SUMMER VACATION IDEAS: ROAD TRIP

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."

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello, Tuesday, Jul 2, 2013, 12:00 PM

Glacier National Park's Highline trail

A ride through Glacier National Park may spoil you for any other road trip!

(Jerryway/Dreamstime.com)

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.

TAKE A MONTANA TOUR!

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

64 miles

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.

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.

DAY 3

Glacier National Park to Bigfork

41 miles

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.

DAY 4

Bigfork to Bozeman

289 miles

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).

DAY 5

Bozeman to Helena

97 miles

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.

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