A fine (and thrifty) Montana weekend

by Bob Hoelscher 15. November 2012 21:17

Whoever originated the thought that “the best things in life are free” surely couldn’t have come up with a better description of a weekend I experienced this October in Southeastern Montana. First, the aspens along the Bighorn River and throughout the area were at their peak of golden color. Second, with my trusty “America the Beautiful” Senior Pass, the lifetime National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass that is available for a mere $10 to all U.S. Citizens or permanent residents who are age 62 or older, I was able to get both admission to 120,000-acre Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and a campground stay overlooking Afterbay Lake with my motor-home, both totally free of charge. 

The centerpiece of this National Park Service site is 71-mile-long Bighorn Lake, created by Yellowtail Dam and surrounded by massive Bighorn Canyon itself. The site is popular during the summer with fishermen, waterskiers, scuba divers and mere sightseers like me, but at this time of the year, except for a few anglers, I just about had it all to myself.      
Also using my pass and without charge, I was also able to visit Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, less than 50 miles distant by road. The monument encompasses the site of the storied battle in late June, 1876, between Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment of about 600 men, and Lakota (Sioux), Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors, who, with their wives, children and elders, were encamped approximately 7,000 strong along the banks of the Little Bighorn River.  Combatants on both sides were fighting to protect their own ways of life, and the tribes also to protect their families close at hand. 

Tragically for all involved, every one an American, this became not only “Custer’s Land Stand,” but a victory for the tribes that nevertheless marked the beginning of the end for the traditional Plains Indian nomadic lifestyle. Since the park’s tour route largely overlooks the site of the native encampment, it is very easy for visitors today to follow the progression of the battle action.

Fall foliage along the Little Bighorn River

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

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Weekend getaway

Making the Most of a Rainy Day

by Brian Jewell 14. May 2009 18:25

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Sooner or later, we all have rainy days, even at times when we are really hoping to see the sun.

Today I was scheduled to take a four-mile hike around a lake in Glacier National Park with Jan Metzmaker, Director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. The only problem is the weather – there’s a relentless rain outside, from the moment I woke up until we reach the trailhead in the park, and then some. Rain is to be expected around here in mid-May.  But the chilly temperatures, around 44 degrees, make the idea of a wet hike pretty unattractive.

Fortunately, Jan is as resourceful as she is experienced. Originally from Connecticut, by way of Missouri, Jan has spent decades of her life in Montana, and most of them inside Glacier National Park. She’s had countless jobs there – cleaning hotel rooms, repairing park equipment, guiding hikes, and fundraising for the park’s future. So she knows Glacier inside and out, and she’s prepared for a rainy day.

We began our day with a stop at a local rafting outfitter, owned by a friend of Jan’s, where we borrow rain gear for the day. Then we spent some time driving through the small towns on the outskirts of the park. Glacier celebrates its centennial next year, and a number of towns, hotels and rail depots in the area are nearly 100 years old as well.  Short stops in these places give a bit of a feel for what the area was like in the historic days of rail travel.

Inside the park, the rain continues to fall. But there’s still plenty to see – we drive along the 10-mile shore of Lake McDonald, a beautiful scenic lake that was carved out by the movement of the park’s glaciers. We then visit several sites around the park, such as the visitors center at Apgar, as well as some of Jan’s favorite spots throughout. Along the way, she tells stories about local residents, visitors, park employees and the amazing things she has seen during her years here.

In the end, we decide to make a short hike on a boardwalk that cuts through a densely wooded area of the park, alongside some magnificent trees and a great, rushing waterfall. The waterfall has the deep, crystalline blue glow that is the hallmark of glacial runoff, and it cuts through grand, deep red boulders on either side. It’s as scenic a spot as you’ll find anywhere, and one of the hidden jewels of the park.

The rain is still falling overhead, but I realize that I’m enjoying myself anyway. After all, this is nature at its most natural. And I can’t argue with that.

Honey and Cream

by Brian Jewell 13. May 2009 18:22

WHITEFISH, Mont. – A gooey mixture of cream and honey is causing flower petals to stick to the hair on my legs, and every few minutes the girl rubbing my feet stops to peel the petals off of my skin.

It’s not a treatment that I’m at all used to, but my friends at the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau have arranged for me to have a hot-stone foot massage at Remedies Day Spa, a company with spa locations throughout the Glacier Region of Montana. The company prides itself on using natural food products in all of its treatments, which is why my feet and lower legs have been glazed in a cream and honey mixture, and rubbed down for a good half hour. Maria, the lovely young lady who has been so kindly massaging my feet, says that the flower petals in the foot bath are mainly put there for decoration. At this point, though, they’re sticking awkwardly to my legs, and we both have a good laugh about it.

The treatment is quite pleasant, although not the sort of thing I would have ever thought to have signed up for myself. Still, it’s part of the story of the great variety of attractions here in Whitefish, a town of about 7,000 residents that’s about a half-hour’s drive outside of Glacier National Park. During the summer, some 10 million visitors will come to see the million-acre park, and a good number of them will use Whitefish as their home base. As a result, the town has an eclectic mix of shops and services, from antique stores to outdoor outfitters, t-shirt shops, saloons, and a wide variety of restaurants serving great and diverse food.

For breakfast, I had a bocadillo at Montana Coffee Traders, a coffee shop downtown that is a favorite among Whitefish locals. The bocadillo is a Mexican-inspired dish, comprising breakfast meats, cheeses and peppers stuffed inside a tortilla wrapper, which is then grilled on a Panini press. It comes served with the restaurant’s homemade salsa, and the meal is all-around delicious. Lunch was a salmon burger at a local French bistro, where everything came in large portions with a delicious creamy sauce.

As Maria finishes with the hot stones on my feet, I realize that I’ll soon need to hurry off to the next stop on my itinerary, which is a horseback trail ride and Bar W Guest Ranch outside of town. It will be a quick trip from the effete spa to the rugged ranch ride. But the contrast is one of the great things about Whitefish, and probably one of the characteristics that makes it a favorite return destination for visitors. Whitefish is one of the most popular stopping points along the Empire Builder route… and I’m beginning to understand why.

Moving through the mountains

by Brian Jewell 12. May 2009 18:19

Near GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. -- The Rocky Mountains come bursting out on to the planes, without warning, and almost out of nowhere.

We've been riding through the planes for most of the day -- all the way through North Dakota, and most of Montana, the landscape is flat, with only short moments of relief. But now, as we begin to approach Glacier National Park, the Rockies appear, dominant on the skyline. And they are spectacular.

Now that we're in range, though, I can tell that the landscape is changing. A few miles out, foothills start to take shape. And though it's mid-May, there are patches if snow all along the side of the
hills. In this part of the country, everything begins to change: the once-barren landscape is now abundant with cedar, birch, maple and pine. Streams run alongside the tracks. There are signs of life.

One of the great benefits of traveling the Northwest by rail is the unshakable sense of grandeur that you get along the way. The Empire Builder cuts through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington and Oregon. All together, it stretches nearly 2,000 miles.

If you really want to, you can look out the window and see every one of them go by.

The Train Life

by Brian Jewell 12. May 2009 18:15

SOMEWHERE IN MONTANA – Everything is more interesting on a train: sleeping, showering, eating, and even just getting from one place to another all feel different as you move down the railroad.

Some people traveling on AMTRAK spend their entire trip in the Coach cabins, which are large, spacious and well lit, with wide, plush seats and abundant legroom. It takes nearly 48 hours to make the journey all the way from Chicago to Portland; from Minneapolis, where I joined the Empire Builder; it’s about 24 hours to Whitefish, where I’ll get off tonight.

The folks at AMTRAK were kind enough to book me into one of the sleeper cars, where I can stretch out, take a shower, and enjoy free meal service in the adjacent diner car. I’m in what the company calls a “Roomette” – a cabin about six-and-a-half feet long and three-and-a-half feet wide. During the daytime, these small cabins are surprisingly roomy, with two large facing seats and a work table in between. At night, the two seats fold down to form a bed, and a second one can be lowered from the ceiling.


Sleeping on a moving train, just like taking a shower or getting dressed on the train, takes some getting used to. As it rolls down the tracks, the train sways gently back and forth, hitting some small bumpy patches along the way. At first, these unexpected movements can make simple tasks difficult; once you get used to it though, sleeping, eating, showering and other activities start to come more naturally.

The most surprising element so far has been the food. Unlike airline food, which is seldom fit to eat, the meals served aboard AMTRAK are hot, delicious and generously portioned. In the dining car, we eat at proper booths and tables, and order drinks, entrees and desserts off an a la carte menu. Today for lunch I chose Chile Verde, a spicy roasted pork dish served with green salsa over a bed of rice. A nicely chilled chocolate-raspberry tort finished the meal off right.

Airlines, take note: when it comes to food service, AMTRAK has you beat, hands down.

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Rails and trails: Amtrak and Big Sky Country

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