6 Don’t Miss Places for your Western Montana Road Trip

In this post, I detail sites we saw on a road trip through western Montana.

It all started with some AMAZING huckleberry bear claws… 🤤  In 2016, on our trip to Glacier National Park, we visited Polebridge, Montana.  They are famous for their homemade, huckleberry bear claws that are baked at their Mercantile (for good reason, they are AMAZING and totally worth the drive!)  Mr. Trekker has been craving these delicious delicacies since that trip.  We decided our Pennsylvania road trip from earlier this summer didn’t involve enough camping to slack our urge 😉, and since we didn’t get many good road trips last year (thanks COVID 😝) we decided we deserved two this year! 😁  So we headed out for a western Montana road trip!

Places to Eat in Western Montana

We found some great places to eat on our trip!  I mention a few of them below:

Montana Wheat bakery (throughout the state):  this place has AWESOME cinnamon rolls and pastries that are made locally.

Lake City Bakery and Eatery (Polson, MT):  We acquired yummy pastries from this locale and then enjoyed them at Boettcher Park which sits on the southern shores of Flathead Lake.  It offers prime views of the lake (where we learned that Puppers is afraid of waves, even small ones. 😂)

Burrito Brothers (also in Polson):  We got another AWESOME breakfast from this small shop.  They offer a variety of burrito choices including both breakfast and lunch options and they’re open throughout the day!

Freestone Ice Cream (Hamilton, MT) and the Virginia City Creamery (found in the Virginia City ghost town!):  check out the yummy huckleberry ice cream at these locales!

Red Lodge Cafe and Lounge:  They make a great breakfast sandwich!

For more fun places to check out in this area, check out my post on Ghost Towns in Southwestern Montana!

Polebridge Mercantile in Polebridge, Montana

Despite a wildfire in the area, we made it to Polebridge and got our huckleberry bear claws…and yes, they were DELICIOUS! (For more info about this little piece of paradise, click here!)  Polebridge is a TINY hamlet that sits only about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. (For those keeping track at home, the Polebridge Mercantile is exactly 923 miles from our house! 😁)  They also have some great sandwiches that we enjoyed by the creek later!

Polson/Flathead Lake KOA Review

I struggled with whether to include this info.  I always try to keep this blog positive, however, this experience was so disappointing I felt like I needed to say something.  The campground was LOVELY.  It was set back from the road so it was fairly quiet, and it offered beautiful views of the lake and nearby mountains.  We were excited when we got there because it seemed SO NICE. 

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows we prefer to stay in national forest campgrounds.  They’re usually more secluded, quieter, prettier and you’re more likely to see wildlife.  However, western Montana is prime grizzly habitat (and since they scare the CRAP out of me, especially after this incredibly unfortunate incident) we decided to opt mostly for KOA’s this trip.  I will be the first to admit, KOA’s are basically the most “vanilla” camping experience you can possibly have (but the showers and flush toilets were LOVELY! 😉)

Unfortunately, the tent campsites were AWFUL!  The facility literally parked the tent sites onto a gravel parking lot.  It felt like whoever designed them had never tent-camped a day in their life. 😔 

The tent sites are on pebble tent pads (which are ok) but they are surrounded by gravel…there was only a small amount of lawn that we could reach next to us (and the sprinklers came on for that at midnight and sprayed half our campsite too, getting our chairs and towels wet and hitting the fence and waking us up. 😒)

The sites offered almost no shade so they just BAKED under the sun.  We avoided ours until at least 6 at night as it was so hot.  The first night the hot pebbles radiated heat into our tent all night. 🥵  To top it all off they wanted us to park our car elsewhere (not too far away, but still.)  Um, we are CAR CAMPING, all our stuff is stored in the truck so we go to it, A LOT!  KOA isn’t known for great tent sites but these were the worst we’ve ever had. 😕

I’m sorry but THIS is not worth $50/night. 🙁

I will say the showers and the Pet Exercise area were nice.  The views of Flathead Lake were also great and the mountains would have been gorgeous…if we could see them through the smoke. 😝 (This issue was obviously not the fault of the campground.).  Bottom line, if you want to be an RV resort, that’s fine, just tout yourself as such and don’t bother with the tent sites.  Or, if you want to offer options for all types of camping, PLEASE don’t make your tent campers feel like second-class citizens. 😡

Flathead Lake

On a much more positive note, Flathead Lake is situated in far, northwestern Montana, less than 50 miles southwest of Glacier National Park.  It’s the largest freshwater lake in the Continental US west of the Mississippi and it is AWESOME!  The view reminded me of Sebago Lake in Maine. (I reviewed a trip we took to that lake, several summers ago, here.)

Looking north from the southern tip of Flathead Lake
The sun rising over the haze-enshrouded Rockies (those would be the dark blur below the sun that you can barely make out through the smoke). 😝
The sun reflecting off Flathead Lake

*You may notice a lack of the beautiful, landscape, vista pictures, that I usually post.  That would be because on this trip, we could hardly see the mountains due to all the smoke and haze. 😩  The West is burning ya’ll! 😪  PLEASE pray to Whatever/Whoever you pray to, send positive vibes, good wishes, white light, or whatever your spiritual “thing” is, but we NEED RAIN out West.  It’s crazy seeing some of the flooding in other parts of the country/world while out here the landscape just BAKES under the hot sun. 😭  Climate change SUX!!! 😡  

I’m glad we’ve visited this area before so we know how beautiful the landscape actually is.  A few times we could barely make out tall, mountain shapes looming through the yellow-brown gloom. 😪 (We did get lucky that even though we drove through some very smoky areas, none of our campsites were inundated with wildfire smoke.)  The morning we woke up to the sound of rain on the tent it took me a while to remember what that sound was! 😯  And then I rejoiced!  It’s a beautiful sound and we didn’t even mind packing up a wet tent in the drizzle. 😁  

Hungry Horse Dam in Hungry Horse, Montana

We also saw the Hungry Horse and Kerr Dams.  The Hungry Horse Dam is located just south of Route 2 in Hungry Horse, just west of Glacier National Park.  It dams one of the forks of the Flathead River and creates the very scenic and very LONG Hungry Horse Reservoir.  The dam is over 500 feet tall and is one of the tallest ever built by the CCC (and is one of the largest of its type in the country).  It was cool to see!  If you stop at the Visitor Center there are even some tours available of the dam and its workings.

Hungry Horse Dam
View from Hungry Horse Dam

Word to the Wise:  The view in the picture above is similar to the one we saw from the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park–the portion of the trail that starts from the Jackson Glacier Overlook which is found off the Going to the Sun Road. (I reviewed that trek here.).   Often, if you know where to look (and have a little bit of luck), you can see similar sites to those found in national parks just outside the park boundaries where there are fewer crowds.  After all, it’s all the same countryside!   

Kerr Dam in Polson, Montana

The Kerr Dam was REALLY neat, they had a great little boardwalk path down the canyon wall that offered prime views of the structure. (Be warned, the path was a little steep and could be HOT in the sun.  It could also be slippery if wet. We had a nice breeze and a rain shower when we were there at 6 pm so it was pretty nice, we also had the place to ourselves at that time of day.  This could also be a bit of an uncomfortable walk if you’re afraid of heights.  It didn’t bother me as there was a nice railing but you’re basically walking along a knife-edge cliff that drops off on both sides.)

The dam is on another fork of the Flathead River on land owned by the Flathead, Salish, and Kootenai tribal people.  The US government leases the dam from the tribes which provides them revenue.

Kerr Dam

Views from the Kerr Dam Overlook:

Traveler’s Rest State Park

Traveler’s Rest State Park is pretty cool!  It is located near the intersection of Routes 12 and 93 in Lolo, Montana.  This site’s claim to fame is that it is the only confirmed campsite of the intrepid explorers, Louis and Clark.  How do they KNOW this is the case, you may ask?  Well, the answer is kind of gross actually! 😂

A recreation of Louis and Clark’s camp!

The location of the camp was long suspected to be in this area.  An archeological study eventually found higher-than-normal amounts of mercury in soil samples gathered here.  It was known that the exploration party carried mercury pills to be used to help “expel sickness from the body”.  As it turns out, the soil the archeologists had found was the site of the camp’s latrine! 🤥  Once this spot was confirmed, the scientists were then able to locate other remnants of the camp using previously known camp arrangements.

Don’t believe me regarding the story of how they confirmed this was the site of the camp? Read the sign! 😁

Similar to the trees I discussed in my Gettysburg National Battlefield post, Witness Trees have also been identified at the site of the Louis and Clark camp! (These are trees that have been determined to be old enough to have been here when the camp was here.)

The camp’s three Witness Trees:

The Salish Tribe

One of the prominent, early tribes in this area was that of the Salish People.  I loved how many of the local signs are written in both English and Salish.  It is a beautiful language to see written.  It looks almost Cyrillic (Russian) but is actually completely unique to this tribe.  I found a neat book that gives a Salish glossary.

This is so neat! It’s one of those “wildlife bridges” on Route 93 between Missoula, MT and Polson (on the Flathead Reservation). Notice the Salish language included on the sign.

Our evening with the Hells Angels 😮

When we arrived in Red Lodge, Montana, one evening, near the end of our trip, we noticed LOTS of bikes (motorcycles).  We’ve always loved Red Lodge but have only been there in the early summer, it’s a bit busier during the prime season. 😝  We should be used to this living so close to Sturgis but we hadn’t anticipated all these bikers may want to ride the Beartooth Highway (duh!)

So, we were like, “oh, ok.”  Then we noticed, “Hey, that guy has a Hells Angels cut on…and so does that guy over there…and over there is a cop…and over there is another cop…those guys over there are wearing Hells Angels cuts too….and over there is another cop…”…yeah…the Hells Angels were apparently having their annual gathering in Red Lodge that week. *sigh* 🙄 (For the record we had no problems at all and the few HA’s we talked to were VERY friendly–they liked Puppers. 😉)

Beartooth Highway (Beartooth Pass)

On our final day in Montana we traveled up the Beartooth Pass a bit to see the view.

We were actually killing time until a local store, Lewis and Barks opened. (You’ll notice it’s a play on words of the two explorers mentioned earlier.)  As you may guess by the name, it’s a pet-based store.  We figured Puppers had done so well on her first real trip with us that she deserved a souvenir too! 

Finally, we took a nice, country drive on several back roads (Route 308 east out of Red Lodge, then picked up Route 72 north to Route 310 southeast.  We took that to Lovell, WY where we picked up Route Alt-14) to our final campsite of the trip in the northern Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming!

Puppers checking out the view on Beartooth Pass!
Puppers enjoyed the OVERLY FRIENDLY chipmunks at the Vista Overlook on the Beartooth Highway.

So there you go, 2000 miles and 7 days later…we saw some great sites, we ate some DELICIOUS huckleberry, bear claws and we had a fun time!  Check out some of these great locales for your next road trip around Western Montana! 

Have you visited any of these places?  Tell me about your experience in the comments!

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A land full of rugged beautiful, wild animals and wide, open spaces! Read on for 6 places note to miss on your western, Montana road trip!

 

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Opening Weekend on Beartooth Pass

In this post, I review our Memorial Day road trip to the Beartooth Highway in Montana.

Unless you are a local, this trip is probably not an option for you right now.  However, once this COVID crap is over and life returns to normal, this is a great option to have on your Bucket List!  Also, feel free to enjoy it right now, virtually!  

One item you should definitely have on your Road Trip Bucket List is to drive the Beartooth Highway on Opening Weekend.  This route connects Red Lodge, Montana, on the north side; Yellowstone National Park, to the west;  and Cody, Wyoming, to the south.  The route usually opens by the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, though this is always weather-dependent.  Also, temporary closures may occur after the opening date, also due to weather.

Click here to watch videos of snowplows clearing the route on YouTube (be warned, they are addictive!) 😉  The Montana DOT often has to clear snowdrifts that are over 20 feet deep in some areas! 

Washoe Ghost Town near Red Lodge, Montana

You can travel the road from either direction.  We started in Red Lodge, Montana.  We noted on the map that there was a ghost town not far from our hotel, and since we hadn’t visited any of these in Montana yet, we thought we’d take full advantage of the opportunity.  The Washoe ghost town and mine site is located on Route 308, between Red Lodge and the tiny town of Bearcreek, on the way to Belfry.  The actual site is situated on private land, so you can’t tour it, but it is easily visible from the side of the road.  This location’s (unfortunate) claim to fame is that it was the site of the worst mining disaster in Montana history in the 1940s. 😐

Washoe Ghost Town

Lodging along the Beartooth Highway

We’ve been learning the joy of simple motels on recent trips.  Air B&B’s have become our “lodging of choice”, though we’ve been finding, if we MUST stay in a hotel, the simpler, local options appeal to us the most.  They have to be clean, and well-maintained, of course, but they often have so much more character than the stale, chain hotels people usually think of.  We also, frequently, stay in smaller towns, where the larger chains don’t often have a large presence.  So, being willing to expand our horizons a bit makes lodging much easier to locate.

We had incredible luck with finding places to stay on this trip.  In Red Lodge, we chose the Red Lodge Inn, which was absolutely ADORABLE.  It was a simple motel, but it appeared that the rooms had been refurbished recently, and they were quite nice.  We were also impressed by how large they were!  The motel is owned by a young family, and the hosts were incredibly friendly and helpful when we needed information regarding local attractions.

In Cody, Wyoming, we stayed at the Cody Cowboy Village, and it was equally as cute.  This one had more of a “Western” theme, while the room in Red Lodge felt more like a mountain cabin, but both were equally enjoyable.  At the motel in Cody, large wooden beams made up the small cabins and reminded me of the ADORABLE Grandma’s Cabin that we stayed in, with Mr. Trekker’s family, in Island Park, Idaho, during our Yellowstone trip in 2014!

Places to eat along the Beartooth Highway

We’re also learning that simplicity is our friend when it comes to finding meals out on the road.  We love little cafes and diners, and again, when you stay in small towns, it’s good to enjoy these. 😁  When in Red Lodge we had dinner at one of our favorite places, Red Lodge Pizza.  The restaurant is housed in the old post office and features creations along that theme such as, the Cliff Claven!  We’ve never had a bad meal there!  We enjoyed breakfast at Honey’s Cafe the next morning (which is known for its large portions), and it was equally delicious.

In Cody, we ate breakfast at Our Place, a charming little dive (to be clear, I use that term affectionately) just across the street from our hotel.  Some of the best meals I’ve eaten at a restaurant were cooked in “dives”.  These places are usually locally-owned by regular, small-town folks.  The owners are often a joy to talk with, and any time the place is crowded with locals, you know you’re in for a treat!

We enjoyed dinner at the Occidental Saloon in Buffalo, Wyoming the final night.  We’ve visited there before and have always been happy with the meals.  This site is attached to a historic hotel in town, where the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Butch Cassidy, and Calamity Jane once rested their weary feet.  As usual, we ate the final meal of our trip, breakfast on Memorial Day morning, at the Busy Bee Cafe, also in Buffalo.  I’ve waxed lyrical about how much we like this cute little restaurant before.

The drive on Beartooth Pass!

Although weather forecasts made it appear doubtful, we did get to drive the full extent of the road…on the Montana side.  We had to wait 1.5 hours for it to open up but got to enjoy views from one of the main lookout points while we waited.  When we heard whoops of delight from the skiers and snowboarders that were parked near us and saw the snowplows drive by, we knew we were headed to the summit!

Weather had been pretty wild in this part of the country that spring, and this area had received close to a foot of snow just a few days before the road opened.  The Forest Service had gotten the Wyoming side of the route mostly open, save for the last few miles at the summit.  With the recent lousy weather though, this portion had drifted shut again. Fortunately, we have driven the entire route before (just not on Opening Weekend).  The weather didn’t seem much different from when we were there in July of 2016, there was just–a little–less snow in the summer.  There were still plenty of gloomy gray clouds, and the temperature was, maybe, only 1o degrees warmer. 😛

We found it to be almost disorienting near the summit.  The way the white snowfields melded with the pale, gray sky, it was hard to tell where the land ended and the sky began!

To check current conditions on this incredible stretch of road, you can check out these sites:  Montana DOT; Beartooth Highway in Wyoming.

Because the road was closed, we had to embrace our motto from a previous road trip, and “Just Groove“, and boy, were we glad we did!  The alternate route we chose was Route 72, south of Belfry, Montana, into Wyoming, and may I say it is absolutely GORGEOUS!  It offers incredible views of the Absaroka Mountains as you drive along their length.

Click here for a video I made of our drive. We definitely saw large piles of snow but didn’t quite get to experience the “snow tunnels” I was hoping for.  I guess we’ll just have to go back and do this route again on another Opening Weekend!

Cooke City Montana

When we reached Route 296, in Wyoming, we took that road (the Chief Joseph Highway) back to US 212 (the Beartooth Highway) on the Wyoming side, as that portion was open.  This takes you all the way to Cooke City/Silver Gate back in Montana, and eventually on to Yellowstone National Park.  These two, tiny towns had been on our “must visit” list since our Yellowstone TripThe towns were teensy but enjoyable.  They definitely felt like the type of places you’d visit in the high mountains.  For those who may be interested, I should note that there are several campgrounds in this vicinity.  HOWEVER, they only allow hard-sided campers (no tents) due to regular bear activity.  Just something to be aware of. 😳

Drive the Chief Joseph Highway in Wyoming

I can never get over how beautiful northeastern Wyoming is.  On our trip, everything was so uncharacteristically green!  This is an unusual sight for this normally dry area, but the early season and recent rain had the grass growing well.  There were some gray clouds (though we enjoyed more sun than expected) and these, contrasted with the vibrant green of the new grass and the steely, dark gray mountains, with snow still capping their summits, made for quite the scenic view!  The somewhat dreary–yet picturesque–image made both of us think of Scotland (or what we imagine Scotland to look like, having never been there…YET!) 😮😉

There’s a story that goes with this picture. Mr. Trekker had to take it from the bridge because I was too chicken to stand near the edge!

See below for more pictures of our drive.  As you can see, there was still some snow on the upper peaks:

Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming

We eventually made our way back down the Beartooth Highway and stayed in Cody, Wyoming Saturday night.  We’ve stayed there several times as a stopover, and each time we thought we should take the time to visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (but never got the chance).  Since this was a weekend of “checking things off the list”, we decided now was as good a time as any!

The museum is actually made up of five different areas.  We both enjoyed the Natural History portion the most.  This section comprises multiple levels, as though you were traversing down a mountain, from the tundra ecosystem near the summit, to the prairie/grassland found far below.  We also enjoyed the firearms museum, that showcased items from around the globe and from a wide range of battles throughout history.  There was also a section regarding the life of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show that was quite interesting.

Ten Sleep Canyon, Bighorn Mountains

We took one of our favorite routes home through the Big Horns, US 16 through Ten Sleep Canyon.  This is, absolutely, one of the most beautiful canyons I’ve ever seen.  They call this the most scenic route through the Big Horns and I believe it!  Route 14 and 14a are pretty in their own right (and you’re much more likely to see moose) but the southern route through the canyon is one that shouldn’t be missed!  As you’re driving into the canyon from the west, you have the Absaroka Range in your rearview mirror while the Big Horns loom ever larger in front of you.  This area is quite dry and barren, as it’s in the rain shadow of the Absaroka’s, adding to its rugged beauty.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t get enough of the ruggedness that makes up the Wyoming countryside.  The drab yellow of the badlands that contrasts–this time of year–against the almost florescent, green grass of Spring in the foreground, and the imposing, dark mountains in the background (with their bright white caps).  This area is pretty all the time, but especially so this time of year before the hot summer conditions have baked it dry.

This route is also called the Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway, as it is the main road that runs nearest to Cloud Peak, the tallest summit in the Big Horns (though you can’t actually see the summit from the road as it’s in the middle of a Wilderness Area).  Click here for a video I made of a Labor Day Weekend drive through the canyon.

It’s also a beautiful drive down the east side of the Big Horns into Buffalo, WY.  If you’re there at the right time, you may see yaks grazing on the steep hillside near the side of the road! 😮

I recommend everyone check out these drives if they have a chance, as they are all quite beautiful.  There are LOTS of tiny lakes that make for great pictures (not to mention plenty of marmots posing for photos in the higher elevations!)  Be prepared though, winter conditions can occur at any time in that area (we had thunder and slushy snow falling on us in July!) 😮  So go tour these highways, you’ll be glad you did! 

Longmire Store, Buffalo, Wyoming

Finally, we were able to cap off our weekend in the best way!  Each time we visit Buffalo, I hope to stop at the Longmire store, named after the well-known book and Netflix series.  As we learned, it used to ONLY be open during Longmire Days each year in July, as it was just a satellite store.  Well, it is now open all season and we FINALLY got to partake of its wares!  See, persistence pays off. 😁

Have you visited the Beartooth Highway on Opening Weekend?  Tell me about it in the comments! 

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Have you been looking for an incredible spring trip that offers beautiful sites to see? Check out opening weekend on the Beartooth Highway in Montana.

 

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