Outdoor-Lovers Guide to Northwest Montana
Northwest Montana has world-class hiking and rafting—not to mention huckleberry milkshakes that'll knock your boots off.
Heading north along the outskirts of Glacier National Park, we stop at a store and shell out $50 for a can of bear spray, which is similar to pepper spray and repels bears at a distance of up to 25 feet. We plan to spend the night in the town of Polebridge, just outside the park. The word "town" is a bit of an exaggeration; it's really just a collection of cabins clustered around a 1914 general store named thePolebridge Mercantile(everyone calls it the Merc). The isolation of Polebridge is part of its appeal. Ellie and I gaze at the mountains in the distance as we sit on the Merc's porch, eating huckleberry macaroons and raspberry sugar cookies, and bonding with Zasha (a.k.a. Tripod), the resident three-legged dog.
We then walk over to theNorth Fork Hostelto check in to our cabin. The owner, Oliver Meister, has braided pigtails and a German accent, both of which strike me as unusual for the area. But it seems that eccentricities are commonplace here. "Nobody is normal in Polebridge," says a local named Crazy Davey, who has just woken up from a nap on the hostel's couch. (It seems like a good idea not to ask how he got his name.) Our cabin, Klondike Kate, doesn't have much more than a bed, a couch, and a small space heater. In the middle of the night, I make a cold run to the outhouse and realize just how far away from civilization we actually are—the sky is a thick blanket of stars.
Glacier Raft Co.
West Glacier, 406/888-5454, glacierraftco.com, half-day trip $46
North Fork Hostel
80 Beaver Dr., Polebridge, 406/888-5241, nfhostel.com, from $40
265 Polebridge Loop, Polebridge, 406/888-5105
The Conrad Mansion Museum
300 Woodland Ave., Kalispell, 406/755-2166, conradmansion.com, $8
Ellie and I chat some more with Crazy Davey at the Merc as we fuel up on pecan-crusted sticky buns and triple-berry turnovers before our hike in the morning. The main road intoGlacier National Park is the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It climbs to an elevation of 6,646 feet at Logan Pass in the Rockies' Lewis Range, which runs along the Continental Divide. The road project began in 1918 and took over 10 years to complete; in one part, workers had to bore a 400-foot-long tunnel through the mountainside—by hand.
A naturalist at the Logan Pass visitors center tells us how rapidly the glaciers are disappearing from the park as a result of global warming. Scientists believe there are at least 26 glaciers left, but research is being conducted to determine if there are actually fewer. The last glacier is also now predicted to melt by 2020, 10 years earlier than previously expected. We're pretty dispirited when we set off on the three-mile hike down to Hidden Lake. The scenery, however, astounds us: The pristine lake is ringed by pink and blue wildflowers, and the razor-thin ridges, or arêtes, caused by the glaciers look as if they rose out of the ground in a sudden rush.
By the time we reach theMany Glacier Hotel, a 1914 lakefront lodge located inside the national park, we're ready for bed. We pause on the porch to take in the view of Swiftcurrent Lake and the purple and blue Rocky Mountains before turning in.
Many Glacier Hotel
406/892-2525, glacierparkinc.com, $135
Glacier National Park
406/888-7800, nps.gov/glac, weeklong car pass $25
We're up early to catch two of theGlacier Park Boat Co.'s ferries—across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine—to tackle an eight-mile (round trip) trek to Grinnell Glacier, the most accessible of the glaciers in the park. Even though we're carrying our bear spray, Ellie and I still hoot and holler at the top of our lungs to scare away any bears as we start out on the trail. I feel a little silly, but we appear to be the first people in the woods this morning.
I can feel the glacier long before I see it; the wind carries gusts of super-cold air down the slopes of the mountain, enticing Ellie and me as we hike up the trail. When we arrive, the landscape is otherworldly. A gray-green lake of glacial melt-off lies before us, studded with huge chunks of floating ice. Beyond that is the glacier itself, which looks like a giant sheet of dirty ice. Ellie and I sit on a rock that juts into the water and eat the peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches we brought with us. We're both wearing several layers of thick clothing, but we can still feel the chilly air against our skin. After admiring the glacier for about 20 minutes, we hurriedly scuttle down the mountain and board the ferry to go back to the Many Glacier Hotel, where our car is parked.