Montana & Glacier National Park – Cody, Bozeman, Whitefish & Spokane


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Published: June 24th 2014
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Cody – Wyoming

We leave Yellowstone Park driving via the Hayden Valley and Fishing Bridge alongside the Yellowstone Lake (which looks more like a blue/green sea with wave crashing the shoreline than a lake) & then the East Entrance without much drama.

We then hit the Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway which takes us through some really lovely landscape. A combo of rolling hills, rocks formations that could be from Bryce or Zion NPs, running alongside the Shoshone River and through Shoshone NF. We also go through the Absaroka volcanic area - and see more beautiful rock structures and scenery. There are signs saying that its grizzly country but we don't see any. We definitely feel that Wyoming is the surprise package as one of the loveliest States in the US we have visited.

We drive via Wapiti and then enter Buffalo Bill State Park and the river turns into a lake with a dam called - yep, you guessed it - Buffalo Bill Dam. And past the Dam is Cody, the town established by Colonel William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody. He was a famous guide/scout, Bison huntsman (hence his nickname), a showman, entertainer and entrepreneur who had and lost a fortune. He decided to start the new settlement which bears his name in the 1880s and as he was granted the Congressional Medal of Honour for helping the army during a war with the Indians, managed to get the US President to agree to dam the river to provide electricity and water for farming the area to create the settlement of Cody, and it's pretty much ‘BB’ town.

We've booked into a motel here (Green Gables) for a night, partly to have a night off from the camping - the cold has been getting to C's hips, but also because everyone we spoke to recommends we come here to visit the Buffalo Bill Wild West Museum, which is actually 5 museums in one; one dedicated to the man himself, another to the Plains Indians (with yet more stories of white settler brutality), the Draper Museum of Natural History - a great section on the flora and fauna, geology and wildlife of Yellowstone, a firearms museum (we miss this as not a great thing for us) and an art museum (another miss as we are short on time). The BB museum asks visitors to form their own view of BB from his story. In the context of the time he was alive he was probably a quite typical frontiersman in many ways – ‘abandoning’ his family for months at a time (he had a wife and 3 children – 2 of whom died very young), fighting and massacring many Native Indians (including women and children), killing countless buffaloes for their skin (and sometimes wasting the rest of the animal(the meat) - a travesty to the Indians), then he gained fame taking Wild West Shows across the country (and also to London we discover. He performed for Queen Vic’s 60th year on the throne celebrations at Earls Court), and finally settling and creating the ‘Wild West’ town of Cody. He was obviously influential in his day but his story and the town are all about BB not William Cody, the frontiersman and showman – not necessarily the man - husband, father etc.

We also visit Old Trail Town just on the edge of the current town, which is made up of wooden cabins, shops, and saloons from the late 1800's and the days of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid & the Hole in the Wall Gang (some of them actual cabins and saloons use by the famous duo, with photographs of them and other outlaws) which have been relocated from their original sites around Wyoming and Montana to create a replica settlement with saloon, stage coach stables etc. Actually it looks like a Ghost Town or something that Hollywood would use for old style Western Films. It's actually pretty good, and the fact that the "Main Street" through the town is scrub adds authenticity. There’s also a small graveyard which includes the remains of Jeremiah Johnson (played by Robert Redford in a film based on him), some other frontiers men and women and the grandson of Bill Cody himself. This is great until a coach load of tourists arrive and we leave pretty quick. It's also a great place for photographs.

Wyoming is definitely cowboy country and so it seems sensible while we're here to go to a rodeo show (Cody Nite Rodeo). A swell as being BB town, Cody also styles itself as the Rodeo Capital of the World!! The show starts at 8pm and goes on till 10pm, and it's a good mix of true rodeo (by local amateurs & semi-professionals for prize money. They do get the professionals coming in for ‘The Stampede’ in July. Apart from the customary Prayers, The National Anthem and Cowgirls on horses doing a turn, there’s plenty of family fun with rodeo clowns and kids competitions. They showcase lassoing calves (some of which seems pretty harsh on the poor things - being yanked to a halt with a rope round the neck), horse trials for speed and agility, bucking bronco's on horses and the finale, bull riding.

We had planned to eat out but having had a homemade picnic lunch with door stopper sarnies outside the museum we're still stuffed so we head back to the room, enjoy some TV for a change and a comfy bed, and get some bookings sorted out for our final weeks in the US - at least for this stage of our journey. We've decided not to stop in Mount Rainier NP (we're starting to feel a bit NP'd out!) but instead will stay a couple of days in Portland and spend a few more days on the Oregon coast which is supposed to be very beautiful and rugged.

Leaving Cody the next morning we head first to ‘Our Place’ - a local institution for brunch. It's packed and we have to wait 20mins for a table but it's a great place. We go for biscuits and gravy with eggs, sausage & bacon, plus a blueberry pancake. That should keep us going till tea time!

Bozeman - Montana

The drive to Bozeman, our next stop, is almost 4 hours and we head off through rolling plains with lots of cattle ranches, snow-capped mountains in the distance and wide, wide open spaces. After about 30mins we cross the Stateline into Montana. More rolling green though less hills, ranches, river, occasional rocky escarpments, a freight train (haven't seen one of those for a while), and small towns along the route which is local highway until we hit the I-90 and head west for Bozeman.

Soon we are driving along the north side of Yellowstone, past Gardiner, just 5 miles from where we were a few days ago at Mammoth Hot Springs! The scenery becomes more spectacular and there are lots of very fancy looking wooden clad houses nestled in the hills. The place to live it seems - as long as you don't mind bears for neighbours.

Much of the route follows the course of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 - 06, which tracked the Mississippi from St Louis to Oregon. Many of the places along here are named after the expedition members, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, it was the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States, departing in May, 1804 from near St. Louis on the Mississippi River, making their way westward through the continental divide to the Pacific coast. The primary objective was to explore and map the newly acquired territory (purchased from France in 1803), find a practical route across the Western half of the continent, and establish an American presence in the territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it. Note: Later when we are in Newport on the coast, we discover that Captain Cook landed there and this in part prompted Jefferson, the then President of the US, to send out the Expedition to claim the land before the British or anyone else did.

We get to Bozeman at 2-30pm and first stop is a car service place (Firestone) recommended by Hertz - the car needs an oil service. They book us in for first thing in the next morning - a bit of a faff as it's across town from the campsite but at least they can do it. We head to the KOA campground on the west of town by the Gallatin River (which we try to find but none of the roads we try give access to it!) where we stay for 2 nights. It's much cooler than Cody but not forecast to be as cold as Yellowstone so hopefully we'll be toasty bunnies (Caroline speak for warm!). It's not a bad site - grassy and with plenty of space but it does seem to cater more to RVs than tent campers. Nowhere to wash dishes is advertised so we guess the sink in the laundry room will do? We get the tent up, just, before the (torrential) rain starts then head back to town to Walmart for a few supplies.

Following some research we set off to the Montana Ale Works, a local brewery cum restaurant that gets great reviews, for dinner (meatloaf made with bison and BBQ pork ribs washed down with some Bozone Amber - fantastic!). Driving through town, it's a fairly typical one main street town/city, but it has some very attractive buildings and loads of cafés and eateries. It's self-styled as the ‘Coolest place in Montana’ and the street scene reminds us of Flagstaff (Arizona), and with the setting nestled on flat land surrounded by snow-capped mountains it's also reminds us of Salt Lake City (though without the Mormons). We'll explore it more tomorrow.

As we drive through town we notice lots of "Mud Huts" - little cabins or stalls selling coffee. We tried one in Cody and it was good. No idea why they're called Mud Huts though! There also seems to be a preponderance of casino's in Montana; not big ones like we saw in other States, these are more small gaming joints attached to bars and state liquor stores. We guess it's something to do with the licencing laws here? The other unusual thing here is that Gas is the same price all over. Usually you get a few rogues with much higher prices, and a cheapy or two (Maverick are good for this), so maybe the rates are regulated in Montana?

Next morning it's Father’s Day so it's Face Time with Sarah (in Devon with her friends) and then Louise, Ben and Olive (in London). They are all looking great and it was good to have a nice long chat with them. Olive is growing so quickly and seems to be a bundle of energy; we can't wait to see her (and Lou & Ben of course) in New York in October. There are plenty of Father’s Day wishes and cards on Facebook for M which is great.

After getting the car fixed, having showers belatedly and our FT chats we head into town for a mooch. We don't get far! M has read about a cafe called ‘Main Street Overeasy’, which gets great reviews and it's right near where we park so in we go for some brunch. What an awesome place. They've been going for 17 years, only do breakfast and lunch and there's a queue to get in. The menu is huge - as are the portions, but they have some really different stuff too. We go for biscuits with gravy, fried chicken steak and hash browns (the best M has tried he says) - with avocado on the side, and French toast with fresh strawberries. Fabulous! And the waitress is from Kalispell, near Glacier NP where we head to next so she gave us some good tips for seeing the place.

Another nice thing here in Montana; no taxes on top of the published prices so you actually pay what it says. A nice surprise!

Feeling beyond stuffed (no dinner for us tonight!) we walk around town taking some photos and enjoying the sunshine. It's definitely a nice place to visit and has a very relaxed feel to it. Then it's back to the tent to do some catching up on blogs while the thunder rolls in!! We just hope it will dry out before tomorrow as we have an early start to get to Whitefish at the entrance to Glacier NP, 6 hours away. Packing away a wet tent is not fun.

Next morning, the weather is kind to us. Despite rain through the night, it's sunny in the morning and the tent is dry so we get the tent down and off on our way, stopping for a drive through coffee (our first!) on the way through town.

Whitefish

The landscape on the way is a real mixed bag. Initially a wide valley with rocky outcrops, then rolling gentle hills with gold coloured grasses (the Montana of her imagination for C), then forested hills, a stretch with lots of rounded rocks like plasticine balls jammed on top of each other, and gradually we move towards high mountains. Unfortunately, we also move towards torrential rain and it's all a bit grim. We feel that although Montana has the reputation for being beautiful (which we haven’t quite found) it's actually not as stunning as Wyoming. Also we saw a lot more people fly fishing in Wyoming than in Montana even though it has the reputation – the film ‘The River Runs Through It’ has a lot to answer for perhaps!

As the weather is so grim we don't stop in Missoula, supposed to be in competition with Bozeman as the coolest place in Montana. Interestingly, at the Continental Divide rest area in Butte there's an info board about the rivalry (in sport) between the 2 places, resulting from the decision by Congress to put the State line between Idaho and Montana where it is instead of along the CD, which was what Idaho wanted. (Montana used to be part of Idaho previously). If Idaho, had had its way, the two towns would have been in different States. (To be honest, we're not sure what difference this makes to the intra state fight but it seems to matter to these guys!)

We head through Flathead Indian Reservation area (to the west; it's the Blackfeet area to the east) and for the first time see road signs in both languages, and some with the literal translations. We suddenly realise that we hadn't seen this in Utah or Colorado despite the very large Navajo communities there. Here, the signs and occasional Trading Posts are really the only indications that this is a Reservation area.

We stop on the edge of Flathead Lake at Polson for lunch. The lake is huge and the scenery around it is lovely. If we had more time and the weather was better we might have stopped for longer. It reminds us of Lake Windermere. The only mistake we make is stopping for lunch at Betty Boop's Diner. It's very busy so we are lulled into a false sense of security. We order a breakfast skillet to share which is not only quite small for the price but also comes without the hash browns and toast promised on the menu. When we ask for toast the guy seems surprised. Why? It comes with the order as per the menu stupid - duh!

After a nice drive along the lakeside we get to Kalispell, the biggest town this way. It looks nice - a bit like Bozeman, with an attractive Main Street but much larger with lots of places advertising activities on the Lake and in Glacier. Finally we make it to Whitefish. As the weather has been so bad en route and it promises not to get better, we have decided to stay in a Motel here rather than camp.

After a quick tour round the town (which also looks interesting - a bit like Jackson but smaller) we discover there aren't that many motels (at least not at a price we would pay) so we head back to the Cheap Sleep Motel (where we are actually booked into the campsite) and hurrah they have a room and even better, a BBQ area we can use to cook some of the food we have instead of eating out. It also has a Hot Pool (though we didn't try it) and the room we get is pretty good too.

Unfortunately, we then make a bad call. C is feeling a bit rough with a cold and the forecast is for heavy rain, so instead of going into town for a mooch we stay in and catch up with some emails and bookings. As it turns out it doesn't rain until much later (after which it doesn't stop!) so we miss the chance to see the place properly.

Glacier National Park

Next morning the rain is torrential so we enjoy a leisurely breakfast (one of the best we've had in a motel, lovely raisin bread toast, cereal, fruit and decent coffee) then head off to Glacier NP in the hope that we will be able to see something. It's a faint hope!

We can only see enough to know that the countryside around here would be beautiful if it was sunny - or even just dry, with lots of green, forests, hills, lakes and (somewhere in the mist) glaciers. Really all we get to see is spray off the cars in front of us, a fogged up windscreen and occasional glimpses of high waterfalls and snow remnants on the high hills. The Lupins are out and a white flower we've not seen before - Bear Grass, but that's about as much colour as we get.

The main attractions for visiting Glacier NP are hiking - not going to happen in this rain - and the drive along the scenic ‘Going to the Sun Road’, a 50 mile road across the park. Unfortunately, we're a bit too early in the season so the road is only open as far as Avalanche Lake, 16 miles in. At the visitor centre we're told most of the best places to see wildlife are on the east side of the park, 3 hours’ drive away so we decide just to do what we can this side. So we head first along the Going to the Sun Road, built in 1932 to open up the area to visitors to the Park coming in their own cars. Before this, folk used to come in to the area by train and then stagecoaches would take them through the park.

The road follows the edge of Lake McDonald and through forest. The other side of the lake is supposedly lovely! At Avalanche Lake we get out and attempt the walk along the creek, which is supposed to be through red rocks and very pretty. We're soaked in 5 minutes! So we give up and head to the McDonald Lodge, which is celebrating its centenary this year, for a coffee and snack. It’s the first time we've had tinned tomatoes with a few lentils chucked in served as soup! We kid you not. Inside the lodge is like a mini version of the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone. Outside, Red stretch limos are lined up ready to take tourists out for tours - the same format as Yellowstone but they had the yellow ones there.

Glacier NP was established in 1910. Across the border in Canada is the Waterton National Park. Both parks are administered separately but were joined as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in 1932. Amazingly, (or frighteningly) of the estimated 150 glaciers which existed in the park in the mid-19th century, only 25 active glaciers remained by 2010, and at current rates if global warming it is thought they could all have gone by 2020!!!

After lunch, and with no sign of improving weather, we decide to head back to Whitefish. It's really a shame that the weather is so pants. Let's hope we'll see the glaciers better in the Canada side. Back in the room, we watch as snow starts to fall - Quite heavily! We hope it won't settle as we have another long drive tomorrow to Spokane in Washington State. (Not a place to visit, just a stopover as we head across to Oregon).

Our original plan had been to spend 2 nights in Whitefish, then camp for 2 nights in the park itself, before going across to the Oregon Coast. Thankfully, having seen the weather forecast (the rain is staying here for quite a while) we've re-jigged our plans and will skip the days camping in the park and hope for better weather on the coast.

The Journey from Whitefish to Spokane is accompanied by rain all the way. We go back along the edge of Flathead Lake then branch off west towards Washington State through lovely rolling countryside a bit like the Lake District and Yorkshire Moors. The roads are quite winding and go through some small communities, Paradise Valley surrounded by steep rocky hillsides, and through Lolo NF. Most of the way we follow Clark Fork - a wide, fast flowing river and the railway line. It's nice scenery to go through. The only complaint is that there are loads of road works - long overdue it would seem given the state of the roads which have potholes and cracks all over. But it does make for a bit of a bone shaking trip.

We stop for lunch in Coeur d'Alene, at a Triple Ds joint - Jimmy's Down the Street, purely by chance. Good fate; they do great corned beef hash with homemade brisket. Then it's off again for the final stretch into Spokane where we stay at Knights Inn, 4 miles north of town.

Spokane - Montana

Spokane seems a fairly uninspiring place - though to be fair we only really go along one of the arterial roads to and from the motel. It did however take us through ‘Historic Downtown’. It has the look of a place that is down and out on its luck and needs a major injection of investment and regeneration for about 10 years. There are many people living rough and there is nothing we saw that has any redeeming features – so we are pleased to move on after a night’s stop over at the Knights Inn which was pretty decent and reasonably priced.

One thing we do notice is that petrol prices seem a lot higher here that Coeur d’Alene only a few miles away and it actually goes up by about 10 cents a gallon over night. We think that it may be profiteering because of the Iraq crisis affecting oil output – but no we are told it is because summer has started and demand goes up so prices go up – happens every year apparently…. Nuts!

And so we get to the end of the National Parks marathon we started some months ago on our Road Trip through the US. Next stop Oregon………. For which we have high hopes based on what we have heard…… we’ll see.

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