Once we left the North Cascades National Park area in search of clearer skies, we pushed west through Washington with a couple of short stops. Now we were continuing through Idaho into Montana, the first of three states we had missed in 2015 (along with the Dakotas.) We broke up the drive with an overnight stop at Silver Dollar, a bar, inn, restaurant, gift shop, and “casino.” That last in quotes because Montana is chock full of little places that have a handful of bingo machines disguised as slot machines that call themselves casinos. The great thing about this touristy little place is they offer free RV parking with 30 amp electricity.
This sort-of-a-campground is well back from the road, behind the casino, with some rough dirt and gravel paths and sites that mandate a very slow approach. We have stayed in far worse spots that had no services, so for free electricity at about the point I wanted to stop, it was an excellent deal.
The next morning we had to fill Serenity’s big gas tank again (second time already this month, we expect as many as six 70 gallon refills in August) at the cheapest on route place Gas Buddy could find, and continued northeast to West Glacier, a small town just outside the west entrance to the national park. After finding no Passport-America option in the vicinity, we relied on All Stays and RV Park Reviews for guidance, and ended up selecting Glacier Campground for our four day stay. What a gem.
There are those who prefer what you might call a “traditional RV resort” as their ideal site: manicured landscaping, large pull through sites with full hook ups and services along with a host of amenities. Our preference is more along the state park model: well separated sites, each surrounded by natural, barely tamed greenery. We can usually get that cheaper than the traditional resort, even if we have to give up a few services and amenities.
Glacier Campground was exactly the sort of place we seek out. A well managed place with every site in the forest and plenty of separation between them all. Sure the sites were back in, on dirt and gravel, and we only had 30 Amp electricity and water, but that was perfectly sufficient, and the rate cheaper than the more resortish parks in the vicinity. With the 10% military discount, and after taxes we were out just under $34 a night. For something so close to a popular national park, that is a solid rate.
The day after our late afternoon arrival we headed into Glacier National Park (our 28th national park) which entailed having to purchase our annual park pass since our last one expired in May just after we visited the Channel Islands National Park. At $80 it gets us and anyone in our car into any national park, monument, forest, grassland, historic park, recreation area, etc for free. It doesn’t cover campground costs, just entry fees, but since the national park system, unlike most state park systems, does not waive or include the entry fee into campground costs, this annual pass makes sense for us.
The annual pass is not for everyone; many visitors would be better off just paying for the one week pass at the individual park they visit (and not every place charges; the North Cascades was free!) But since we know we will be hitting a good number of parks in the coming year, this pass will pay for itself. Heck, Glacier’s one week vehicle entry fee is $30, so we are already nearly half way towards cost justification.
Anyway, the park… It’s awesome. Spectacular views, though still a bit smoke shrouded by the ongoing forest fires, incredible scenery, a striking abundance of wild flowers, beautiful streams, creeks, waterfalls and lakes. And no small amount of wildlife either. During one of our short hikes to Hidden Lake we saw a herd of bighorn sheep and got up close and personal with a family of mountain goats.
We spent our first full day in the park casually driving through the lower reaches and then a nice day hike up to Avalanche Lake, were we had lunch on the shore. Highly recommend this moderate hike to anyone visiting the park if you want a quick taste of what it has to offer.
The next day we made the drive along “The Road to the Sun,” a winding and in places steep and narrow road with cliffside railings. Due to these conditions, the max vehicle length permitted on the road is 21 feet. We went to the halfway point, Logan’s Pass, to make the aforementioned hike to Hidden Lake.
This was described as an “easy” hike in the brochure since the path is improved with boardwalks and stairs, but given the height and unevenness of the steps and grade, and the number of people we saw struggling, this should probably be rated as moderate so as not to lure in the unprepared. It was a great little hike for us, not least of all because of the mountain goats.
We headed back down the mountain road, stopping at a couple of the overlook points along the way, including one that had a significant patch of snow that remained at this altitude despite the warm temperatures due to the significant shadow effect from the tall surrounding cliffs. Along with the a couple of children, I took the opportunity to scramble to the top and sled down on a ragged piece of plastic bag.
Once back down the mountain we backtracked a bit southeast to visit some local sites of interest in the nearby towns, starting with a whiskey (and other assorted options) at the local Glacier Distilling Company. We each selected a flight from their score or more options, and enjoyed the warm glow provided by fine spirits.
After that it was on to Columbia Falls and one of the most active local farmers and artisans markets we have ever witnessed. Trying not to be jealous about not being able to vend, we were astounded at the crowds wandering through the tight area, along with energetic live music and food trucks providing an assortment of options. The customer to buyer ratio was fantastic, and though the pizza we purchased was disappointing, the fresh artisanal cheese stuffed bread and huckleberry macaroon were to die for.
For our last day in the vicinity we sought out advice from the Campground owner on where we could find a nearby clear running river or steam with easy access and parking at which we might spend a leisurely afternoon with our feet in the water and butts in lounge chairs. She pointed us towards Belton Bridge, which straddles the middle fork of the Flathead River, and used to lead to the west entrance to the national park.
It was perfect, and came fairly close to recapturing our great days on the Salmon River in Idaho, only with the added benefit of getting to watch local kids jumping and diving from the 28′ bridge into the river, and occasional flotillas guide-led rafters heading down through the mild rapids. Combine all that with a nice picnic lunch made up of the bread from yesterday’s market paired with white wine, and you have an ideal afternoon by our standards.
We have since left Glacier and pushed hard eastward into North Dakota where we are drycamping for a few days in the vicinity of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We will update that in the next post, and then project our heavily revised future route for the remainder of 2017.