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"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.

Originally posted to Ed in Montana on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 03:52 PM PST.


I have been to Montana

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is great Ed (9+ / 0-)

    I have lived in almost every state in the west.  I now live in MT and never want to leave.  You do a great job in representing us.  Keep up the great work!  At this moment the wind is blowing and it's all the way up to 10 degrees.  We will have a white Christmas!

  •  Always loved trucking through Montana... (7+ / 0-)

    even with all the weigh stations. ;)

  •  I have been to Montana once. (8+ / 0-)

    Went on a trip with my Grandparents and Mom up to Idaho and we came back down through Western Montana. We stayed overnight in Butte. Mom, Grandma and I took a tour of the old homes and to the museum.  I love Victorian houses and those houses are just gorgeous! We had a lovely time.

    Driving through, I decided that "Big Sky Country" was a very apt nickname for Montana. The vistas seemed endless. I only live two states over so I hope to go back someday and explore a bit more. Thanks for the info, great diary!

    Liberalism is, I think, resurgent. One reason is that more and more people are so painfully aware of the alternative. ~~ John Kenneth Galbraith

    by Purple Priestess on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:04:48 PM PST

  •  I have been to Montana twice, but it's been a (8+ / 0-)

    while.  Hoping to get back in the next few years though.  This will nudge it up a bit on the list.

    We must allow them to finish their terms. Then they can start their new "terms". -edscan

    by lineatus on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:07:04 PM PST

  •  Excellent intro for visiting MT! (5+ / 0-)

    You're gonna have your work cut for you for Part 2.  There are so many permutations in the "where to go and when to go there" aspect based on what kind of weather you can expect where you plan to be when, regardless of season.

    As I'm sure you know, Glacier Park in summer can range from shorts and sandals in the valleys to layering up with winter gear on Logan Pass 2 hours later so you can snowboard in July.

    Looking forward to Part 2.

    "Go well through life"-Me (As far as I know)

    by MTmofo on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:09:27 PM PST

    •  Good points (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SallyCat, MTmofo

      That and I don't want to give too much detail on my favorite places. It's too hard to get a chair at the Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge on some nights as it is.

      Wait, I shouldn't say that...

      Who will stop this war of lies? Keith Olbermann May 23rd, 2007

      by Ed in Montana on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:17:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I used to just warn people (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SallyCat, hoolia, MTmofo

      About traveling around in winter, especially at the sub-zero temps we are having across the state this past week.

      Now I feel I have to warn people about traveling around the state in August, when the forest fires are raging.

      Thank god this past summer was wetter than most recent years. But with all the pine-beetle killed trees around the mountains, it's only a matter of time to the next major conflagration.

      Who will stop this war of lies? Keith Olbermann May 23rd, 2007

      by Ed in Montana on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:27:55 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Give us more pictures, Ed! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, SallyCat, bronte17, hoolia

    I know you have them, I see them Saturday mornings in GardenBlogging.

    Breathtaking scenery. You are very fortunate to live in such an incredibly beautiful place.

    I'll make it up there some day!

    Through all your faults and all my complaints, I still love you.

    by jayden on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:11:46 PM PST

  •  A side story about Montana. (6+ / 0-)

    About ten years ago I was kicking around that part of the world when I stopped for a glass of something cool in Billings. The bar had an incredible back bar, intricate woodwork over a century old.
    When I complimented the bar owner on his back bar he told me "This is nothing, you ought to see the back bar at the New World in Columbus." Because Columbus was on my route I pulled off the interstate to visit the New World bar.
    It was definitely worth the stop. The back bar was an authentic old Brunswick, from the 1880's. Built in spitoons still graced the bar rail. And the hunting trophies on display were magnificent. The owner was behind the bar, and she livened up my visit with more than a few tales of the place's history. Apparently it had been the World bar until the Volstead Act, and with Repeal returned as the New World.
    They don't make 'em like that any more.

    Politics is who gets what, when, and how. Harold Lasswell

    by DaNang65 on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:13:30 PM PST

  •  Nice job, Ed. I'm in the SW but visit MT a lot. (6+ / 0-)

    I've spent at least 6 summers there doing research, and have a lot of friends at the universities. My favorite part of MT is that rolling transitional middle, between the mountain west and relatively flat east. And some of my favorite towns in the nation are in MT, like Helena and Missoula. Safe travels (now that you have speed limits!)  

    To change ideas about what land is for is to change ideas about what anything is for. - Aldo Leopold

    by Mother Mags on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:13:35 PM PST

  •  Montana is one of my favorite places (5+ / 0-)

    Or the western part where I've been several times, Missoula and the Flathead region and Glacier. (I know it's a big state compared to mine.)

    When I was 14 (1964) I traveled with my parents and two of their friends  from Calgary/Bannf/Jasper down the Rockies to Denver and then we flew home to the Bronx. The trip had a profound effect on me personally, in ways I could write a separate diary about.

    I have incredible memories of Glacier National Park, and Flathead Lake, staying at the Outlaw Inn, and going to the (County? State?) Fair while we were there. It was an election year, Johnson vs. Goldwater. My parents and their friends, 4 Jewish-Polish/socialist immigrants, could find no Democratic booth at the fair, so we stopped at another booth and got a "Republicans for Johnson" bumper sticker and put that on the rental car. We all laughed about it for the rest of the trip and for years after.

    In the 1980s after hooking up with my wife, I again visited Missoula a bunch of times because her mother had moved there with her second husband. Neither of them were from there but they intended to live happily ever after in that place, until my wife's mom started fighting breast cancer. I have nothing but praise to offer to the hospice folks in Missoula..... On our trips there we spent time in Missoula and took trips north again, which was special for me.

    I live in Vermont, a very special place too, that I moved to 39 years ago. Every once in a while (only two or three times actually) I spend time somewhere and have a realization:

    If I ever got thrown out of Vermont, I could land here and be happy.

    Western Montana is one of those places. It's been a few years but I'll be back!

    This is not what I thought I'd be when I grew up.

    by itzik shpitzik on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:14:30 PM PST

  •  I'll get there someday! n/t (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, SallyCat, bronte17

    Fear will keep the local systems in line. -Grand Moff Tarkin -SLB-

    by boran2 on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:15:04 PM PST

  •  Me and a couple of my friends took a two (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, SallyCat, bronte17, MTmofo

    week motorcycle trip into Montana and stayed 4-5 days in Glacier.  What a great place it was/is.  Got pretty damned cold a couple of times even in late June.

    (-7.0, -6.4) "I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, you know I'm a peaceful man.'" Robbie Robertson

    by NearlyNormal on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:15:14 PM PST

  •  Been there as a kid and will be taking spouse (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, MTmofo

    this summer. We'll be going to the western part...cause I'm a mountain girl! Planning the last week of July and first week of August at this point!

    There is nothing quite as spectacular as the Rocky Mountains...unless it's the San Juans outside of Durango CO!

    Thanks...will read more detail to an early dinner.

    Not another dime to an out of state race until CA has equality for all. Period.

    by SallyCat on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:18:00 PM PST

  •  Some lists (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, SallyCat, parryander

    Alabama - left my heart
    Phoenix - Leftcandid
    Northern Orange County - Seneca Doane
    Sacramento - tgypsy
    San Diego - SDChelle (can offer advice)
    Southern - Jbeaudill
    Lakewood/Denver  - carver
    DC area
    Florida - ObamOcala
    Panhandle area - panicbean
    Purple Priestess (can give information)
    Southern part of state - kathryn1812
    Coastal Islands - ksingh
    Boston - tnichlsn
    Minneapolis - parryander
    New Jersey - Blue Jersey Mom
    New Mexico -
     Santa Fe and north - claude
    Albuquerque - votingformydaughtersfuture
    New York
    New York City -  plf515, LarryinNYC, DrSteveB
    North Carolina
    Charlotte - eeff
    Chapel Hill - chunyang
    Portland - arenosa
    coastal - Jbeaudill
    Pittsburgh - Pandoras Box, housesella
    Lancaster - spedwybabs
    Central PA, Harrisburg - wishingwell
    South Carolina
     Charleston – CamillesDad1
    Great Smoky Mountains - RantNRaven
    Dallas-Fort Worth - drchelo
    North-central  - 4freedom
    Virgin Islands  Caneel
    Leavenworth - marlakay
    I-90, WI-MN border - 1864 House

    Other countries:
    Alberta – TexMex
    Montreal - dragOn
    Thunder Bay - Howth of Murth
    Vacounver - Purple Priestess (can give information)
     Shanghai - mweens
    Bogata - bogbud
    Costa Rica - Alice Olson
    Croatia - seenos
    London - shazzbot
    Lyon - melanchthon
    Germany - lizah
    Rome - lizah
    Cancun, playa del Carmen, Tulum - davidseth
    Colonial Mexico - TKWow
    Jalisco  (SW Mexico) - mango
     Edinburgh - SDChelle
    Thailand - anniesamui
    Bangkok - Shunpike  

    Upcoming Contributors:

    Dec 28 - TKwow on colonial Mexico
    Previous Diaries:
    Dec 7, 08 -
    Nov 30, 08 -
    Nov 9, 08 -

    Please sign up for a future week!

    Most people worry about their own bellies, and other people's souls, when we all ought to worry about our own souls, and other peoples' bellies.

    by plf515 on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:30:03 PM PST

  •  I also recommend reading some great Montana (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, SallyCat, MTmofo

    writers, especially Ivan Doig. Even though he came from a Scottish family of sheep ranchers, he is such a great writer that owning sheep is forgiven. :>) Do the reading before you go to Montana.

    I think, therefore I am. I think.

    by mcmom on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:37:49 PM PST

  •  Sweet son lived in Baker, MT for three (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, SallyCat, MTmofo

    years (the eastern, flat section you described) and I visited him probably six times.

    Three times I flew into Sidney and rented a car. The route to Baker took me across the Yellowstone river and it was such a treat --such a treat-- sneaking peeks at that beautiful river.

    Other times I drove. Go west on 94 and just across the border from North Dakota, take a left. Oh! The badlands just before you turn left!

    I love the flat, dry parts almost as much as the mountainous parts. The silence, the sameness, the unpredictable weather. Growing up on the edge of the Nebraska sandhills made me feel at home there.

    Impressions: you're awakened at 5:00 a.m. by the dozens of diesel pickup trucks rumbling by, the drivers going to work on the ranches or oil fields (he lived on Baker's main street); the friendly people; the really well-stocked grocery store.

    Funny story: In 2002 I'd just purchased a Subaru WRX. Dave, my sidekick, predicted that I'd make a splash in Baker with my vroom-vroom car. Ha! There was the identical model in the radio station's parking lot.

    •  Baker is pretty out there (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SallyCat, hoolia

      I'm surprised you didn't fly into Rapid City, South Dakota and drive up to there.

      I lived in Miles City for half a year back in the 70s. The lower Yellowstone River is absolutely gorgeous. I still remember the billboards with "Let's Drive to Glendive!" encouraging people to visit Glendive near Sidney.

      Who will stop this war of lies? Keith Olbermann May 23rd, 2007

      by Ed in Montana on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:58:59 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Spent two years an hour south of Rapid City (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Ed in Montana, SallyCat

        and I know that country pretty well. It was new vistas I was after!

        Oh! Glendive! We ran an errand and there on the interstate a pickup truck driver had pulled over onto the shoulder and was squatted down, doin' the necessary. So yes, do plan ahead, and think twice about that 32-oz latte.

        One of my regrets is not spending more time around Beach. Gorgeous, just gorgeous, but all I ever did was drive through slowly.

  •  I lived in Montana (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, SallyCat, hoolia

    ages ago.  I went to grad school in Missoula in 81-83.  I have not been back since.  It is a stunningly beautiful place.  Another Kossack recently told me that the horribly air pollution problem in Missoula is quite a bit better than in my day.

    "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge" Darwin

    by Haole in Hawaii on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 04:51:36 PM PST

  •  I grew up in Bozeman (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, MTmofo

    and left 43 years! ago (after finishing college) to get a job in my field. Some memories and recommendations from those days, possibly not valid any more because things change ...

    --Gallatin Canyon from Bozeman to West Yellowstone.
    --Yellowstone outside of the tourist season (we used to go there 5-10 times a year when I was a kid).
    --Boulder Falls near Big Timber, and the valley above.
    --Backpacking in the Spanish Peaks, the Absoraka's, and my sister's favorite, the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
    --Various Hot Springs at various locations.
    --Going to the Sun Hiway in Glacier, and the Cooke City hiway into Yellowstone (perhaps not a good idea if you are a dedicated Flatlander, though).
    --Picnicking or camping in the back country of any of the outlying Mountain Ranges in Central and Eastern Montana like the Pryors, the Crazies, the Snowies.
    --Go camping for a week in the backcountry of one of the Rocky Mountain ranges like the Tobacco Roots and explore the back country hiking trails.
    --If you are into caving, the Bighorn-Horsethief System on the Montana-Wyoming line, or some of the Pryor Mountain or Snowy Mountain Caves, or the caves in the Big and Little Belts, or the caves 40 or 50 miles backpacking into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
    --If you are into skiing, Bridger Bowl definitely recommended (based on 50 years ago, anyway). And I remember the year we hiked with our skis into the back-country and skied nude on the fourth of July.

    I'm now sitting here in Western Washington enjoying some really Montana late autumn weather--it looks like the first long cold spell with a lot of snow that we've had here in the 43 years since I left Montana. Enough to make me miss the good old days--although not the -40 degF cold spells.

    "There's an old country saying: The water won't clear up until you get the hogs out of the creek." - Sen. Byron Dorgan

    by Earwicker23 on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 05:40:36 PM PST

  •  Actually, I've been to Montana (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, SallyCat

    twice, but that wasn't a poll option. :-(

    My most vivid memories of it are of Yellowstone (the mud volcanoes, the geysers, the hot springs, the moose, the bears) and of the Grand Tetons in the distance as seen from Jackson (or maybe as seen while driving to Jackson, I forget).  Also of a large moose (I think it was a bull) nosing at the window of an RV while driving out of the NE part of the park late one evening.  It is indeed a beautiful state.

    The banks have engaged in such non-transparency that not even they really know the shape they are in. Every day there are more foreclosures - Joseph Stiglitz

    by Youffraita on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 06:35:06 PM PST

  •  Yellowstone isn't crowded before Memorial Day. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana

    We go to Yellowstone every year, and lately we've been spending a few days of the trip hiking around Glacier. And, before Memorial Day, it's really not bad. Yes, most of the cabins are occupied ... but the crowds aren't big enough to get in the way - eseciallly, there aren't any kids screaming and running - you actually can luxuriate in the peace. And if you really want solitude, take any hike 300 feet off the road.

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