When the 9-year-old cousins from Saudi Arabia come to town, the sheer expanse of Montana’s Big Sky Country can really challenge the attention span.
Jonas and Jember Chaney want to see everything their home away from home has to offer, but they don’t care much for the driving in between. When you spend two calendar days inside airplanes or airports, conforming to another passenger seat falls way down the list of things that make vacation worthwhile.
But they really wanted to see Glacier National Park, the border of which lies at least three hours away. How to get there without making the road trip a form of punishment?
The goal was no more than 60 minutes in the car without something to get out and do. Much of the time, that dropped to 40 minutes, with some careful scouting.
In between, Jonas and Jember practiced the old standby of scavenger hunting for Pinto horses, bright yellow cars, bike vacationers, canoes on roof-racks and roadkill to make the windshield time worthwhile. When that lagged, they broke out journals to jot down sentences describing things they saw (to remember to tell Mom when they got back).
1. Right out of Missoula, we had to check out the biggest cow in Western Montana, standing at the intersection of Clearwater Junction. Barely 30 minutes into the trip, this also makes a good stop for the bathroom break we forgot to take leaving town.
2. Less than an hour on, Lincoln’s Blackfoot Pathways Sculpture in the Wild stretches both legs and imaginations. The 26-acre public art installation provides plenty to talk about while strolling around (and sometimes through) the huge creations.
3. Highway 200 climbs away from Lincoln toward Rogers Pass, which has a wide road shoulder next to a stairway on the eastbound side. Climb up to the trail that leads to a fantastic vantage point into the Scapegoat Wilderness, the great plains of central Montana and meadows of wildflowers. The walk takes 20 or 30 minutes and just enough sweat to make the next hour to Choteau fly by.
Jonas and Jember overnighted in Choteau, torn between the attractions of camping by a creek on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness or swimming in the city pool and a soft hotel bed. The town’s Old Trail Museum presents a mix of cowboy history, literary references (including a display dedicated to A.B. Guthrie) and dinosaur discoveries.
4. Barely 20 minutes up the road, Bynum’s Two Medicine Dinosaur Center and adjacent Trex Agate Shop answer every question one could have about Montana’s thunder lizards, and the rocks they rode in on. A sprinting Daspletosaurus statue in the parking lot keeps you from missing this otherwise brief bump in the road.
5. By now, the rhythm of the road has settled in, so we got away with a full hour’s push to East Glacier. The reward was a wander through the Glacier Park Lodge, aptly nicknamed the “Big Tree Lodge” for the immense Douglas fir trunks holding up the lobby.
6. Motorists differ on the relative distance from East Glacier to St. Mary directly via Highway 49 or the roundabout-yet-faster Highway 464 over to Browning and back down. Either road delivers scenic vistas, but the outer, straighter option means less car-sickness than the twisty route along Glacier Park’s border. The goal is St. Mary and the main eastern entrance to Glacier National Park. St. Mary Lake has a lengthy shoreline of attractions, like Wild Goose Island.
7. Once past the gate, Glacier’s attractions accordion down to every 10 minutes or so, depending on personal preference. Waterfalls? Historic markers? Visitor center displays? Gift Shops? Short hikes? Snowball fights in the middle of summer? Check.
8. The day ends at Apgar, where millions of rocks await ritual drowning in the waters of Lake McDonald while marshmallows endure a flaming transformation into S’mores.
9. To close the loop, three hours of driving stand between West Glacier and Missoula. Jonas and Jember returned to Logan Pass for mountain-goat spotting, Hidden Lake-hiking and a thorough dousing through the car window at the Going to the Sun Road’s Weeping Wall. That ate up enough of the day that stops like the Giant Hook and Ball in Hungry Horse, Columbia Falls water park, Polson’s Miracle of America Museum and Garden of 1,000 Buddhas by Arlee all passed by in a backseat snooze.