Big Sky, Small Camper

Big Sky, Small Camper
Mountain Goat Posing Near HIdden Lake Overlook, Glacier National Park

It was sad to say goodbye to Idaho, certainly the most RV friendly state we’ve visited. It had clean and free dump stations in nearly every town (bonus points for dump station hoses with threaded ends for easy flushing), and affordable camping almost everywhere. We needed to move on, however, and we crossed into Montana at Lost Trail Pass near the continental divide high in the Bitterroot Mountains. Montana would prove not quite as RV friendly as Idaho but was still a remarkable place to call home for a few weeks.

One of the giant ponderosa pines formerly used for sustenance in Indian Trees Campground

Our first campsite was just a stone’s throw across the border at Indian Trees Campground, so named for the large gashes in the pine trees cut by local Indians between roughly 1835 and 1890. The Indian Trees campground was easily accessible and had plenty of vacant spaces even in late June. From the looks of the reservation signs, it was about to fill up for the July 4th holiday. Our site even featured one of the large ponderosa pines where Indians had harvested the sweet inner bark for food. We spent a few nights but didn’t do much other than a go on a short hike up an adjacent logging road.

Next, we would drive up Highway 93 towards Missoula. On the way, we stopped by the CDC biosafety level 4 laboratory where the worlds deadliest infectious diseases are studied. Probably not the most popular tourist location, but for a virus geek like Jackie, it was a pilgrimage to Mecca. It should be noted that we enjoyed the view from outside the razor wire, I don’t think they give tours. We did get some strange looks from the locals. From Hamilton, it was just a short drive to our next stop, Missoula.

In Missoula, we once again used our Harvest Host membership, this time at Big Sky Brewing home of the famous Moose Drool Brown Ale. We weren’t able to confirm there was space available beforehand, but we did end up finding a nice level space. We dropped off the camper and set out to explore Missoula.

Ridin’ the carousel in Missoula
The Carousel for Missoula

Our first stop was the Carousel for Missoula. Finished in 1995 after four years of work and 100,000 hours of volunteer labor, the carousel now provides fun for kids of all ages. Why? Because some old guy liked carousels and wanted to build one. Good enough reason for me. When we arrived, the carousel seemed to be moving awfully fast. We figured it wouldn’t feel so fast when riding, so we bought the discounted two-ride ticket pack. During the first ride, we found out that the carousel was indeed hauling ass. We were a bit woozy, but the boys were ok. We regretted having paid for two rides, but got back on the horse as the saying goes. The boys again fared better than the adults, and everybody kept their lunch down.

Moose Drool!

After an auto tour of Missoula and a short trip to a playground, we headed back to our home at the Brewery for the main event. We tasted a plethora of potent potables with the handy knowledge that we’d be staying within a few hundred feet and wouldn’t need to worry about a designated driver or taking an Uber. We only spent two nights total in Missoula, the second night we stayed at KOA which allowed us to do some laundry and get some swimming in. It was pretty hot so the pool was appreciated.

Nice Harvest Host Site behind Big Sky Brewing

So we left Missoula and headed north towards Glacier National Park. July 4th was approaching and we didn’t have reservations anywhere which would prove problematic. We drove north, along the east side of Flathead Lake, through cherry orchards and vacation homes, finally reaching Columbia Falls. We stashed the camper at Super 1 Foods and drove the Jeep towards our first choice camping spot in the nearby national forest. As we had feared, the campground was full. Skunked! We called around to various private campgrounds and they were full as well. Eventually, we found a place to call home at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell, which had been our backup plan.

Lake McDonald views from Apgar Villiage in Glacier National Park

We killed three nights in Kalispell, riding out the 4th of July holiday. Kalispell wasn’t a total dump but is definitely a working-class town. There wasn’t much to do but we did visit some parks. It was just as well since we had hit a rainy stretch, not a great time to visit Glacier anyway. On July 5th we called the Glacier Campground in West Glacier hoping someone had canceled or gone home early. There was indeed one open spot for 3 nights so we snatched it up.

After checking in at the campground we made the short drive up to the Apgar Visitor’s Center in Glacier National Park. We stamped passports, then hiked over to scenic Lake McDonald where the boys threw rocks for a couple hours, while Jackie and I took in the epic mountain views. The lake was busy, and as we’d soon find out, so was the rest of the park.

The next day we woke up early to catch the shuttle up to Logan Pass in the heart of Glacier National Park at the very top of ‘Going to the Sun’ road. We had no chance of being the early birds lucky enough to get one of the coveted parking spots at Logan Pass, so the shuttle was our only option. After a long initial wait and one transfer to a smaller bus, we finally made it. The trip took about 3 hours, but at least it was free, and parking wasn’t an issue. Logan Pass had a nice Visitor’s center, and we saw a Mountain Goat within a minute of getting off the bus.

Good Hikers

After a quick lunch, we headed out for a hike on the Hidden Lake Trail, probably the most popular hike in the park. We hiked up, up, up, over slippery snowfields, and through green meadows. We saw a great big Marmot, and too many Mountain Goats to count. Towards the top, we even saw baby mountain goats just learning to navigate the rocky terrain. The sheer number of people hiking alongside us was stifling. This had to be the busiest hiking trail I’d ever been on. It was about 1.5 miles to the overlook, and both boys hiked the whole way which was pretty impressive, especially for Tommy. The views of Hidden Lake and the surrounding mountains from the top was outstanding though slightly tainted by the huge crowd. The mountain goats didn’t seem to mind and wandered nonchalantly through the crowd.

After some snacks at the top, we headed back down. Tommy didn’t make it too far before insisting on riding in the backpack. This made the snowfields a bit more challenging for Tim, but we all made it back to the parking lot in one piece. We had expected another long line for the shuttle, but lucked out and didn’t have to wait at all. Our shuttle driver on the way down was a real nice guy, a lifelong resident of Kalispell with the gift of gab. He pointed out interesting features and answered our questions about the area. Thankfully, the trip down didn’t take nearly as long as the way up.

The next day we headed back into the park, this time we’d be driving ourselves since we weren’t planning on parking anywhere. The Going-to-the-Sun-Road has a reputation for being acrophobic, but we didn’t find it too harrowing. There were stone and wooden guardrails almost everywhere so the enormous drops were hidden from view. We made it to Logan Pass in about half the time it took to shuttle, though as expected there was no parking to be found. I circled the parking lot while Jackie went inside to stamp passports (we’d forgotten them the day before), and used the restroom.

Classic Glacier Views

While driving down the eastern side of the park we got to see some new sights we hadn’t seen the day before. There were more beautiful lakes, mountains, and glaciers. We even saw a Grizzley Bear far in the distance. He was being chased away from a campground by a park ranger.

Our goal for the day was to reach the Many Glacier area of the park, which contains the Park’s most famous glaciers including Grinnell glacier. In order to reach this remote part of the park, one must exit the park at East Glacier Villiage, drive north through the Blackfoot Indian Reservation, then brave a poorly maintained potholed road. At the beginning of the park access road, there was a confusing sign stating that the parking lots were full and access would be restricted. We didn’t interpret this as an indication that the park was closed, but upon arrival at the entrance gate that’s exactly what we found. The park wouldn’t be opening again for several hours according to the ranger. We were a bit pissed, to say the least, at yet another example of poor communication by the National Park bureaucracy. We angrily munched our lunch at a nearby pullout. At least the views were nice.

After lunch, we headed back the way we came, back over Logan Pass this time headed west. It’s always nice to be able to go both directions on a scenic stretch of road since the views change dramatically based on which direction your headed. On the way back, we stopped at the East Glacier Visitor’s Center where we took in some exhibits. On our way out of the park we stopped at McDonald Lake again, this time towards the north end. The boys once again threw rocks and sticks into the crystal clear water. After they tired themselves out, we headed back to the campground to enjoy our final night in the Glacier area.

We spent one more night in Montana. We stayed at Kiwanis Park after a very long day’s drive to the town of Lewiston. Kiwanis Park is a free (donation accepted) campground in an area otherwise lacking in camping. Most of the day’s drive was through rainy weather and thunderstorms, so that was unpleasant. The next day was an even longer drive through mostly uninhabited eastern Montana. It was scenic, however, and we learned that it’s one of the best places in the world to look for T. Rex dinosaur bones. Who knew?

Campsite at Buffalo Gap Campground

Later that afternoon, we arrived at the Buffalo Gap Campground surrounded by badlands, just west of Medora North Dakota. The campground was spacious, clean, quiet, and a real bargain at only $5 per night. The campground sat right on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, North Dakota’s most well-known mountain biking path. Unfortunately, recent wet weather had muddied the trail and made stream crossings impossible so I didn’t get far.

We visited both the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The North Unit was about an hour’s drive on roads clogged with oil truck traffic. It was nice to see, but it’s doubtful we’ll ever be back due to its remoteness. The South unit is much easier to access just outside the town of Medora. Both units are extremely quiet compared to every other National Park we’ve visited. We did see Bison in both units which was pretty neat.

Little Missouri Overlook at the North Unit Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Tatanka in South Unit Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Much like eastern Montana, western North Dakota is a hotbed for fossil hunters so we decided to visit the Badlands Dinosaur Museum in Dickinson. We saw fossils of T. Rex, Triceratops, Edmontosaurus and a slew of other Dinosaur and Ice Age fossils. The boys even got to touch a real dinosaur bone that was being prepared in the lab.

Triceratops at the Badlands Dinosaur Museum in Dickinson, ND

Our last campsite in North Dakota was Tourist Park in Valley City, Tim’s birthplace and where both Scott parents grew up (Valley City, not Tourist Park). In fact, Tim used to mow and pretend to clean bathrooms at Tourist Park when he worked for the Valley City Parks Department. It had been many years since visiting so it was a real trip to see all that had changed, as well as all that had stayed the same. We spent hours driving nearly every street in town, reminiscing on times past. We ordered takeout at the nostalgic, yet underwhelming, Pizza Corner. We visited Lake Ashtabula, nicknamed Lake Algaebula, where we spent much of our youth. The boys played at parks we used to play at. Most of the old playground equipment remained unchanged. One of the merry-go-rounds at City Park even dated to the early 1950’s.

Hi-Line Bridge Valley City North Dakota

After leaving Valley City we headed over to Minnesota where we’d stay with Jackie’s parents for a few weeks, soaking up the sun appreciating unlimited hot showers. On the way, we weighed the camper at a CAT Scale in Fargo, verifying we were under our camper’s GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) of 12500 Pounds, weighing in at around 11500 (tanks empty). This was a nice surprise for Jackie who was absolutely sure we were overloaded. After catching our breath and catching up on chores and repairs we’ll continue on to the Great Lakes, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada. Well, that’s all for now, happy camping!

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