SUMMER VACATION IDEAS: ROAD TRIPS
Summer in Big Sky Country
A road trip through western Montana means serious altitude, mountain goats—and directions like "Make a left at the giant cow."
You can spend days in Glacier, and I recommend taking Going-to-the-Sun Road all the way to the east side of the park, where you can explore the area around Saint Mary's Lake, Many Glacier, and other spots. For this trip, though, we've allotted just two days to the park and now we're headed for Bigfork.
Glacier National Park to Bigfork
Bigfork, on the shores of Flathead Lake, hasn't yet made Budget Travel's Coolest Small Towns list, but it certainly has a shot. It boasts a thriving main street (with the '80s-evoking moniker Electric Avenue) complete with a great book store, jewelry shops that specialize in local sapphires, art galleries, and no-nonsense eateries that will load you up with quality sandwiches. After "roughing it" in Glacier for two nights, the lure of Eva Gates's wild-huckleberry preserves is strong for us (456 Electric Ave., Bigfork, Mont., evagates.com, three jars of wild huckleberry preserves $35). We grab some snacks and also buy some syrups and preserves to mail back to New York, where the flavor of Montana huckleberries will remind us of this trip for months. We spend the night at a "stylish steal," the Swan River Inn (360 Grand Ave., Bigfork, Mont., swanriverinn.com, $195), ready to set out first thing in the morning for Montana's dinosaur country to the south.
Bigfork to Bozeman
Today's ride is relatively short by Montana standards, but can stretch out as long as you like depending on how willing you are to stop and explore the "chain of lakes" that follow the Clearwater River down the Swan mountain range along the Bob Marshall National Wilderness. We stop at Rainy Lake for a short hike and hear the unforgettable cries of loons across the water. Next, we make a left at the giant cow. Well, it's actually a bull, the mascot of a convenience store at Clearwater Junction where we turn east on our way to Bozeman.
With a collection of dinosaur fossils that rivals those of much larger museums in much larger cities, Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies (300 West Kagy Blvd., Bozeman, Mont., museumoftherockies.org, two-day admission $14) represents some of the bounty discovered by dinosaur hunters such as Jack Horner, and you can sign up for a dig yourself. (Be prepared for a long, hot day of digging and, possibly, disappointment.) We take our time strolling through a timeline of Montana history, including artifacts from Native Americans and early American settlers. There's also an exceptional planetarium and the Living History Farm, an original homestead reconstructed on the grounds of the museum to show visitors how a farming family lived more than a century ago. In the farm's kitchen, volunteers have been known to cook up a fresh feast using fruits and vegetables grown right on the grounds, and a cookbook of traditional (and yummy) recipes is available at the museum's bookshop.
Our dinner is decidedly more contemporary—immense submarine sandwiches from the Pickle Barrel (809 West College St., Bozeman, Mont., picklebarrelmt.com, The Big Sky sandwich $7.40), an affordable favorite of Montana State University students here. Try The Big Sky, piled high with bacon, turkey, and cheddar cheese. With our amazingly tasty sandwiches in hand, we check in to a cozy home away from home—Homewood Suites by Hilton (1023 Baxter Lane, Bozeman, Mont., homewoodsuites.com, suites from $169).
Bozeman to Helena
Bozeman can be your gateway to Yellowstone National Park if you've got the time, but on this trip, Helena, the state capital, is next. Though Helena feels like the big city at this point, it is still defined, as all these Montana destinations are, by the wildness just outside its borders. As we approach the city, peaks rise before us and the kids are delighted with the Sleeping Giant—mountains that look like an immense dude asleep on the horizon. Helena's Last Chance Gulch is a throwback to 19th-century prospecting days, though nowadays the only panning you'll be doing is for antiques and western art. We love the burgers at the Windbag Saloon (19 South Last Chance Gulch, Helena, Mont., 406/443-9669, burgers from $11). Shhh!—don't tell my kids this was the site of Helena's last bordello. Then we embark on a two-hour guided boat tour of a stretch of the Missouri River dubbed the Gates of the Mountains by Lewis and Clark for its towering cliffs (3131 Gates of the Mountains Rd., Helena, Mont., gatesofthemountains.com, 2-hour cruise $16). A night at the Red Lion Colonial Hotel (2301 Colonial Dr., Helena, Mont., redlion.com, from $115) and we're ready—well, not really—to fly back to New York. Standing on a crowded Manhattan street corner and realizing you're literally seeing more people at one time than you saw in an entire day at Glacier is a back-to-reality moment that comes all too soon.