Western Montana Adventures
Western Montana’s wild, rugged landscapes have always profoundly impacted people who have lived or explored here. Nearby Native American tribes like the Salish, Kootenai, Blackfoot and Pend d’Oreille all professed a close relationship with their surroundings, and it’s easy to see why. Today’s residents still share glaciated peaks, towering forests and vast lightly populated valleys with grizzly bears, wolves, cougars, deer and elk. Missoula, population 70,000, resides where its glacial namesake lakebed, five valleys and three rivers converge, making it a natural staging point for exploring western Montana. Glacier National Park is about three hours north, and in every direction, outdoor family adventures beckon in what’s aptly called the Last Best Place.
Missoula is known as the River City. The Clark Fork River runs through downtown, the Blackfoot River joins it east of Hellgate Canyon and the Bitterroot River empties into the Clark Fork to the west.
This cosmopolitan college town hosts outdoor concerts, farmers and crafts markets among other events. Downtown Missoula’s carousel’s wooden ponies carry riders of all ages, and both The Children’s Museum and Montana Natural History Center offer engaging exhibits.
Just north, Waterworks Hill and Peace Sign trails lead to commanding views of the Rattlesnake, Bitterroot and other nearby ranges. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy nearby Rattlesnake Wilderness Recreation Area trails, and skiing and snowboarding at Snowbowl.
West and southwest of Missoula, Blue Mountain, O’Brien Creek and Maclay Flat all offer trails, as does Council Grove State Park. Other attractions include The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, Elk Country Visitor Center and the Smoke Jumper Center at Missoula International Airport, gateway for many Glacier National Park visitors.
West of Missoula
West of Missoula is Frenchtown Pond State Park, and Erskine Fishing Access has excellent bird watching, hiking and fishing. A short drive from Interstate 90’s Ninemile exit leads to Ninemile Remount Depot and Ranger Station, with exhibits recounting the pre-smokejumper era, when forest firefighters mostly used horses and hand tools to tame blazes.
Farther west along the Clark Fork river is Alberton Gorge, popular for guided rafting adventures. Montana’s tallest ponderosa pine (the official state tree) is also close by. Superior is a gateway to the northern Bitterroot Range’s Heart and Pearl Lakes, both scenic, moderate day hikes.
Flathead Indian Reservation and NW Montana
The 1855 Hell Gate Treaty, signed where Council Grove State Park now stands, established the Flathead Indian Reservation. Look for Salish and Kootenai place names on signs along U.S. Highway 93 here, and their English translations. Towering above the valley are the Mission Mountains and Tribal Wilderness area, which is closed in late summer and fall while grizzlies are busy engulfing protein-rich alpine insects. Locally purchased tribal access permits are required for most reservation activities.
Off Highway 93 north of Ravalli is the 19th century Saint Ignacius Mission. Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana and Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge are just north. In Pablo, The People’s Center features activities and tours recounting the Flathead tribal history and culture.
Thompson River State Forest and other public lands offer myriad adventures in the southern Cabinet Mountains, while Thompson Falls State Park is also a gem. Past Noxon Reservoir, the Clark Fork flows toward Idaho’s Lake Pend d’Oreille, near where Glacial Lake Missoula’s ice-dammed waters burst free. Troy and Libby travelers on Route 56 will find Ross Creek’s giant western red cedar grove a tranquil and inspiring stop.
Flathead Lake and North
Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater body in the contiguous western United States, and state parks and access points abound along this deep, clean lake’s shores. Polson, Flathead Lake’s southern gateway, boasts waterfront parks and trails and swimming, fishing, and boating access.
State parks on Flathead Lake’s cherry-orchard studded eastern shore include Finley Point, Yellow Bay and Wayfarers, all reachable via Highway 35 en route to Bigfork.
Past Rollins is West Shore State Park, and Blacktail Ski Area near Lakeside offers year-round recreation. Past Somers, Bigfork travelers take Highway 82 east, with Mount Aeneas (7529’) a doable family day hike in Jewell Basin. Bigfork’s Swan River Nature Corridor is a sure bet, and in late spring, the Whitewater Festival is held on the “Wild Mile” Class V rapids of the Swan River. Wayfarers State Park and Woods Bay are south of town. Glacier travelers can head north from Bigfork via Columbia Falls to West Glacier, or investigate Hungry Horse Reservoir’s outdoor potential along the way.
Watch for moose and deer en route to Logan State Park and Happy’s Roadhouse Inn, both good base camps for exploring nearby public lands. Libby, a Kootenai River town, lies close to the Skyline National Recreation Trail. Just north is Turner Mountain Ski Area, while west of Libby, visitors can cross a swinging footbridge for a dramatic view of Montana’s largest undammed cascades, Kootenai Falls..
Glacier train passengers often arrive at Whitefish’s Great Northern Railway Depot. Only 30 minutes from the park’s West Glacier entrance, Whitefish is also a winter outdoor magnet. The Winter Carnival (February) is a huge draw, as is Whitefish Mountain Resort. The Danny On Trail is a moderate day hike (7.6 miles) to Big Mountain’s summit and unforgettable Glacier vistas.
Whitefish Lake State Park sports a beach and boating access, while nearby Les Mason State Park attracts non-motorized boaters. North of Whitefish on Highway 93, winter dogsled adventures await at Olney. Close to Trego, Dickey Lake has two campgrounds, while Eureka, farther north, is home to Tobacco Valley Historical Village.
The North Fork of the Flathead River Valley is one of the last intact mid-elevation habitats for grizzly bears, lynx, cougars and wolves in the Lower 48. The Outside North Fork Road traverses this rugged country, with services limited past Columbia Falls. Thirty miles north, Polebridge is close to Glacier’s northwest entrance and the Inside North Fork Road. This off-the-grid community has a general store, cabins, and very informal Fourth of July Parade. The rough, narrow Inside North Fork Road winds north to Bowman and Kintla lakes, and south past other backcountry trailheads en route to Lake McDonald.
East of Columbia Falls along U.S. Highway 2, West Glacier is gateway to Lake McDonald and Going-to-The-Sun Road. Over 200 miles of the Flathead River’s north, middle and south forks are designated wild and scenic, with guided rafting adventures allowed outside the park. Toward East Glacier, an overlook near Essex leads to mountain goat viewing prospects. South of U.S. 2 looms the Great Bear Wilderness, linking Glacier with a wide protected swath of prime grizzly bear habitat. Glacier and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park form the “Crown of the Continent,” an intact Rocky Mountain ecosystem along the Continental Divide. This diverse land is filled with a multitude of mammals, birds and reptiles.
Many of Glacier’s 700 trail miles have a short hiking season, with backcountry reservations mandatory for overnight stays. Be prepared for emergencies and weather extremes, including summer snowstorms, and follow suggested protocols to avoid surprising mountain lions, grizzly and black bears.
Glacier has 13 first-come, first-served campgrounds that usually fill by late morning in summer. Sites range from tent-only to RV friendly, but none provide electricity. Glacier offers many ranger-led family activities, along with Blackfeet cultural programs.
Glacier’s Interior and Blackfeet Reservation
Glacier’s Going-to-The-Sun Road navigates one of North America’s most incredible landscapes. Allow 2-3 hours for driving this winding,
narrow 50-mile road to St. Mary and the park’s east side. Free bus shuttles allow visitors to better savor this alpine wonderland. Restored 1930s red buses also ply this route, providing tours of Glacier’s geology, ecology and human history.
Going-to-the-Sun usually opens by early July, and can close as early as mid-September. When Logan Pass and higher areas are closed to snow, lower elevations are wonderful for hiking, and looking for wildlife such as grizzlies, mountain goats, and marmots. Glaciers visible from the road include Jackson Glacier from Siyeh Bend east of Logan Pass, and Salamander Glacier in the Many Glacier area.
Two Medicine area’s Aster Park Trail leads to Aster Falls and tremendous Two Medicine Valley vistas; allow 4-5 hours for this 3.8-mile return hike. Close by, Running Eagle Falls is an easy all ages hike.
Established in 1851 and east of Glacier is the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Chief Mountain (9066’), sacred to the tribe, dominates the Rocky Mountain skyline close to the Canadian boundary. Guided Blackfeet cultural tours of Glacier leave from Browning, St. Mary and East Glacier, and in July, North American Indian Days features a rodeo, native camp, horse races and more. In Browning, Blackfeet Heritage Center and Museum of the Plains Indian are well worth a visit, and southeast of town, Heart Butte Indian Days are held every August.
Rocky Mountain Front and Great Falls
From Glacier, Missoula and Great Falls travelers along U.S. routes 89 and 287 are rewarded by views of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, known to the Blackfeet as The Backbone of the World. Grizzlies still come down to where the Rockies meet the Great Plains here, one of the last places they do so in the Lower 48.
At Bynum’s Two Medicine Dinosaur Museum, visitors can also participate in actual dinosaur digs. Choteau is close to Mountain Hi Ski Area, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Pine Butte Preserve, and the Old Trail Museum chronicles Native American use along “the Front” over thousands of years.
Great Falls is home to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, while half a mile away, Giant Springs is source of the Roe River, the world’s shortest at 201 feet. Both the Railroad History and Charles M. Russell museums capture the Old West era, and First People’s Buffalo Jump recounts where Plains Indians killed bison for food and sustenance by stampeding them over cliffs.
Blackfoot and Seeley-Swan Valleys
Once over Rogers Pass, U.S. 200 travelers have many hiking and camping options in the Scapegoat Wilderness and on other public lands. A trading post and museum attracts many Lincoln visitors, as does the mid-February Race to the Sky dogsledding competition from here to Seeley Lake. In Ovando, Blackfoot Challenge Center recounts how Montana’s Upper Blackfoot Valley was protected from development. The 1.5 million acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex lies just north.
Missoula travelers from Clearwater Junction have several options for canoeing, rafting, camping and guided float trips along the Blackfoot River. Between mile markers 23 and 22, Garnet Ghost Town Road leads to a former gold mining hamlet of 1,000 long-gone residents.
Bitterroot Valley and Beyond
Montana’s first permanent non-native settlement near Stevensville has since become Fort Owen State Park, not far from Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge’s relaxing Bitterroot River trails. From here south to Darby, trails such as Kootenai Creek lead deep into the Bitterroot Range and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Victor hosts a Heritage Museum, and Chief Victor Days in June.
No matter where families travel in “The Last Best Place,” Montana’s landscapes leave an indelible imprint; their vastness and beauty have continually shaped Native American worldviews and values, and those of more recent arrivals. Despoiling places for short-term gains and shattering environmental consequences will hopefully remain in Montana’s rearview mirror, so future generations can experience wild lands large enough for grizzlies and eagles to thrive and soar, alongside the human spirit and imagination.
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