Once again our time in western Yellowstone was spectacular and the more time we spend in this part of Idaho the more we love and appreciate it. I am confident it will be part of our travel plans in the future. So, we are back on the road and off to Montana. A short drive on SR 87 took us to US Hwy 287 which followed the Madison River through the small towns of Ennis and Norris. The Jefferson River was our next stream to parallel our journey north. The intersection for I-90 is at Three Forks.
Three Forks is a city in Gallatin County, Montana, and is historically considered the birthplace of the Missouri River, its named because it lies geographically near the point, in nearby Missouri Headwaters State Park, where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers converge to form the Missouri River — the longest single river in North America. An interesting geography lesson.
So, anyway, we had a choice between taking the interstate or sticking with the state highway because it was a more direct route. The drive so far was scenic, and road conditions were near perfect, so we opted to stay on 287 despite the construction signs that we just zipped by. By far, the biggest road navigation mistake we have made in quite some time. For nearly 40 miles, nothing but washboard and nasty gravel road. In some places even single lane one way traffic. This was the most aggressive upgrade we have seen in a major US highway. Curious what condition it will be in next year. You can better believe we will take the long way on the Interstate if we come back this way any time soon.
Next stop, Helena for a pitstop and restock at Walmart then off to the big river at the Riverside campground on the Missouri River below Canyon Ferry Dam. A drive across the dam preceded our arrival at the campground. One of the best sites and waterfront views we have ever had. It was a nice time to “chillax” for a few days.
A short day trip into Helena to discover some of the city’s sights and an opportunity to discover a Thai food truck at the State Capital Building.
Our trip to West Glacier began with clear blue skies. Westward on US Hwy 12 over MacDonald Pass, then followed the Little Blackfoot River until we headed north on SR 141 at Avon. A beautiful drive past pastures and farmlands, a puppy walk at Nevada Lake, then SR 200 through rolling hills to Clearwater Junction where SR 83 continued our travels. Salmon Lake, Seeley Lake, Lake Inez, Lake Alva, Summit Lake and Swan Lake made for a spectacular afternoon drive.
Destination Coram Montana! Our original plan was to spend a week here on the west side of Glacier, then travel to the east side at St Mary to enjoy what the eastern slopes of Glacier National Park (NP) has to offer. The park’s eastern border is adjacent to the Blackfeet Indian reservation. Their Council Meeting decided it was too risky and unsafe to allow tourists onto the reservation. Therefore, St Mary, East Glacier Park Village, and Many Glacier would not be open this season.
Fortunately for us we were able to extend our stay in Coram and ended up spending the July 4th holiday in West Glacier. Again, COVID constraints hampered our visit to Glacier but did not deter our ability for an adventure.
A daytrip up to Polebridge Mercantile & Bakery, A 46-mile trek up SR 486 or N. Fork Road would follow the North Fork of the Flathead River. We passed several campgrounds that had potential for a few days off the grid, but the road condition and the remoteness would not have been suitable for our camping comfort. We did see some big RVs. We played in the river near the Polebridge Ranger Station. Our goal was to drive up to Bowman Lake, but the road was closed because there was no available parking. Another example of the early bird getting the worm. This is a popular destination for hikers and now have a complete understanding of why the cars were flying by us on our way up there… lol. Our return took us a different route on Camas Road to Apgar Village Visitor Center, but it was also closed.
Let me give you a short geography lesson on Glacier NP. There are two main entrances to the park. East at St Mary and West in West Glacier. The park is also connected by the Going-to-the-Sun Road which is a seasonal highway. We were at the park in late June and the road was still closed due to snow, landslides, and repairs. The domino effect of it being closed causes chaos in the few available parking lots along the road. To complicate matters, many of the campgrounds, lodges, visitor centers were not yet open for the season. With minimal park rangers and available staff, they did their best to accommodate guests and direct traffic at the daily gridlocks. What it boiled down to was to arrive early or not be able to venture past Apgar Village. Even on a good day, the road was closed at Avalanche Creek Picnic area and campground.
One day we made it all the way to Avalanche Creek, another day McDonald’s Falls was as far as we could get, so we did some off roading on N. Lake McDonald Road.
One day when we could not even get past Apgar Village, we decided to take the Inside North Fork Road which is just past Fish Creek Campground. It is no longer a through road but the adventurous drive to Camas Creek and the Camas Creek Trailhead was beyond spectacular. The return path was equally impressive as now we could view all the sights, we missed on the way out there.
This part of Montana is ALL about Glacier National Park, but there are many places of interest that are worthy of a day trip. Our last visit we went to the Hungry Horse Dam, we said, next time we would drive around the Hungry Horse Reservoir. The 110-mile adventure delivered mountain views, cascading waterfalls, stream crossings and beautiful overlooks of the reservoir and river all day long. Several campgrounds were suitable for larger motor homes and the road was in decent shape, too. There were a few places we ventured off the main road to explore and VERY thankful it was not too wet as my experience level for “Mudding” would have been exposed.
We spent a few days hanging around the campground. Weather was a bit wet, so the minute Deb and I saw any glimpse of blue skies we were beatin feet to see more of the Coram, Columbia Falls area. Finding train trestles, a Shay Steam Locomotive that was built in Michigan, did some four wheelin on the shores of the Flatwater River, and ventured out for a short drive to Goat Lick Rock.
There was more adventure left in the tank for one more day trip. Thompson Falls here we come. We let Google Maps decide our route on the most direct route to get there. The state and county roads provided plenty of scenery, barns, of course, plenty of streams to follow to Thompson Falls.
The dam /spillway was unbelievable. The amount of water flowing created a deafening roar that reminded us of Niagara or Yellowstone Falls.
Nearby we ate at Thompson Falls State Park. Perfect day for a picnic along the Clark Fork River. Before we left town we saw signs that the main highway SR 200 was closed for bridge repair about 20 miles up the road, fortunately for us, Blue Slide Road paralleled the highway on the other side of the river and reconnected with SR 200 right after the bridge.
We made one more stop at Noxom Rapids reservoir to see another dam providing maximum overflow of the river. Quite a display of waterpower.
SR 56 was our next turn to head north toward US Hwy 2 and Kootenai Falls. The thirty-five-mile drive was another gem. The Bull River meandered along the valley we were in until we reached Bull Lake. Soon we were at the junction of US Hwy 2 and we were eastbound heading back through Libbey, Kalispell and Columbia Falls to return to our campground in Coram.
Glacier National Park is a beautiful park. The pandemic forced us to expand our mindset of what to do and where to go given the conditions of the park. We saw parts of the park that we probably would not have bothered to if the circumstances were normal. But then again, not much we do is very normal.
Our travel plans took a major hit while we were here… Stick around for our next blog to see what we have up our sleeve.