It's June, 2018 and the original plan for today was to just drive up to Kalispell, spend the night, and then tour Glacier National Park the next day. But then I saw the drive up there was only going to be a little over four and a half hours, if I left early enough I could get up there, tour the Park and then be done by the time I can check in. Have the rest of the day to chill and then the next day I only have to worry about making my way back to Bozeman. Plus it was Aria's birthday so why should she have to spend it in a hotel room, lets do this!
So I reviewed the Google Maps and I knew my GPS would not take me the route I wanted to and put me through a drive with limited views and extremely high speeds. All in the name of saving time. I am in no rush to get up there but I am in a rush to see some good scenery. So the route I had chosen was one that took me on to Montana Highway 287 and pass through Helena before jumping onto I15. This part of the route is nothing to brag about, your typical Montana Highway with fields on either side, a small town here and there and a few twists and turns with the mountains in the far distance. Next comes Helena.
Now I admit I didn't see what East Helena looks like but Helena itself was not that big which took me by surprise. I was expecting tall buildings, busy streets, obstructed mountain views but there wasn't. The town was quaint, easy to get around and mountains everywhere you look. It was also town that had a ton of commercial shops so anything you needed you could find easily without leaving the comforts of the city. Very cool town to drive through.
I hopped onto I15N and it wasn't long before I hopped off of it again to rejoin Highway 287N. Now this is where it gets interesting and a very nice drive. There are hills, fields, solitude, no traffic, no phone signal and no service station. The next major town along this route, which also when you start seeing signs for Glacier National Park, is Augusta. If you don't have a full tank of gas Augusta is your last chance to get gas until you reach the town of Browning and there is only one gas station in that town. So the price of gas is pretty high but the town itself is cute with a touch of history to the buildings.
A block past the gas station and you are back out in the country of Montana. This road reminded me of Highway 12 off of Interstate 94, very few cars and nothing but farms, fields, livestock and mountains as far as the eye can see. It is by far and away not a boring drive, there are a lot of hills, sharp turns, very few passing lanes, lots of campers and little indication that you need to slow down for the very sharp turn that is coming up. So be cautious of the road and of the wildlife who like to jump out in the 70 MPH zone.
The further North I went, the gustier the wind became which meant temperatures were also starting to drop. It was pushing the car so hard that it felt like I was fishtailing on ice but the roads were bone dry. This would continue all the way to East Glacier and never letting up once. There was a section that opened up with a sign that said, "Heavy Gust Area". That was an understatement as I swear the butt end of my car did more than a fish tail when I drove through. A tighter grip on the wheel and a clenched, "settle down wind" had me regaining control of the car and continuing forward.
This sign, would be the first of many signs that I will say I didn't need to be told that but I will gladly share them with you. N287 eventually comes to an end I turn onto 89N as I turn there is a yellow triangle sign with a flag on it that is blowing straight out on the sign it says, "Gusty Winds". Thank you, I wasn't sure if I was dealing with a gusty wind or a straight line wind. By the way, where were you thirty miles back when this wind started. But I chuckle, shake my head and move on.
About ten to fifteen years ago I had visited Glacier National Park and at that time I came in through the West entrance. I'm fuzzy about a lot of things but I do remember the entrance being pretty obvious with lots of signs. So naturally I would assume the same thing for the East entrance. Wrong! The signs tell you where East Glacier is located but once inside all information about accessing the park from this location does not exist. Should have visited the website? Yeah, the NPS websites are as easy to navigate as walking through a maze. There is no clear indication about where the East side entrance is located.
So I continue forward through the campgrounds and rv parks and see a sign up ahead that says Two Medicine and Highway 89/St Mary. St. Mary. I know and remember that St. Mary has a visitor center inside the park so that has to be where the entrance is, right? At this point I have no clue and no signal and I'm too stubborn to turn around. The whole point of coming in on the East side is to drive through the park, come out on the West side and only be a few minutes away from Kalispell where my hotel is located. Simple enough, right?
Not when you have no signal and GPS that keeps saying to turn around and go another three hours and few hundred miles to get where I want to go. Head down GPS you need a break and onto Highway 89 I go.
This route was amazing to drive. There was a climb up that offered pull overs and views of Glacier National Park. One pullover had a couple telling me that the small path would lead to an amazing view. I let Aria out and together we walked it and they were right. Opened view of the mountains and stream below as well as a few candid shots of Aria. We hiked back up to the car and headed back out. A few more stops and a road that was badly damaged by the winter we finally came around a bend where we came to a complete stop. Road Construction. One lane only too, which meant we were waiting for the lead car to arrive.
About 10-15 minutes later they showed up and so begins the bumpy, twisty, muddy and dusty drive to the area that isn't under construction. It was only about five miles long but took us over twenty minutes to get through it. Finally we did but then there are more twists and turns as well as bunched up cars which made the rest of the drive slow and long and the whole time I kept thinking, "If the entrance isn't here than I have to come back through all of this to go over to West Glacier.... Of course there is Canada which is only a few more miles North..."
A sharp turn and brake lights snap me out of my thoughts and have me focused on the road before me. Finally I see the buildings of the town of St. Mary and the very first sign I see points to the left saying "Glacier National Park", I turn and there is the entrance! Yahoo! The majestic mountains that stood behind the gated entrance were breathtaking and made me feel giddy inside. I pulled up, paid the fee and made a stop at the visitor center and gift shop. Ten minutes later and few dollars less in my pocket Aria and I are on our way to drive through the National Park.
We're barely on the drive when all traffic has come to a stop and few people are hanging out their windows. What in the what? A small black bear has chosen this spot to cross back over into the woods after getting a drink of water from the stream. I was a couple of cars back and couldn't see how big it was but I did see bits of it and it was a beauty. Probably female and about the size of a german shephard. A few more twists and turns lead to the first of many pull offs Aria and I would take.
It is here that I let her out for the first time and grab a few candid shots of her next to St. Mary Lake and inside Glacier National Park. She is clearly more interested in the scenery around her than at me holding the camera. Someone pulled in behind us and that gave me the look I was waiting for, I turned and when they saw her the usual 'oohs' and 'awws' began followed by the 'can we pet her?' Like I'm going to turn them down, correction, Aria wasn't going to let me turn them down. The word 'sure' barely left my lips before she began dragging me towards them and knocked them down with kisses. There were laughs and exchanges of stories before we all went our own way.
The wind continued the whole drive through East Glacier and dark clouds were beginning to form around the tips which made temperatures drop even more. There are still plenty of snow patches along the mountains and as far down as the roads, they are slowly melting which is obvious from the large amounts of water that were falling down the sides. A not so cool sign said, "Snow Bridge, Not Stable Don't Stand On It." Oh really? On that note I'm just going to choose another place to pull off to and maybe pick up my pace a little bit.
Here's another sign you'll see in the park, "Congested Area Ahead". Seriously, I could see it was congested five miles back, didn't need you tell me that this was a popular place for people to pull over at, but again, thanks for letting me know. There aren't words big enough to describe the beauty and aw that this park has to offer.
Every twist, turn, climb, descent and pull over offer a whole new perspective on the scenery around you. I can't even remember seeing half of the stuff I saw today.
The wind didn't begin to back off until I was heading downward toward the Lake McDonald area it is also the area, which is at a lower elevation, had the sun out more and the temperature rise from 60 degrees to near 70 and with little wind it became hot. The two main routes in the park, which merge together, are the Going-To The Sun Route and Logan's Pass. Going to The Sun is the highest part of the drive and is over on the East side/St. Mary, Logan's Pass is the lower part of the drive next to Lake McDonald/West side.
Along the way you will see Gorges, Waterfalls, Unstable Snow Bridges, Tunnels, Hiking Trails, Wildlife, Streams, No Guardrail, Falling Rocks, and my personal favorite a straight, unobstructed drop a few hundred feet to the bottom. I should mention I'm not a huge fan of heights and there were a few pull offs I either stayed in the car and took the picture or held on to it while I leaned out to take a photo. Cars whipping in to get the same photo didn't help the matter at all. I did it and the shots turned out great but the hands were shaking and the heart was racing. The things I do for that one "great" shot.
The entire route from East side to West side is only about 60 miles long but can take almost two hours to do because of the turns, people pulling off and on and the speed limit which doesn't go above 45 mph but is at an average of 25 mph. But with all of my stops and talks with people it took closer to four hours to complete, time that flew by but nearing the end I was happy to be leaving. At this point I had been driving for over eight hours and about an hour or two of that was white knuckled through blind turns, close calls and hugging corners to avoid hitting others. It was time to leave and relax.
I headed out to Kalispell and along the way found the hotel I had stayed at over ten years ago. The exterior still looked the same but they have expanded to include cabins and tipis; interesting. I chose to stay loyal to my hotel chain and stay at another Choice Hotels. This one is connected to a casino and has a larger sign than the hotel. Both entrances are next to each other and again, the casino's sign is bigger but it is a small establishment and is quiet. The lobby is huge and the room is spacious. Some of the rooms, not mine, have walkout decks or patios with a seating area, they also have a pool and fitness center. Rooms are extremely clean, quiet and appear to have been renovated. Always makes my day! Plus they have fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and hot popcorn for an evening treat.
Now that I can't pass up. The only downside was I had to wait for my room. I arrived a little after 4p and they were still in there cleaning it which meant I had to wait an extra ten minutes for them to finish. A minor inconvenience because I had a seafood sub waiting for me in a slowly, growing hot car. But Aria and I took advantage of the time and went for a walk around the property which showed to be well-lit, quiet and clean.
The wind had also returned and Aria enjoyed feeling it, once again, flow through her long coat. We were finally able to get into my room where we both enjoyed supper and relaxing for the rest of the night. Pet walking areas are doable but have to be looked for in order to find but for once Aria isn't being picky so I neither will I.
Driving across country can bring about some interesting situations. Broken down on a day by day basis enjoy my adventures and set backs along the way to some beautiful destinations.