When traveling to the northwest of the US, it’s easy to see why people fall in love with the legend of the American west: stories abound about Indian tribes fighting it out against American soldiers, giving rise to such tragic heroes as Sitting Bull, anti-heroes like Custer, and unparalleled showmen like Buffalo Bill; outlaws and lawmen, like James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock and Robert LeRoy Parker (a.k.a., Butch Cassidy), playing their deadly game of cat and mouse; and the Mountain Men who traded furs and lived alone in the forrests near the Rocky mountains. But while these figures are renown in their own right, the towns responsible for creating them have an air of their own, each with its own charms and annoyances.
Having just concluded a trip to both Montana and Wyoming, I thought I’d share a few quick observations on each of the places we visited. Maybe you’ll want to head up there yourself.
Before I continue, a little about my reason for traveling there: I was looking to hike. Seriously, that’s it. Originally, we were looking to spend a few days in Alaska, but when that venture proved to be prohibitively expensive for us, we decided to travel to Montana, to visit the Flathead Lake region and Glacier National Park, and to Wyoming, to visit the legendary Yellowstone. What made this trip truly splendid wasn’t any one of those locations, but also the towns surrounding them, their histories and their scenery.
As I mentioned, we visited two national parks, Glacier and Yellowstone. We almost made our way down to Grand Teton National Park (just south of Yellowstone, in Wyoming), but due to driving times and distances we decided not to.
Glacier National Park: I will only describe it with one word: majestic. The park has incredible hiking trails (all of which can be considered “back country”, meaning they’re not marked by anything more than a dirt path and maybe a few scant signs), with scenery so breathtaking (both by their beauty and your physical exertion at getting there) that you’ll wonder why it is you’re going back to civilization anyway. There’s not an incredible amount of wildlife to be seen (we saw some mountain goats and a large number of birds; others reported seeing grizzly bears), but if you’re looking to do some serious hiking, this is the place to go. You can also head north to Alberta using a park road, but you’ll need a passport or birth certificate. (I didn’t have either, so I didn’t go. Still, I can now officially say that I went to Canada. And they turned me away.)
Yellowstone National Park: This is probably the most famous, and certainly the oldest, national park in all the world. My first impression went something like this: “It is a vile, foul-smelling place befit only for viewing fauna and mountains from your car as if in some large zoo.” And while the western part of the park fits the “foul-smelling” description (who knew geology could smell to bad: the stink even carried over to our lodge within the park!), the eastern part is a thing of absolute beauty. I found the hiking here to be second to that in Glacier, especially because of the large crowds, but if you like both geology and animal spotting, this is the place. (We spotted grizzly and black bears, deer, elk, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, mountain goats, long-horn goats, tons of birds, and some more buffalo.) One thing to keep in mind: you’ll be hitting higher altitudes in Yellowstone than you will in Glacier (in general, though there are exceptions), so make sure you’ve had a little time to get acclimated to the altitude: hiking at 11,000 feet (Mt. Washburn) is no small feat when you’re used to air at sea level.
I thought about calling this section “Cities and Towns,” but the fact is that there really aren’t any actual cities in Montana, and if there are any in Wyoming, we didn’t see them. (To be fair, all of our time in Wyoming was spent in the northern portion, and most of that in Yellowstone.) Still, some of these little towns have a lot of character, not just by the face they put forth but by the people you meet there.
Kalispell: (According to the locals, Kalispell sort of rhymes with “cow smell”.) This is where we stayed while visiting Glacier (at least the east side of the park). By Florida standards, this is a small town. In Montana, however, it’s one of the five largest population centers. Hell, they even have a Borders! The town’s not bad looking, and is surrounded by both Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park. If I ended up moving to Montana, this would be one of my first choices.
Browning: The small town of Browning is in the middle of the Blackfoot Indian reservation. It’s a small community town where one building will usually house multiple businesses, unless the building belongs to a large chain (like Taco John’s or Subway). For example, the motel we stayed at (the Warbonnet Inn) also had a movie rental place and sold native American art. If you ever feel like you just want to get away from civilization, this is about as good a place I can think of to start. It’s a short drive north, a couple of hours, and you’re at the Canadian border. Between the town and the border you’ll find marvelously gorgeous tracts of land and winding roads, almost mythic in their beauty. (Think “The Shire” from Lord of the Rings.) For us, the only downside was getting stuck driving in the middle of a June snow storm. (Snowed about 18-inches, with the snowflakes coming in sideways at 35mph.)
Helena: The capital of Montana, Helena is not much bigger than Kalispell, but has a much different feel. The areas near “downtown” are beautiful, the historical areas are fascinating (if small), and the outskirts are filled with marvelous hiking trails. The only problem I found with the town was that it was big enough to be too small. That is, the town gave all the expectations of being a big city without actually having everything you’d expect from a big city, like various options when it came to places where someone can just “hang out.” (For me, this means a big chain bookstore. The only thing they had was a Hastings, which I… really didn’t care for.) Still, it wasn’t bad, and if you decide you want to explore a little town with a lot of character, one offering diverse activities, Helena should be on your shortlist.
West Yellowstone: Small town straight out of the 1890’s. Whether anyone actually lives there, I don’t know, since I sort of just stopped there to grab something to eat before heading into the park. So… just remember: small town straight out of the 1890’s.
Canyon Lodge: I’m only including this area because we spent three nights there. It’s not really a town. It’s actually just an area of Yellowstone with a few food places, a small grocery store, ranger station, and a gas station (with the price for 85.5 octane at $4.19 for the days we visited). If you’ve ever wondered what indoor camping feels like, go to this place. Also, if you ever want to find out what’s there to do in the middle of nowhere at 9:30 with no TV, iPod, CD-player or radio, go here. Finally, if you ever feel like going to a monastery without actually going to the monastery, then this is your place. A word of caution, it stinks like sulfur once in a while.
Cody: This is a town in northern Wyoming founded by showman extraordinaire “Buffalo Bill” Cody. This is same guy who convinced one of the leaders during the battle of the Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull, to go on tour through the US and Europe in a “Wild West” show. Also, this is the same guy who single-handedly pretty much created the mythos of the “Wild West” as we know it today. Population is about 9,000 people. Great place to visit, lots of shops, lots of things to do, especially if you like historical landmarks. Apparently also a good place to retire, since he show’s not too bad there.
Bozeman: Our last stop in Montana was the same as our first: Bozeman. Of all the towns we saw, this is the one we’d most likely end up moving to if we ever decided to move up to Montana. (Well, it’s a tossup between this and Kalispell.) It’s about as average a small town as I can think of, and except for the mountains, looks like the average-to-nice small town in Florida. (And has as many casinos as Tampa has strip joints.)
Montana is a great place to visit. Just make sure you don’t expect to see any really large cities. But if you like history, hiking, and driving, then it’s the place or you. We’ll likely be visiting again in the not-too-distant future, though first we want to check out Utah, Idaho, and more of Wyoming, as well as Denver and the rest of Colorado.
Finally, here are a couple of travel tips:
1) If you’re going on a long flight, pack a few episodes of a show you’ve been meaning to watch on your iPod or other video device (you know, that show everyone’s been talking about and you just haven’t had the time to watch?) and watch it through the entire flight. Watching both Heroes and Tin Man made the flight experience a short one. For someone who hates flying as much as I do, that says a lot.
2) Check out OneBag.com to learn how to pack light enough that you only have to use one bag no matter how long the trip. That’s what The Wife and I did, and we were able to go for almost 2 weeks on just one check-in bag. (It would have been two carry-ons, but we decided to leave some extra room available for souvenirs.)