top of page
  • Writer's picturerobzee8

So Many Moments and Memories to Treasure in Montana

They don’t call Montana the “Treasure State” for nothing, Sure, its original moniker came about in the 1860s when prospectors were flocking there to mine gold and other precious minerals. But, nowadays, “treasure” can just as easily pertain to the abundance of eye-popping natural wonders and well-preserved little towns that you’ll experience on an excursion to our country’s fourth largest state.

Such was the case when we made our way to Montana in May. We encountered a wide swath of weather conditions ranging from braving a blizzard in Cooke City to basking in seventy-degree temperatures and abundant sunshine at Glacier National Park.  All told, we covered 1500 miles of western Montana during a seven-day span. And, while we feel like we experienced quite a bit, it seems like we just hit the tip of all that this magical place has to offer. 

Of course, this is seen as a curse to many native Montanans as well-heeled transplants from California and other locales have been relocating to the state and driving up real estate prices with Bozeman and Whitefish being prime examples of this. Besides these trendy enclaves, we went through the real native’s reservations straddling stunning spots like Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake.

Our immersion into Montana culture began the minute we hit the Bozeman/Yellowstone airport after a very brief layover in the all-too-busy Denver hub. After the craziness of Denver’s crowded terminal, it was great to step off the Southwest flight in BZN and into a more soothing space with a cozy fireplace and lodge-like ambiance. We were able to walk directly to the rental car area, too. Despite the rental agent’s effort to upsell us on a larger vehicle, we went with a Toyota Corolla hybrid that handled the wintry driving conditions and 80 mile an hour speed limits like a champ.

The first stop on our itinerary was the town of Gardiner, which is just a mile away from the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. It is about 90 minutes from Bozeman to Gardiner, but we opted to stop in historic Livingston on the way.  This quaint place is rooted in Northern Pacific Railroad history, with the 1902-era Livingston Depot being a popular tourist spot. But, like so many attractions near Yellowstone, the Depot wasn’t scheduled to open until late May.

There was also an abundance of fine neon signs to be seen in Livingston’s well-preserved downtown, which has served as a backdrop for films like A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer.  And who can forget the town being memorialized by Jimmy Buffett on his Livingston Saturday Night? So, it would have been great to linger longer in Livingston, but the mountain winds were wicked that day and we wanted to make it to Gardiner before nightfall.

Another vacation revelation was the happy discovery that in mid-May it stays light out a lot longer than it does in Chicago.  So, we got to Gardiner, checked into our motel and checked out our new elk neighbors with daylight to spare.

But the neighborly elk were just the beginning of the wildlife activity we would see the next day at Yellowstone. On the advice of the ranger at Roosevelt Lodge, we took the Lamar Pass route and spotted everything from a grizzly bear to traffic-stopping bison, elk, a few pronghorns and an inquisitive fox that stood out in all the heavy snow on the ascent to Cooke City.

It turns out that this tiny town with a population of 77 people is listed as the snowiest community in all of Montana. In keeping with its winter wonderland feel, Cooke City was pretty much shut down as the town was waiting for another short-lived summer to arrive. 

We had planned on going to see Old Faithful the next day but got stuck in a huge traffic jam and opted to turn around. We never knew if the back-up was due to bison or construction, but since Yellowstone is so vast, we had a “plan B” up our sleeve.

Our alternate Yellowstone itinerary included descending down a steep 600-foot trail to experience the raw power of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We also saw loads of Yellowstone’s famed geothermal activity at both the Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs.

After our two-day binge of biodiversity, it was time to move on to other parts of Montana. Our first stop was Bozeman, which has been dubbed “Boz Angeles” due to the influx of Californians and the fact that some see it as “fancier” than the rest of Montana.

Despite the trendy coffee shops and upscale vibe, Bozeman still hangs its hat on its colorful past. When I visited the Gallatin County Museum, I learned a lot more about founder John Bozeman’s short life. Bozeman was murdered when he was only 32 but questions still linger about his death. The museum has been located in the old jailhouse since 1979.

Although Bozeman played a key role in coming up with a cutoff route on the famed Oregon trail, the area was also visited by William Clark as part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. While the entire state of Montana has many signs of their journey, there is just one Lewis and Clark motel. Besides “fluffing your pillow since 1976,” this property in Bozeman also sports an impressive bicentennial-era neon sign.

After a quick lunch at the Western Café, a classic old-style diner that has been in downtown Bozeman for “the better part of the century” and a drink at the Hotel Baxter, which was built in early 1929, it was time to get a move on.

We drove from Bozeman and did a quick stop in Helena to ogle at the impressive State Capitol. Then, we then drove from Great Falls and through the Blackfeet Reservation, which straddles Glacier National Park.  

When we arrived at Glacier, we discovered that many of the winter closures were still in effect, including the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  But we still had the chance to check out several waterfalls and see the iconic red busses that would be running shuttles when summer travel season begins.

After dipping my feet in a clear and cold Lake McDonald, we toured the Lodge of the same name. This Swiss-style chalet was built in 1913 and retains much of its yesteryear appeal. It had just opened for the season a few days earlier, so it was fortunate that we had the chance to see the lodge’s impressive interior.

The next few days we were based out of Whitefish, with a nice stay at the Grouse Mountain Lodge, which included an outdoor hot tub with sweeping views of the starry skies. Surprisingly, we were unable to see the weekend’s Northern Lights from this vantage point in Big Sky Country.

Whitefish is another of those booming Montana towns, with several celebrities owning homes in the area. Besides the proximity to the majestic mountains at Glacier National Park, the town boasts a beautiful beachfront, ski resorts, historic areas, a vibrant art scene and several blocks of trendy shops. These many amenities make it easy to see why Whitefish gained so many residents during COVID, but this rapid growth and rising home values are pricing out teachers, firefighters, first responders and others who provide essential services.

While we were in Whitefish, we made a run for the Canadian border as the Eureka-Roosville crossing was an hour’s drive from Whitefish. We took 93 north and passed through the scenic Kootenai National Forest and up through the town of Eureka, once known as the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World.”

Eureka is just seven miles south of the Canadian border, which was once the bastion of hot-rodding bootleggers running moonshine through Montana from British Columbia. So, it was kind of ironic to spot a souped-up vehicle at a gas station in Eureka.

The next day we were back on highway 93 and heading south. We cruised around Kalispell and admired yet another well-preserved downtown area. We then drove though the Flathead Indian reservation and took in the views of Flathead Lake. It turns out that it’s the largest, fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi so you can bet that this area is teeming with tourists during the fleeting summer months.

While many of these areas are dependent on summer tourism, the college town of Missoula seems to be the hub for year-round activities. Besides being a frequent backdrop for the television series, Yellowstone and home to a burgeoning arts and music scene, Missoula is a hotbed for white-water rafting, fly fishing, biking and other healthy pursuits.

On the advice of several glowing Yelp reviews that claimed the fried chicken was “the best in Montana,” we had lunch at the Double Front Café, and it certainly lived up to the hype. The building’s been around since 1909 but they have been serving their famous cooked-to-order fried chicken since 1935. Its current owners have run the business dating back to 1961.

After eating our fill of fried chicken at the Double Front, it was time to move on from Missoula and follow the route of Lewis and Clark. Highway 12 parallels the arduous terrain of the LoLo Trail they needed to conquer to get to the Pacific Northwest. This intrepid pair encountered many hardships in this ruggedly beautiful yet decidedly desolate area, so it seemed sort of silly to bellyache about spotty cellular service and sporadic WiFi at our outpost at the Lodge in Lolo Hot Springs.

The therapeutic hot springs have been luring folks to this area for centuries. After a soothing soak in the grotto, it was easy to see why it’s long been such a big draw. Once we had chilled out in the hot springs, we settled in at the vintage wood-paneled lobby. Here, we were able to connect to the wifi and have a chat with the friendly staff.  The décor in the lobby included everything from life-size Lewis and Clark figurines to a pay phone for contact with the outside world. In short, it was yet another “only in Montana moment” that we experienced.

All too soon, it was time for us to head back to the outside world and catch a flight out of the Bozeman/Yellowstone airport. We did a quick drive through Butte, which was once the largest copper producer in North America. There are still signs of the mine’s boom times up those steep roads right on the Continental Divide. We saw relics of abandoned mining head frames near old majestic churches, built by immigrant miners, including a huge influx of Irish. Butte also boasts one of the nation’s largest historic districts and we spotted several “ghost signs” on our drive around the town’s Uptown area.

Now, it’s back to the Windy City and unpacking all that we witnessed in Montana. Despite the road shutdowns and off-season closures, there was plenty to see and do throughout our 8-day road trip. Whether it was an old mining town, a majestic mountain range, the early explorer's rugged terrain or the abundance of wildlife in natural habitats, there were so many things that piqued my interest to dig deeper into the Treasure State's rich and colorful history.

Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page