July 16–24, 2004
I. THE BIG PICTURE
Montana's Glacier National Park
was the site
of our 8th annual reunion with Judy's high school girl friends. Via interstate
highways, it's about 1,000 miles from here, but we decided to take an extra
day or two both going and returning to see parts of Wyoming and Idaho we
hadn't seen or not seen in over 30 years. We drove north to Cheyenne and
west to Green River
for the first
night; then to Kemmerer (Wyoming), Fossil
Butte National Monument
, and Pocatello for the second night; and then
north through Challis
, across Lost Trail Pass
into Montana to Missoula
, the Flathead Valley
, and finally
that would be our
base for the next five nights.
II. ON THE ROAD TO GLACIER
We took the fast lanes across southern Wyoming.
The wet spring and summer had turned the rolling countryside—usually dry-grass
brown—into a green blanketed grassland unusual for mid-July. We stopped in
Green River early enough to bike through this small railroad town on their
system of bike paths that run through town and skirt the Green River. As
we were heading back to the motel, we noticed an sign announcing a 5K race
the following morning. After several phone calls, we learned the location
and time of the race in the morning. Registration was $10 which included
a T-shirt, age group prizes, a raffle of gift certificates, and a timer.
At 8:00 a.m. the sun was already strong and hot, and the route was deceptively
challenging: gentle but long uphills and a couple of striking downhills along
the way. Number 29 was the 4th woman and won the women's 50+ age group.
•Kemmerer. This quiet, charming,
off-the-main-road town is home to the first JC Penney store in the country.
Known as the "Mother Store," it exists not as a museum (though it remains
very true to the original store James Cash Penney established in 1902) but
it reminded us of small town retail department stores from our childhood
of the 1940s. Kemmerer and its sister town, Diamondville, have a history
rooted in farming, mining (coal) and fossils. In fact, Kemmerer is known
as the "Fossil Fish Capital of the World."
Some of the most spectacular specimens of
fossil fish and palms are on display in town and at the the Fossil Butte
National Monument just west of town. Kemmerer is also home to the annual
Oyster Ridge Music Festival,
the state's largest free music festival. This three-day event each July
features bluegrass and Celtic bands with performers from the USA and Canada.
•Fossil Butte National Monument.
Wyoming's often drab landscape masks a fascinating
and complex geologic history. Most of the state was at the bottom of
an ancient ocean that left stratified sediments several miles thick. Within
the layers of earth are the remains of ancient plants and animals of the
Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. As a result, Wyoming's coal and petroleum deposits
are among the richest in the country, and fish, plant, and dinosaur fossils
can be found in many places around the state. At Fossil Butte NM we were
able to watch expert and amateur archeologists uncover fish and plant fossils
from a small cut in the side of a hill. Each find is numbered, measured,
recorded, including the individual—visitor or on-site expert—who discovered
•Challis and Salmon. Over 30 years
ago, we had traveled in our VW bus through these two towns that flank the
Salmon River. In fact, a mechanical breakdown forced us to stay in Salmon
for nearly a week while repairs could be made by Fritz, a German-born mechanic
who worked at the local Nash Rambler dealer! We were interested to see if
our memories of these two towns fit current realities. Of course they didn't:
Salmon was not the interesting small town we got to know so well, and Challis
was much more interesting to us this trip, especially as the gateway to mining
ghost towns (Bonanza, Custer, Bayhorse) located on the Yankee Fork Historic
Loop (still a dirt road) that runs south out of town to the Stanley
Basin, one of the state's scenic gems. We'll be sure to return there to
spend more time camping and poking around this area.
•Flathead Lake. North of Darby (pricey
antiques stores), Stevensville (oldest town in Montana), and Missoula (a
beautiful city of 57,000 and the home of the University of Montana—the "Grizzlies" who
rank fifth in the nation among public colleges producing Rhodes Scholars)
is the Flathead Valley, an area of great scenic beauty, cherries and huckleberries,
great fishing and boating, and home of the largest freshwater lake west of
the Mississippi. For old times' sake, we drove up the east side of the lake
to see if we could locate a piece of property we had nearly purchased over
30 years ago. At that time, we had put an offer on 200' of lakeshore on the
east side of Flathead Lake for the then-handsome sum of $20,000, an amount
that would have severely stretched the budget of a new assistant professor
and his stay-at-home wife and mother of two small children. Of course we
didn't find the property on this trip, but we did notice in a local real
estate flyer someone was offering 134' feet of lake shore on the same side
of Flathead Lake for a now very handsome sum of $550,000.
•Whitefish/Big Mountain Resort.
Our home while visiting Glacier National Park was 3-bedroom condo just outside
of Whitefish at Big Mountain Resort.
Though the resort may be trying hard to be a year round destination, Big
Mountain seems to be primarily a ski resort; there were no throngs of visitors
while we were there. The potential is there: there are attractive trails
for hiking and mountain biking, the gondola runs all day to take folks to
the top of the mountain for views of the Flathead Valley and Whitefish Lake,
and shops and restaurants are open. But there seemed at least as many workers
and employees as visitors. We enjoyed the relative quiet of the area.
We arrived well before the other
two couples and decided to spend the day biking through the North Fork Section
of the Park. To get there, we drove to Columbia Falls and then 35 miles
of mostly dirt road north to the northwestern entrance of the park at Polebridge.
Polebridge surprised us: it is a former "town" built around a hotel in 1910
to accommodate travelers to this remote section of the park. The building
is now a general store with a scattering of houses and trailers that accommodate
seasonal visitors/residents. The store features outstanding breads and pastries
baked fresh daily. Who'd have thought that at the end of a long dusty drive,
that we could treat ourselves to fresh bread at such a lonely outpost of
We crossed into the park a mile beyond
Polebridge and set out for Kintla Lake, 15 miles away and just a stone's
throw from the Canadian border (It's the narrow lake in the upper left hand
corner of the park as shown on the map.) The dirt road was rough but flat
and crossed through open meadows with great views of the mountains to the
east. We saw deer as well as signs of the fires that devastated the area
last year. Halfway there, the white, fair weather cumulus clouds darkened
and we decided to abort the bike ride.
And a good thing we did: less than an hour later, on the drive back, the
heavens opened up and demonstrated why this part of the country is so green
in the summer.
By the time we returned, one of the
other couples had already arrived and the other couple came soon after.
We had a good dinner in Whitefish, shopped at the local Safeway, and made
plans for the three full days we had to enjoy Glacier and our time together.
•Hiking the Park. With over 700 miles
of trails, Glacier is a paradise for horseback riding, hikers, walkers, strollers,
backpackers, trekkers, and others who travel by foot. We discovered, however,
that trails are poorly marked and maps
do not often help to locate trailheads or to decide which fork to take. We
spent our first day in the west side of the Park—West Glacier Village, Lake
McDonald, and eventually to the "halfway" point in the park: Logan Pass (6,646').
Along the Going to the Sun Road, we stopped to see waterfalls, to walk along
the Flathead River, to photograph the not so shy mountain goats and majestic
bighorn sheep that pose for visitors on a trail near Logan Pass. We also
stopped for conversations with road workers who held up traffic at half a
dozen locations along this much used narrow mountain road through the Park.
We did not get into the back country where grizzlies, elk, moose, and other
large mammals dominate (in fact, we never saw an elk or moose, and the only
bear we saw was on a highway outside the park), but we'll save that for another
trip. We only hope that the weather then will be as fine and fair as it was
•Rafting the Park. There are several
companies that take groups down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. For
our main activity on the second day we chose the Montana Raft Company who gave us
a good half day trip (and took this photo; we're the back three on either
side of the boar). We had plenty of chances to get wet in the class II-III
rapids or getting splashed by a rival group of rafters. While the six of
us may not hike often or far, we do enjoy water—whether we're poolside at
a Puerto Vallarta resort, walking the shore of Lake Tahoe, or whitewater
rafting in the mountains.
When we returned to the Big Mountain
condo, we packed a picnic of cheese, crackers, wine, and tequila and rode
the gondola to the top of the mountain for relaxing snack and a 360 degree
view of the mountains and valleys and the setting sun. Dinner at a restaurant
on the mountain was a perfect end to a perfect day.
•Driving the Park. In addition to
enjoying water activities, we also seem to do a good bit of driving when
we get together, at least we did on this trip. Because it's such a large
park (50 miles across the Going to the Sun Road, nearly 150 miles from the
Canadian border to the south boundary; over 1 million acres), driving across
and around the perimeter of the park is one way to get a sense of its size
and diversity. Thankfully, one of the couples drove out in a comfortable
We crossed Logan Pass to St. Mary
Lake on the east side, then out of the park and north to Canada's adjoining
Waterton Lakes National Park which joined with Glacier, in 1932, to create
International Peace Park, the first international park in the world. We
were a bit nervous about crossing into Canada because we had heard, erroneously
as it turned out, that visitors now had to show an American passport. One
area resident said that "it depends on who you get at the crossing station."
We needn't have worried: we showed our driver's licenses answered the usual
questions, and went on our way to Waterton Lakes. (Our return crossing was
also a non-event.)
We had lunch at the fabulous Prince
of Wales Hotel which overlooks Waterton Lakes. It is one of those grand
mountain lodges, like those at Banff, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone,
et al. built to attract wealthy visitors to national parks. In this case,
the Great Northern Railway pushed for the creation of the hotel which opened
in 1927. Lunch, served in the grand dining room by a young man in a kilt,
was not as formal or dressy an affair as it probably was a generation or
two ago. But the ambiance was elegant and the view spectacular.
After lunch we strolled through the
peaceful lakeside village of Waterton,
gateway to one of Canada's most beautiful parks.
On the return to Whitefish we drove
on US 2 the eastern, southern and southwest perimeters of the park, through
St. Mary and Kiowa to East Glacier to visit the East Glacier Lodge which, like the
Prince of Wales Hotel, was built in 1913 on a grand scale by the Great Northern
Railway just three years after the Park was created. An Amtrak station now
sits across the street from the hotel where passengers from around the country
disembark for a truly western mountain experience that combines gracious
living with forays into the Rocky Mountains wilderness. After a day of horseback
riding, or touring in one of the park's unique historic red jammer
buses, or hiking in the back country, guests can return to swim in the
lodge's heated pool, play a round of golf, or enjoy drinks on
the patio to watch the sun go down over the Livingston Range to the west.
Reservations are almost certainly required! We marveled at the magnificent
three story lobby supported by massive beams carved from trees hundreds of
Before leaving we took several different "stair pictures,"
an annual tradition. The best of the bunch this year showed only the wives.
The husbands' photo below was taken with St. Mary Lake in the background.
The (almost) four days together passed
too quickly and our time together was probably a bit more intense than we
anticipated. While we didn't explore the Park as fully as we would have liked,
the visit made us determined to return soon for more biking, camping, hiking,
and time in the back country. However, we did what we really came for: to
renew old friendships and catch up on each other's activities and families
over the past year. We looked at photos of grandchildren and trips to Italy
and New Zealand; we talked about health insurance, retirement funds, aches
and pains, and other things old folks talk about when they get together.
And we talked about seeing each other again next year in New Hope, Pennsylvania,
for the wives' 45th high school reunion.
Our trip home was more direct than
we had originally planned. Much of it was by interstate highway, though the
stretch from Whitefish to Billings took us
through or on the fringe of some of Montana's most scenic areas, with names
that conjure images of the mining frenzy that brought European Americans
to this wild land with the promise of fortunes to be dug from the earth:
the Garnet Range, Stone, and Opportunity; ghost towns of Phillipsburg, Garnet,
and Virginia City. Butte, once the
richest copper mining area in the country has lost its economic base (the
1700' deep Berkley Pit is a stark reminder of those former mining days),
but the city seems to be making a comeback through promoting its history
and the area's natural beauty. Hot springs can be found around almost every
bend in the road—Sleeping Child Hot Springs, Bozeman Hot Springs, Chico Hot
Springs— leading to the mother of all hot springs at Yellowstone to the south.
US Highway 212 that runs southwest from Billings through Red Lodge past Granite
Peak (high point in the state at 12,799') to Yellowstone is considered by
many to be the most beautiful road in the country. All this waits for another
Instead, we realized we were weary of car
travel and yearned to be home. On the way down the interstate, we briefly
visited Butte and spent the night in Billings, the state's biggest city (population
about 67,000) that marks the division between the prairie grasslands of eastern
Montana and the green slopes of the Rockies to the west. In the morning we
calculated that we could be at Michael and Cindy's to pick up the dogs and
still be home before the ten o'clock news: I-90 to Sheridan, I-25 at Buffalo,
a beautiful back road detour on state road 487 from Casper to Laramie, and
finally down US 287 through Ft. Collins to I-25 to Lafayette.
We learned where we'd like to return
and that we need to explore it all at a more leisurely pace. The roads are
not too steep for our mini-motor home. Look for Sophie and Bella to join
us in Montana sometime next year.