In this final post from our August 1 – 13, 2019 Montana vacation we will share the sights in and around Glacier National Park. We spent several days exploring the park and surrounding areas. The weather during our three days in the park area was clear and hot, but smoke from wild fires in Idaho and Washington did impact some of the photo opportunities.
Red Bus Tour
When we first planned this Montana trip several months ago we wanted to make sure we experienced the “Going to the Sun Road” but had some concerns about doing the drive ourselves. The person driving would need to concentrate on the challenging road and would miss out on the scenery.
In our research we found out about the Red Bus Tours that operate in the National Park. They offer several tour options, one a 4-5 hour tour and another all day tour. We opted for the 4-5 hour tour that goes up the “Going to the Sun Road” as far as Logan Pass, then returns. We made reservations online well in advance of our trip (reservations are highly recommended). These tours are narrated by knowledgeable drivers who provide both factual information plus many entertaining stories along the way. The drivers make many photo stops along the route and these buses have reserved parking at some critical stops, which avoids the crowded private vehicle parking areas. Our 4-5 hour tour was $64 per person and we felt it was money well spent.
Our tour started about 9:15am from the Apgar Visitor Center. The parking lot at Apgar Visitor’s Center fills up fast, so getting there early will assure a spot and not risk missing your tour time.
The Tour Route
The tour buses are restored, 1930’s vintage White motor coaches serving park visitors for 80 plus years. I ended up sitting in the front passenger seat, so had the opportunity to shoot some video along the way. The following is a compilation of clips from the bus tour.
The drive from Missoula to Columbia Falls would typically be about 2 hrs and 40 mins, with no stops. But along the way we stopped at two attractions. The first was the National Bison Range and then the Miracle of America Museum in Polson.
The drive took us along the east shore of Flathead Lake. Flathead Lake is the largest natural fresh water lake west of the Mississippi. The lake, surrounded by mountains, is glacier fed, so the waters have that turquoise color, just beautiful. Driving along there were many roadside stands selling fresh Flathead Lake cherries. We didn’t realize there were cherry orchards all around the area, apparently the micro-climate around the lake supports the growth of cherries. We stumbled into cherry season, so we bought a bag and they were big and delicious. It was also Huckleberry season and everywhere we went there were farm stands, shops and local establishments selling everything huckleberry. Huckleberry jams, huckleberry pastries, huckleberry flavored beers, even huckleberry martinis. We bought some jams along the way and that was our breakfast treat with toast or English muffins. Huckleberries are similar to blueberries, but maybe a bit more tart.
Bison National Range
Our first stop was at the National Bison Range in Charlo, MT. This is a National Wildlife Reserve that provides sanctuary for the American Bison. We arrived early, around 8am, so the visitors center was not open (opens at 9am). There is a $5 entrance fee (per vehicle), but our America The Beautiful Senior Pass is honored at this site. A quick note about the America The Beautiful pass, we purchase our Senior Pass a few years ago, $80 life pass, and it is honored at most National Park and other Federal recreational areas.
There are several driving trails through the reserve and we chose to take long loop road which is 19 miles long. This is a one-way, single lane gravel road that winds up the mountain with steep grades, lots of switchback curves and no guard rails. The first half of this road climbs up a mountain area reaching a summit at about 4800ft where there is a rest stop with portable toilets. The road continues down the other side with some very steep curves until it reaches an open range area, eventually returning to the starting point near the visitors center.
When we first started up the road, we saw another vehicle ahead of us stopped, then moving very slowly. We were a bit concerned about being stuck behind someone who seemed not in a hurry, with no way to pass. When we got closer, we saw the problem, a big, old, bull Bison was in the middle of the road walking at a very slow pace. We were stuck behind this beast for at least 20-minutes until an opening at a curve allowed enough room to rush past this big guy.
Stuck Behind a Bison
Along the road going toward the summit we saw a few solitary bull Bison’s as well as several Mule Deer. Once we came down the other side of the mountain onto the flat range area, we ran into quite a few Pronghorn Antelope as well as several herds of Bison.
Pronghorn Antelope Crossing
Miracle of America Museum
In the town of Polson, on the southern end of Flathead Lake we stopped at the “Miracle of America Museum“. This eclectic museum seems to have just about everything you can imagine. There is a large indoor space housing early native American artifacts, antique fashions and clothing, old toys, a collection of vintage Harley’s and Indian bikes and loads of military memorabilia from the Civil War up to the War on Terror.
The outside space is huge, I don’t know how many acres. You can find old cars and trucks, fire engines, tracked and wheeled military vehicles, signage from famous old America companies and brands, jet craft fuselages, a Huey helicopter, old farm equipment, even a tugboat, it goes on and on!
This place is crazy fun, but also interesting and informative, it represents the products of American ingenuity and industry of the last couple of hundred years. If you are familiar with the TV series American Pickers, this place would be a picker’s heaven.
We rented an AirBnB for the week that was located in the historical downtown section of Columbia Falls. This location was convenient to the Glacier National Park sites. The AirBnB had excellent accommodations for the three of us, with 2-bedrooms, 2-bathrooms, and a large open concept kitchen, dining and living space. The location was in the same block as several bars and restaurants and a cool bakery-coffee shop. The Gunsight Saloon, a block and a half across the street is a fun, local bar and restaurant.
Our AirBnB was clean, comfortable and well stocked. The hosts, Kim and David provided a complimentary bottle of Montana red wine as a welcome gift. If you’re interested you can check out this AirBnB by linking here to their listing.
This year our August vacation was to Northwest Montana. Our visit would include the towns of Missoula, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, touring Glacier National Park, the Bitterroot Mountain area and the Bison National Range.
Kathie and I met up with our daughter Jen, who flew in from DC. So this was a family vacation and during the week we celebrated both Kathie and Jen’s birthdays.
Our visit was during the first 2-weeks of August. The weather was good overall, albiet hot during the days (mid 90’s). At the very end of our visit there were some severe thunderstorms, but these didn’t interupt our plans in any significant way.
This “Part 1” blog will focus on our visit to the Missoula area. A “Part 2” will continue with our visit to Glacier National Park and the surrounding areas.
Arriving in Missoula, we spent the first weekend there. Missoula is a fun town, home to the University of Montana. We explored the Saturday Street Market and Farmer’s Market, which were very popular and lively.
The Missoula downtown has some interesting late 19th – early 20th Century building architecture, great area for walking and exploring.
Flying to Missoula
We flew United from Boston to Denver connecting with a United Express flight to Missoula, about a 2 hours flight from Denver. The window seat view flying into Missoula on a clear day is breathtaking as you follow the valley between mountains on final approach.
Walking around Missoula
Enjoying the street scenes and the riverfront area. This is Lewis and Clark country.
Saturday Morning Markets
Saturdays in Missoula feature an arts & crafts People’s Market on E. Pine St (closed to vehicle traffic) and a large Farmer’s Market on the riverfront next to Caras Park.
Food & Drink
Missoula offers plenty of food and drink options. There are many gourmet coffee shops and very good micro-breweries. The dining choices vary quite a bit from casual to upscale.
The Bayern Brewery was a real treat, serving excellent Bavarian style micro-brew beers and authentic German comfort food. The pilsner draft with a large, home made pretzel, bratwurst and warm German potato salad really hit the spot.
Our dinner choices included:
Plonk, a comfortable wine bar atmosphere featuring a wide selection of wines and a small plate menu ideal for sharing.
The Pearl Cafe, a French inspired menu with local ingredients. A very warm, cozy place and we had an excellent server, making it a very pleasant experience. My first Bison tenderloin experience, yum! Reservations are highly recommended.
On the site of Fort Missoula, originally established in the 1870’s during the Indian Wars. The fort served as a US Army training base during WW1, then a Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camp in the 1930’s. During WW2 it was an Alien Detection Center housing Italian, German and Japanese foreign nationals and resident aliens.
Located outside Missoula, it was a few minutes from our hotel. Very interesting and informative, dedicated to the conservation of Elk herds. The exhibition area has life-like dioramas depicting Rocky Mountain wildlife in a natural habitat.
Garnet Ghost Town is about a 1-hour drive east of Missoula. The town is an abandoned gold mining site with preserved buildings and structures. There are volunteer guides on-site who provide historical information and stories.