"Montana has mountains as I would have made them, had I been consulted at the creation"
John Steinbeck in "Travels with Charley, In Search of America"
Welcome to another edition of DKos Travel Board created by fellow kossack plf515. This week’s edition is a brief guide to visiting Montana, my home for the past thirty years. For outdoor people like me, there’s a lot to see and do, with endless opportunities for camping , hiking, skiing, floating, wildlife watching, fishing and hunting. For those that are attracted to western history, or small town America life there’s a considerable amount to do as well.
Some Words of Wisdom for Visitors
But before we get into what to see in Big Sky Country, we need to talk about how to see Big Sky Country. For one thing you can’t see it all in one or two visits, or even in thirty years. Montana is the nation’s fourth largest state behind Alaska, Texas and California with a population of just over 900,000 humans, so there’s a lot of wide open spaces and a lot of travel time between destinations. The worst mistake a visitor can make is to spend all the time driving frantically from one attraction to the next. As Edward Abbey once said "If you are everywhere at once, you are nowhere forever". Take the time to spend several days in a few locations and get to know them. The 24 hour (or less) tour of Yellowstone National Park isn’t worth it. Buy the DVD instead. You have to slow down to really see the country and it’s wild creatures.
Just because Montana’s big doesn’t mean it can’t be crowded. The two great national parks, Yellowstone and Glacier can be jammed anytime during the summer, and Yellowstone is getting crowded almost year round. National Forest campgrounds can be filled to capacity on weekends, even in remote locations, in the summer months. One of my retirement dreams is to camp on Sunday and Monday nights, where I can have the entire campground to myself, and enjoy the peace and quiet.
Music and craft festivals are increasingly popular and those celebrations, along with local sporting events can result in every motel room being booked solid in many towns for days at a time. Make sure to plan ahead for where you want to stay and have a backup plan if that place is unavailable. Years ago when my father was still around he flew in for a visit in mid-July. Picking him up at the airport I asked how long he was staying. He replied that he hadn’t bought a return ticket yet, and thought he would stick around until he ran out of things to do around town. I had to inform him that flights in and out of our town were booked solid for several months, and that he better make return reservations if he wanted to leave before winter!
One more note on travel safety. With lots of empty spaces, make sure you are prepared for emergencies, especially beyond the reach of cell phones. If you are driving around Big Sky Country, fuel up frequently since the next gas station may be a hundred miles away. Make sure you are prepared to change a flat tire, since Triple AAA maybe beyond reach. Take special care when driving at dawn and dusk, since there may be wildlife crossing the road when you least expect it. Hitting a deer is no fun at the best of times, and can be deadly at night. Take extra water and a sleeping bag in vehicle at all times just in case, and be extra prepared with gear and maps when leaving paved roads.
A Few Notes on Geography
The Rocky Mountain states are actually quite diverse geographically and contain far more than just high mountain peaks. Montana for example is divided into three distinct geographic areas.
In the eastern third of the state there’s the rolling topography of the Northern Great Plains, covered with short grass prairie and ranch land. Spring and fall can be beautiful seasons for wildflowers and wildlife. Summers are often scorching hot, and winters; well, you don’t want to know. This part of the state is the least populated, at least by humans, and small towns are few and far between.
The central third of the state features island mountain ranges rising high above the plains, with some reaching eleven thousand to twelve thousand feet into the Big Sky. The scenery here can be the most dramatic in the state with giant snow capped peaks rising over the Yellowstone and Missouri River valleys. The first and third largest cities in the state, Billings and Great Falls are found here, along with interesting small towns such as Livingston, Big Timber, Fort Benton or Choteau. The state’s most dramatic weather can occur here as well with strong winds blowing over the peaks and plains at any time of year.
The western third of the state contains most of the mountain ranges, separated by long, wide valleys. The mountain ranges are covered with most of the forest land in the state, while the valleys contain foothills prairie, Palouse or Great Basin grasslands. Or at least they did before they became covered in concrete. This is the most populous part of the state, with fast growing cities like Bozeman, Kalispell or Missoula and old mining towns like Butte. Missoula for example is the largest city actually within the Rocky Mountains in America, with the metro area exceeding one hundred thousand people. Larger cities, such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Spokane or Calgary are really east or west of the Rocky Mountains, and not within them.
The Continental Divide separates the moister more forested part of the state to the west from the drier grasslands to the east. Although Montana contains fifty named mountain ranges of the Rockies they are not exceptionally high compared to those in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming or even Idaho. In fact, Montana is the lowest of the Rocky Mountain states in average altitude, with some of the western valleys bottoming out at 2,500 to 3,000 feet in elevation. Marias Pass at 5,218 feet on the Continental Divide just south of Glacier National Park is the lowest pass on the Continental Divide between Mexico and Canada, making it a favorite travel route for people, wildlife and train travel.
If there is one feature that distinguishes the Montana from other Rocky Mountain states, it would be our magnificent rivers. Other states such as Idaho, may have bigger white water and more difficult rapids, but Montana has the longest undammed river outside of Alaska, the nearly 400 mile long Yellowstone. Everyone of the big inter-mountain valleys in the western third of the state has a river renowned for it’s fishing and its wild scenery. There’s simply nowhere else in the United States like it.
Tomorrow in Big Sky Country Part 2; Where to go and when to go there.