This was a more devastating and larger slide than that which occurred near Yellowstone Park about 49 years ago, creating Quake Lake. Unfortunately, the interp center was closed (will reopen Aug. 27), but there is a great 1-mile explanatory walk below the center.
We covered just over 1,000 miles and could have been entertained at any of the stops for many days.
I needed to see some of these areas for the first time like Philipsburg and Fernie, B.C., and revisit places like Libby, where I hadn’t been in more than 30 years.

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