With more than 100 annual events on the calendar between May and November, it’s hard to drive through Montana and Wyoming without running into rodeo action somewhere. Stop. Buy a ticket. The bleachers are fine. These small-town rodeos offer a unique window into life here: Locals wear their Sunday best, and no one seems to mind the dust. Sitting on a sun-baked wooden bench, a beer in one hand and a bag of popcorn in the other, is the best first date in small towns like Livingston, Montana, or Ten Sleep, Wyoming, where they show off their best without hiding what’s real.
Since 1914, the country’s best bucking stock—and the most ambitious cowboys—have been showcased at this world-famous event in Miles City. The party atmosphere follows the crowds from the rodeo into town and every bar throughout the long weekend for concerts, street dances, and a good old small-town parade. Don’t be surprised if you see cowboys, carrying their saddles, hitching a ride to this event: For horses, bulls, and riders, this is the place to get noticed.
Annual NRA Gardiner Rodeo (mid-June)
Just outside Yellowstone’s north entrance, in the shadow of Electric Peak, the annual rodeo in tiny Gardiner includes all the standards—bull riding, saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and breakaway roping—with a timeless small-town charm.
Augusta American Legion Rodeo and Parade (last Sunday in June)
Held in the hamlet of Augusta, at the edge of the spectacular Rocky Mountain Front, this is the largest and oldest one-day rodeo in the state. The town throws its biggest party of the year with rodeo action, a barbecue, a street dance, and even an art show.
Offering small-town charm and a big-city purse over the Fourth of July holiday, this festive event puts Livingston on the map with big-name rodeo action, a popular parade, nightly fireworks, and more than 10,000 spectators that flood this riverfront community.
Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede (second weekend in July)
Montana’s oldest rodeo, the Wild Horse Stampede in Wolf Point, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, is a three-day event that includes professional rodeo, daily parades and a carnival, the famous wild horse race, street dances, and a kids’ stick-horse rodeo.
From tailgate parties and a Western dance to a pancake breakfast and parade, the small-town rodeo in Thermopolis ushers in the pro rodeo circuit for the Big Horn Basin with plenty of action and family fun.
With all the showmanship one would expect from a town named after Buffalo Bill Cody, this professional rodeo lets the town shine with all the classic events including bareback riding, roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and saddle bronc and bull riding. The rest of the summer, visitors can get a true sense of small-town rodeo at the Cody Nite Rodeo.
Ten Sleep Fourth of July Rodeo (two days over the Fourth of July)
With a rodeo history that dates back to 1908 and includes some of the biggest names in the sport, Ten Sleep boasts rodeo action throughout the summer. Special events at the annual Fourth of July shindig include a Pony Express Ride from nearby Hyattville, a Main Street parade, an old-fashioned rodeo, fireworks, and a sometimes-bloody wild horse race.
Sheridan WYO Rodeo (usually the second week in July)
This is the biggest week of the year for Sheridan. There is a golf tournament, art show, rodeo royalty pageant, carnival, Indian relay races, parade, and street dance on top of four nights of pro-rodeo action.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an ardent fan of road trips, and as a travel writer, I’ve certainly experienced my fair share of them. Down the Florida Keys’ Overseas Highway, up California’s Pacific Coast Highway, and along many scenic and historic routes in between, I’ve relished a wide variety of road trips over the years.
As a child, I logged countless miles with my mother, from our home in New Orleans to destinations like Disney World; San Antonio; Branson, Missouri; the Rocky Mountains; and various landmarks along the East Coast. Years later, my fiancé-turned-husband, Daniel, became my trusty traveling companion, and together, we’ve shared a number of rewarding road trips, including a northern California excursion between Yosemite National Park, the gold-rich American River, the wineries of Napa Valley, and San Francisco.
Though we continue to cover hundreds of miles annually, some of our most memorable trips actually occurred during the year or so we spent as full-time RV travelers (a lifestyle that we’ll soon embrace again). While we both appreciate the country’s lesser-known highways and byways, perhaps our most inspiring trip took place on Interstate 40 (I-40), the country’s third longest interstate highway, an east-west route that stretches from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Barstow, California. Several stops en route include Raleigh and Greensboro, North Carolina; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona; and California’s Mojave National Preserve.
Interestingly enough, the distance between Oklahoma City and Barstow mirrors part of historic Route 66, America’s Mother Road. Of course, our particular I-40 trip began in Nashville, following a stop at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, and continued west toward the Golden State. Here are just some of the attractions we encountered along the way.
Beyond Nashville, our first major stop was Memphis, home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland. While we’re both fans of the King of Rock and Roll, our main interest here was Beale Street (between South Danny Thomas Boulevard and the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis, Tennessee; establishment hours and costs vary). Marked by a reputation that once rivaled New Orleans’s Storyville, Beale Street flourished during the 1920s with numerous restaurants, theaters, nightclubs, pawnshops, and blues musicians, not to mention the requisite gambling, prostitution, and murder. Though not quite as authentic as it once was, the main two-block stretch of Memphis’s Beale Street, between 2nd and 4th Streets, still lures oodles of visitors today. While staying in an RV park near Graceland, we decided to venture to this historic district one evening, and though accustomed to the bustling nightlife of Bourbon Street, I admit that we were both enticed by vibrant Beale and its plethora of live music venues and tasty barbecue joints, from BB King’s Blues Club to Pig on Beale.
Hot Springs National Park
While leaving our RV parked in a campground near Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, Dan and I took a side trip to Hot Springs, President Bill Clinton’s hometown. Here, we explored Hot Springs National Park (101 Reserve Street, Hot Springs, Arkansas, 501/620-6715; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; free, though costs apply for bathhouse services), which occupies much of this nostalgic community. Ideal for history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts like us, the park features eight historic bathhouses, several scenic drives and camping areas, and 26 miles of hiking trails in the surrounding mountains.
Crater of Diamonds State Park
After experiencing Hot Springs, we stopped by Crater of Diamonds State Park (209 State Park Road, Murfreesboro, Arkansas, 870/285-3113; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily early September-late May, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily late May to early September; $8 per adult, $5 per child 6-12, child under 6 free, though other costs may apply), which we’d previously visited. This relatively small, 37.5-acre site is truly one of the best finds–and best bargains–in the country. For a nominal fee, you can explore the world’s only diamond-producing site that’s open to the public. No wonder Crater of Diamonds–which also features a discovery center, gift shop, campground, and seasonal restaurant and water park–is popular among couples, families, and treasure hunters alike. Here, after all, you can unearth all manner of valuable gems, from amethysts and garnets to brown and yellow diamonds, provided you don’t mind getting a little dirty.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch
For miles between Oklahoma City and Amarillo, numerous billboards enticed us to stop by The Big Texan Steak Ranch (7701 I-40 East, Amarillo, Texas, 806/372-6000; 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily; $10-40), home of the world-famous, 72-ounce steak challenge. This is truly a can’t-miss experience–even for vegetarians. With a dining hall that boasts wagon-wheel chandeliers, picnic table-style seating, and a wide array of stuffed, mounted animals, it’s the ideal place to savor a well-prepared steak and a house-brewed beer. If you so desire, you can even stay at the adjacent motel, fashioned like a Wild West town and featuring a Lone Star State-shaped swimming pool. The property also includes a gift shop and horse stalls. And yes, we’ve made return visits here, too.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
While visiting Amarillo, we also ventured to Palo Duro Canyon State Park (11450 Park Road 5, Canyon, Texas, 806/488-2227; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; $5 per person, child under 13 free, though other costs may apply), a 29,182-acre preserve that encompasses part of the 120-mile-long, 800-foot-deep canyon dubbed the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” the second largest canyon in the country. Although we spent most of our time hiking amid the multicolored cliffs and strolling through the small interpretive center, other activities here include picnicking, mountain biking, horseback riding, overnight camping, and, in the summer, experiencing Texas, a family-friendly outdoor musical drama.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
From Amarillo, Dan and I headed west on I-40 to Albuquerque, the largest city in the state of New Mexico. While here, we took a side trip to Santa Fe (Tourism Santa Fe, 201 West Marcy Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 800/777-2489; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday), at once the state capital, an artists’ colony, and a town that embodies New Mexico’s nickname, the “Land of Enchantment.” Brimming with creativity, Santa Fe is a dreamy, magical place, nestled amid the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and filled with adobe-style buildings, numerous art galleries, elegant restaurants, and charming bed-and-breakfast inns. While we relished strolling along the quaint streets of this seemingly remote city, Dan and I were also struck by the dramatic beauty of the surrounding landscape–which is ideal for hikers, cyclists, rafters, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Near Grants, New Mexico, we encountered the Continental Divide (Continental Divide Trail Coalition, 710 10th Street, Suite 200, Golden, Colorado, 303/996-2759), which, though signified by a simple brown sign, still evoked a feeling of reverence and wonder. Interestingly, this particular spot also lies along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT), a 3,100-mile primitive (and challenging) backcountry trail that extends from Canada to Mexico, along the backbone of the North American continent. Also known as the “King of Trails,” this scenic route was designated by the U.S. Congress in the late 1970s, as part of the National Parks and Recreational Land Act of 1978. It passes through five unique states–Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico–and crosses several natural treasures, including Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and El Malpais National Monument.
Petrified Forest National Park
After crossing the New Mexico border, we continued west through northern Arizona. Between Navajo and Sun Valleys, we soon found ourselves near Petrified Forest National Park (1 Park Road, Petrified Forest, Arizona, 928/524-6228; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily November-February, 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily March, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily April-May, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily June and July, 7 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily August, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily September, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. October; $20 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle, pedestrian, and bicyclist, child under 16 free), a surprisingly beautiful place that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as one of Arizona’s other natural treasures: Grand Canyon National Park. Impressed by the kaleidoscopic badlands of the Painted Desert, we also appreciated the numerous historic structures, archaeological sites, and fossil displays here, not to mention one of the world’s largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood – enormous pieces of which seem to pepper the stark landscape. Just remember, as the omnipresent signs indicate, it is illegal to take any of these pieces – no matter how small – home with you, so be content with photographs and memories, and leave the petrified wood for other generations to enjoy.
Past Winslow, Arizona, we encountered the mountain town of Flagstaff (Flagstaff Visitor Center, 1 East Route 66, Flagstaff, Arizona, 928/213-2951 or 800/379-0065; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday), a truly charming place to stop for a spell. While our RV cooled down in a truck stop, we decided to explore the historic downtown area, where various art galleries, enticing boutiques, Native American shops, outdoor outfitters, eateries, and microbreweries dwell amid the 19th-century streets. Of course, you’ll also find other worthy attractions here, such as the informative Museum of Northern Arizona, the fascinating Lowell Observatory, and the turn-of-the-20th-century Riordan Mansion State Historic Park. In addition, three national monuments lie within 7.5 to 33 miles of Flagstaff: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, and Wupatki National Monument.
Grand Canyon National Park
Though ultimately headed for Las Vegas, we decided to make a northerly detour at Williams, Arizona. How could we, after all, pass up a chance to witness a sunrise over the Grand Canyon (20 South Entrance Road, Grand Canyon, Arizona, 928/638-7888; 24 hours daily; $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, $15 per pedestrian, bicyclist, rafter, or shuttle bus/train passenger, child under 16 free), one of America’s most incredible sights? Needless to say, we weren’t disappointed. There’s just nothing like standing along the South Rim, watching the glistening, emerald-hued Colorado River as it snakes between the multilayered, reddish-brown cliffs that define the Grand Canyon, an ancient formation that many consider to be one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Experiencing that stupendous place was truly one of the more breathtaking moments of our journey–something that everyone should get the chance to embrace, at least once in his or her lifetime. Besides sightseeing, popular activities here include hiking, rafting, camping, wildlife watching, and taking a mule trip down into the canyon itself. Be advised that, while the South Rim is open 24 hours daily year-round, the North Rim, due to inclement weather, is only accessible from mid-May to mid-October.
Naturally, I-40 offers even more worthwhile destinations than those listed here. Still, I hope that my road trip memories have inspired you to hit the highway soon, and of course, I can’t help but ask: What’s your most memorable road trip?
Quiet and removed, Glacier’s southeast corner harbors a less-traveled wonderland. It’s away from the harried corridor of Going-to-the-Sun Road with its endless line of cars. With no hotel in Two Medicine, you’ll find trails far less clogged on day hikes than at Many Glacier. Just because it sees fewer people, however, does not make it less dramatic. It’s the favorite park locale for many locals.
[pullquote align=”right”]Even though glaciers vacated this area within the past 150 years, their footprints are left in swooping valleys, cirques with blue lakes, and toothy spires.[/pullquote]A string of three lakes curves through the Two Medicine Valley below Rising Wolf—a red hulking monolith. Its sheer mass is larger than any other peak in the park. Even though glaciers vacated this area within the past 150 years, their footprints are left in swooping valleys, cirques with blue lakes, and toothy spires. Two Medicine Lake—the park’s highest road-accessible lake, a mile high in elevation—shimmers in a valley strewn with hiking trails.
Around the corner, the tiny East Glacier burg on the Blackfeet Reservation buzzes in summer. The Great Northern Railway’s historic headliner hotel, Glacier Park Lodge, dominates the town with its immense Douglas fir lobby. Train travelers taste the history as they step from the depot across a garden walkway to the hotel, framed by the mountains of Dancing Lady and Henry. Hiking, golf, Native American and red bus tours, horseback riding, and swimming delight guests. At night, quiet stretches across the sky, broken only by the rumble of trains rolling by.
History of Two Medicine and East Glacier
Two Medicine acquired its name from Blackfeet legends. According to one story, two Piegan tribes planned to meet for a medicine ceremony in the valley. Failing to find each other, they both celebrated independently. In another version, two lodges for the sun dance sat on either side of Two Medicine Creek. Either way, the name stuck.
The 1896 land sale between the Blackfeet and the federal government included the Two Medicine area. Starving and nearly decimated as a nation, the Blackfeet swapped part of their reservation land from the Continental Divide to the current reservation boundary for $1.5 million—a mere pittance considering what the parklands are worth.
In April 1891 the Great Northern Railway began laying tracks from Cut Bank to Midvale (East Glacier) and over Marias Pass toward West Glacier. As railroad developer James J. Hill sought means to increase ridership on his new line, he spawned a grand plan: a lodge to greet Eastern guests first arriving at Glacier and several chalets sprinkled in the park’s most scenic spots for places to tour. For early visitors getting off the train in Midvale in 1911, Two Medicine Lake was the first stop in Glacier’s backcountry after a bumpy wagon ride. Originally a tepee enclave with canvas walls and wooden floors, the hugely successful camp prompted the railroad to add two log chalets—a dormitory and a dining hall. By 1915, guests arrived on horseback via trail, the first leg on the Inside Trail connecting to Cut Bank and St. Mary Chalets, on Park Saddle Horse Company tours—a three-day trip costing $13.25.
In 1913, the Glacier Park Lodge finally welcomed arriving train guests, awed at the first glimpse of Glacier. Built on reservation land purchased from the Blackfeet, the posh lodge with a plunge pool in the basement erected its elegantly large lobby with 500- to 800-year-old Douglas firs sent from western Washington and Oregon. Rooms touted such high-class amenities as electric lights and steam heat. The nine-hole golf course followed 14 years later—on which employees were not allowed to play for fear of upsetting high-class tourists.
In 1929, Great Northern introduced the Empire Builder, named after J. J. Hill, as its modern train for the 2,200-mile Chicago-Seattle trip that packaged Glacier Park travel for its passengers. This is still the name for the Amtrak line here. It’s the only U.S. train outside Alaska that stops regularly at a major national park.
In the wake of the Depression, World War II closures, and increasing auto traffic, the Two Medicine Chalets met their demise and were torn down building by building until only the dining hall remained. It’s now the Two Medicine store.
Today, East Glacier is home to less than 400 year-round residents. Brutal winters keep it small. High winds accompanied by frigid temperatures pound the town—so strong that they’ve blown trains off the tracks.
Going-to-the-Sun Road isn’t Glacier’s toughest drive by far, but being prepared with snacks and water is key, as is slowing down to respect the terrain and making sure ahead of time your route is clear and open. For Glacier novices and veterans both, the following are our best tips for conquering Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Four Signs of a Rookie Going-to-the-Sun Road Driver
A burning brake smell. Hint: Use second gear to slow your speed on descents rather than riding the brakes down the mountain.
A dangling extension mirror. Hint: Retract or remove those extension mirrors for fifth-wheels or trailers before driving the narrow west side below Logan Pass.
A center-line hugger. Hint: Stay in your own lane. You’re more apt to scrape another vehicle on the skinny road than drive off the cliff. Acrophobes should let someone else drive.
A traffic slug. Hint: Rather than holding up traffic by slowing to a stop in the road to take pictures, pull off into one of the many pullouts.
Other Tips for Driving Going-to-the-Sun Road
Follow posted speed limits, and turn on your headlights.
During high season (mid-July-mid-Aug.), the Logan Pass parking lot fills up by 10am, with long waits for parking spaces. Get an early start for touring Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Take lunch, snacks, and drinks. Between Lake McDonald Lodge and Rising Sun, no food or drinks are sold.
Watch for bicyclists. Although bicycle restrictions are in effect during July-August on Going-to-the-Sun Road’s west side, the narrow roadway, lack of shoulders, and curves squeeze cyclists. Show them courtesy by slowing down to ease around them.
Expect construction delays. Reconstruction work usually reduces traffic to a single lane controlled by construction personnel. When workers are not present, timed traffic lights control flow. Obey both, as the single lanes allow for no pullover room for passing.
Check for summer closures. Heavy rains, snowstorms, fires, and accidents may close portions of the road—even in July-August. Entrance and ranger stations as well as lodges have current updates of the road status available.
Be prepared for all types of weather. Sunny skies may prevail in the valleys while visitors at Logan Pass creep along slowly in a dense fog on icy pavement.
Passengers with a fear of heights should sit on the driver’s side of the car for ascending the west side and descending the east. This will put you farthest from the cliff edges.
Cell phones get little or no service on the Sun Road. Turn them off and enjoy the views.
Glacier National Park’s North Fork offers two driving tours, both of which are rugged and require a certain amount of preparedness. Of the two, the dirt Inside North Fork Road is the more taxing drive; while potholes and ruts are common on Outside North Fork Road, they’re nothing compared to the monster potholes and washouts you’ll encounter there. Whichever you choose, both are excellent tours of Glacier’s landscapes.
Outside North Fork Road Driving Tour
Open year-round, the Outside North Fork Road is the easier drive of the two dirt and gravel access roads. Although the road running from Columbia Falls to the Canadian border is two lanes wide, be prepared for washboards, potholes, ruts, dust in summer, slush or mud in fall or spring, and ice in winter. Recently, the section between Camas Road and Home Ranch Bottoms saw improvements with grading, gravel, and dust inhibitors.
Locals refer to this road as simply the North Fork, dropping the “Outside,” for it is the valley’s main gateway. Every few years, clamor arises about paving the North Fork, which many locals oppose because pavement would change the valley’s nature. The North Fork Road is intermittently plowed in winter as far as the Canadian border, but do not attempt it without good snow tires. Carry chains and emergency supplies in the car.
From Columbia Falls, the North Fork Road leaves pavement just past Blankenship Road and follows the North Fork River for 13 miles. After a junction with the paved Camas Road, an alternate access from Apgar, the road passes a few small bucolic ranches whose pastures provide browse for cows and wild elk herds. Six miles of pavement reappears at Home Ranch Bottoms, where cattle walk the road; drive with caution. At 32 miles and a little over one hour’s drive, the road meets Polebridge Loop—the cutoff to the Merc, Inside North Fork Road, Polebridge entrance to Glacier Park, and Bowman and Kintla Lakes. Hand-painted signs warn drivers entering town: “Slow Down, People Breathing.” Respect residents; speed kicks up a tremendous amount of dust in summer.
From the Polebridge junction, the road continues 22 more miles north toward Canada—another hour’s drive. It accesses the upper Whitefish Range trailheads, North Fork River, and Forest Service cabins. Although drivers used to cross into Canada, the Canadian government closed the Trail Creek port of entry.
Inside North Fork Road Driving Tour
Not for everyone, the dirt Inside North Fork Road throws precipitous drops, curves, and climbs at drivers, but it’s only open late May-October, with sections often closed due to flooding. Monster potholes and washboards are commonplace; spaces wide enough for two vehicles to pass are rare. You’re definitely off the beaten path on this bumpy trek, where speeds top out at 20 mph, and two hours can be required to drive nearly 30 miles. (Longer with stops.) Marked as Glacier Route 7 on some maps and known as simply the “Inside Road” to locals, the road requires high-clearance vehicles. Big RV rigs have trouble, and it’s a rough ride for a trailer. Check with the park website, Apgar Visitor Center, or Polebridge Ranger Station for current conditions before embarking on the Inside Road.
As of 2014, drivers can explore portions of the road, but not complete the 29-mile link to Polebridge. Due to recurring flood damage, the park service has closed the segment between Camus and Logging Creeks, pending engineering studies and potential reconstruction. Vehicles will be unable to drive the 53-mile loop connecting the Inside North Fork, Outside North Fork, and Camas Roads until road repairs are completed. However, mountain bikers can ride the complete loop, but may need to contend with downed trees in the sections closed to cars.
From the south, you can explore the Inside Road beginning at Fish Creek Campground. The road climbs through the 2003 Robert Fire. Atop the ridge, look for peekaboo views of McGee Meadows, a good wildlife-watching spot if you can squeeze your vehicle off the road and tolerate swarms of mosquitoes. Then compare fire regrowth as you drive through the 2001 Moose Fire to Camas Creek at 6.5 miles.
In the section closed to vehicles, cyclists can continue past Camas Creek to drop down the steep Anaconda Hill (12.5 miles north of Fish Creek). The road bisects Sullivan Meadows, famous for Glacier’s wolves, before reaching Logging Creek at 17.5 miles.
From the Polebridge entrance station, vehicles can go north or south on the Inside Road. Travel south to reach two small campgrounds—Quartz Creek in 8 miles and Logging Creek in 10.5 miles—and the trailhead to Logging Lake. Vehicles can also drive north on the Inside Road to Bowman Lake or Kintla Lake. A few minutes north of the Polebridge Ranger Station, the curvy Bowman Lake road turns off, a six-mile (25-minute) snakelike drive eastward up the valley. Continuing northward toward Kintla, the Inside Road crosses Big Prairie, the largest of the North Fork’s unique grasslands. Round Prairie follows at one-third the size. The road reenters the forest and passes through the 2003 Wedge Canyon Fire zone before deadending at Kintla Lake, 14 miles north of the North Fork entrance station.
In Apgar, two National Park Service-operated campgrounds sit amid thick forests with easy access to Lake McDonald. Rustic and without hookups, they have flush toilets, fire rings with grills, disposal stations, shared hiker-biker sites (Apgar $5, Fish Creek $8), amphitheaters for evening naturalist talks, and sites that accommodate large RVs.
Due to the location inside the park, away from highway and railroad noise, they are popular. Bring your own firewood, as collecting wood is prohibited.
Fish Creek Campground (end of Fish Creek Rd., 406/888-7800, June-early Sept., $23), one of two campgrounds in the park that can be reserved through the National Park Reservation System (877/444-6777), is one of the larger park campgrounds, with 178 sites tucked under cedars, lodgepole pines, and larches.
Loops C and D have the best sites, adjacent to the lake, although Loop B has some larger, more level sites. A few lukewarm token-operated showers are available. Eighteen campsites accommodate RVs up to 35 feet long; 62 sites fit RVs up to 27 feet. To find Fish Creek, drive 1.25 miles north from Apgar on Camas Road and turn right, dropping one mile down to the campground. Lake McDonald Trail departs from the campground.
Apgar Campground (Apgar Loop Rd., 0.4 mile from Going-to-the-Sun Rd., 406/888-7800, Apr.-Nov., $20) is within a short walking distance of Apgar Village, Lake McDonald, and the shuttles.
The campground has 194 sites, making it the park’s largest, with group campsites and 25 sites accommodating RVs up to 40 feet. A paved trail connects it to the Apgar Transit Center, the visitors center, Apgar Bike Trail, and Apgar Village’s restaurant, gift shops, and boat dock. Primitive camping (Apr. and mid-Oct.-Nov., $10) has pit toilets available but no running water. In winter, you can camp free at the Apgar Picnic Area, but it’s just a plowed lot with a pit toilet.
Sitting just two miles apart, the communities of West Glacier and Apgar span Glacier Park’s southwestern boundary—the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. While West Glacier sprouted up outside the park along the Great Northern Railway’s line, early trapper and logger homesteads dug in a foothold at Apgar on Lake McDonald—the port to the park’s wild interior before Going-to-the-Sun Road was built.
[pullquote align=”right”]Connected by the “new bridge,” the park entrance road, and a two-mile paved bicycling and walking pathway, the pair are doorways for exploring Glacier’s western wilderness.[/pullquote]Connected by the “new bridge,” the park entrance road, and a two-mile paved bicycling and walking pathway, the pair are doorways for exploring Glacier’s western wilderness. As such, they throng with cars and visitors in summer; 60 percent of visitors access the park via this west entrance. The communities also launch sightseers in two different directions: to the untrammeled North Fork Valley and to Glacier’s crowning highway, Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Today, many concessionaires are headquartered in West Glacier, just outside the national park boundaries. The small town has evolved into a seasonal mecca for rafting, guided hiking and backpacking, guided fishing trips, trail rides, and helicopter tours. Along with the train station, campgrounds, restaurants, motels, shops, and even an espresso stand, West Glacier is a place to gas up the car one last time before seeking the park’s interior. On Lake McDonald’s shores and inside the park, Apgar is calm in comparison. Although its restaurant, lodging, camping, shopping, boat ramp, and tiny west-side visitors center swarm in high season, miles of lake sprawl with blue waters and enough shoreline to find a niche for solitude.
West Glacier and Apgar History
For the Ksanka or Standing Arrow people, known today as the Salish and Kootenai, whose lands are at Flathead Lake’s south end, Glacier’s Lake McDonald area held special significance. Ten thousand generations ago, legend says, the Ksanka were first given a ceremonial dance by the spirits at their winter camp near Apgar. Originally called the Blacktail Deer Dance, the ceremony became an annual event for the Ksanka, and the area became known as “the place where people dance.” Today, the annual dance—now called the Jump Dance—takes place on the Flathead Reservation, but rapids on McDonald Creek still hold the original name, Sacred Dancing Cascade.
When the Great Northern Railway completed its westbound track in 1891, early visitors jumped off the train in Belton (now West Glacier) to see the area. With no bridge across the Middle Fork of the Flathead, visitors rowed across the river and then saddled up for a horseback ride to Apgar. Finally, in 1895 a rough dirt road eased the two-mile journey, followed two years later by a bridge across the river.
As the railroad dropped visitors in Belton, Lake McDonald homesteaders leaped into the tourism business, offering cabins, meals, pack trips, boat rides, and guided tours. After Glacier became a national park in 1910, local landowners along the lake retained their property as inholdings. While private summer homes still exist within the park boundaries, to the envy of everyone, when sellers are ready, the National Park Service can purchase these properties at fair market value.
To coincide with Glacier’s first summer as a national park, the Great Northern Railway opened Belton Chalet in 1910 across from the depot.
Hiking in Glacier demands preparedness. Unpredictable, fast-changing weather can mutate a warm summer day into wintry conditions in hours. Different elevations vary in temperature, wind, and visibility: Sun on the shore of Two Medicine Lake may hide knock-over winds barreling over Dawson Pass six miles away. Hot valley temperatures may give way at Grinnell Lake to chilly breezes blowing down from the Continental Divide across the ice. To be prepared in Glacier’s backcountry, take the following:
[pullquote align=”right”]Always carry extra water: Heat, wind, and elevation lead quickly to dehydration, and most visitors find they drink more than they do at home.[/pullquote]Extra clothing: Rain pants and jackets can double as wind protection, while gloves and a lightweight warm hat will save fingers and ears. Carry at least one extra water-wicking layer for warmth. Avoid cotton fabrics, which stay soggy and fail to retain body heat.
Extra food and water: Depending on the hike’s length, take a lunch and snacks, like compact high-energy food bars. Low-odor foods will not attract animals. Always carry extra water: Heat, wind, and elevation lead quickly to dehydration, and most visitors find they drink more than they do at home. Avoid drinking directly from streams or lakes. Due to the possibility of giardia and illness-inducing bacteria, always filter or treat water sources before drinking.
Map and compass or GPS device: Although Glacier’s trails are extremely well signed, a map can be handy for ascertaining distance traveled and location. A compass or GPS device will also help, but only if you know how to use it. In deep, heavily forested valleys, a GPS receiver may not pick up the satellites.
Flashlight: Carry a small flashlight or headlamp for after-dark emergencies. Take extra batteries too.
First-aid kit: Two bandages may not be enough. Carry a fully equipped standard first-aid kit with blister remedies. Many outdoor stores sell suitably prepared kits for hiking. Don’t forget to add personal items like bee-sting kits and allergy medications.
Sun protection: Altitude, snow, ice, and lakes all increase ultraviolet radiation. Protect yourself with SPF 30 sunscreen, sunglasses, and a sun hat or baseball cap.
Emergency toilet supplies: Not every hike conveniently places a pit toilet at its destination. To accommodate an alfresco toilet stop, carry a small trowel, plastic baggies, and toilet paper, and move at least 200 feet away from water sources. For urinating, aim for a durable surface, such as rocks, logs, gravel, or snow. “Watering” fragile plants, campsites, or trails attracts mineral-starved animals that dig up the area. Bury feces 6-8 inches deep in soil. Do not bury toilet paper; use a baggie to pack it out.
Menstrual hygiene: Carry heavy-duty zippered baggies and pack out tampons, pads, and everything else.
Insect repellent: Summer can be abuzz at any elevation with mosquitoes and blackflies. Insect repellents that contain 50 percent DEET work best. Purchase applications that rub or spray at close range rather than aerosols that go airborne onto other people, plants, and animals.
Pepper spray: If you want to carry pepper spray, purchase an eight-ounce can, as nothing smaller will be effective; however, do not bother unless you know how to use it and what influences its effectiveness. Do not use it like bug repellent.
Miscellaneous: A knife may come in handy, as can a few feet of nylon cord and a bit of duct tape (wrap a few feet around something small like a flashlight handle or water bottle). Many hikers have repaired boots and packs with duct tape and a little ingenuity.
With 27,023 acres of lakes, 563 streams, and 22 species of fish, Glacier is a place where no angler should sit with a slack line. Only a scant 10 percent of park visitors fish, so those who do typically enjoy calm vistas and a few native trout. While weather and skill variables influence success, a few tips for Glacier’s waters can help.
Avoid a long hike to a remote lake to fish—unless you go for the sake of the journey. While many anglers find more success in waters away from roads, remoteness doesn’t mean good fishing. Waterfalls prevent fish from reaching some streams and lakes.
Since arrival at a high mountain lake will most likely be midday, when fishing is lackluster, stay overnight in the backcountry or at a nearby lodge. Then fish in the morning or evening, when fish feed, for best results. Overcast days also produce better fishing than sunny days.
During early summer runoff, when river waters cloud with sediments, fish hang out on the bottom to feed; try lures that mimic insect larvae. Alternately, fish in lakes instead.
When streams run clear, fly-fishing is the most productive. Try to match a prominent hatch, but traditional high-floating attractor patterns will also move fish.
At lakes, look for inlets and outlets to fish, but be considerate of heavily trafficked areas.
Trolling from a motorboat (where allowed) or canoe is the most effective way to fish for lake trout.
Fishing in Bear Country
Bears pose special considerations. Since smells attract bears that travel waterways, lessen your bear encounter chances by keeping fishy scents away from clothing. Catch-and-release fishing minimizes attracting bears.
For cleaning fish in the front country, dispose of the entrails in bear-resistant garbage cans. In the backcountry, do not bury or burn the innards, as that may attract bears. Instead, go at least 200 feet away from a campsite or trail, puncture the air bladder, and throw the entrails into deep water. Keep only what you can eat, and eat it as soon as you can.
Glacier Park’s fishing regulations enforce protection of native species through selected area closures and limits on taking native species. The park service no longer stocks fish, as many of the introduced species took a toll on native fish through competition for food and predation. Until 1972, an estimated 45-55 million fish and eggs were planted in Glacier’s waters, introducing arctic grayling, rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, brook trout, and Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Lake trout and lake whitefish also invaded the park’s west-side water systems through stocking in Flathead Lake.
Of Glacier’s 10 sport fish and 12 nonsport fish, the bull trout is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. In Montana, this predatory fish, which can grow to two feet long, now inhabits less than half of its original streams due to a number of factors, including habitat degradation. No fishing for bull trout is allowed; immediately release any that are caught incidentally. Look on the dorsal fin: no black, put it back.
Glacier is also one of the few remaining strongholds for westslope cutthroat trout, which now inhabit only 2.5 percent of their original range. Threatened by interbreeding with rainbow trout, genetically pure populations of cutthroat remain in 15-19 park lakes. Conscientious anglers release them after catching them.
While the law protects bull trout, anglers need to help preserve the park’s native fishery. Learn to identify native and nonnative species. Follow park guidelines for harvesting or releasing fish. In general, release native fish; keep only your limit of nonnative species.
For the best fishing recommendations, grab a copy of Russ Schneider’s Fishing Glacier National Park.
There’s plenty to see and do in Glacier National Park, whether you’re going to be there for a few days or a few weeks. If you’re only there for a day, be sure to drive over Going-to-the-Sun Road. If you have a few more days, visit Many Glacier. If you have a whole week, add West Glacier, Waterton, and Two Medicine Lake to your itinerary. If you’re lucky enough to have two weeks, make trips to the North Fork, U.S. 2, and Flathead Valley as well.
West Glacier and Apgar
West Glacier and Apgar form the park’s western portal. Divided by a nationally designated Wild and Scenic River, the area whips into a summer frenzy with white-water rafting, trail riding, fishing, kayaking, boating, hiking, and backpacking.
Escape the crowds in the remote North Fork on Glacier’s west side. It has real rusticity, not just the look of it. Polebridge Mercantile and Northern Lights Saloon attract travelers who relish bumpy dirt roads, solitude at Bowman and Kintla Lakes, and wolf serenades.
Glacier’s biggest attraction and the only road bisecting the park leads drivers on a skinny cliff shimmy into the craggy alpine. The National Historic Landmark crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass and accesses top-of-the-world trails.
St. Mary and Many Glacier
Small seasonal St. Mary bustles as a hub of campgrounds, lodges, cabins, cafés, shops, and Going-to-the-Sun Road’s eastern portal while the grizzly bear haven at Many Glacier holds the historic Many Glacier Hotel and trails to sapphire lakes and high passes.
Two Medicine and East Glacier
In Glacier’s southeast corner, the historic Glacier Park Lodge greets travelers with its flowered walkway and huge lobby. Two Medicine Lake yields a quiet contrast for hikers, boaters, anglers, wildlife-watchers, and campers.
Marias Pass and Essex
Pale next to Going-to-the-Sun Road’s drama, U.S. 2 crosses mile-high Marias Pass in the fastest route over the Continental Divide. The scenic drive squeezes between Glacier and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
In Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park provides access to Glacier’s remote north end via boat across the international boundary to Goat Haunt, USA. Waterton Townsite bustles with boat tours, hiking, shopping, bicycling, dining, and camping.
Flathead Valley towns—Kalispell, Whitefish, Bigfork, and Columbia Falls—draw visitors for their unique personalities and outdoor reputation with boating, fishing, rafting, camping, biking, golf, swimming, hiking, and skiing.
When to Go to Glacier National Park
High Season (June-Sept.)
Summer attracts hordes when lodges, campgrounds, and trails are open. Barring deep snows, Going-to-the-Sun Road is open mid-June-mid-October, with peak visitation crammed into four weeks during midsummer. Snow buries some trails into July, when moderate weather rides in. Mosquitoes descend in early summer, wildflowers peak in late July, and huckleberries ripen in August.
Off Season (Oct.-May)
Low-elevation trails are usually snow-free in late spring and early fall, but few commercial services are open. While Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed to vehicles, bikers and hikers tour it without cars in spring and fall.
In spring, May-June rains intersperse with cobalt-blue skies. In fall, warm bug-free days and cool nights usher in the larch and aspen turning gold. Peak-top snows descend by September’s end. In winter, snow closes most park roads, which become quiet snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails.