Exploring Montana in the "Land Between the Parks"
Earlier this summer, I had the awesome opportunity to embark on a more than 4,000 mile road trip from San Diego to northern Montana and back again. When most people think of visiting Montana, they often focus just on exploring parks like Glacier National Park and Yellowstone. Sadly, everything else is "drive through country" for most visitors. That's the fun of a long road trip though, it gives you the chance to slow down and explore a little bit. You never know what you might find! In our case while we could have simply driven from Gardiner Montana (North Entrance to Yellowstone) to West Glacier in one day, we decided to explore a bit instead.
Northern Gateway to Yellowstone in Gardiner Montana
Gardiner Montana is the northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park and it's a fun little town with an opportunity for water sports on the Yellowstone River. It's also home to Wild West Corral who served up one of the best elk burgers that I've ever tasted!
Ride Camels and Sleep In A Tepee at Camel Discovery
Montana is simply beautiful and even an empty road can be mesmerizing here. So, when I first drove by the Camel Discovery I had to blink and turn around to make sure I didn't just dream it up. Montana has tons of guest ranches throughout the state and most of them focus on horses and bison ... but not here. At Camel Discovery, they offer camel treks, educational opportunities, and you can even sleep in a teepee for the ultimate wild west meets middle east experience!
Exploring Livingston, Bozeman, and Helena, Montana
Unfortunately, we didn't have a chance to spend a huge amount of time exploring these cities but they are absolutely worth returning for. Here are some quick highlights ...
Livingston - This town seemed to have a disproportionately large number of museums for the size of the city and that's exciting to me. These included the Yellowstone Gateway Museum, Depot Center Museum, and the International Federation of Fly Fishers with a collection of fly fishing artifacts dating back more than 100 years!
Bozeman - While Livingston looked like what I might expect from a small railroad city in Montana, Bozeman surprised me with how hip it was and that the town has five breweries and some pretty cool restaurants like the Garage Soup Shack. It is even home to the American Computer and Robotics Museum - the world's oldest continually operating nonprofit museum dedicated to the "History of the Information Age." Who would have guessed that a museum like that would be found in Bozeman, Montana?
Helena - As the capital city of Montana it is also the perfect spot to learn about Montana's history. The city has tons of historic sites including the Montana Military Museum, "Last Chance Gulch" (the spot where gold was discovered in 1864), and tours of Victorian mansions once owned by gold rush pioneers who built the city. Helena is also one of the top geocaching destinations in the country, so that adds a whole different layer of adventure to exploring this city.
All of these cities of course also offer tons of outdoor adventure opportunities from mountain biking to rafting, fishing, and hiking as well since they are placed in some of the most beautiful terrain in the United States.
Fly Fishing on the Missouri River
Montana is one of the top fly fishing spots in North America and if you enjoy spending a day out on the water, you absolutely must try it while you are visiting the area. We had a great day with Montana Fly Fishing Guides and unlike what you may have experienced in other places with waders or fishing from the shore, we floated with the fish as we followed the current. It was certainly a more relaxing way to go and a lot less muddy than the alternative!
Make sure to fill up on gas and snacks when you leave Helena and head north as the countryside is beautiful in its vast openness and that includes a lack of facilities.
With just a few miles left in the tank I saw a sign for this town and had no choice to go off the highway and that's when I discovered the town of Ovando Montana (which Lewis and Clark and visited some 200 years earlier). It's a fun stop with clean bathrooms, hand scooped ice cream, century old buildings, and some of the friendliest people I've met anywhere. Small town doesn't even begin to describe it since there are only 50 residents and I think one man owns most of the buildings. In fact, when the store owner saw me looking at his ancient gas pumps trying to figure how they worked, he called over to me from his rocking chair and said, "pump's on, just give me money!" This was one of the most unique gas station experiences I've ever had.
Huckleberry Everything ...
Montana is mad for huckleberries. During our time exploring between the parks, I came across everything from huckleberry ice cream to huckleberry beer, huckleberry gin, preserves, hamburger topping, bread, and of course just plain huckleberries. If you've never had had one before, it's essentially a small berry similar to a blueberry. I was told that you aren't allowed to leave the state without having at least huckleberry treat so I had several and even brought some huckleberry gin from Glacier Distilling back with me!
Whitefish Montana and West Glacier
Sitting just 25 miles south of the Canadian border, this is about as far north as you can go as far as travel destinations. These three cities sit right next to each other with West Glacier being the Western Gateway to Glacier National Park. While I'm sure most tourists heading to the park probably never venture west to Whitefish but that would be a shame. During the summer it is a great place to visit with Whitefish Lake being a fabulous place to enjoy the water if you are looking to escape the tourists in Glacier. The town also is the home to Great Northern Brewing, Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, and the Stumptown Historic Society, which owns the restored Great Northern depot and locomotive.
Heading back to Glacier National Park to complete our journey, you must stop for a burrito at the Wandering Gringo. This is a special breed of burrito and it's massive size is guaranteed to fill you up before heading off for a trek through the wilderness waiting for you in the park.
- Written by James Hills
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