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Published: August 15th 2012
We traveled from Butte to Helena to Missoula, Montana, then left the cities to drive up to Glacier National Park. We had a wonderful time at Glacier!!
We drove to Helena from Butte, the "richest hill in the world" (people out West tend to speak in superlatives), because we were planning to travel up the eastern side of Glacier NP. But people we encountered convinced us to go to the west side of Glacier, so we went a bit southwest from Helena to Missoula en route.
Helena is quite charming, as well as having the impressive large buildings of a state capital. We again took a bus tour of the city, and enjoyed it. Helena is quite hilly, and a gulch runs through the center of the town. It is named "Last Chance Gulch" because four prospectors from Georgia (country, not state) were discouraged they had not found gold, but decided to take one more chance. They became wealthy men, as did many other thanks to Helena's riches.
Our highlight in Missoula was the Smokejumpers Training Station. Brave guys in their 30's and 40's with lots of firefighting experience learn to jump out of planes and parachute into more remote areas that are on fire. We saw their equipment, several of them, the duty rosters, etc. Sobering, impressive. We also tried to drive around the university campus, but kept running into one-way streets. We did enjoy the lovely flowers, which thrive during their short growing season, and the lawns that look like velvet. (What do they do to these lawns?!) We are getting used to tall mountains surrounding all the cities we visit.
The next morning, we left Missoula and headed north. As soon as we reached the highway, we saw that the eastbound lane was closed off and traffic diverted because of an "incident." We later learned that a drunken man attending the Testicle Festival (yes, we still wonder what that is...) had stolen a car and crashed in the early A.M. into a car carrying a family en route to Yellowstone from Washington, killing the 7-year old boy and severely injuring the rest of the family. It was so sad.
There were two possible routes to West Glacier, one through a river valley. We took the other because we are pretty used to rivers and trees and hills in NH. The other route was surprisingly built up, with all sorts of tourist attractions; not our favorite couple of hours. We parked at a campground in Columbia Falls and then drove over to Whitefish in the evening. The town was full of people wandering around, many attending a big rock concert in the park. Lots of shops to attract affluent adventurers. We had a really good pizza and two very tasty beers, Great Northern Good Medicine. The railway station there, by the way, was enormous, but there were folks boredly waiting for a train that was going to be at least two hours late, around 11 P.M. The Great Northern Railway skirts the southern part of Glacier, and its development had much to do with Glacier's early touristry.
Yes, the glaciers are melting and in fact they predict the last 25 will be gone between 2020 and 2030. But Glacier is so named because it was formed by glaciers, and the mountains are not going to change much during our lifetimes!
On Monday, August 6, we drove into Glacier through the West Glacier entrance and John finally let me say "No" to an experience - he and the other dozen people on the shuttle bus were very relieved that he did. I went only as far as Lake McDonald and enjoyed a quiet day, sitting by the lake in the sun, chatting with a very interesting lady from California, taking a cruise on the lake, watching little kids wade in the lake. John, meanwhile, took the shuttle along the Going to the Sun road. He said it was one of the most spectacular places he has ever seen (I'll be satisfied with his numerous photos...) He took a fairly challenging hike to Hidden Lake, where he met a bunch of mountain goats, and enjoyed the wildflowers, fine weather, and awesome scenery, all without a wife freaking out next to him because of precipices and hairpin turns.
The next day, however, began with me freaking out as we headed east along the road south of Glacier (there is no road we could drive through the park). I didn't realize that Hungry Horse Dam would have a slightly scary approach and then a really scary reality (dams are precipices, right?) And the visitors center, which was supposed to be open, wasn't. The day improved when we drove to the Isaak Walton Inn in Essex, where we quickly made dinner reservations for later. It is a lovely old inn, surrounded by lovely flowers, but the prime feature is the railroad tracks right in front. The tracks are generally very busy, though later that evening there were again passengers waiting for a train, the Empire Builder, that was a couple of hours late. We parked at a campground which was basically just in a field and returned to the inn to eat. The meal was splendid; I had lamb chops with pinot noir sauce. And trains finally passed by just yards from the inn so John was very happy.
On Wednesday, we continued east. We went over Marias Pass, the lowest passage through the (US) Rockies and saw tributes to the engineer who designed the train route through the pass and to Theodore Roosevelt for his ardent support of the National Park system. Soon after, I saw my first live roundup! Six cowboys were riding around a herd of cows, driving them together. We stopped at a grocery store to replenish our supplies a bit. The eastern side of Glacier is a Blackfoot Indian reservation, utterly different from the built-up west side. Very few dwellings, windy up and down roads - we finally had to unhook so I could drive the Corolla calmly. Eventually we arrived at the East Glacier entrance in St. Mary's and settled in at Johnson's campground which was very, very nice. It was on a moderate bluff, with a splendid view of a lake and majestic mountains.
On Thursday, we drove north eight miles to the tiny town of Babb, which has the last post office before the Canadian border, and I was able to mail the fifteen hats and three pairs of mittens which I have knitted while we traveled, for the Afghans for Afghans organization. Then on into the park to Many Glacier Lodge. These immense old lakeside resorts are so gorgeous! They have huge lobbies with several floors visible, with balconies on all four sides several floors up, and lots of stuffed game heads. And pianos which people randomly sit down at and play. Lovely! We took a pleasant three mile hike to Redrock Falls. The trail was shady often enough so that we did not swelter. There were plenty of people on the trail (therefore less need to be bear-wary). We enjoyed cherries and a beautiful view at the falls. Back at the lodge, we treated ourselves to a midafternoon snack of cheese fondue, but it wasn't very good.
John and I thought Glacier was wonderful. We had both been there briefly decades ago, and were not very enthusiastic about going there. But - maybe it was lovely weather and mellow experiences - we loved it.
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