Getting There and Going-to-the-Sun
Oregon makes for incredibly pleasant driving. The roads are in incredibly good shape compared to what we’re used to in CA. The rather low speed limits and lack of elevation change made for great gas mileage. 18.8 mpg in my Wrangler is quite the feat. The cherry and whipped cream on top are the always-present forests and and magnificent views of the snow capped peaks of the Cascades.
We breaked along the Crooked River Gorge, a quite unexpected geological feature. So unexpected, based on the “supervise your children and pets” signs, that people don’t know how to react to it.
The pleasantness of the drive ends soon after making a turn due East into the Columbia River Gorge. At first the canyon carved by the river is rather magnificent, but this soon vanishes and the scenery becomes rather bland. The flat to rolling terrain continued essentially until we arrived in Spokane, Washington, just in time for some rush hour traffic and an interstate accident.
The Selkrik Mountains just East of the city give a sudden jolt to the aesthetics of the drive. The beauty, combined with the 70 mph speed limit along the winding road through the Idaho panhandle, can give quite an adrenaline boost as well.
National Bison Range
We entered Montana a bit later than expected, but it is impossible to not stop and take in the views on a drive such as this one and we couldn’t help but to make a side-trip to the National Bison Range. With the gates closing at 9:30pm we didn’t have any time to waste and we set out in search of these massive ungulates. The herd was near the road and even started to cross it, posing for pictures along the way. Such magnificent animals! It is such a shame that the herds numbered 30 million when the white man arrived. Now a mere 15 thousand are considered free-range.
The nice thing about being closer to the North Pole during the summer was the length of daylight. The sun was just setting as we drove along Flathead Lake and across the Mission Mountains towards our final destination. It was now getting dark and we were both getting tired, and the little white roadside crosses indicating death were a morbid reminder that the road is to be respected. We knew our drowsiness meant we need to stop soon.
And stop we did just outside the town of Hungry Horse, MT in Flathead National Forest. As we sat in the dark, sipping on our Montana brews, a loud noise startled us. Something had knocked down a sizable hunk of wood nearby. This left us paranoid about bears for the remainder of the night.
Our first stop of the day was the Apgar backcountry permit office. Presenting the rangers with our well formulated and planned route, we were a bit disheartened when they strongly advised us against the trip. Every pass along our route, they informed us, would be sketchy at best and hundreds, maybe even thousands of downed trees would await us in the Nyack/Coal Creek area. As we traveled through the park, we would later find out that their warnings may have been a bit conservative and our planned itinerary may very well have worked, but we ended up settling for a few overnighters.
With permits for camping by Cobalt Lake in the Two Medicine area, we were ready to head for the sky along the Going-to-the-Sun road. We drove the road stopping at all the places any pair of tourists would stop. A short hike to McDonald Falls and down the Trail of the Cedars, we spotted mountain goats and took close up pictures of one at the Loop, watched as the Weeping Wall wept, stopped at the Logan Pass Visitor center to muse at the crowd of toursits surrounding and closing in on a bighron in the parking lot, wondering what would happen should the animal spook and decide to use its big horns as a battering ram, observed the Jackson Glacier from the aptly named overlook, took in the waterfall at the Sunrift Gorge and got our feet wet in Saint Mary Lake at the Rising Sun boat launch.
All in all we were not overly impressed with the road. Yes, it was indeed an engineering marvel, but we were here to experience the backcountry and couldn’t wait to get away from the car and the crowds of visitors. For the night we first found a road heading up an embankment to the railroad tracks just as we entered Lewis and Clark National Forest. The trains passed frequently so after observing the impressive cloud cover, lit by the setting sun, we moved on into Flathead National Forest, and took a dirt road just past the Summit Campground. We found a decent camping spot in a grove of trees and lighting a campfire to keep the mosquitoes away, enjoyed dinner and more fine Montana brews.
Other Glacier National Park Adventures
For more national park adventure, visit our National Park Service Guide.