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."
Splashes, shrieks, giggles, and grins. My family and I wade delicately, as suburbanites do, into a Montana creek after a long plane ride from New York. Even in late summer, the water is cold.
And it's easy to see why—early snow has dusted the distant peaks. Didactic Dad gestures toward the mountains and reminds his daughters that they're basically standing in melted snow. They're not listening—and why should they? Clara, my seven-year-old, is collecting the most colorful rocks she's ever seen (and couldn't care less that they've been deposited here over eons by the glaciers that give this park its name). Rosalie, just turned two, is simply delighted to be standing in water that's swirling and burbling around her. My wife, Michele, and I share a moment beyond words as we watch our girls discover Glacier National Park, nicknamed the Crown of the Continent for its stunning array of Rocky Mountain peaks, a place she and I have come to treasure as our favorite spot on the planet. For the next two days, we'll happily skip rocks, paddle canoes, and hike gentle, family-friendly trails in the company of mountain goats, bald eagles, and fellow awed humans.
DAYS 1 AND 2
Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road
Arriving at Glacier International Airport in Kalispell, Mont., is nothing like "deplaning" at a cookie-cutter airport. Steps from the tarmac we're greeted by wildlife replicas like mountain goats and loons. Within minutes we're in a rental car and zipping up the winding roads into the mountains toward Glacier National Park (West Glacier, Mont., nps.gov/glac, $25 per car). We load up on provisions at a supermarket in Columbia Falls, then we enter the national park world—where the day's schedule is established gently by the rising and falling of the sun, the turning of the stars, and the puffy clouds in the Big Sky.
We check in at Apgar Village Lodge (Apgar Village, Glacier National Park, Mont., westglacier.com, cabins with kitchens from $176), essentially a motel made up of individual cabins equipped with bathrooms and kitchens. We've reserved Cabin 22, right along the shores of McDonald Creek and a few steps from Lake McDonald, the biggest lake in the park. We drop our bags and head right for the creek's gin-clear water, washing big-city anxiety from our bodies. The mountains of the Continental Divide are reflected perfectly in the lake.
Yes, our cabin has a kitchen, and over the course of our two days in the park we'll put it to good use flipping pancakes and burgers. But on our first evening in Apgar Village, we want someone else to do the cooking. Eddie's Café (Apgar Village, Glacier National Park, Mont., eddiescafegifts.com, ale-battered fish-and-chips $13.99) is the only game in "town," and it's just what we're looking for, with local trout and exceptional beef on the menu for decent prices. We tuck into excellent Redhook Ale-battered fish-and-chips and, for dessert, wild huckleberry ice cream by the lake.
First thing in the morning, we hit the ultimate highway—with an emphasis on "high." As thoroughfares go, there's really no place like Glacier's Going-to-the-Sun Road. Completed in 1932, it hugs the sides of mountains as it snakes 53 miles across the park, up to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass then down to East Glacier. Along the way you can spend happy moments—or even hours—exploring the easy, .6-mile Trail of the Cedars, boulder-strewn Avalanche Creek, and jaw-dropping turnouts with views of the pine-studded valleys far below.
Once you reach Logan Pass, 32 miles from Apgar, with a visitors center that includes the highest souvenir shop I've ever shopped at, plan on hiking a ways on a boardwalk that was built especially to preserve the delicate alpine flora that grow here during the brief summers. You can follow the boardwalk uphill to a platform overlooking Hidden Lake (if your legs survive the hike, you'll understand how the lake got its name!) and you're almost guaranteed to see mountain goats—white-haired, horned relatives of antelopes that live only at exceptionally high altitudes—clomping along the boardwalk up there.
Back at Apgar that evening, we attend one of Glacier's evening ranger talks, this one on Native American folk tales. At our cabin, we drift off to sleep while the night sky is still a little orange in the west.