2021 Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho Road Trip: Part I

The last big road trip we took was way back in 2015 (part 1, part 2) and 2020 was basically a wash as far as vacations go (the fires were great) so I planned a big road trip to Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, back to Wyoming, Idaho, and back home… and here are the pictures and notes for anyone that wants to do something similar in the future.

I used Roadtrippers (great value for the $) to find interesting places to stop along the way, you can see the trip that I planned here:

Summer 2021 Road / Backpacking Trip on Roadtrippers

and I had hoped to be able to get in a backpacking trip in Wyoming (Cirque of the Towers) or Idaho (Alice Lake) but for a variety of reasons (injuries, weather) that part of the trip didn’t materialize.

June 13th, Sunday, Day 1

We live in Portland, Oregon and booked an AirBnb in Whitefish, MT for about a week as a base camp for our explorations around Glacier National Park. We left about 8:30am PDT in the rain and arrived a little more than 11 hours later (the first of a number of days of just grinding it out driving) surrounded by more green trees than I’ve ever seen in Oregon. Most of the drive was desert and hot but once we got into Montana it seemed to change to a green that Oregon might have had 30 years ago. We made a 2 minute time lapse video of the drive for fun:

Everyone was hangry when we arrived so I quickly drove to the Safeway in Whitefish (about 5 miles from our Airbnb, easy drive) and got the goods for a quick dinner (deviled eggs, sweet peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, hummus, tortilla chips, salsa, guacamole) while the boys played on the trampoline and the zip line.


The boys got their energy out and we hit the hay pretty late but with an eye towards an early start on Monday.

June 14th, Monday, Day 2

And by early start, I mean 4:30am. Annual national park visitors in the US are up by more than 30% (as compared to May 2019) in some parks and Glacier National Park is no different except for one thing: the road through the park is extremely narrow and parking is even more limited. As a result, the park (like a number of other national parks) instituted a ticketing system for visitors that requires anyone driving into the park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to have a ticket between the hours of 6am and 5pm. Karen and I tried to get a ticket at 7am on the recreation.gov website a couple days before but there were thousands of other people trying to do the same thing… for 145 tickets per day. So we got up at 4:30am, hit the road by 5am, got through the West Glacier entrance gate by 5:40am (no ticket required before 6am), and arrived at our first destination (Avalanche Lake trailhead) at about 6:15am. One note: the Going-to-the-Sun Road wasn’t fully open so Avalanche lake was the farthest east you could travel on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which combined with the fact that Avalanche Lake is one of the easier / more popular hikes, meant that this was an extremely busy place. Luckily, the campground wasn’t yet open for camping so all of us early risers were able to park in spots that normally would have been used for camping. We scored a parking spot (stressful!) and then broke out our Jetboil stoves, made some breakfast backpacking meals, coffee, and hot chocolate:


and let everyone else crowd the trail before we started at the trailhead.

The trail to Avalanche Lake is one of the most popular hikes in the parks, because it’s relatively easy (about 5 miles if you stretch it out) and picturesque:


We got to the lake in a little less than an hour, ate some snacks, took some pictures:


and headed back down to the car. On the way back we took the Trail of the Cedars tour, saw some deer, identified trees, and tried not to find bears. Our little boys claimed to be tired after the 5 mile hike but I was really excited about the possibility of biking the Going-to-the-Sun Road as far east as my legs / my teenage son would accompany me. As mentioned above, the road wasn’t yet open all the way through the park, but they let you bike on the closed part of the road all the way from Avalanche Lake to Logan Pass, which is about 16 miles one way. My oldest and I ended up biking 8 miles in to what’s called The Loop:


and then back to down to the Avalanche Lake trailhead, which was one of the highlights of the entire trip for me. We could have made it all the way to Logan pass but that part of the ride was another 2400′ feet of elevation gain over just 8 miles (and then back) and we had Mom and the little boys back at camp. If you plan your trip before the road is fully open, I can’t recommend riding your bike on the road highly enough. It was quiet, relatively easy (at least for the 8 miles in that we did), and had stunning views. Also, if you have the $ and a bike rack, rent an electric bike and you’ll make it up and down in no time.

We arrived back at our parking spot, packed up the car, and drove back, stopping at the Lake McDonald Lodge (packed with people, could have taken a boat ride but everyone was exhausted), and then driving back to our cabin in Whitefish to play on the trampoline and relax.

June 15th, Tuesday, Day 3

Another early start but later than 4:30am this time. Our boys have shown an interest in fishing but we’ve only ever done spin fishing. Montana is widely known as one of the best places in the world to fly fish and I found a guiding company that had a half-day “Intro to Fly Fishing” course just outside of the park. We arrived at the Glacier Outdoor Center at 8:30am and shortly after did a short hike up to a covered picnic area with our guides for the day, Manuel and Ted, who were both full of great stories, patience, and years of experience.

We spent most of the morning learning about knots, fly line vs. leader line, flies


the different methods of casting (including some actual casting practice on the lawn), conservation, and then at the end of the session, we walked up to a stocked trout pond and the boys each “caught” a fish.


Our dudes might have been a little bit young for the course, but I think everyone learned something and we have an activity to try for real next time we visit. If you’ve ever thought that fly fishing might be something you’d enjoy, I’d highly recommend taking the short course and then doing a river float the day after.

And the day was just getting started. As I mentioned above, the road that criss crosses Glacier National Park wasn’t entirely open and we wanted to get to the east side of the park to see the Many Glacier area. It’s about a 3 hour drive if you go through park because the road is so narrow…. but it’s about the same length in time if you drive south on US-2, and then north up to the east entrance. Since we didn’t want to do two 3 hour drives in one day, I booked a single night at Great Bear Lodge, which is part of the St. Mary Village complex and we took the afternoon to slowly drive over to the east side. On the way, we stopped at Two Medicine Lake and did a short hike to a waterfall called Running Eagle Falls, both of which were beautiful.


The rain started almost immediately after we arrived at the hotel and everyone was starving and we ended up having to work hard for dinner. The restaurant inside of the hotel said they were out of food… so we drove 2 minutes north to a taco stand that was right next to a pizza joint, both of which looked like they had a 45 to 60 minute wait. As a last resort, we drove back to the hotel thinking we could just make a cold dinner at the local grocery store (St Mary Grocery), but I’ve never seen a grocery store with less fresh food. It was barren. Moral of the story: stock up on supplies before you hit St. Mary Village, at least in June. There are tons of people and either it was early in the season and the local town wasn’t expecting a surge of people… or it’s just remote enough that it’s hard to keep anything in stock… or more likely, some combination of both.

June 16th, Wednesday, Day 4

High hopes for a nice breakfast at the hotel were smashed early because it was a 40 minute wait for a seat in the restaurant. The coffee shop (Glacier Perk) was a better option so we loaded up on yogurts, scones, coffee, and hot chocolate and drove to the east entrance to Glacier hoping to tour the visitor center.


Apparently you can’t even park in the visitor center unless you have a Going-to-the-Sun Road timed entry permit (see above), which IMHO was ridiculous… instead they have you park 1/2 mile away and walk to the visitor center (which we did), only to find out that the visitor center had been mostly closed down except for the gift shop. Boo. At least the views were amazing, the wind was brisk, and the sun was warm.


We rallied the troops and drove north to our ultimate destination, Many Glacier and a hike up up as far as we could go on the Grinnell Glacier trail. The drive in was ploddingly slow because they were in the process of paving the road and there was a not insignificant amount of traffic… and a bear crossing.

The road ends at a small inn (Swiftcurrent Motor Inn) and campground (Many Glacier Campground) and is surrounded by peaks that are impossible for pictures to appropriately capture. Scoring a camping spot here would have been awesome.

We finally made it to the Grinnell Glacier trailhead parking lot but it was full, I’m guessing a common story. Lucky for us, there’s a parking lot and a connecting trail (the Continental Divide Trail no less!) just a short drive east that had maybe 30 spots…and only one parked car. We parked there, loaded up the backpacks, broke out our bear spray, and headed out. The trail heads south / south east with views of both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine and then climbs up parallel to Grinnell Creek. Our smaller dudes cut out around mile 2 and so Beck and I continued up as far and as fast as we could get before the trail closed (still had snow and ice on the last part of the hike). At a couple points the trail was blocked by some bighorn sheep and even though we couldn’t get all the way up to Upper Grinnell Lake, the views at the top were stunning.


Beck and I walked / ran back to meet up with Karen and the boys and then we drove to the Many Glacier Hotel and had lunch on the porch, looking out over the lake. The views there were just as jaw dropping, and the breeze, warm sun, and full stomachs made for a wonderful break.


After lunch, a lot of pictures, and a quick hike back to the car, we were off to drive back to the west side of the park. Food / restaurants are pretty scarce on the drive but we made it all the way back to West Glacier and dinner at a fantastic little restaurant right off the highway called Belton Chalet. We had a great dinner and then drove the rest of the way back to our cabin in Whitefish.

June 17th, Thursday, Day 5

The fun train rolls on. We have an 11:15am start time with Glacier Guides for a half day white water rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. We were a little bit late (suppposed to arrive 30 minutes early) but got outfitted with wetsuits, helmets, and splash jackets, hopped on the bus and were on the water before we knew it. Our guide, Carla, was from Maine, and had just moved to Glacier with her husband about a month earlier. We had an awesome float, the little boys and I had a couple quick swims (water was really really cold), and no one fell out of the boat! Success!


After drying off, and on the recommendation of the guides, we jumped across the street and had lunch at La Casita, which is inside of a tourist looking place called Crown of the Continent Discovery Center. Two thumbs up for lunch if you’re in the area.

June 18th, Friday, Day 6

Everyone needed a break at this point so we took it easy. I’ve heard great things about the ski resort in Whitefish so we drove up the mountain later in the morning for fun, and then got lunch at one of the more popular places in downtown called Buffalo Cafe, but not before scoring a couple of books at Bookworks. One of the books I got turned out to be an awesome read for anyone who a) is doing a road trip in / around where we went, and b) likes history:

Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West

Not only did George have a significant hand in the conservation of Yellowstone National Park, he also was instrumental in saving the American bison from extinction, and played a key part in the establishment of Glacier National Park, hence Grinnell Glacier (see above). Pick it up before you go or better yet, buy it at a local bookstore like Bookworks and then enjoy it on the drive.

After lunch we packed up our swimming gear and found a parking spot a block or so away from Whitefish City Beach. It was hot on Friday but the water was… very refreshing as our host said, which is to say that it was really really cold. Karen and I swam a couple laps to and from the buoys, the boys played in the sand, and Beck read a book. If we had brought our paddle boards, it would have been great to have put them in here. Great beach, I bet it gets really crowded on hot days.


We made dinner that night at our Airbnb and then got packed up for the second part of the trip, which is here.

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